President Trump has the dangerous habit of giving greater credence to what our enemies tell him than to what his closest advisors and our intelligence agencies say.
Perhaps that is what Defense Secretary James Mattis meant when he wrote, in his resignation letter, that America needs to be “clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”
This year, Trump has proven himself gullible in meeting with several of the malign actors Mattis referred to. In Helsinki, Trump said he believed Vladimir Putin’s denials as much as he believed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in our 2016 election. After the Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un, he said that the nuclear threat posed by North Korea was ended. A few months later, he said that he believed Saudi denials that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as much as the CIA’s conclusion that it reportedly had “high confidence” that MBS was behind the murder.
The latest example of Trump’s gullibility is his impetuous decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, announced Wednesday, followed by his equally impulsive decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by more than half. Both decisions have been made without regard to their effects.
Last year Defense Secretary Mattis said that our strategy in Syria was to surround ISIS and annihilate it. In September, National Security Advisor John Bolton said we would remain in Syria as long as Iran was there. ISIS is greatly reduced but neither defeated nor annihilated. Iran is firmly embedded in Syria and is creating an “Iranian crescent” that stretches from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
Between the statements by Mattis and Bolton and Trump’s announcement on Syria, Trump had a 14 December telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Erdogan who convinced Trump that he should withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
Erdogan apparently has more influence over Trump than Mattis or Bolton despite the fact that he is an enemy, not an ally. Regardless of Turkey’s membership in NATO, Erdogan has consistently acted as an enemy. His actions range from turning secular Turkey into an Islamist dictatorship to aligning with Russia and Iran against the United States. Last year he signed a treaty with Russia and Iran to defend the Syrian terrorist regime of Bashar Assad. He’s buying Russian S-400 anti-missile/anti-aircraft systems and killing Kurdish women and children in their towns and villages while lecturing Israel on human rights.
The reason for the sudden withdrawal from Syria — against the advice of Mattis, Bolton and others of Trump’s advisors — is the 14 December conversation between Trump and Erdogan. Erdogan convinced Trump that Turkey would continue the fight against ISIS and wouldn’t immediately attack the Kurds. It was a sucker play, and Trump fell for it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Trump’s decision.
On Thursday afternoon, when criticism of the Syria withdrawal gained steam, Trump tweeted, “… Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran & other locals? Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!”
Trump’s tweet could qualify as fake news. We weren’t in Syria fighting ISIS in behalf of Syria, Russia and Iran. Our troops were there, as Mattis had said, to destroy ISIS because he and Trump believed it necessary.
The president didn’t declare victory in Afghanistan, but a day after his order to withdraw from Syria, Trump ordered a reduction of our troop strength in Afghanistan by at least fifty percent. The Taliban were very happy and our NATO allies — several of which still have troops in Afghanistan — were taken by surprise.
In between Trump’s announcements Mr. Mattis resigned, effective on 28 February. His resignation letter, in words respectful of the president, is a devastating criticism of Trump’s approach to our allies and enemies.
(Trump, evidently highly angered by what Mattis wrote in his resignation letter, ordered yesterday that Mattis would leave the SECDEF job on 1 January, two months earlier than planned. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will be appointed acting defense secretary.)
Mattis’s letter impliedly criticized Trump for his disrespect of our allies, saying that our nation’s power was inextricably linked to our system of alliances and partnerships. He wrote that we have to remain resolute and unambiguous in our approach to adversaries, mentioning Russia and China specifically. The letter said, “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.” He concludes by saying that the president is entitled to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with his own.
Mattis’s frustrations with Trump are understandable. Trump’s helter-skelter policies toward the malign nations are not. It’s nearly impossible to see what the president believes he will accomplish by either withdrawal.
When the United States goes to war, the generals talk about strategies, goals, and timetables. But those matters are all intended to achieve one common, overarching goal: to force an enemy to accept a result that is beneficial to America’s security.
As this column has said before, it is beyond our power to compel a beneficial result in Syria. We lost that opportunity four years ago when Russia and Iran established themselves there in significant strength. Trump is right to withdraw our troops but wrong — morally and strategically — to do so while ignoring the inevitable consequences.
We can’t throw out Assad and impose a beneficial political solution on Syria without fighting a large war against both Russia and Iran there. Both of those nations — and Turkey — signed a treaty last year to preserve the terrorist Assad regime.
Those nations have given Syria a strategic significance it never had before by their military presence there. Turkey stands in northeastern Syria, seeking whatever scraps of power it can gather under the shields of Russian and Iranian dominance of that country.
The main consequence of our sudden withdrawal is the abandonment of our Kurdish allies who have been fighting alongside our troops against ISIS. On Friday — a week after the Trump-Erdogan conversation — Turkey’s defense minister said that Erdogan’s forces were preparing a major offensive against the Kurds and that the Kurds would be “buried in their own trenches.”
We have two allies in the Middle East, Israel and the Kurds. The latter, whose native territory extends from northern Iraq into southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria, are the Turks’ sworn enemies. Our withdrawal from Syria matters little in any sense except that it is a betrayal of the Kurds.
It is foolish beyond measure to believe Erdogan won’t do his best to crush the Kurds as soon as we leave Syria. We shouldn’t withdraw from Syria without telling Erdogan, in no uncertain terms, that the Kurdish forces and populations in Syria and Iraq are off limits to him and that those limits will be enforced by American military power. But that’s exactly what Trump is doing.
Trump’s announcement that more than half of our troops in Afghanistan would be coming home almost as quickly as those in Syria caught the Pentagon and our allies who have been fighting there with us (almost since 2001) by surprise. At least he didn’t declare victory. The Taliban haven’t been defeated, Russia is sending the Taliban arms and money and the Chinese — across the border in Pakistan — are doing their best to intervene on the Taliban’s side. Pakistan remains the biggest supporter of the Taliban.
Trump is right to want to withdraw from Afghanistan. We have, for about seventeen years, tried to establish a government there that could defend itself and prevent the nation from reverting to the generator of terrorist attacks it was before 9/11. We have failed resoundingly in that effort.
Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is conducting direct talks with the Taliban in pursuit of a peace deal. The Kabul government isn’t invited to the talks. We should remember that Khalilzad brought all his diplomatic talents to bear as Bush’s special envoy in Iraq. He failed there and he’ll fail in Afghanistan for the same reason: the enemy in Iraq was never defeated and knew it could outwait us. The Taliban, also undefeated, know they can reconquer Afghanistan quickly and re-establish their terrorist government when we leave. Their allies — Russia, Pakistan, and China — will see to that.
Trump wants to quit Afghanistan, which is understandable. But he is apparently blind to the inevitable results of our departure. As this column has said, for about the last decade, we can neither leave Afghanistan nor remain there doing the same things we’ve been doing since 2001.
Our only choice in Afghanistan is to stop our failed nation-building efforts there, to withdraw almost all of our forces and — with whichever allies are willing to help — maintain there a sufficient presence of special forces, intelligence operations, and air power — to permanently engage in a “whack-a-mole” strategy to interrupt and interdict terrorist operations in and from that nation.
It’s an ugly choice. But it’s the only one we have. If Trump doesn’t make that choice and decide to follow that course he or his successor will have many more 9/11s to deal with.
Mattis was mostly right in his criticisms of Trump’s policies. The president, while justified in many criticisms of our allies, lacks an understanding of our allies and adversaries and how we must deal with them. If the next secretary of defense is a Trump “yes man,” we are all in for a very dangerous period that will extend beyond the Trump presidency.