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You Break It, You Own It

Being unpredictable is downright predictable with this president. Nowhere is that more prejudicial to the national interest than in foreign policy. Yet, sure enough, within the last few days, Trump tweeted that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas. He apparently didn’t think it necessary to tell the Afghani government, which is engaged in peace negotiations with the Taliban. This was most inconvenient, in that it revealed to the Taliban that they need make no concessions to the government, because the Americans would soon be gone. 

And the Commander-in-Chief also didn’t think it important to tell the Pentagon, which has its own plans—approved by Trump—for a more stately withdrawal. So the generals have good reason to ask, “What is the plan, Sir?”

To support his reelection campaign, he just decides to pull our troops out. Afghanis be damned. 

Trump has said since the 2016 campaign that he wants the troops out; now he’s running out of time. To support his reelection campaign, he just decides to pull them out. Afghanis be damned. (This is an even more consequential repeat of his impulsive decision to withdraw our troops from Syria, without warning our Kurdish allies that they would be subject to attack from both the Syrian and the Turkish governments.)

The predictable response to such a precipitate and complete withdrawal is that the Taliban (with covert support from our close ally, Saudi Arabia) will again take control of the country, just as they did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in spite of nineteen years of US troops in the country, in spite of setting up and financing the government, there is no force in Afghanistan that can withstand the Taliban on its own. And a new Taliban government will surely be hostile to the country that has fought them for nearly two decades.

The invasion of Afghanistan, ordered by George W. Bush aster the 9/11 attacks, was widely seen as justified under international law because the Taliban government had sheltered and supported Al-Qaeda, which carried out the attacks. But justified or not, it was ill-advised. The Soviets, and the British before them, could have told him that. The country can be invaded, but never controlled. Having nonetheless invaded, like our predecessors we faced the dilemma of how to dismount from a tiger.

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Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq based on mistaken intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Mistaken or not, we had the task of rebuilding that country, its government and its armed forces. We saw to it that the Shi’a majority (oppressed under Saddam) would control the new government, and then had to continuously restrain them from following their natural inclination to cooperate with the Shi’a regime of revolutionary Iran. 

Trump, having already withdrawn all US troops except a few thousand trainers, suddenly announced that he would withdraw our embassy from Baghdad because it was too insecure. There was no warning to the Iraqi government about this: it was just announced.

The predictable result of US withdrawal from Iraq is a three-way civil war (Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds). The Shi’a government will inevitably slide under the wings of Iran, precisely the outcome Trump presumably wishes to avoid. Having built his Middle East policy on opposing Iran on all fronts, he now hands Iraq over to them.

You cannot just wipe the slate clean in foreign policy. You always work with what previous leaders have left you, for good or ill. In these two cases, that legacy is that we created the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we walk away from them, we allow the enemies we have made to come to power. They will take their revenge.

We broke it, we own it.

impeachment unavoidable

Joe Biden, when he assumes the presidency, will understand this and will probably want to keep enough presence in both countries (strong embassies, substantial long-term aid, a small special forces presence) to keep the worst from happening. To hope for more than that is utopian.

John Peeler