President Donald Trump has added another chapter in the erratic history of US foreign policy by abruptly ordering a full and rapid withdrawal of US troops from Syria as well as a partial drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan. Where details on the sporadically-decided Syria withdrawal have yet to be solidified, the Afghanistan drawdown will involve approximately half the number of US troops fighting in the nearly two decades long conflict. It will likely pave the way for a full withdrawal. Both decisions were apparently made by the President with little input from his advisers and against their advice. Experts from across the political spectrum fear disorderly and hastily arranged withdrawals will lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria as well as a resurgence of the Taliban insurgency and terrorists factions like Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Such developments could, in turn, further destabilize the entire region, create a massive safehaven for violent extremists, and open a corridor to the world dominated by terrorists. At the very least, it means the US is ceding direct influence over critical geopolitical issues and global security.
Although the vast majority of military, national security, and foreign policy experts appear to agree that Trump’s foreign policy pivot is likely to be disastrous, it is wise to look beyond conventional wisdom. President Barack Obama had pledged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He attempted to orchestrate a responsible withdrawal by deploying a massive surge of troops in an effort to stabilize Afghanistan before he began his drawdown, but he never actually ended the Afghanistan War. Adding credibility to the concerns of experts, Obama did largely end the Iraq War, which played a major role in the rise of the Islamic State. Obama then reluctantly waded into a regional conflict against the Islamic State that encompassed the Syrian Civil War. After years of counter-terrorism operations and investment, the fear is that a sudden withdrawal of US troops will allow the Islamic State to return. It would certainly make it more difficult for the US to respond to a critical threat and gather the intelligence needed to launch effective airstrikes. It would also allow the likes of the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia to assert greater influence over the region, which could undermine America’s global influence.
It is, of course, always wise to question the conventional wisdom. The experts may intimately know the crucial facts and have well-developed understandings of the situation in both Syria and Afghanistan, but it is not wise to thoughtlessly accept the opinions of any experts, especially since most experts often disagree and their conclusions are subject to error. Not only do all experts also suffer from professional and industry bias, they can only offer their subjective perspectives on the issues in play. Their expertise simply means they are better informed than causal observers and they have the ability to better answer analytical questions. More importantly, public policy is not just the product of policy experts. It is also the product of elected representatives and the will of the People. Withdrawal from both Syria and Afghanistan could well be a sound public policy. Even if it is not, the American People, who control government through their elected officials, have the power and right to decide public policy. The role of policy experts is to help the American People understand the implications of policy decisions and and craft policies options that allow the will of the American People to be fulfilled. A majority of the American People have long wanted to end the Afghanistan War while they nor their representatives authorized war in Syria. Quite frankly, the US government has shown a great deal of indifference toward the will of the American People when it comes to war policy.
With that in mind, it is true the likes of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime stand to benefit from a US withdrawal in both Syria and Afghanistan. A withdrawal of US forces would enable Russia and Iran to bolster their allies and crush their opponents, which the US helps protect. Turkey, which is a NATO member often sharing a contentious relationship with its allies, would like to see a US withdrawal from Syria, because it wants to subjugate the Kurds. The presence of US forces makes it far too risky for Turkey to launch a full-scale attack on the Kurdish People's Protection Units, commonly referred to as the YPG, and other Kurdish factions. A US withdrawal would, however, also hurt these beneficiaries, if it meant a resurgence of terrorists and insurgents. The Kurdish Peshmerga were, for example, the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State in Iraq. If not for them, Iraq would have fallen to IS. Even if Russia, Iran, Turkey, and other beneficiaries could ban together to fill the power vacuum the US occupies, they likely could not muster enough forces to adequately police the areas they hope to capture for themselves, especially if America’s allies cannot sustain their positions without US engagement. As such, the impending US withdrawals will likely place an unbearable burden on these alleged beneficiaries.
Throughout the Iraq War, Iran both relied on the US to keep violent insurgents in check and used the entrenchment of US forces to weaken the US military by feeding the insurgencies. In many respects, the same relationship exists throughout the entire Middle East. The US is needed to stabilize the region, so competing factions can continue to undermine each other and the US through their support of violent extremists and insurgencies. The withdrawals in both Syria and Afghanistan represent a significant disengagement from the entire region, thus it is an effort to remove the US from an abusive, degenerative situation. If it comes to fruition, it will assuredly mean a surge in violence and increased instability. Regional powers will also reap the consequences of their underhandedness while Russia will be forced to abandon its military operations in the Middle East or entrap itself in a perpetual conflict that will deplete its military. In all likeliness, a US troop withdrawal will not translate into a full fledged disengagement from the Middle East. Airstrikes were the tactic of choice for the Obama Administration, which largely consigned itself to a support role in Middle Eastern military operations. The same is likely to be even more true for the Trump Administration. If it is not enough, because Middle Eastern powers will or cannot step up to address their regional security, the region will descend into chaos, but the benefits for the US may well outweigh the costs of the tertiary terrorist threat faced by the United States .
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