President Trump formally exited the 1992 “Open Skies” treaty with Russia yesterday on the ground that Russia wasn’t performing its obligations under that agreement. The treaty allowed each nation to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the other to inspect weapon systems. Trump also directed that two Air Force aircraft, specially equipped for that mission, be disposed of to handcuff any effort by a president Biden next year. The disposal of those aircraft isn’t likely to take place before Trump leaves office — if he does — in January.
As I have written here before, our allies need to be respected and led without allowing them to control our actions. Trump’s announcement of the troop cuts neither respected nor led the NATO nations.
Trump’s announcement last week that we would be reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each nation may have been intended to similarly handcuff Biden into withdrawing all U.S. troops from those nations next year, but that is far less likely to succeed.
We have been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001 and in Iraq since April 2003. We have lost both wars but persisted in them for one reason: the impossible neocon strategy of nation-building. As I wrote on this page in early April 2003 — and on many occasions since — nation-building cannot possibly succeed. You can’t impose Jeffersonian democracy in Islamic states because Islam, even at its most benevolent, does not permit the separation of religion and state, without which democracy is impossible.
Former president George W. Bush established nation-building as our primary strategy which is a path to certain failure. Former president Barack Obama was content to follow Bush’s strategy blindly because he didn’t want to be accused of losing a war. Trump wanted to do better but he had no idea how and relied on “his” generals to win despite their strategy.
In February, Trump entered into an agreement with the Taliban that was, as I wrote at the time, a confession of failure. It provided for our departure in fourteen months — April 2021 — without imposing enforceable terms on the Taliban that would create peace. It didn’t even require a ceasefire from the Taliban, who have continued their attacks.
On October 7, President Trump Tweeted, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” There was considerable opposition to Trump’s tweeted announcement from the Pentagon and Congress.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, in response to Trump’s October tweet, that the military was still dedicated to a “conditions-based” withdrawal. Translating from Milley’s Pentagonese, that means the military opposed any withdrawal of troops that didn’t impose the sort of peace we wanted in Afghanistan.
Trump didn’t fire Milley after that, but Milley’s thinking was apparently agreed with by now-former defense secretary Mark Esper who was fired suddenly by Trump about ten days ago.
Last week Trump’s new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that U.S. troop strength in both Iraq and Afghanistan will be reduced to about 2,500 by January 15.
That announcement was opposed by the neocons who have no foreign policy except military intervention and no military strategy except democratization of hostile nations. Former national security adviser John Bolton — who, judging by his book, hates Trump — made the neocon opposition clear in October by saying that a major troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a “huge mistake.”
Last week’s announcement was opposed by several members of Congress, some of whom — like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming — are among those urging Trump to concede the election. Even those who don’t demand Trump concede, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas’ Mac Thornberry, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, also oppose the troop cuts. Many in the media oppose the troop cuts out of their reflexive opposition to anything Trump does.
The most serious and sensible opposition came from NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. We have to remember that in response to the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, for the first time in its history, NATO invoked its Article 5 mutual defense obligation. At its peak strength, NATO had 130,000 troops in Afghanistan representing fifty nations.
At present, as Stoltenberg reminded Trump shortly after the troop cuts were announced, NATO still has about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, less than half of whom are U.S. troops. The problem Stoltenberg has with Trump’s announced cuts is that they were planned and announced without notice to NATO. In that, Trump was grievously wrong.
Trump’s criticisms of NATO members’ refusal to invest in their own defense were entirely correct as was his constant badgering of them to invest more. Nevertheless, as I have written here before, our allies need to be respected and led without allowing them to control our actions. Trump’s announcement of the troop cuts neither respected nor led the NATO nations.
Stoltenberg went much farther and effectively rejected Trump’s withdrawal. He said that NATO would continue its efforts in Afghanistan despite the U.S. troop reductions and would fund Afghan security forces at least through 2024.
Stoltenberg said, “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way. I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security.” He is entirely correct but whether NATO nations would reduce their troop strength in Afghanistan to equal or exceed Trump’s withdrawals he left unclear.
Both Trump and Stoltenberg missed the only important point. Yes, it matters how many troops remain in Afghanistan, but vastly more important is what they are doing. Training Afghan security forces has been going on for almost two decades but they still are incapable of defeating the Taliban.
Go back to Milley’s statement on conditions-based withdrawal. That misses the point but only by inches, not miles, like Trump’s and Stoltenberg did.
Over nearly twenty years, thanks to people such as Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and Gen. Stanley McCrystal, our special operations forces became the most lethal and adept force in killing terrorists such as the Taliban and ISIS. If we were to maintain that strategy and attack and destroy the Islamic radical ideology — which could take decades or longer — we might be able, eventually, to approach a time when a conditions-based withdrawal might be possible. As I have written many times, without engaging in the ideological war there can never be peace in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other nation dominated by the Islamic ideology.
If we divorced ourselves from nation-building that would be possible. Before the Pentagon can do that, the military would require a president who is willing to publicly and forcefully reject nation-building. Bush, Obama, and Trump have not been willing to do so. Neither will presumptive president-elect Biden. As Obama did, Biden may even place more U.S. troops in Afghanistan for a period of time.
Trump’s troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan effectively handcuff Biden. He, like Obama, will not want to take the blame for losing either war. He will, necessarily, be bound to Milley’s “conditions-based” withdrawals which mean no end to either war in his presidency.
Milley, and our military leaders — like every military establishment since war was invented — are resistant to change. They have dedicated our forces to a supposed counter-insurgency and neglected peer warfare against such adversaries as China and Russia, leaving us unprepared to fight such wars. The military doesn’t want to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan or Iraq because their Bush-institutionalized mission of nation-building isn’t complete. “Conditions-based” withdrawal is still, in Pentagon thinking, success in nation-building.
Military stodginess in thinking is as old as war. But dedication to a failed strategy such as nation-building is the surest course to defeat. That is, and will be, the result of that strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of how many troops we leave there or when we withdraw them.
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Author: Jed Babbin