April 25, 2017
On April 4, toxic substance spread after Syrian warplanes dropped bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province. Scores of people lost their lives. The West and Russia offered conflicting explanations for the tragedy. Three days later, US cruise missiles struck Al Sharyat airfield.
On April 13, in a second display of military power, the US dropped the “mother of all bombs” on caves used by Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan. Reportedly, dozens of militants were killed. A confident President Trump said that the bombing was “another very, very successful mission.” General Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the bomb (GBU-43/B) was the “right munition” to use against the Islamic State in Khorosan. Some observers drew attention to the “warning to North Korean” dimension of the bombing.
And on April 22, ten Taliban militants dressed in Afghan military uniforms drove in two army trucks to the country’s largest military installation at Mazar-i-Sharif and launched the deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in the country’s 16-year war killing more than 140 unarmed soldiers, brothers in faith who were emerging from Friday prayers.
Since the Syrian conflict has turned into a clash of wills, the chemical weapons attack in Idlib received more international attention than the attack on the Afghan army base.
In March 2012, in a joint op-ed on the UK-US special relationship, published in The Washington Post, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron had stated the following on Afghanistan:
“… As the two largest contributors to the international mission in Afghanistan, we’re proud of the progress our troops have made in dismantling al-Qaeda, breaking the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan forces. But as recent events underscore, this remains a difficult mission. We honor the profound sacrifices of our forces, and in their name we’ll carry on the mission.
“Over the next few days, we will consult about preparations for the NATO summit in Chicago, where our alliance will determine the next phase of the transition that we agreed to in Lisbon. This includes shifting to a support role in advance of Afghans taking full responsibility for security in 2014 and ensuring that NATO maintains an enduring commitment so that Afghanistan is never again a haven for al-Qaeda to launch attacks against our citizens…”
On December 28, 2014 President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel each issued statements marking the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan. At the beginning of 2015, immediately following the stand-down of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO-led Resolute Support mission (RSM) was launched to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions “to ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorism”. And, as of February 2017, 39 nations with 13,500 troops were still taking part in this mission. Yet, despite operations and mission following one another, more than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces lost their lives in 2016, a record high.
Experience gained in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya shows that while external military interventions can bring about regime change, their capacity for nation-building is strictly limited, let alone promoting democracy. President Obama promised to withdraw forces from Afghanistan but the Taliban with its contentious roots doesn’t allow that. The beginnings of ISIS can be traced back to the invasion of Iraq. It was able to emerge as a force to be reckoned with and despite years of investment and training Iraqi army units failed to resist its assault. In other words, while radical ideologies may always have been in store, external military interventions have enabled them to come forward as a serious threat to international security.
Democratic change requires higher levels of enlightened education and energy from within. In the absence of both, Middle East turmoil can last for decades and decades. President Obama was determined to refrain from another military intervention in the Middle East. He put the emphasis on multilateralism, diplomacy and international legitimacy. President Trump also appears reluctant to commit more troops to areas of conflict but more inclined to emphasize American military power, going back perhaps to what his predecessor called the “Washington playbook”.
If he is really interested in formulating a long-term strategy to defeat what he defines as “radical Islamic terrorism”, President Trump would be well-advised to follow Obama’s approach. Furthermore, he may consider launching a major diplomatic effort to bring Middle East countries together, including Iran of course, and start addressing with them the reasons underlying Middle East’s current chaos and the political/economic/cultural measures needed to eliminate them. Such an effort would require a broad outlook, cool-headed analysis, intense diplomatic groundwork and a determination on the part of all to bridge cultural fault lines.
Everybody agrees that there is not going to be a military solution to the Syrian conflict. Neither will there be one to the turmoil in the Middle East. Clearly, President Trump wishes to make history and the Middle East may offer him an opportunity to achieve that by building bridges rather than walls.