Following my op/ed for the Washington Post on this subject, Peter Galbraith and I debated the issue for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Al Rudaw TV:
Comments as always are welcome.
I won’t have time this morning to write about President Trump’s foolish “fire and fury” threat against North Korea, which provoked a specific Pyongyang threat against the US territory of Guam. In any event, I wouldn’t do better than Robert Litwak, who had intelligent things to say about the issue this morning on NPR:
Secretary of State Tillerson is wandering around the world saying the US wants to talk with North Korea, while the President blusters. That isn’t a good way to get the diplomacy going, because the North Koreans have a better alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) than we do: they need only continue their nuclear and missile programs and be prepared to launch a conventional artillery attach on Seoul if we start to act. In the game Trump is playing–military threat–North Korea has the upper hand.
Not everyone will be as interested as I was in this detailed, hour-long briefing Friday on the war against ISIS, done by Special Presidential Envoy (for the global coalition to defeat ISIS) Brett McGurk:
Compliments to Brett for doing this in such a professional and informative way.
Some highlights in Syria:
- The ground war is going well, led by capable and effective (Kurdish-led) Syrian Democratic Forces moving towards Raqqa. President Trump’s delegation of tactical authority to field commanders has hastened the process. ISIS is losing territory rapidly.
- Deconfliction of SDF forces with Russian and Syrian government forces is functioning well near Raqqa and in the southwest, where the ceasefire is working.
- Displaced people in Syria are returning to their homes fairly quickly, once demining takes place. They flee towards the SDF, not towards ISIS-controlled territory.
- Humanitarian supplies have been pre-positioned and are proving adequate to meet demand, albeit with the usual logistical difficulties.
- The US will do “stabilization,” but not reconstruction or nationbuilding. Stabilization includes demining, rubble removal, restoring basic electricity and water supplies but no education or health services, which will be local responsibilities.
- The war against ISIS is part of a two-phase process, which includes political transition in Syria.
- The international community will not be prepared to fund the $200 billion (or multiples of that number) in reconstruction needs until President Assad is gone.
- The Iraqi Security Forces have “not lost a battle” in the current campaign against ISIS.
- Mosul is a much larger challenge than Raqqa, involving more than ten times as many people.
- The US will not do long-term reconstruction; the Iraqi government will get funding from the IMF and World Bank. Kuwait will host a donor conference.
- The next battle will be for Tal Afar, then Hawija, then Al Qaim on the border with Syria.
- The US opposes the “ill-timed” and “ill-prepared” referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan scheduled for September 25.
Plans are being laid for opening key border crossings between Syria and Jordan as well as between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. ISIS finances are drying up, and it can no long recruit or deploy significant numbers of foreign fighters.
I doubt the notion that big parts of Syria can be liberated with Bashar al Assad still in power in Damascus. His regime, with its Russian, Iranian and Shia militia allies, has been more than willing to attack any area outside government control, declaring it infested by terrorists. Will Moscow be ready, willing and able to restrain Bashar once Raqqa is in SDF control? Or will the Americans, anxious to depart as quickly as possible, negotiate its turnover to the Damascus?
We’ll have to wait and see whether the “no more than stabilization” approach Brett advocates, based he says on experience in Iraq after the US collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, will work. No doubt devolving as much responsibility to local councils in Syria, which I gather are already operating for Tabqa and Raqqa, and to the Iraqi government is a good idea in theory. Local people know the social terrain far better than foreigners. The question is whether it will work in practice.
There are two big, immediate challenges: security (including keeping ISIS fighters from embedding in the local communities and preventing revenge killings) and property rights. Some local security forces have been trained, but it is not yet clear how effective they will be. Even if they are close to perfection, a major issue remains: where will miscreants be tried? A police force without a court system is an instrument of repression, not justice. The same issue arises with respect to property rights: who will decide who is the rightful owner of the apartments that remain standing? What property rights remain, if any, to those whose apartments have been destroyed?
Odds are the post-war period in Syria will be particularly messy, since not everyone is agreed on who holds legitimate authority. In Iraq, there is more consensus, but if Prime Minister Abadi fails to establish more inclusive governance, or allows the Shia popular mobilization forces involved in the liberation of Mosul to ride herd over the non-Shia populations of Ninewa, continuing insurgency could well be the outcome.
The Islamic State 2.0 (I count its original incarnation in Iraq as 1.0, before the migration to Syria) is close to defeat. Job #1 now is to prevent the emergence of Islamic State 3.0.
PS: One other thing. I’m concerned about Brett’s repeated indications that the coalition forces will take no prisoners but instead kill as many Islamic Staters as possible. There are laws of war that need to be observed, even if opponents don’t.
One hundred and sixty-nine Syrian civil society organizations have written a letter to UN Special Envoy Stefano de Mistura, urging that the focus of negotiations in Geneva remain on an inclusive political transition to a free and democratic Syria. Courtesy of @snhr, here is what they had to say:
Following the seventh round of peace negotiations, we write to you on behalf of the undersigned Syrian civil society organisations who work every day under unbearable circumstances to improve the living conditions of millions of Syrians. We represent the voices from the ground and our work across the country in the fields of medical and humanitarian assistance, education, freedom of expression, youth and women empowerment, and accountability and justice proves again the fundamental role Syrian civil society plays as a champion for a democratic and inclusive Syria.
As a vital resource for the Syrian population trapped between a tyrannical regime and the brutality of extremism, Syrian civil society organisations strongly support any efforts to bring an end to the Syria conflict. This is why many of our representatives have participated in the intra-Syrian peace talks within the framework of the Civil Society Support Room and have been active in supporting the Geneva peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime.
Sadly, the Geneva process has delivered neither peace nor protection to the Syrian people who are increasingly disillusioned with a process that continues to fail them. We are keen to reverse this trend as without the support of Syrian civil society no political deal will be either sustainable or legitimate, and right now the current process is losing our support. Syrian civil society’s priority is to achieve an inclusive transition to a free and democratic Syria. We are all united around this outcome which defines the basis of the Geneva peace process as set out by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and as reiterated in your mandate as UN Special Envoy for Syria.
We expect all parties in Geneva – including you – to work for this purpose and engage in serious negotiations. The time consumed on discussions around process and representation, at the expense of a credible and realistic political deal for transition towards democracy, is not only wasting precious time but it is also undermining the international community’s efforts to fight terrorism in Syria. Syrian civil society activities are essential in the fight against extremism. Moderate voices – as we represent – have the power to push back against the extremist forces and fill the vacuum on the ground. But to be able to do so, we need the international community to protect our ability to assist and serve our people. This is why we need the Geneva process to prioritise the protection of civilians and deliver meaningful negotiations that lead to peace for Syria.
It seems to me they make some excellent points, including the importance of moderate voices in countering extremism and of civilian protection. These points are too often being lost in a world consumed focused on military success and worried more about who will win than about how Syria will be governed after the war.
President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?
Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.
The problem is that those goals are incompatible. There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.
In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):
It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.
Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.
There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.
This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.
There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.
So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.
- Teleconference: What is the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations? | Monday, August 7 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | Relations between the United States and Russia continue to sour. New sanctions legislation in Washington – which arrived on President Trump’s desk with a veto-proof majority – prompted not only the ejection of U.S. diplomats from Russia, but a declaration by Minister Medvedev on the “end of hope” for improved ties. At the same time, presidents Trump and Putin appear to anticipate better days. How entrenched is the current state of affairs? Are there avenues left for cooperation? Join the Wilson Center as Deputy Director William E. Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute, Senior Fellow Maxim Trudolyubov, and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assess prospects for the U.S.-Russia relationship and unpack the Trump-Putin dynamic. Aaron David Miller will be moderating.
- Expanding the Role of Youth in Building Peace, Security | Tuesday, August 8 | 9:30 – 11:00 am| United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | While popular culture and public narratives depict young men mainly as perpetrators of violence, and young women mainly as victims, governments and civil society groups alike are working to elevate the critical role of youth in reducing violent conflict and extremism. That effort has seen added attention in the 19 months since a U.N. Security Council resolution focused governments on the task. The talk will feature panelists Aubrey Cox, senior program specialist at USIP; Rachel Walsh Taza, program coordinator at Search for Common Ground; Jenn Heeg, co-champion at YouthPower Learning; and Imrana Buba, founder of a Nigerian youth-led peacebuilding organization working amid the country’s conflict with the Boko Haram extremist group. Youth Coordinator Michael McCabe of USAID will moderate.
- Oil Corruption: How the United States Can Counteract a Curse | Tuesday, August 8 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The oil industry has been entangled in serious corruption controversies, from the legality of some companies’ stance on climate change to dealings with producer-country governments. In response, the U.S. government has shown leadership over the past decade in helping bring more transparency to the sector. What are the dimensions of this problem? What is the status of the U.S. commitment? Join Carnegie and Global Witness for an engaging discussion of new findings by Global Witness on Shell’s activities in Nigeria, why corruption in this key economic sector matters, and how the U.S. government—and companies—can be part of the solution. Panelists include Steve Coll of The New Yorker, Olarenwaju Suraju, Simon Taylor of Global Witness, and Sarah Chayes of Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.
- The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations in New Administrations | Friday, August 11 | 1:30 – 5:15 pm | Heritage Foundation | Register Here | Join the Heritage Foundation for a discussion of Taiwan’s critical cross-strait relations as well as future economic ties with the United States. Panels will include “Cross-Strait Relations and the U.S.” (2:15 pm) and “Future of Economic Relations between the U.S. and Taiwan” (4:00 pm). The keynote address will be given by Lyu-Shun Shen, former representative from the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.