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.
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.
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.
Celeste Ward Gventer and I did this piece for Luke Vargas’ radio program Wake. We were actually recorded separately and spliced together by Luke. I’m not sure I approve of the process, but the result is okay, apart from the more or less obvious glitches in the transcript.
- NATO at a Crossroads: Next steps for the trans-Atlantic alliance | Monday, July 31 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump called into question the usefulness of today’s NATO and spoke of building a better relationship with Moscow. Would the president be prepared to go further and suggest ending NATO expansion while seeking a new security architecture that might accommodate and reduce the risk of conflict with Russia? What would be the benefits and costs of such an approach? On July 31, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” will be joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.” Torrey Taussig, pre-doctoral research fellow at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
- Stabilizing Iraq: What is the Future for Minorities? | Tuesday, August 1 | 1:30 – 3:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Following ISIS’ rule, the inclusion of minority groups will be crucial to stabilizing Iraq. Nowhere in Iraq is this initiative more essential or complex than around Mosul, with its diverse community of Christians, Yazidis, Turkoman, Shabak, and others. On August 1, the United States Institute of Peace and the Kurdistan Regional Government present a discussion of how to help Iraq’s minority groups rebuild their communities and contribute to a more secure Iraq featuring remarks by Ambassador William Taylor (ret.) of USIP, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen of the Republic of Iraq, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States.
- Justice for the Yezidis: ISIS and Crimes of Genocide | Thursday, August 3 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked the Yezidis of Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Thousands of Yezidis were massacred and many others abducted, while more than half a million fled for their lives. Three years later, the conditions that led to ISIS’ rise and genocide against the Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities have not been addressed. The successful political reconstruction of Iraq and Kurdistan depends on the ability to ensure justice and fair treatment for the region’s most vulnerable populations. On August 3, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Nathaniel Hurd of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will join Hudson Institute’s Eric B. Brown to assess how adherents of the Islamic State movement can be brought to justice for their crimes of genocide, how the safety of vulnerable minority communities can be ensured as Iraq rebuilds, and what role the United States should play in preventing genocide in the future.
- Gaza Approaching a Boiling Point? | Thursday, August 3 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Political and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are in a critical state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry and the Gulf countries’ rift with Qatar have stymied funding to the territory and exacerbated an already desperate energy crisis. In the midst of pressing humanitarian concerns, what options do Palestinians and Israelis have to help prevent renewed violence? How can the United States and the international community bring the question of Gaza back into regional deliberations and the peace process? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a discussion with Tareq Baconi of al Shabaka, Laura Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA, and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on ways to mitigate political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.
Here is the video (live webcasting did not work) of Middle East Institute’s noon event on “Assessing the Trump Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy” featuring Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, Jennifer Cafarella (Institute for the Study of War), Matthew Levitt (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Joshua Geltzer (New America), and the director of the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Countering Terrorism Project, Charles Lister: