By Vali Nasr
US President Donald Trump told the American people that Daesh has been defeated — that the only thing left is “remnants,” which our allies will destroy. That is less a statement of fact than an expression of his eagerness to go down in history as the president who ended America’s military involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Perhaps Trump thinks these forays have been too expensive and futile, or perhaps, recognising American fatigue with endless wars, he is simply playing politics ahead of the 2020 elections.
Or maybe he thinks this is a war that the regional actors must fight, which would explain his readiness to accept Turkey’s promise that it will finish off the Daesh in Syria. In any case, the real meaning of the claim that “we have liberated virtually all of that territory” is that Middle Eastern terrorism is no longer a casus belli for the United States.
It’s a hell of a gamble. It’s true that the Daesh has been expelled from much of the terrain it held in Iraq and Syria. Gone is the caliphate headquartered in Raqqa that extremists from around the world trekked to Syria to join. But even so diminished, the group is still a potent terrorist organisation. It is a germ suppressed by antibiotics — but still alive and ready to infect and kill, if the medicine is cut.
Daesh’s battle-hardened fighters are still at large in Syria and Iraq, and ready to pounce, as they did in last month’s attack in the supposedly extremist-free Syrian town of Manbij, killing four American soldiers. (A few weeks earlier, announcing his pullout from Syria, Trump had said the Daesh was no longer a threat.) In Iraq, the group no longer holds territory, but many of its fighters remain. Others have found their way to Afghanistan — the first wave of foreign fighters to arrive since Al Qaida lost its redoubt there — where their campaign of terrorism has encouraged the Taliban, too, to step up its attacks, lest they be overshadowed by this Middle East import. As a price for leaving Afghanistan, the Trump administration says the Taliban must finish off Daesh. But the Taliban is not the Turkish military, which is trying to fulfil the same role in Syria. The Taliban has a history of falling under the influence of other terrorists.
Unfortunately, Trump’s foreign policy is not supporting his ambition of ridding America of military headaches in the region. He has not been interested in the problems that caused the rise of Daesh: broken states, ravaged by civil war, with no prospects for peace.
The United States has washed its hands of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war, and is indifferent toward Iraq (the president recently said that US interest in Iraq is simply to monitor Iran). At this rate, a future administration may find that it has to send troops back to the Middle East to put out new fires of extremism and terrorism.
To US allies in the region, Trump’s strategy is thinly veiled cut and run, a rudderless approach that will only worsen the chaos that followed hastily conceived interventions. Announcements like the one in his State of the Union address do not shore up America’s sagging credibility with friends and foes across the Middle East and South Asia. They understand the threat Daesh, Al Qaida and their offshoots still pose, and they grasp that it could continue to ravage their region if the door to terrorism is not properly shut today. No presidential bravado can change this.
In one way, Trump has been successful. During the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the memory of September 11 was still fresh and voters saw terrorism as an existential threat.
Trump has punctured this overinflated American obsession, turning our national focus elsewhere and allowing him to declare that he quashed the Daesh, regardless of whether it is true. Americans these days are more worried about the fate of their democracy, the extent of Russian interference in their politics and institutions, and the looming Chinese threat to their global dominance.
The Pentagon’s new National Defence Strategy, unveiled last year, identified Russia and China, not Daesh, as the primary strategic threats in the years to come. Washington’s focus is shifting to great-power politics. Even Hollywood doesn’t find terrorism as compelling anymore. This all affords Trump with political space to extricate US forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan.
But let us not kid ourselves: This is not a victory on the battlefield. This is a triumph at the home front. That is the victory that Trump can rightly claim. —Washington Post
(Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has worked as a senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department.)