War Stories

Back Into the Quagmire

The good news is that Trump is listening to his military commanders. The bad news is that they’re leading him into disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Syria.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, center, listen while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting in the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, center, listen while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting in the Pentagon. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As the Trump administration escalates America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, one wonders what happened to the Donald Trump who decried the former war as a “total disaster” and bellowed over and over “It’s time to come home”—and who pledged to do nothing in the latter war but “bomb the shit out of ISIS.”

Yet Trump is sending more troops to Afghanistan (the longest war in U.S. history) and broadening our mission in Syria (arguably the most complex conflict we’ve ever sleepwalked into).

What happened to Trump is that, however stubborn and overconfident he’s been on most matters he’s sounded off about (health care, climate change, immigration, protectionism), when it comes to the use of military force, he has deferred to his inner circle of generals.

In some ways, this has proved fortunate. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, persuaded Trump, at least so far, not to resume the torture of suspected terrorists. Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an active-duty three-star Army general, persuaded him—at least so far—not to rip up the Iran nuclear deal. Several senior officers in the Pentagon have briefed Trump, as they had briefed his predecessors, on the extreme risks of bombing North Korea.

But when it comes to Afghanistan (where both generals served time in uniform) and Syria (which involves Iran, which both consider the enemy), Mattis and McMaster are deeply committed to the cause—if not necessarily to winning, then certainly to avoid defeat. And so they did everything they could to convince Trump to pour in more weapons and troops, and Trump at last gave in.

In a televised speech in August, Trump said, “My original instinct was to pull out—and historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” So, after “many meetings, over many months,” with “my Cabinet and generals,” he decided “to complete our strategy”—not just to refrain from pulling out but to pour in more troops and weapons.

Here was one time where Trump might have been wiser to follow his instincts—or at least to bring in a wider array of advisers, including some who could inform his instincts with facts and figures about all the many past assurances of victory’s imminence. But there were—and still are—no such experts on his team.

The “new strategy” that Trump articulated in the half-hour speech wasn’t so different from previous strategies. Even so, he concluded that, though he’d been dealt a bad hand, “one way or another, these problems will be solved—I’m a problem solver—and, in the end, we will win.”

He didn’t define “win” (nobody has, really, in the 16 years we’ve been fighting this war), but he seemed to suggest that he would do what it takes, and succeed, because he’d solved problems in his prior life as a real-estate tycoon—as if restoring peace and stability to one of the world’s most war-torn countries was on the same order of complexity as wrangling a permit from the New York City Department of Buildings.

President Obama left office with 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000. Under Trump, the number has risen to 15,000, with another 1,000 set to arrive this spring.

Fewer Americans have died there in the past few years, because they are serving more as advisers than as soldiers engaging in combat. But advisers get trapped in firefights, and, more to the point, the Afghan soldiers they’re advising haven’t made much progress in the fight. A case in point is the Taliban’s 14-hour siege this week of the Intercontinental Hotel in the capital, Kabul, killing 22 people. On another front, American pilots have stepped up the bombing of opium fields—a source of income for the Taliban—but the production of poppy last year nearly doubled.

In short, there is no end to the war in sight.

Syria is a different story, but no more hopeful. Early in his term, Trump eased up on the restrictions that Obama had placed on bombing in civilian areas, instead letting the commanders in the field set the rules of engagement. This may have accelerated the defeat of ISIS in the field and the collapse of its caliphate, but it has so far had little impact on the jihadis’ activities worldwide—and it has intensified the underlying conflicts in Syria.

The key fact about these conflicts is this: The United States is the only combatant in the country that views ISIS as the main threat and the destruction of ISIS as the main mission. All the other countries and factions view the threat of ISIS as secondary at best. Their main threats stem, instead, from long-simmering sectarian rivalries (mainly Sunni versus Shia) or territorial disputes (leftovers from the arbitrary borders set by European colonialists at the end of World War I). As a result, the local powers have played the United States, promising or pretending to join the fight against ISIS as long as we’ve helped them go after their main threats—i.e., as long as we help them pursue their vital interests. The problem is that the interests of some of these actors conflict with the interests of others. We can’t help them all without alienating some. As ISIS nears defeat, these deeper conflicts, which we’ve tried to finesse or submerge, rise uncomfortably to the fore.

And so we now stand by as Turkey, our NATO ally, wages a brutal fight against the Syrian Kurds, who have been our most reliable ally in the war on ISIS—a war, by the way, that isn’t entirely over. The U.S. commanders on the ground, who have been given such wide authority since Trump came to office, openly praise the Kurds. Meanwhile, White House officials, who are trying to patch relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have noted that Turkey is our “ally” while the Kurds are merely our “partner” in a narrow combat operation, and allies trump partners. The Pentagon, which relies on Turkish air bases for NATO and counter-ISIS operations but has also been aiding the Kurds, released a statement trying to straddle both positions.

These tensions were bound to erupt as the fight against ISIS wound down. The Obama administration was taking steps (who knows how effective they would have been?) to anticipate the imbroglio. The Trump administration never did, in part because the top officials never set the priorities of a political-military strategy—in other words, never worked out a position on what the United States wanted to accomplish in Syria

And now the administration is digging in deeper. In a speech last week at Stanford University, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States “must maintain a military presence” in Syria in order to accomplish five goals: an “enduring defeat” of ISIS and al-Qaida, the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through a “UN-led political process,” the diminishing of Iranian influence; the return of Syrian refugees; and the removal of all weapons of mass destruction.

These are all worthy goals, but it’s not at all clear how a U.S. military presence can accomplish them. Probably they can’t be accomplished without this presence, but the presence has to be tied to a strategy—and a strategy requires more than the mere recitation of worthy goals. It also requires the articulation of interests, the amassing of resources, the planning and execution of a policy—and, given that we have little leverage in Syria, it also requires compromise and coordination with other countries and militias. But which ones? Can we do all this without help from some combination of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, and some indigenous forces within Syria—or perhaps all of them?

The problem is that the answer might be no. During the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry assembled a diplomatic conference in Vienna comprised of 21 countries with an interest in the conflict. But they couldn’t get beyond a list of vague of principles, and, since then, the fissures have widened, our leverage has weakened, Assad’s grip on power has tightened, and the Iranian-backed militias that support him aren’t leaving anytime soon. Not even the WMDs are gone. In April, Trump fired 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. Trump (and some others) thought that did the trick. But just this week, Assad reportedly unleashed chemicals again.

We’ve seen this movie before. We send troops or drop bombs for what some think (and, in some cases, what might actually be) a good cause; the problem only worsens, so we send or drop more, devise a new strategy, then another new strategy (which, after a while, resembles one of the old strategies), and then just stay there, spiraling the violence upward, achieving occasional tactical triumphs but no strategic breakthroughs.

This is where Trump is at with these endless wars that he wanted no part of and berated his predecessor for dropping in his lap. But neither he nor his advisers have the slightest idea how to break through the stasis or pull out without exacerbating the chaos. Not to draw comparisons with Vietnam, which was a far deadlier and more thoroughly senseless war, but Trump is finding himself bogged down in the very definition of a quagmire.