Any observer of the crisis will know these are not simple or quick tasks, and Tillerson conspicuously failed to set any time limits for removing U.S. troops. As such, it's tempting to draw an unspoken conclusion from the announcement: America's “forever war” has gotten yet another indefinite lease on life.
Syria now looks like just the latest chapter in a war on terror that has already lasted nearly 17 years — starting in Afghanistan and spreading to Iraq, Pakistan and many other countries — and that shows no signs of stopping. One independent estimate from last year argued that these conflicts have cost U.S. taxpayers $5.6 trillion; the human cost, of which there was a fresh reminder on Thursday thanks to a new report from conflict monitor Airwars, is inestimable but devastating.
There were hopes a year ago that a Trump administration might rein in America's sprawling global conflict. Before he was even a candidate, Trump had complained about the wisdom of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and suggested that the best option for Afghanistan was to pull out U.S. troops. Some who felt the war on terror had overstepped its bounds even compared him favorably to his rival, Hillary Clinton. “Donald the Dove” was one nickname floated by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
But if Trump ever really hoped to end the forever war, that time is long past. When presented with multiple foreign-policy options, Trump has almost always gone with expanded conflict. In August, for example, he reneged on previous pledges to draw down in Afghanistan. Instead, he pushed forward with fresh troop increases, escalating the United States' commitment to its longest war. As WorldViews' Max Bearak recently reported from Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes have spiked dramatically under new, looser rules of engagement.
Yet experts doubt that military action alone can ever really defeat the Taliban. Privately, foreign officials have suggested that the U.S. military may be in Afghanistan indefinitely, as it is on the Korean Peninsula. And, as observers noted when Trump announced the increase in August, the president has offered few details on how this new escalation might conclude.
The war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has actually been one of the brighter spots for Trump over the past year. Frequent coalition airstrikes helped dismantle the extremist group's self-proclaimed caliphate — though not without a corresponding rise in civilian deaths. But despite the damage inflicted on the jihadists in 2017, it's unclear whether the Islamic State can be conclusively defeated any more than the Taliban can.
And as the United States adds yet more war aims to its Syrian mission, can it effectively juggle its competing goals and prevent more unintended conflict? The evidence so far isn't promising. Earlier this week, the United States made a clumsy move to create a 30,000-strong “border security force” that would guard a self-proclaimed Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. The prospect of a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-dominated force taking up permanent residence on Turkey's borders led Ankara to threaten invasion.
And as the Trump administration backtracked on its description of the planned security force, Syria warned that it would shoot down Turkish planes if its troops stepped in — marking another potential escalation in the long-standing conflict. “This is shoot-from-the-hip policymaking,” said Nicholas Heras of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security to The Post's Liz Sly.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Tillerson explained that the Trump administration's decision on a continued military presence in Syria was influenced by the allegedly poor decisions of the Obama administration. “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he said.
Some will see an irony here, of course: Trump's approach to fighting the Islamic State is essentially a beefed-up continuation of Obama's. However, Tillerson's comments also raise the concern that by attempting to chart a more ambitious course for America's presence in Syria, Trump will doom the mission to failure.
Kori Schake, a military analyst at the Hoover Institution who worked in a number of White House roles during the George W. Bush administration, spoke positively of Tillerson's speech on Twitter but warned that the Trump administration “isn't committing anywhere near the resources to achieve these ambitious goals.” Others, including Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, noted how vaguely the issue of Russia — Assad's most important ally in Syria — had been addressed.
Tillerson acknowledged the difficulties of the situation on Wednesday. “Syria remains a source of severe strategic problems and a major challenge for our diplomacy,” he said. “But the United States will continue to remain engaged.”
But without adequately addressing the mounting issues in Syria, that engagement could stretch all the way into the the administration of Trump's successor, leaving it with its own problem to fix. Kicking the can down the road may work for now, but it won't bring America any closer to ending its “forever war.”