All of those questions were raised by Trump’s not-so-super comments during a Super Bowl Sunday interview with Margaret Brennan of CBS News. He reiterated his desire to withdraw from Syria while maintaining troops in Iraq. “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base,” he said, referring to Al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, which he visited in December. (He does not seem to realize that the United States has other bases in Iraq, too.) “We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.” Startled, Brennan said: “Whoa, that’s news. You’re keeping troops in Iraq because you want to be able to strike in Iran?” “No,” Trump replied, “because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch.”
Well, it’s a good thing Trump did not say that U.S. troops in Iraq were going to fight Iran, but he nevertheless raised Iraqi hackles by suggesting that the U.S. military presence in their country was designed to counter not the Islamic State but their powerful neighbor and trade partner. This is especially a problem for Shiite parties supported by the Shiite regime in Tehran. The more moderate Shiites, such as Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, are happy with an American presence that implicitly balances Iranian power — but they cannot afford to have this rationale stated out loud as Trump just did, for fear of sparking a nationalist backlash. On Monday, Iraqi President Barham Salih, a pro-Western Kurd, rebuked Trump. “We will not allow this,” he said. “Iraq does not want to be a party or axis to any conflict between multiple countries.”
Trump just jeopardized negotiations to keep a U.S. military contingent in Iraq and endangered the safety of the troops who are already there. Yet, for all his anti-Iran animus, he is handing Iran the one-third of Syria that its proxies do not already control. It’s dangerous to have a president who truly does not know what he is talking about.
Brennan asked Trump what he would do if there were a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria. “We’ll come back if we have to,” he said. “We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly.” It doesn’t matter how fast U.S. aircraft are. They still need landing rights. Practically speaking, the U.S. ability to fight the Islamic State is contingent on support from Iraq, which will not be forthcoming if Iraqis suspect that the Americans are pursuing their own anti-Iran agenda. Moreover, unless the United States wants to send its own army to Syria, it will need effective allies on the ground to fight the Islamic State. Those allies now exist, in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces, but they may not survive American abandonment — or be so ready to risk their lives in the future fighting alongside Americans.
The same lesson applies to Afghanistan, where Trump is eager to withdraw U.S. troops by obtaining an unenforceable agreement from the Taliban that it will not host international terrorist groups. He may imagine that if Afghanistan once again becomes a hub for terrorism, it will be a simple matter to send “very fast airplanes” back. But why would Afghans be willing to fight alongside Americans against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, which are primarily a threat to us, if the United States is not willing to help Afghans against terrorist groups such as the Taliban, which are primarily a threat to them?
Moderate Afghans may not be in any position to help us in any case, because a U.S. withdrawal could trigger the disintegration of the American-trained Afghan army, followed by the disintegration of the American-backed Afghan government. That is, in fact, what the Taliban’s chief peace negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, expects to happen. “This force, this army — this was made by the Americans,” he said in a videotaped interview. “When the Americans leave, they will naturally finish.” If the Afghan army cannot maintain a modicum of stability, then Afghanistan will either be taken over by the Taliban or descend into civil war. In either case, the United States will be hard-pressed to keep that country from reverting to what it was before 9/11 — a terrorist sanctuary.
Long-range air or missile strikes cannot uproot an entrenched terrorist movement, as President Bill Clinton learned when he attacked al-Qaeda camps with cruise missiles in 1998. Fighting terrorists effectively requires a sustained, if small, presence of troops and intelligence operatives on the ground. We now have that in both Afghanistan and Syria. But if we abandon our allies, as Trump appears eager to do, they will not fight for us in the future as he irrationally seems to expect.