Washington is bungling again in the Mideast

In the fight against Daesh, US forces have been aggressively initiating attacks, resulting in a considerable rise in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria

By Fareed Zakaria

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Published: Fri 23 Jun 2017, 10:49 PM

Last updated: Sat 24 Jun 2017, 12:50 AM

While we have been focused on the results of special elections, the ups and downs of the Russia investigation, and President Trump's latest tweets, under the radar, a broad and consequential shift in American foreign policy appears to be underway. Put simply, the United States is stumbling its way into another decade of war in the greater Middle East. And this next decade of conflict might prove to be even more destabilizing than the last one.

Trump came into office with a refreshing scepticism about America's policy toward the region. "Everybody that's touched the Middle East, they've gotten bogged down. ... We're bogged down," he said during the campaign. But Trump also sees himself as a tough guy. At his rallies, he repeatedly vowed to "bomb the s--- out of" Daesh. Now that he is in the White House and has surrounded himself with an array of generals, his macho instinct seems to have triumphed. The administration has ramped up its military operations across the greater Middle East, from Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan to Somalia - more troops, more bombings, more missions. But what is the underlying strategy?

In the fight against Daesh, US forces have been aggressively initiating attacks, resulting in a considerable rise in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. And in a dramatic escalation, this week the US shot down a Syrian warplane, putting Washington on a collision course with Syria's ally, Russia, with the real possibility of US-Russian military hostilities. Worse yet, it is unclear how this belligerence toward the Bashar Assad regime will achieve the sole stated mission of America's involvement in Syria - to defeat the Islamic State. Logically, if Assad gets weaker, the main opposition forces - various militant groups, including Daesh - will get stronger. Compounding the incoherence, the administration explained that while it had attacked Assad's forces, it was not fighting the Assad regime and the downing was simply an act of "collective self-defense." A few more such acts of self-defense and American combat troops could find themselves on the ground in Syria.

In Afghanistan, Trump has delegated the details of a mini-surge of 4,000 more troops to Defense Secretary James Mattis and other senior military leaders. But there are limits to the perspective even of distinguished generals. Military officers can tell you whether, for example, they can take a hill. But does taking that hill serve America's broader strategy? Can that hill be held at reasonable cost? Does this mission distract from other, larger American interests around the world? Those are questions that must be answered by the commander in chief.

The US has been in Afghanistan for 16 years. It has had several surges in troop numbers and has spent almost a trillion dollars on that country. Last year, America's aid to Afghanistan was equivalent to about 40 per cent of that nation's GDP. And yet, Mattis admits that the United States is "not winning." What will an additional 4,000 troops now achieve that 130,000 troops could not?

In almost every situation American forces are involved in, the solutions are more political than military. This has become especially true in places like Syria and Afghanistan where many regional powers, with deep interests, have staked out positions and spread their influence. Military force without a strategy and a deeply engaged political and diplomatic process is destined to fail, perhaps even to produce a series of unintended consequences - witness the last decade and a half.

During the campaign, Trump seemed to be genuinely reflective about America's role in the Middle East. "This is not usually me talking, OK, 'cause I'm very proactive," he once said on the subject. "But I would sit back and [say], 'Let's see what's going on.'" Yes. After 16 years of continuous warfare, hundreds of thousands dead, trillions of dollars, and greater regional instability, somebody in Washington needs to ask - before the next bombing or deployment: What is going on?

- Washington Post



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