The speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 17 laying out a series of conditions that would make it possible to withdraw US troops from Syria confirmed what had already been revealed by the Pentagon itself: The Trump administration is planning to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely.
Although it was not a comprehensive policy statement, the Tillerson speech completed a months-long process in which the Pentagon has succeeded in enlisting the Trump administration to sign on for a semi-permanent US military engagement in three countries with significant US troops contingents: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
This trifecta of semi-permanent US military engagements reflects the extraordinary power of the Pentagon to sway even a president who had made opposition to such policies a central element of his campaign.
The Pentagon Gets Its War in Syria
Two months before Tillerson’s speech, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already telegraphed the fact that the US military had been given approval for a long-term commitment in Syria now that ISIS (also known as Daesh) had been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. In mid-November in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said that US forces in Syria would fight Islamic State “as long as they have want to fight” and that preventing the return of what he called “ISIS 2.0” was a “longer-term objective.” He even suggested that US forces would remain to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis.
In another briefing for reporters in late December, Mattis said that the US forces in Syria would be “shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing” role.
Tillerson’s talk was a political gloss on what the Pentagon had already begun planning to do. It provided a series of reasons for the US military to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, while at the same time giving it maximum latitude to avoid getting into a war with Iranian, Russian or Syrian forces.
Tillerson presented the US presence in Syria as necessary to ensure that not only ISIS but al-Qaeda in Syria will “suffer an enduring defeat” — a new term suggesting that the military mission would continue to be counter-terrorism. The reality, as Mattis had already announced, was that the US military is planning to be involved in post-war “stabilization” — something Trump had denounced during the campaign — for many years.
The Tillerson gloss struck the obligatory anti-Iran chord, vowing that US troops would remain until Iranian influence in Syria has been “diminished.” Mentioning that objective was an obvious way to justify a long-term US military presence in Syria, since no one believes that Iranian influence in Syria will be diminished in the coming years.
Despite its obvious bow to the administration’s anti-Iran-war constituency, the word “diminished” was clearly chosen as an alternative to other possible formulations that would have been supported by pro-Israeli figures and institutions lobbying the administration. It reflects the Pentagon’s interest in averting war against the Assad regime or its Iranian allies and its determination to keep its intervention in Syria focused on terrorism and avoid getting involved in forcible regime change.
In the early months of the Trump administration, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected a proposal from National Security Council staffers for US military intervention against Assad. And in June 2017, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS actually welcomed the likely Syrian and Iranian-supported forces entering the city of Deir ez-Zor, which had been under ISIS occupation, rejecting any idea of seeking to preempt such a move militarily. That determination to avoid being drawn into a war against Iran or Syria has remained unchanged through 2017.
Tillerson enunciated a vision of regime change in Syria that would bring about the departure of Assad and his family not by force, but through “an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-sponsored elections.” He did not address the multiple violent political-military conflicts involving Turkey, the Kurds, the remnants of al-Qaeda-led opposition forces and the Assad regime, which is very likely to suck the United States into new and dangerous waters if it maintains a military presence in the region.
The Pentagon Ends Trump’s Anti-Interventionist Themes
The Trump administration’s clear commitment to open-ended US war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria adds Trump to the list of presidents who opposed wars only to ultimately give in to the war state bureaucracy under persistent pressure. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama had all been skeptical about war proposals on Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. But both before and immediately after becoming president, Trump had expressed strong and explicit antagonism toward the idea of indefinite wars.
In a 2013 tweet, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump declared, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” In a speech devoted to foreign policy during the 2016 primary election, Trump attacked war policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria as destructive of societies and creating unnecessary threats to the United States. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed,” he declared, adding that the US had created a “vacuum … that ISIS would fill,” along with Iran.
After he had won the presidential election, moreover, Trump did not abandon those anti-intervention themes. In the last speech on his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump said “intervention and chaos” must “come to an end.” He vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”
Trump asserted that past policies had “depleted” the US military, “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas we shouldn’t be fighting in.” He also declared that, instead of investing in wars, he would spend the money on rebuilding the US’s crumbling infrastructure.
Once Mattis took over at the Pentagon, however, he and Dunford, along with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, began a campaign to get Trump to abandon his opposition to semi-permanent US military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
By April 2017, US officials were already engaged in discussions with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq on agreements for what US military officials were calling “open-ended commitments” of US troops in those countries — despite expectations that ISIS would soon be decisively defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian urban strongholds.
Afghanistan was the subject of the most acute tensions between the White House and the national security bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy was determined to obtain the deployment of many more troops and, even more important, unlimited time to carry out the US-sponsored war. But for the next four months, Trump — encouraged by political adviser Steve Bannon to remain true to his political base — refused to give his approval to any of the proposals.
Trump’s national security team became “alarmed” about Trump’s persistent questioning of the need for what they called a “robust American presence around the world,” according to an Associated Press account. On July 20, his advisers took Trump and Bannon into “the Tank” — the small room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly — and used charts and diagrams to drive home their message that the forward deployments of troops, spies and diplomats was necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.”
In August, however, the administration’s crisis over the proposed unending war across the Middle East and Afghanistan came to a head, as Bannon sought to use his connections with the Zionist Organization of America to oust McMaster, claiming that he was not supportive of Israel’s interests. Bannon’s scheme collapsed, however, when Trump’s biggest campaign donor, arch-Likudist Sheldon Adelson, refused to support it. Suddenly, Bannon became much more politically vulnerable, and by the end of the month, he was forced out of the White House.
At the climactic meeting on Afghanistan at Camp David in mid-August, from which Bannon was excluded, Mattis, McMaster and Dunford pressed their advantage. Trump’s opposing stance to intervention dissolved completely. He did not question the generals’ plans for the indefinite continuation of the 16-year-old war, which they presented as necessary to prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from having a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. They also showed Trump 1972 photographs of Afghan girls in Kabul in mini-skirts to convince him that Western values could prevail in Afghanistan.
Without an aide capable of seeing through the Pentagon’s deceptions, Trump who is well known for a deferential attitude toward senior generals, was a pushover. Announcing the Afghanistan decision a few days later, Trump repeated what he had been told at Camp David. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America,” he declared.
Once they had turned Trump on Afghanistan, the Pentagon could rely on a simple argument to ensure his compliance with their plans for Syria and Iraq: liken any Trump interference in the war bureaucracy’s plan for open-ended US wars in Iraq and Syria to Obama’s policy of completing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Tillerson emphasized that point in his speech: “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 declared.
Thus, did Trump consent to the Pentagon’s plans for permanent US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The New Pentagon Business Model
The permanent wars in those three countries represent, in effect, a new Pentagon business model for those regions. The model looks for far more payoff in term of congressional appropriations — as well as power at home and abroad in relation to budgetary and political costs — than the Pentagon obtained from waging the big wars of the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. It counts on US casualties remaining relatively small, because combat will take the form of bombings or Special Operations attacks.
Low US casualties are crucial to the new model, because most Americans are not convinced such US military endeavors are necessary or good for this country. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in August 2017 found only 40 percent supportive of additional troops for Afghanistan, while 32 percent wanted complete withdrawal from the war, with the remaining 28 percent unsure.
That reality will certainly require the Pentagon to exercise tighter control over information. Already, the Department of Defense has moved to classify data about Afghan security forces, so it will be more difficult to criticize the US effort as a failure. In order to avoid large-scale criticism, the Pentagon will likely also need to cover up the actual scale of civilian casualties from Special Operations raids and bombings by the United States, as has occurred in the past in Afghanistan, and has occurred again in regard to the US-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014.
The new Pentagon model is taking advantage of a malleable president to prolong the war bureaucracy’s extraordinary increase in control over resources and power, which it has already enjoyed for more than 16 years. It may succeed in terms of bureaucratic interests, but at great cost to the people of the United States — and at even greater cost to the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.