Pulling out of Syria — & Afghanistan?

Updated December 21, 2018

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IT may be the right decision made for the wrong reason and executed in the wrong way. The reality of Donald Trump’s presidency may be stranger than fiction, but Mr Trump’s latest sudden decision — to immediately withdraw all US troops from Syria — may be a case of reverse wag the dog.

Besieged at home by an avalanche of investigations and convictions of key aides who served during Mr Trump’s campaign for the presidency, the US leader took his own administration by surprise by tweeting that the American military campaign in Syria has ended.

In doing so, Mr Trump, who campaigned on a militarily strong but isolationist foreign policy, may be trying to appease his political base, which is roiled by lack of progress on building a wall along the US border with Mexico and sundry other crises that his presidency has been embroiled in.

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Nevertheless, the decision to withdraw precipitously from Syria is likely to have far-reaching consequences — and may even impact the ongoing incipient dialogue process in Afghanistan.

The effects of Mr Trump’s shock decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria will likely increase the anxiety of the Afghan government and that of regional and international actors.

While the US president appeared to want to project strength in the fight against the militant Islamic State group — perhaps in part to differentiate himself from his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy — a centrepiece of the Trump campaign was to end the wasteful wars that the US was fighting abroad. And while the US president was persuaded early on to maintain and slightly increase the US military presence in Afghanistan, it has long been apparent that Mr Trump has no interest in or appetite for prolonged military engagement in Afghanistan on his presidential watch.

That impatience has appeared to manifest itself in intensive American diplomacy in recent months to directly engage the Afghan Taliban in preliminary talks that could pave the way for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

Yet, as the most recent talks in the UAE this week have demonstrated, the Afghan Taliban are resistant to engaging with the Afghan government and are seeking the maximum concessions from the Americans, such as prisoner releases and a withdrawal timetable for foreign troops, without necessarily offering much in return.

For Pakistan, the challenge has long been to nudge the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table for what must ultimately be an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. But Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria could have the effect of persuading the Taliban that they simply need to stall a little while longer before Mr Trump reaches the same impatient conclusion in Afghanistan.

A president who often seems disconnected from the policies of the rest of his administration is a perplexing scenario for the world to navigate, but Pakistan ought to remain focused on the goal of a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2018