Exit wounds

Without appropriate planning,the departure of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan could, warns Lawrence Sellin, have unintended and disturbing geopolitical consequences

Any major geopolitical withdrawal has the potential to produce a power vacuum.  A successful outcome achieves burden shifting while securing US national interests and ensuring that America’s adversaries do not unduly benefit.

It remains to be seen if President Trump’s Syria withdrawal meets those criteria or amounts to an unforced strategic retreat.

By many accounts, President Trump’s wildly swinging Syria policy has not only led to a betrayal of an ally, the escape of Islamic State prisoners, a resurgent refugee crisis and a loss of American prestige, but created opportunities for Russia to significantly change the strategic dynamics of the Middle East in its favour.

It was widely expected that as a consequence of themeeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, both Ankara and Moscow would capitalise on the abrupt US troop pull-out by dividing influence in Syria and rebalancing power in the region.

It now appears that Turkey and Russia have reached a modus vivendi, agreeing to set up a30-km deep safe zone inside Syria from the Turkish-Syrian border and at least partially patrolled by Russian troops.

The Turkish-Russian agreement may also involve an amendment to the 1998 Adana Pact to include former US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey claims is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that had waged an armed insurgency against the Turkish state for decades. The Adana Pact spelled out the terms under which Turkey could carry out cross-border security operations inside northern Syria and required Damascus to stop harbouring members of the PKK.

More ominously, Turkey plans what many describe as an unlawful resettlement of ‘refugees’ into the areas occupied by Turkish forces in an effort to permanently change the demographics of the region to produce a pro-Turkish majority.

Contrary to his earlier statements that he is trying to ‘end endless wars’ and that the US ‘should have never been there [in Syria] in the first place’, President Trump has now made a complete 180-degree turn, proposing that US troops occupy the Syrian oil fields and conduct a joint development venture with the Kurds, who would receive the revenue from the oil sales.

A convoy of US troops in Qamishli, in Syria's Hasakeh province
A convoy of US troops in Qamishli, in Syria’s Hasakeh province

Such an arrangement would require a long-term deployment of large numbers of US ground troops in Syria and readily-available air power to back them up, as well as a de facto commitment to underwrite Kurdish autonomy, something both the Syrians and the Turks vehemently oppose.

All the moves made or planned by the Trump Administration may now be moot because Russia is now the dominant player in Syria. It could represent a diplomatic and military victory for Moscow or a pathway to a quagmire.

In that case, it might be advantageous for the US should take steps to ensure the latter.

A similar precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan could also have cascading effects even greater than we have seen in Syria.

South Asia has long been a geopolitical battleground for Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan, where there will likely never be a clear winner but, at best, only an unstable balance of power.

Like the Middle East, the Sunni-Shia rift and other forms of religious enmity in South Asia are not only between countries, but within them. South Asia is also divided, not just by ethnic groups, but by tribes.

Ultimately, America’s most formidable adversary in South Asia will be China

The competing nation-states exploit the religious and ethnic differences to advance their own agenda, but are also potential victims of them, making South Asia anexplosive geopolitical cocktail of national ambitions and Islamic extremism.

Ultimately, America’s most formidable adversary in South Asia will be China.

China seeks global domination. One vehicle to achieve it is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a collection of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the entire world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes.

The guarantor of that soft power approach is the hard power of Chinese military expansion.An element of that effort is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an infrastructure and development project, the backbone of which is a transportation network connecting China to the Pakistani seaports of Gwadar and Karachi located on the Arabian Sea.

China plans to establish a naval base on the Jiwani peninsula, just west of Gwadar and within easy reach of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. That military facility will complement China’s already operational naval base in Djibouti located at another strategic chokepoint, the entrance to the Suez Canal.

Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as a client state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend their own influence into the resource-rich areas of Central Asia.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative – is being extended to Afghanistan
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative – is being extended to Afghanistan

With China growing in geopolitical strength, Pakistan now has significant strategic and economic incentives to exclude western countries from maintaining any influence in Afghanistan.

An extension of CPEC to Afghanistan would benefit both China and Pakistan, whose economic goals include exploiting the estimated $3 trillion in untapped Afghan mineral resources. The withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan would allow China to reap rewards from the reconstruction of the war-torn country, possibly as a quid pro quo for mining rights.

Islamic fighters were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military

US presence has always been an obstacle to Chinese ambitions to incorporate Afghanistan into CPEC and BRI as well as a number of other China-centric economic & military pacts so that, together with Pakistan, Beijing could dominate South Asia.

The wild card in that scenario is Islamic extremism because Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is its true epicentre.

Islamic militancy has long been one element of Pakistan’s foreign policy. As early as the 1950s, it began inserting Islamists associated with the Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami into Afghanistan.

In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhuttoset upa cell withinPakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) tobegin managing dissident Islamists in Afghanistan.

Since the late 1970s, under President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), Pakistan pursued a policy of aggressive ‘Islamisation’with theproliferation of religious schools, ‘madrasas’, and religious political parties, resulting in a society that became ever more extreme and intolerant. Ethnic separatism was suppressed and Islamic fighters were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military.

It is an undisputedfact that the Taliban were created by the ISI, beginning in 1994, as a means of intervening in the Afghan civil war to influence the outcome in favour of Pakistani national interests.Since its founding, the ISI and the Pakistani military have never stopped providing financial, logistical and military support to the Taliban and the tens of thousands of madrasas have offered a fertile recruiting source, not just for the Taliban, but for other Pakistan-based militant groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for attacks against India.

It is, therefore, not just a proper power sharing arrangement between the Afghanistan government and Taliban that is needed as a prelude to an exit of US forces from Afghanistan, even if another civil war in Afghanistan can be averted.

The interests of nation states and the threat of terrorism are potentially on a collision course. China, Russia and India are major regional players, whose interests do not neatly overlap. China and Pakistan seek to jointly dominate the region economically and militarily, which includes the incorporation of Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and, more broadly, into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the consequence being the relative isolation of both Russia and India.

Layered on top of that is the increase of regional jihadi terrorism that will be an inevitable outgrowth of what will be construed as a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, to which the already considerable presence of Pakistan-based terrorists will be a major contributor and a major complicating factor in the strategic dynamics of the region.

President Trump’s aim to ‘end endless wars’ is a laudable one, but geopolitical withdrawal nearly always produces unintended consequences, for which proper planning and execution is a sine qua non for a successful foreign policy.


Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, an IT command and control and cyber security subject matter expert and a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com and can be followed on Twitter @LawrenceSellin

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