With President Trump’s announcement of withdrawing troops from Syria and the resulting debate, the timeline reveals several important fault lines in the American debate. The first point is that it’s tough to sift through the rather large over-the-top rhetoric. Those who support President Trump’s decision are people like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson. They oppose America’s seemingly never-ending wars and commitments overseas, and see this as a good time to come home. They have a point, but they also highlight Trump’s isolationist streak that he displayed on the campaign. He repeatedly questioned why we were wasting our time in that mess.
The other side of the debate usually comes from the national security community and top military generals. They argue that a precipitous withdrawal is what allowed ISIS to rise in the first place. American forces left too quickly and too suddenly and the local forces were powerless to stop them. The over-the-top rhetoric comes from calling them warmongers and Neocons, which are both just shorthand terms used derisively.
In truth, both sides have good points. As far back as the late 1940s and early 1950s, Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned that America’s attempts to contain communism could lead to overextension. The U.S. has fought on and off in Iraq for 30 years and, in addition to numerous other commitments in the war on terror from the Horn of Africa to South East Asia, 17 years in Afghanistan. These expensive exercises in a time of a looming debt crisis suggest that even though America’s security concerns must be met, it does not mean they have a blank check and open-ended commitment.
ISIS territory has been reduced to little more than a single town and the desert around it. But that doesn’t mean they can’t come back. The active ISIS fighters number no more than a few thousand, but there are thousands more that are moving underground to fight an insurgency. This will require sustained commitment to prevent the insurgency from again seizing territory.
President Trump could rightly claim victory in the sense that he took away the territory of their caliphate, liberated places like Mosul, and drove them underground. But the remaining problems in Mosul, and its history in the Iraq War should remind America that smashing a military in a conventional war doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying, long-term problems that fuel an insurgency are solved.
On top of a simmering insurgency, the Kurdish fighters in Syria are targeted by nearby Turkey as terrorists and are possibly the target of an upcoming operation. Allowing our Kurdish allies to be attacked would send a bad signal to potential allies. So would allowing an insurgency to flourish. Both Syria and Iraq, to use a technical term, are still basket cases that lack control of their wild hinterlands, don’t promote justice among their people, and suffer from rampant corruption, all of which suggest that the conditions are ripe for another rise of ISIS power.
In short, both sides are correct. America does spend too long in locations engendering spending way too much money. It would be wise to have clearly-defined goals and timeframes instead of open-ended commitments. At the same time, this very region has showed what can happen with a hands-off approach or precipitous withdrawal. The Syrian civil war has produced a massive humanitarian crisis and allowed ISIS to storm through much of the two countries. America should withdraw its soldiers, but in an organized fashion that makes sure our allies remain safe, and that they continue to pursue a solid counter-insurgency strategy.