That Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria was a complete and unmitigated disaster is an indisputable fact. We know this because the decision has been condemned by both Democrats and Republicans, a rare occurrence in today’s polarized political environment. With the Kurds now making a deal with Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. has basically ceded strategic influence in the region with nothing to show for it in return. Trump’s ill-advised decision has consequences far beyond Syria and its initial ramifications will be witnessed in the Afghan theater, where the U.S. is looking to restart bilateral peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Donald Trump’s isolationist streak was on display following his decision to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria. Trump tweeted that “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” The last sentence of this tweet is worth underlining, because as the U.S. elections draw near and the impeachment inquiry drags on, Trump may once again go against the advice of his own administration and announce an abrupt end to America’s longest war in history.
Such an announcement would pave the way for a Taliban victory against the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul, which has found it difficult to beat back Taliban forces in recent months. While the Taliban has engaged in negotiations with the United States, the insurgent group has shown no inclination to agree to a ceasefire. It does not recognize the Afghan government and many experts believe that once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, the Taliban will push on all the way to Kabul in the pursuit of a total victory against its enemies.
Trump’s decision to sell out the Kurds will surely bolster Taliban hardliners who do not want to negotiate an end to the war at a time when military victory is near. They must have looked at Trump’s decision and argued that if the United States can sellout Kurdish forces who valiantly fought against radical fighters belonging to the Islamic State, then surely it will also abandon its Afghan allies when the time is right. That time, they likely argue, is fast approaching as the U.S. election draws near and Donald Trump faces a difficult electoral fight.
Pakistan, another key actor in the Afghan endgame, will also draw its own lessons from Trump’s Syria decision. After successfully protecting its own strategic interests in Afghanistan, often at the cost of U.S. national security interests, Pakistan has played a pivotal role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Imran Khan has developed a good personal relationship with Trump, and he may feel that when the moment is right, the Trump administration can be convinced to back a deal with the Taliban, even if it would have far-reaching disastrous consequence for the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. Should Khan succeed at this, the U.S. would quickly lose influence and leverage in Afghanistan, creating long-term national security risks for Washington.
India, which has already expressed concern over the U.S.-Taliban peace talks, will also see the Syria decision as evidence that the United States cannot be a reliable partner in Afghanistan. This would force Indian national security policymakers to calculate that Pakistan and the Taliban will be an ascendant force in Afghanistan and that India must chart its own path forward to guard its interests. This will result in a tougher approach towards Pakistan, which India sees as a major source of instability and terrorism in the region, and increased India-Pakistan tensions, leading to further instability in South Asia.
With Donald Trump’s popularity declining in the face of a fast-moving impeachment inquiry, the U.S. president may soon seek to shore up his support by declaring victory in Afghanistan following a deal with the Taliban and pronouncing the end of the war. Such a decision will create chaos in the region and lead to increased violence and instability.
For decades, the United States has been a source of stability in the broader South Asian region, but the Trump administration has created a perception that Washington is a source of instability, an ally that cannot be relied on, and an actor that is making incoherent decisions that undermine its own national security interests.
In an election year, odds are that Trump will further undermine U.S. national security interests in a bid to bolster his chances of electoral victory. This is even more likely given the Syria decision, and one cannot rule out a tweet that abruptly announces the end of the war in Afghanistan and recalls the vast majority of U.S. troops from the country. Whether this tactic leads him to win another presidential term remains to be seen, but under Donald Trump, the United States has already lost a lot of standing and influence.
Uzair Younus is a director at Albright Stonebridge Group. Views expressed are his own.