No matter how it appears, Trump isn’t getting out of Syria and Afghanistan

He’s just shifting the burden to allies and relying more on mercenaries

December 23, 2018

By Stephen Gowans

The announced withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the drawdown of US occupation forces in Afghanistan very likely do not represent the abandonment of US aims in the Middle East, and instead more likely reflect the adoption of new means of achieving longstanding US foreign policy goals. Rather than renouncing the US objective of dominating the Arab and Muslim worlds through a system of veiled colonialism and direct military occupation, US president Donald Trump is merely implementing a new policy—one based on shifting the burden of maintaining the US empire increasingly to allies and private soldiers bankrolled by oil monarchies.

Trump’s foreign relations modus operandi have been guided consistently by the argument that US allies are failing to pull their weight and ought to contribute more to the US security architecture. Recruiting Arab allies to replace US troops in Syria and deploying mercenaries (euphemistically called security contractors) are two options that have been actively under consideration at the White House since last year. What’s more, there already exists a significant ally and mercenary presence in Afghanistan and the planned withdrawal of 7,000 US troops from that country will only marginally reduce the Western military footprint.

US defense secretary Jim Mattis’s clash of worldviews with Trump is misperceived as a contradiction of views about US objectives, rather than how to achieve them. Mattis favors prosecution of US imperial aims through the significant participation of the US military, while Trump favors pressuring allies to shoulder more of the burden of US-empire maintenance while hiring security contractors to fill in the gaps. Trump’s goal is to reduce the empire’s drain on the US treasury and to secure his voting base, to whom he has promised, as part of his “America First” plan, to bring US troops home.

Significantly, Trump’s plan is to reduce expenditures on US military activity abroad, not as an end in itself, but as a means of freeing up revenue for domestic investment in public infrastructure. In his view, expenditures on the republic ought to have priority over expenditures on the empire. “We have [spent] $7 trillion in the Middle East,” complained the US president to members of his administration. “We can’t even muster $1 trillion for domestic infrastructure.”[1] Earlier, on the eve of the 2016 election, Trump groused that Washington had “wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering — imagine if that money had been spent at home. … We’ve spent $6 trillion, lost thousands of lives. You could say hundreds of thousands of lives, because look at the other side also.” [2]

In April of this year, Trump “expressed growing impatience with the cost and duration of the effort to stabilize Syria,” and spoke about the urgency of speeding the withdrawal of US troops. [3] Administration officials scrambled “to develop an exit strategy that would shift the U.S. burden to regional partners.” [4]

The national security adviser, John Bolton, “called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort.” [5] Next Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were “approached with respect to financial support and more broadly to contribute.” Bolton also asked for “Arab nations to send troops.” [6] The Arab satellites were pressured to “work with the local Kurdish and Arab fighters the U.S. has been supporting” [7]—in other words, to take the baton from the United States.

Soon after, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, the mercenary firm, was “informally contacted by Arab officials about the prospect of building a force in Syria.” [8] In the summer of 2017, Prince—the brother of US education secretary Betsy DeVos—approached the White House about the possibility of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan and sending mercenaries to fight in their place. [9] The scheme would see the Persian Gulf oil monarchies pay Prince to field a mercenary force to take over from US troops.

Trump announced in April that “We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region.” [10] The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal applauded the move. Trump’s plan, it said, was “the better strategy”—it would enlist “regional opponents of Iran,” i.e., the Arab potentates who rule at Washington’s pleasure, in the project of turning “Syria into the Ayatollah’s Vietnam.” [11]

There are currently 14,000 acknowledged US troops in Afghanistan, of whom half, or 7,000, will soon be withdrawn. But there are somewhere around 47,000 Western forces in the country, including NATO troops and mercenaries (14,000 US troops, 7,000 NATO forces [12], and 26,000 private soldiers [13]). Cutting the US contribution in half will still leave 40,000 Western troops as an occupation force in Afghanistan. And the reduction in US forces can be made up easily by hiring 7,000 mercenary replacements, paid for by Persian Gulf monarchs. “The drawdown,” reported The Wall Street Journal, “could pave the way for more private contractors to take over support and training roles,” as outlined in “the long-time campaign by Erik Prince.” The Journal noted that education secretary’s brother “has carried out an aggressive campaign to persuade Mr. Trump to privatize the war.” [14]

Mattis’s resignation has been interpreted as a protest against Trump’s “ceding critical territory to Russia and Iran” [15] rather than a rebuke to Trump for relying on allies to bear the burden of pursuing US goals in Syria. The defense secretary’s resignation letter was silent on Trump’s decision to bring US troops home from Syria and Afghanistan, and instead dwelled on “alliances and partnerships.” The letter outlined Mattis’s concerns that Trump’s turn in direction fails to pay adequate attention to “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect” to allies. While this has been construed as a reprimand for abandoning the US tip of the spear in Syria, the Kurds, Mattis referred to “alliances and partnerships” in the plural, indicating that his grievances go further than US relations with the Kurds. Instead, Mattis expressed concerns that are consistent with a longstanding complaint within the US foreign policy establishment that Trump’s incessant efforts to pressure allies to bear more of the cost of maintaining the US empire are alienating US allies and undermining the “system of alliances and partnerships” that comprise it. [16]

The notion, too, that Mattis’s resignation is a rebuke to Trump for abandoning the Kurds, is baseless. The Kurds are not being abandoned. British and French commandos are also present in the country and “are expected to remain in Syria after the American troops leave.” [17] Mattis appears to have been concerned that by extracting US forces from Syria, Trump is placing the weight of securing US goals more heavily on the British and French, who can hardly be expected to tolerate for long an arrangement whereby they act as Washington’s expeditionary force while US troops stay at home. At some point, they will realize they might be better off outside the US alliance. For Mattis, long concerned with maintaining a “comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships” as the means to “advance an international order that is most conducive to [US] security, prosperity and values,” Trump’s burden-shifting hardly amounts to “treating allies with respect” or “providing effective leadership,” as Mattis said in his resignation letter that Washington ought to do.

Russian president Vladimir Putin greeted the Trump announcement with skepticism. “We don’t see any signs yet of the withdrawal of U.S. troops,” he said. “How long has the United States been in Afghanistan? Seventeen years? And almost every year they say they’re pulling out their troops.”[18] Already, the Pentagon is talking about shifting US troops “to neighboring Iraq, where an estimated 5,000 United States forces are already deployed,” who will “’surge’” into Syria for specific raids.” [19] The force would also be able to “return to Syria for specific missions when critical threats arise,” [20] which might include the Syrian army attempting to recover its territory from Kurd occupation forces. What’s more, the Pentagon retains the capability of “continued airstrikes and resupplying allied Kurdish fighters with arms and equipment” from Iraq. [21]

Trump never intended to bring a radical redefinition of the aims of US foreign policy to the presidency, only a different way of achieving them, one that would take advantage of his self-proclaimed prowess at negotiation. Trump’s negotiation tactics involve nothing more than pressuring others to pick up the tab, which is what he has done here. The French, the British, and other US allies will replace US boots on the ground, along with mercenaries who will be bankrolled by Arab oil monarchies. To be sure, US foreign policy as an instrument for the protection and promotion of US profit-making has always relied on someone else to foot the bill, namely, ordinary Americans, who pay through their taxes and in some cases with their lives and bodies as US soldiers. As wage- and salary-earners they reap none of the benefits of a policy that is shaped by “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests,” as the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page showed in their 2014 study of over 1,700 US policy issues. Big business, the scholars concluded, “have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [22] In other words, big business formulates US foreign policy to its benefit, and gets ordinary Americans to shoulder the cost.

That’s the way things ought to be, in the view of Mattis, and other members of the US foreign policy elite. The trouble with Trump, from their perspective, is that he is trying to shift part of the burden that presently weights heavily upon the shoulders of ordinary Americans to the shoulders of ordinary people in the countries who make up the subordinate parts the US empire. And while allies are expected to bear part of the burden, the increased share of the burden Trump wants them to carry is inimical to maintenance of the alliances on which the US empire depends.

1. Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House, (Simon & Shuster, 2018) 307.
2. Jon Schwarz, “This Thanksgiving, I’m Grateful for Donald Trump, America’s Most Honest President,” The Intercept, November 21, 2018.
3. Michael R. Gordon, “US seeks Arab force and funding for Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2018.
4. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
5. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
6. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
7. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
8. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
9. Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman, “Trump settles on Afghan strategy expected to raise troop levels,” The New York Times, August 20, 2017.
10. Gordon, April 16, 2018.
11. The Editorial Board, “Trump’s next Syria challenge,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018.
12. Julian E. Barnes, “NATO announces deployment of more troops to Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2017.
13. Erik Prince, “Contractors, not troops, will save Afghanistan,” The New York Times, August 30, 2017.
14. Craig Nelson, “Trump withdrawal plan alters calculus on ground in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2018.
15. Helene Cooper, “Jim Mattis, defense secretary, resigns in rebuke of Trump’s worldview,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
16. “Read Jim Mattis’s letter to Trump: Full text,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
17. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon considers using special operations forces to continue mission in Syria,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018.
18. Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew E. Kramer, “Putin welcomes withdrawal from Syria as ‘correct’,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
19. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon considers using special operations forces to continue mission in Syria,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018.
20. Gibbons-Neff and Schmitt, December 21, 2018.
21. Gibbons-Neff and Schmitt, December 21, 2018.
22. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.