Guest Editorial: The reasons for U.S. troops in the Middle East have changed
The development and implementation of the Trump administration’s current Afghan policy appears to have been deferred to the Pentagon. All we know about Trump policy toward that region is that he vowed during the presidential campaign to completely destroy ISIS, Al Qaeda and any other threatening terrorist organization.
Estimates coming out of the Pentagon indicate the likelihood of an additional commitment of several thousand troops to Afghanistan. Before we make any moves in Afghanistan, it is important to look critically at the past and at our motivation for what to do now and in the future.
We got to Afghanistan based on two realities. The immediate catalyst was 9/11. Second, we saw it as a key element in our oil interests in the region — a way to get our foot in the door. The outgrowth of that was our fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq, which morphed into our current array of difficult dilemmas in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
In short, that momentous decision in 2001 launched us into a region that our government studiously never chose to understand and which was so incredibly complicated that it flummoxed one U.S. administration after another.
So, what do we want or expect from our continued military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Apparently, we would like to see a stable region under democratic rule. We never hear US officials talking about self-determination, only about regime change and democracy.
In fact, it makes no ultimate difference what the U.S. wants for Afghanistan and the Middle East. It only matters what they want for themselves, and as long as we are pushing values and ideas that are alien to them, we will never see the end of chaos.
Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it an important cog in the Middle East. It has been fought over and occupied for millennia by big powers seeking regional hegemony. That has relatively recently included England, Russia and the United States, and none of those powers has succeeded in changing the country or the minds of its peoples. Over many centuries, those and other struggles have caused hundreds of thousands of Afghan deaths and significant resentment.
Given recent developments in the world, oil no longer plays the role that it did 25 years ago. That alters one of our reasons for remaining militarily engaged in the region.
Terrorism is our other worry. We were hard hit on 9/11, but that sort of operation against us seems to be far better controlled now than it was in 2001. The fact is that the nature of terrorism has changed. It no longer requires hideaways in the mountains or deserts of the Middle East where terrorists can be given rigorous military training. Terrorism today involves self-motivated, highly disaffected individuals who volunteer to ISIS or any other terrorist organization to carry out suicide attacks. They work with automatic weapons and murderous vehicles. Even bombs are within their reach and recent operations have shown that those weapons can be developed undetected in apartments in major western cities.
Terrorists have no need for “bases” like those previously operated in the Middle East. All they need are volunteers and central direction and that can be found, as is now the case, in countries that are not in the reach of U.S. troops assigned to Afghanistan or the Middle East, making them no longer critical to our counterterrorism needs.
What, therefore, could possibly motivate U.S. policy makers to continue and even augment a decades-long war that is today virtually irrelevant to the realities and motivations that got us there in the first place? It would seem that the only rationale that stems logically from that is that we are interested in regime change and the subsequent maintenance of a democracy imposed on them by us. And yet, we know that doesn’t work.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Middle Eastern nations have values that differ from ours. In doing that, we would also have to acknowledge that there are major, conflicting differences between some of the states in that region and that to leave them to the resolution of their own conflicts would likely be a violent process.
Yet, the only real peace and stability that can ultimately exist in the region is that engineered by the people involved. Perhaps we should give them the opportunity to work that out in the absence of on-site U.S. military power while limiting ourselves to diplomatic, political and economic involvements.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and was Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff and Executive Assistant to the CIA’s Deputy Director.
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