Afghanistan and Syria: twin failures of American policy

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, Ret.

Lt. Gen. Austin S. Miller officially became the 17th U.S. Commanding General for the Afghan war. Repeating almost verbatim the same hopes of his predecessors, Miller stressed that Afghanistan “can’t be a safe haven for terrorists,” and although it’s “a tough fight,” the world “recognizes we cannot fail.”

Yet none of the 16 previous commanders prevented Afghanistan from becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists. This is a fatally flawed strategy at the national level.

The multi-sided political problems in the fourth-most corrupt country in the world—with a neighboring country that provides constant safe haven for the insurgents—cannot be solved militarily. Even so, the unwillingness to recognize a mismatch between ends and means extends far beyond Kabul.

On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted a veiled warning to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad stating that it would be a “grave humanitarian mistake” if he were to make a military move to recapture this last rebel stronghold of Idlib province in his country.

To buttress this warning, CNN reported that the Pentagon had intelligence and military experts compose a new targeting list in Syria should the president order another attack.  Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, said the U.S. would be “playing with fire” if it intervened; additional Russian naval attack assets are steaming towards the gulf to bolster Russian military power in the region.

The United Nations warns of a potential “bloodbath” if Syria—along with its Russian and Iranian partners—moves to militarily conquer Idlib. 

Before using military force yet again in Syria, American policymakers must answer the question: If Assad were to move on Idlib, would the use of America military power in Syria stop the fighting and/or preserve U.S. interests? The hard truth is no.

Russia has a vital national interest in keeping Assad in power, so Moscow can retain access to air and naval bases. They will fight to protect those interests, potentially risking a conflict with the U.S.

America on the other hand, has no enduring interests in Syria. To risk a military clash with Russia that in a worst-case scenario could spiral out of control into a war is the height of foolishness. 

Moreover, even if U.S. air and naval power were used, it would not stop Assad from trying to recapture Syrian territory and it would not further protect any civilians. The most likely scenario—as witnessed in our military operations in Iraq since 2003, Afghanistan since 2001, and Yemen since 2015—the civilian casualties would likely increase and the war will last even longer. Thus, engaging in Syria under present circumstances would not only potentially harm U.S. interests, it would also fail to help Syrian civilians.

Whether the perpetuation of the endless war in Afghanistan or the potential escalation of the war in Syria, American policymakers can’t seem to say no to the use of lethal military power—even when it is painfully evident the use of force will likely fail to attain the strategic aims for which it is intended.

The costs of these twin failures are enormous. For the strength of our nation and the preservation of our prosperity, U.S. military leaders must end missions that fail to benefit our country and refuse to risk larger war with major powers when our national security interests are not at stake.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army. He retired in 2015 after 21 years of service, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

This piece was originally published by Stars and Stripes on September 19, 2018. Read more HERE