Trump’s ‘Syraqistan’ strategy is a success — and a failure

Trump’s ‘Syraqistan’ strategy is a success — and a failure
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE’s military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been a resounding success. ISIS lost Raqqa, its putative capital, in October 2017, and has seen its holdings in the rest of Syria steadily rolled back ever since. In December 2017, Iraq’s prime minister announced the defeat of ISIS in his country. Even Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who is otherwise an arch critic of Trump, has praised the current administration’s success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The centerpiece of the new campaign has been simple. “I would bomb the sh*t out of them,” as then-candidate Donald Trump explained in November 2015 of his intended strategy against ISIS. Indeed, he has. According to the U.S. Air Force, 29 percent more munitions were dropped by U.S. aircraft on Iraq and Syria in 2017, the first year of Trump’s presidency, than in 2016, the last year of Obama’s presidency.

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Trump has also struck a fine balance post-ISIS. He has wisely resisted calls to flood Syria with U.S. troops, even as he has remained willing to strike at Bashar al-Assad’s regime for egregious atrocities — a position the U.S. public supports. Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, finds that seven-in-ten Americans support future airstrikes in Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons again.

War yields no shortage of suffering and destruction. All things considered, however, Iraq and Syria have gone well for Trump, and he has been widely credited for as much. But less acknowledged is that the president has employed a nearly identical strategy in Afghanistan. If anything, in fact, the campaign in Syria and Iraq has been the more restrained effort.

Two-and-a-quarter times more munitions were dropped by U.S. aircraft on Afghanistan in 2017 under Trump than in 2016 under Obama, according to the U.S. Air Force. Trump has, in short, let slip the dogs of war, and bigly. After all, the president wasn’t shy about using the military’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, in Nangarhar province in April 2017, reportedly killing nearly a hundred. Nor does the aggressive campaign show any signs of abating. The number of munitions dropped in April 2018 was the highest for any single month since 2012.

But if the campaign in Iraq and Syria has gone well, then Afghanistan has been a dud. The Taliban and other insurgents have more than doubled the percentage of Afghanistan’s 407 districts under their control in the last two years. Today, just 56 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are controlled by the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, down from 60 percent a year ago and 71 percent two years ago.

There’s more. Part of Trump’s strengthened bombing campaign was intended to target Afghanistan’s opium production. In 2017, however, the total land under poppy cultivation increased by 63 percent from the year before. Raw opium production increased by 88 percent over the same period. In towns and villages, law and order are conspicuous by their absence. There were 23,744 security incidents — armed clashes, IED explosions, targeted killings, and the like — reported in Afghanistan in 2017, which was the most ever recorded, according to the UN.

These are not the last convulsions of a dying insurgency; they’re the slow and steady gains of a resurgent Taliban. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was pointedly pessimistic in his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In Afghanistan, Coats said, “the overall security picture will modestly deteriorate in the coming year and Kabul will continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban-led insurgency.”

In Iraq, the U.S. military trained and supported highly effective Iraqi special forces units, which did most of the on-the-ground fighting against ISIS. Following a similar strategy, the Pentagon is now focused on building up elite Afghan commando units. In the main, however, Afghanistan’s military remains a shambles, and attrition is endemic. Between January 2017 and January 2018 the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces saw a decline of nearly 18,000 personnel.

War, alas, isn’t simply a process of strategic copy and paste. Iraq and Syria were a win for Trump, yes. But with Afghanistan, America’s longest war, it's time yet again to go back to the drawing board.

John Richard Cookson is a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.