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Afghanistan Is Not Iraq and Syria

Afghanistan Is Not Iraq and Syria

Wednesday, 1 September, 2021 - 07:15
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Some observers wonder if Afghanistan is a model for Biden’s policy in the Middle East. One article in Foreign Policy online from August 19 said Iraqis worry that perhaps Biden will abandon Iraq too, and an August 29 article in the Emirati National News online asked the same question. I urge readers to avoid simple comparisons and remember the key reason Biden is leaving Afghanistan and why Iraq is different.


Biden explained why he was leaving Afghanistan in remarks at the White House on August 16. The new Biden administration had only two realistic choices for its Afghanistan policy last spring. One choice was to cancel the withdrawal agreement that Donald Trump had made with the Taliban in 2020. This would mean the ceasefire between American forces and the Taliban would end and heavy fighting would resume.


When Trump left Washington the 3,500 American soldiers present in Afghanistan were not enough to contain a new Taliban offensive. We just saw how powerful the Taliban forces were. If Biden had cancelled the Trump agreement Biden would have had to send thousands more American soldiers to Afghanistan. There was little support among the American people for a big, new escalation. Biden has long experience from Congress and from his time as vice president with the plans from the American generals. He doubted the 2009 escalation that Obama approved would succeed in establishing peace in Afghanistan, and we know from history that Biden was right. Biden rejected an escalation and chose instead a full withdrawal. His focus on threats from China and Russia made the decision to avoid escalation in Afghanistan easier.


Unlike Afghanistan, Biden confronts no need for a major escalation in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban are a more powerful and dangerous opponent than the remnants of ISIS or the Iraqi militias loyal to Iran. In addition, under Biden the American military mission in Iraq and Syria has a limited objective to help local forces fight ISIS and only that. A senior official in the State Department even said in an interview in July that the United States was not in an “open war” with the militias loyal to Iran. That is a very different kind of message from the American war with the Taliban for almost 19 years.


Washington hopes that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will succeed in strengthening the government in Baghdad, and it is prepared to support him but it doesn’t expect to send big combat forces to defend Baghdad against ISIS or against militias loyal to Iran.


We also must remember that without a military presence in Iraq there can be no American military presence in eastern Syria; all supplies come through Iraqi Kurdistan. The American military objective in eastern Syria is a less clear than in Iraq because it has both an immediate security objective to defeat ISIS and a more ambiguous geo-strategic objective of preventing Iran and Russia from controlling eastern Syria. Unlike Afghanistan, in military terms the situation in eastern Syria is relatively stable and Biden doesn’t face the need for an escalation. It is possible that the pressure from the militias loyal to Iran could grow in Iraq or Syria with the passage of time, but so far, the risk to American soldiers has remained small.


Finally, the politics in Washington unlike Afghanistan weigh strongly against a withdrawal from Iraq and Syria. First, the Republican Party agreed with Trump about the 2020 deal about withdrawing from Afghanistan and therefore Biden had political cover. (If you watch the criticism of the Biden’s policy in Afghanistan in the United States, many Republicans and Democrats criticize the bad planning that resulted in a disorganized withdrawal, but they agree that sooner or later America had to withdraw.)


In comparison, most observers in Washington think that an American withdrawal from Iraq and especially Syria would be a strategic gain for Iran and Russia and the criticism of Biden would be very loud, especially after what happened in Afghanistan.


Israel’s concern about the Iranian presence in Syria also has political weight in Washington. In addition, worries about a new rise in terror groups are growing after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a Biden withdrawal from Iraq and Syria would increase perceptions that his administration is ignoring the risk of terrorism. Finally, and this is new and important, there is a lobby now in Washington that supports the Kurds and supports their demands for human rights and basic freedoms.


Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria in 2019 received strong criticism from Republicans and Democrats together, and were Biden to make a similar announcement, especially after Afghanistan, the criticism would be even bigger. Politically, unlike Afghanistan, it is safer for Biden to maintain the current American presence in Iraq and Syria and for Biden to pass these little wars to the next president.


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