President Trump’s decision to pull US troops of Syria within a month and of halving the level of US troops in Afghanistan were not wholly unexpected, but their timings were. Only weeks before his decision, senior and not-so-senior US officials alike were repeating that the Americans would stay in Syria as long as the Iranians were there, and that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan was not in the cards. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the widespread expectation was that Trump would give 10 months time to his Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, 10 months to fix a peace deal, before deciding a partial troop withdrawal, perhaps even a complete withdrawal.
President Trump’s decisions are clearly dictated by his concern that he should show to his voters how he is working to meet the commitments that he took during his electoral campaign. Still the implications for US foreign policy making, not to speak for Syria, Afghanistan, the Middle East and South Asia, are major ones.
Just to start with, there is an issue of coherence in US foreign policy, with the President contradicting what stated and repeated by his most senior officials. This does clearly not impress US allies favourably.
As for the regional impacts, whether US departure from Syria implies a resurgence of IS there is not clear. The US withdrawal might well actually encourage an already on-going downsizing of Iranian presence. The Iranians are stretched thin now across the region, and with their home economy in crisis they are not in position to spend on Syria more than it is strictly necessary for the consolidation of the gains made by the Assad regime. As the Iranians and Hizbollah gradually downsize, the Israelis and the Saudis will have less incentives to cause trouble for Assad, and Russia’s chances of brokering at least an informal regional settlement will increase.
But if America’s strategy is, or was supposed to be, weakening the Iranian regime or even forcing regime change in Iran (which Washington, rather unconvincingly, denies), then getting out of Syria eases pressure on Iran. The Saudi regime, for one, will not be happy with a move that to some extent undermines its efforts to bankrupt Iran through a myriad proxy wars.
Immediately after Trump’s tweet on Syria, speculation started that US commitment to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan was becoming less credible. Such speculation lasted very short, as Trump next day decided that he would pull out half of his troops currently in Afghanistan (about 14,000). Trump did not commit to keep the remaining 7,000 for much longer, and might still announce a complete withdrawal next summer.
The partial withdrawal from Afghanistan can play out in very different ways. It might even favour the on-going efforts by Special Representative Khalilzad to convince the Taliban that the US are indeed ready to get out of the country. Certainly Taliban hardliners, who have been accusing the Americans of intending to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely, have now a harder case to make.
But the announcement of a partial withdrawal also undermines the negotiating position of Washington and Kabul, especially because of the lack of a firm commitment to keep the remaining troops until at least a peace deal is in place. If there was widespread expectation of a complete American pull-out by the summer even before Trump took his decisions, now that belief is stronger than ever. If Khalilzad were to fail in his mission to broker formal peace talks, then many believe (rightly or wrongly) Trump would order a complete pull-out. Moreover, the departure of Mattis at the top of the DoD removes one of the most powerful advocates of continued US presence in Afghanistan.
The regional powers that would like to see in place an Afghan regime more amenable to satisfy their interests and requests (Pakistan, Iran, Russia) have now an even stronger incentive to push for more concessions from Kabul, in order to help corral the Taliban. The Taliban themselves have little reason to rush into a peace deal, when their negotiation leverage is going to increase dramatically the closer we get to the summer or 2019. That is the date Trump appears to have stated his intent of making a final decision about US presence in Afghanistan.
Pressure is increasing, therefore, on US Special Representative Khalilzad to get formal peace negotiations going quickly. This inevitably will come at the expense of the negotiating leverage of the Afghan government. Khalilzad will have to rely on the help of the only regional power that supports his efforts more or less wholeheartedly, Saudi Arabia. Sources within the Taliban indicate that the Saudis are using their influence among the Taliban, with the help of some cash, to strengthen the pro-negotiations lobby at the top of the Taliban hierarchy.
Now one question is whether the Saudis have enough influence and are committing enough resources to affect the balance of power within the Taliban leadership. Another question is how many and what concessions the Afghan government will have to make, even if the pro-negotiations wing of the Taliban gains enough power to push for a rapid start of formal talks. Many in Kabul, within and without the Afghan government, fear that the independence of their foreign policy and the post-2001 constitutional order might now be at risk.