Home Global Village Trump and his generals lock horns over Syria

Trump and his generals lock horns over Syria

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M K Bhadrakumar |

The military is the same the world over. In 1992, the conversation would have gone like this in South Block:

  • “Sir, it can be done (withdrawal of forces from Siachen). Yes, we certainly have the capability to ensure that Pakistani forces do not occupy the areas vacated by us.”

Eighteen years later, circa 2010, the conversation probably had gone like this:

  • “Sir, Siachen is strategically far too important to be given up. No, Sir, it is no longer a burden financially, we can easily afford the costs.”

Fortunately for the military, there is no more any conversation taking place regarding Siachen. It is a closed file. The only remaining issue now is about recovering the lost territories in POK, Gilgit and Baltistan.

The generals the world over know how to run a long play around politicians. Their trump card is that politicians as a breed hate taking tough decisions because they don’t want under any circumstances a failure on their hand. And so, they’d rather kick the can down the road – and that suits the generals.

The WaPo story suggests that Trump has made it clear he’s on leash. Successful generals usually have good political acumen. Trump has scattered Mattis’ “coalition” and Mattis can’t overlook the fate that befell Tillerson and McMaster.

This was exactly what happened to President Barack Obama who wanted to pull out of Afghanistan. The generals completely outflanked him and before he knew what he was doing, he allowed the “surge” in 2010 – and, zoom, the troop deployment shot up to 140000. Today, Obama is gone, but the generals are still there. The war is stupid and the generals too admit that it cannot be won. But nonetheless, they want an open-ended stay in Afghanistan.

In the final analysis, it is all about the corporate interests of the military – more budget allocation, more “good times”, more empire building. And the war profiteers – military-industrial complex, think tankers, ex-faujis on the conference circuit, congressmen, the correspondents on the Pentagon press pool all travel in the gravy train at the tax payers’ expense.

Read more: US lights up pathway to Afghan peace

President Donald Trump is now facing the moment of truth. He has decided that the US troops should return home from Syria, but is facing resistance form the military. The generals have already decided that there shall be an open-ended military presence in Syria. In fact, they are busy planning more bases in Syria.  The argument being touted is that the ISIS may stage a comeback. The real reason could be that the Pentagon wants to turn Syria into a theatre in the New Cold War to fight Russia. With a view to rally the Israeli lobby, the generals also invoke the spectre of Iranian influence in Syria.

Of course, the 2000 American troops cannot achieve any of the above objectives. But the generals are buying time and hoping that they can embark on “mission creep” (surreptitiously augment the scale of deployment as time passes). A report in the Washington Post discloses that Trump has had a bit of a faceoff with the generals regarding Syria. It will be interesting to see whether his decision gets implemented. My prognosis is that Trump will ensure that the troops come home “where they belong.”

The generals the world over know how to run a long play around politicians. Their trump card is that politicians as a breed hate taking tough decisions because they don’t want under any circumstances a failure on their hand.

To my mind, the recent dismissal of Rex Tillerson as state secretary and HR McMaster as the NSA are harbingers of new national security strategies emerging. The straws in the wind are highly indicative – Trump’s phone call to President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on the election victory (ignoring NSA McMaster’s pointed advice in writing against it); Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit the White House; summary abandonment of the confrontation course and rhetoric against Russia over the Skripal spy case; the announcement in Washington that Russia is at liberty to replace the 60 expelled diplomats; and of course, the latest decision on drawdown in Syria.

Read more: US expects India to engage Pakistan in Kashmir talks

One thing good about generals (the world over) is that once they sense that the politician has the spunk in him to force his will, they quickly backtrack and meekly obey. In this case, Defence Secretary James Mattis is also a retired four-star general who reads books. The WaPo story suggests that Trump has made it clear he’s on leash. Successful generals usually have good political acumen. Trump has scattered Mattis’ “coalition” and Mattis can’t overlook the fate that befell Tillerson and McMaster.

The outcome of this titanic struggle for power and authority will also affect our region. The point is, if Trump prevails on Syria, the next battle of wits could be over Afghanistan. Ominously, Trump has spoken again in exasperation about the US wasting 7 trillion dollars in the Middle Eastern wars. Make no mistake, that figure includes the costs of the 17-year old war in Afghanistan as well.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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