Pragmatic Primacy

August 11, 2016 Topic: Security Region: United States Tags: SecurityDefenseUS Foreign PolicyPrimacy

Pragmatic Primacy

It's not a miracle cure, but provides the best chance to reestablish America's purpose in a complex world.


Today Syria is a conflation of four distinct, but interrelated, challenges: the brutal regime headed by Bashar al-Assad and supported by Moscow and Tehran; ISIS, which has seized and held territory, terrorized the local population and seduced tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims; a humanitarian crisis (with an estimated eleven million refugees or internally displaced persons) that has overwhelmed Syria’s neighbors and is now disrupting Europe; and a diplomatic challenge for the United States in managing its relations with friends and allies in the region, especially the “frontline” states of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

A policy of pragmatic primacy would seek to save Syrian lives, defeat ISIS and remove Assad, in that order. ISIS poses the greater danger to the Syrian people, to neighboring states and to Europe; according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, ISIS is today “the preeminent global terrorist threat.” It cannot be deterred; it must be defeated. This means committing more U.S. forces to the fight in a supporting role (perhaps as few as two U.S. brigades), but only if Washington can leverage its Arab friends and partners to send their soldiers to fight as well. Specifically, the objective is not for the United States to defeat ISIS, but to help the Sunni states do so themselves.


This approach means leaving Assad in power, perhaps for some time to come. This is not an ideal outcome, but the hard truth is that the United States cannot secure the ends (Assad’s removal) if it is unwilling to muster the means (deployment of forces sufficient to remove him). It is unrealistic for any administration to commit U.S. forces in the numbers needed to defeat ISIS and topple the Assad regime. This is the culmination of policy choices made, or discarded, years ago, and of the new realities that Iranian and especially Russian arms and advisers have made on the ground.

Until ISIS is defeated, Syrians will remain at risk, even if they are housed in refugee camps inside Syria. The next president should instead persuade Turkey to establish refugee camps along its common border with Syria. The EU and the United States should help underwrite these costs. This would provide greater safety and security for civilians, would be easier to administer and supply than camps inside Syria, would be more firmly rooted in law and would be better able to halt unplanned migrant flows.

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s occupying the West Bank. Even without the turmoil on Israel’s borders, current trends do not favor an Israeli-Palestinian peace anytime soon. The Palestinian Authority is paralyzed, caught in a transition from an exhausted older leadership to a younger generation that has not yet assumed power. Hamas shows no signs of relinquishing its stranglehold on the Gaza Strip.

What, then, is the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish society? The past provides a guide to the role the United States should play. The lesson of the Oslo peace process was that the two parties are capable of hammering out agreements; Washington needs to encourage them to do so. The lesson of Camp David is that Israel has the courage to take risks for peace, but only if it has confidence that the United States is a firm ally. Here is where the next administration has much work to do—restoring greater trust and confidence between Washington and Jerusalem.

Promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors has been a long-standing U.S. foreign-policy goal in the Middle East, along with ensuring the free flow of oil to global markets and preventing any single power from dominating the region. The present leadership in Iran places all three American objectives at risk.

It is against this regional context that the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was negotiated. Serious questions remain about compliance, verification, and the ability of the United States and the international community to reimpose sanctions should Iran be caught cheating. The nuclear deal’s promise is to constrain Iran’s nuclear-weapons activities for the next decade in the hope that relaxing sanctions will expose the Iranian people to the outside world and transform the regime into a more liberal, representative government that respects human rights and lives in peace with its neighbors. The goal, in other words, is an Iran that is willing to peacefully negotiate adjustments to the regional order, not subvert it by force.

Yet there is no strategy for how the United States might “shape the battlefield” to coerce or incentivize Iran to liberalize its government and fulfill this hopeful vision. There are no plans for ramping up Radio Farda so that more outside news is beamed into Iran. There is no social-media appeal to the 60 percent of the Iranian population under the age of thirty. There is no support for dissident voices and human-rights advocates. More can be done to sanction individuals and organizations that support Iran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. In short, the next president needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that will reassure U.S. friends and allies around the Gulf and promote regime change inside Iran.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration appears to have lost the strategic purpose of fighting. Priorities should be ensuring that the country can never again be used as a safe haven by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups with global reach, preventing violent disorder in Afghanistan from spilling over the border and further destabilizing Pakistan, and preserving America’s reputation for reliability in the region and beyond.

Instead, the White House failed to address the tension between its two stated policy preferences: ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and counterterrorism. In mid-2014, Obama announced in the Rose Garden that he would draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to one thousand troops by the end of 2016 and return to a “normal embassy presence.” The following day, he spoke at West Point about establishing a series of counterterrorism nodes around the globe to combat transnational threats; Afghanistan went unmentioned.

Shortly after Gen. John Campbell became the ISAF commander in August 2014, he lobbied the White House to ramp up the number of troops to 9,800 and have them stay in Afghanistan for as long as possible. This presence would have two primary missions: to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, and to target Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In October 2015, Obama announced that he would keep the 9,800 soldiers through the end of 2016, but then reduce the number to 5,500 by January 1, 2017. Once at this lower number, the primary mission would be counterterrorism aimed at Al Qaeda. This was consistent with previous policy statements, since the president had earlier declared the end of “combat operations” in Afghanistan and unilaterally stated America was no longer at war with the Taliban. Significantly, the president withdrew all authority from the military to target the Taliban.

In June 2016, the White House announced a split-the-difference adjustment to 8,400 troops, and allowed greater leeway for U.S. forces to support Afghan troops in targeting the Taliban. Yet the overall signal remains that America is leaving and that the president’s political timetable, not the facts on the ground, is driving policy.

The Taliban has not gone away, having retaken territory despite going through a contentious leadership succession following the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Afghans are in a very serious fight, and taking significant casualties. Complicating matters further has been the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, which announced an escalation of deadly violence in a suicide attack in Kabul in July. On the plus side of the ledger, the United States now has a partner in Ashraf Ghani, who wants to work with Washington and who allows U.S. forces to carry out counterterrorism operations in a very difficult part of the world.

It is important to understand that this part of the world has been a source of violent extremism and terrorism for decades—and likely will be for decades to come. This region will continue to pose a threat to the homeland. Afghanistan will never be ideal, but in this part of the world, with few willing allies, the United States needs to make the most of what it has. A relatively small investment of U.S. soldiers, supporting a willing Afghan government, will be worth the risks involved.

As the Obama administration has meandered strategically in Afghanistan, it has not demonstrated any sensitivity to controlling the larger narrative. Should America’s exit from Afghanistan be viewed as a hasty, dishonorable retreat, few blows would be more harmful to American prestige and reliability, and more advantageous to Al Qaeda’s cause.

Finally, the United States will struggle to realize even limited goals in Afghanistan without widening the policy aperture to include a diplomatic process with all the neighbors that have a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. In this context, Pakistan represents a special challenge, combining the “perfect storm” of failing institutions, nuclear weapons and terrorist groups. The core dilemma is that Pakistan has selectively targeted terrorist groups (what has been termed “managed jihadism”), cracking down on Al Qaeda and domestic terror groups that threaten the state, but supporting those groups, aligned with the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, that bleed India in Kashmir. Further, Pakistan has made a strategic decision to leave undisturbed the Afghan Taliban, many of whom have found sanctuary along the border areas between the two countries. The Obama administration’s attempts alternatively to befriend Pakistan’s military leadership by way of generous aid packages, to publicly rebuke it for its selective counterterrorism efforts and to ignore it altogether in carrying out drone strikes over Pakistani territory have had little impact in forcing Islamabad to reassess its approach to the Afghan Taliban or its collaboration with Washington.