Tom O’Connor — NEWSWEEK Feb 7, 2018
The U.S. has found itself in a worse position than ever in Afghanistan and has lost out to Russia and its allies in Syria, according to an ex-defense chief.
Chuck Hagel, who served as former President Barack Obama’s secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015, told Defense News on Wednesday that “at some point, we’re going to have to” leave Afghanistan, the longest conflict in U.S. history. Despite spending up to $1 trillion to help local Afghan forces battle the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement that sheltered Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden after 9/11, the U.S.-backed government has recently faced historic losses to insurgents.
“After 17 years in Afghanistan, the situation is worse than it’s ever been. I think the American people, the Congress, the United States are going to start asking some pretty good questions,” Hagel told the publication.
“The American military can’t fix the problems in Afghanistan. Poppy production, corruption, tribal decisions, topography. All the uncontrollables are there. You don’t fix that with the military,” he added.
Hagel said the U.S. and its international coalition had also lost control of the situation in Syria, where nearly seven years of civil war have fractured the country and international powers into shifting alliances. The U.S., along with Turkey and Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, first backed insurgents trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The uprising soon became dominated by jihadi forces, however, and the U.S. switched support to Kurdish forces focused on battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
One month before the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces were established by the Pentagon in October 2015, Russia entered the conflict on behalf of Assad and has since helped Syria’s armed forces recover much of what they lost from rebels and jihadis. Russia has gathered fellow Assad ally Iran and pro-insurgent Turkey to broker peace in an effort that’s largely left out the U.S.
“How is the United States going to influence the outcome of Syria? The Russians will. The Iranians, the Turks and Assad will, and of course, remnants of ISIS are still there, [the] Nusra [Front], other smaller terrorist groups are still there,” Hagel told Defense News. “But I don’t know where the strategy is or what they think there is going to be in this administration to be able to influence the outcome of Syria.”
Hagel’s comment that Russia “now really holds the cards in Syria,” echoed previous remarks by Special Forces Commandant Raymond Thomas, who said in July that the U.S. scope of operations was limited by international law and Moscow had the upper hand because it had been invited by the Syrian government. However, Damascus has referred to the U.S. and Turkey as “illegal invaders.” Thomas said at the time that Russia could tell the U.S. to leave after ISIS’s defeat: “If the Russians play that card, we could want to stay and have no ability to do it.”
U.S. influence in Syria has also been undermined by the outbreak of intense fighting between two of the Pentagon’s closest partners: Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has formed the largest faction of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey has accused of being linked to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) involved in a decades-long nationalist insurgency against the Turkish state.
The U.S. has criticized the joint Turkish and rebel Free Syrian Army operation against Kurdish forces in the northwestern district of Afrin, but have emphasized that Kurdish fighters leaving front lines against ISIS would not receive coalition support. The Syrian military has reportedly allowed Kurdish fighters to pass through government-held territory, but it has focused on battling opposition forces in the last rebel-held province, Idlib, which is dominated by Nusra Front successor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and on fighting an ISIS pocket in the nearby province of Hama.