The Financial Express

Conflicts the United States cannot disengage from

| Updated: October 15, 2019 21:19:34

Conflicts the United States cannot disengage from

President Trump, in multiple interviews, underscored that he would not be deploying the US troops in any conflict abroad. He questioned why the American soldiers should lay down their lives in a conflict where the United States have little to gain. In the same conviction, he advised the NATO partners to increase their contributions to the alliance as he felt the US cannot earmark more resources for the security of others. Trump wanted to withdraw troops from conflict zones overseas, but doesn't want to address the underlying causes that led to the outbreak of the conflicts. Trump is interested in disengagement but not in resolution of the conflicts.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched military strikes against the Houthis in Yemen which is an indigenous movement and a victim of decade's long persecution by the government in Sanaa. The Houthis took advantage of the fragile government in the capital and marched towards Sanaa in 2014. They captured Sanaa and established its administration when the Saudi military began reckless bombing on the areas controlled by the Houthis. The war is now in its fifth year, and there is no chance of military victory. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have been killed; infrastructures including schools, hospitals and houses have been razed to the ground. Millions have been displaced. The United Nations, in several occasions, raised alarms on the catastrophes unfolded and demanded immediate cessation of hostilities. Saudi military has access to hardware supplied by the United States under a multibillion dollars contract concluded soon after Trump came to power. The US Congress has passed two resolutions recommending suspension of weapons shipment to Saudi Arabia to bring the war to an end. But Trump has vetoed the resolutions.

The Houthis are predominantly Shia and draws support from Iran. Of late, the Houthis have gained strength and a few weeks ago launched a drone strike on the Saudi oil field. ARAMCO, Saudi Oil Company, admitted that the damage has been unprecedented, and it would take several weeks to repair the damaged infrastructure and return to pre-attack production level. Though Riyadh and the US military have pointed finger at Tehran for the attack but military experts have concluded that the drone strike was originated at Yemen. Earlier in June, Oil tankers belonged to Norway and Japan were damaged by floating mines while crossing the Strait of Hormuz. The US and Saudi Arabia accused Iran for the sabotage. Trump was advised by Pentagon to launch air strike when a US carrier was attacked in June at the Hormuz. Trump refrained from taking retaliation suggesting that the armed intervention would have caused massive human casualties.

The Iran-US relation has reached a rock bottom after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2017. Subsequently, the US unilaterally imposed series of economic sanctions against Iran which have reduced Iran's oil export to the minimum and inflicted heavy economic melt-down. Though European signatories of the nuclear deal were appreciative of Iran's compliance of the deal and opposed Washington's repudiation of the agreement, could do little to ease the hardship resulted from US sanction. To diffuse tension, France floated an initiative to grant $15 billion 'line of credit' to Iran to make up for loss of oil sales but the US did not acquiesce. Conversely, US issued warrant for an Iranian tanker Adrian Darya detained by Gibraltar in July which was suspected transporting oil to Syria. Gibraltar released Adrian Darya in August. The vessel turned off 'Automatic Identification System' and sailed through the Mediterranean Sea. Tehran reportedly sold the vessel, while anchored in Gibraltar. Commercial satellite images later located the vessel anchored near the port city of Tartus, Syria. In early September, an Iranian spokesman declared that Tehran has reactivated a chain of advanced centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment and accelerated production of plutonium essential to make nuclear bomb, and that the IAEA has been informed.

The US involvement in Afghanistan has moved into the 19th year. The Taliban, chased out from the urban areas by the coalition forces led by the United States in 2002, have returned and are striking the targets in major cities more frequently than before. Trump administration began a dialogue with Taliban in Doha with the objective to conclude a lasting peace agreement with the outfit. Zalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, led the dialogue for several months and reportedly formulated a tentative agreement which called for withdrawal of 5,000 US troops - in exchange for the Taliban to severe ties with al-Qaeda and to participate in inter-Afghan talks with Kabul government. The US and Afghan government would monitor Taliban behaviour and its commitment to the deal during troops pull out. The drawdown was expected to occur over 135 days period. The agreement was to take a final shape at the Camp David summit with Taliban and Afghan government representatives prior to September 11. But the carnage in Kabul killing about 12 people at a wedding ceremony and two US soldiers in early September provoked Trump to suspend the dialogue. US officials claimed peace talk has been suspended - not abandoned.

Kim Jong Un, North Korean dictator, after making threats and counter threats succeeded in having a face to face meeting with President Trump in Singapore in June 2018. This was a big achievement for him. His father and grand-father tried but could not get an audience with the American president. Trump got out of the summit without making major concession, but he cancelled having joint military exercises with the South Korean army. The irritant, however, persists. A few weeks ago, North Korea fired another medium-range surface to air missile. Trump assured, "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." The fact remains North Korea is in possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; conventional artillery and rockets can destroy large metropolitan area in South Korea without any infantry or armor crossing its border.

Trump seemed to have realised that his greatest miscalculation was the repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement was approved by the UN Security Council, US Congress and by the European Parliament. Iran rolled back its nuclear programme and the IAEA, the UN watchdog, confirmed that Iran was in full compliance of the agreement. There was no compelling reason to excoriate the deal, but Trump was hoodwinked by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Iran is a regional power and wields considerable influence in the region. The Strait of Hormuz will remain turbulent and oil shipment through the Hormuz cannot be taken for guaranteed in the absence of Iran's benediction. Trump, at the mediation of French President Emmanuel Macron, attempted to reach out Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week in New York. But Iranian leader instead, proposed sanctions to be terminated as a precondition of having a dialogue with Trump. Such a pre-condition does not seem unwarranted given Trump's past behaviour.

A rapprochement with Tehran can pave the way for Saudi Arabia's exit from the conflict in Yemen. Houthi leaders have told the UN representatives last week that they were willing to accept cessation of hostility if Saudi military suspends air strikes and allows Sanaa airport to operate. They pledged to renounce violence in exchange of 'power sharing at the central government'. The United States should seize the opportunity, persuade Riyadh in favor of the cease fire and de-escalate the conflict.

In December 2018, Trump ordered downsizing of US troops deployed in northern Syria from 2,500 to 1,000. Now he has decided to withdraw the remaining troops. This will enfeeble the Syrian Democratic Force, the joint Kurdish-Arab militia formed to battle Islamic State militants. US suffered a diplomatic setback in Syria and now Trump can settle for an exit. It should strengthen diplomatic efforts in support of the power sharing agreement sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Only a broad-based government can restore peace and allow millions of refugees to return home.

The situation in Afghanistan is far more intractable. The government is almost dysfunctional, institutions are weak, and the national army is invertebrate to withstand protracted warfare by itself. Under these circumstances, total withdrawal of foreign troops will run the risk of letting the country descend into Taliban rule. The US has maintained around 50,000 troops in Japan and 30,000 in South Korea for nearly 70 years -- of course, at the expense of the host countries. In Afghanistan, the US should be prepared to maintain certain level of troops for an unspecified period regardless of the peace agreement. Precipitous pull out of troops could leave a vacuum paving the way for bad actors stepping in. The chaotic situation in Iraq is an apotheosis.

The writer is a former official of the United Nations.




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