In attempting to chronicle the antics of the 2016 election over the last few months, we have sometimes tried to inject some humor. Today we turn to two subjects that leave little room for humor: Aleppo and Afghanistan. We term them the “A words” of the campaign because, despite their importance, they are words that never seem to cross the lips of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and coverage in the media is spasmodic. Hence we thought it worthwhile to remind readers of what the candidates are so determined to ignore.
Aleppo is—or was—the largest city in Syria with a population of 2.3 million people. (Since the Battle of Aleppo began in 2012, hundreds of thousands have fled or been evacuated and its population today would be difficult to estimate.) Aleppo was Syria’s most important commercial center and has a rich cultural heritage spanning centuries. (The Ancient City of Aleppo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.) In a New York Times column that provided a devastating critique of President Obama’s failures in Syria, Roger Cohen noted that “just six years ago Aleppo was being talked about in Europe as the new Marrakesh, a place to buy a vacation home.” But all that has changed under a rain of barrel bombs from the Syrian Air Force and a variety of other aerial explosives from Russian as well as Syrian planes.
Cohen called Syria Obama’s worst mistake and concluded “Aleppo, symbol of failure, symbol of indifference, symbol of American retreat, should not have been left to bleed.” Nicholas Kristof also considers Syria to be Obama’s worst mistake:
[A]llowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy. It is also a stain on all of us, analogous to the indifference toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.
An August 16 editorial in the Washington Post reviewed Obama’s numerous pledges of support and compared them unsparingly to the administration’s actions: “a combination of halfhearted support for the rebels who increasingly gravitate by necessity to more extremist groups; requests to the Russians to behave better; and finger wagging.”
Criticism of Obama’s policy in Syria has not been limited to columnists and editorial writers. In June, 51 foreign service officers sent an internal memorandum faulting existing policy and urging airstrikes against Assad. On August 11, fifteen of the doctors remaining in Aleppo sent an open letter to the President , pleading for help, “We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers, we need your action. Prove that you are a friend of Syrians.” When the White House reacted to the letter with a statement referring to negotiations and diplomacy, the response of one of the doctors was swift and to the point:
Speaking about humanitarian assistance and speaking about negotiation and diplomatic solution is very ironic while the Russian air forces are right above our heads and striking us with every weapon that any man can imagine. The White House knows exactly what is happening.
Ten days ago, the attention of the public in America and around the world was captured, at least fleetingly, by the photo of a little Syrian boy, Omran Dagneesh (by Mahmoud Raslan).
But few thought it would have an impact on American policy, and it has not. Secretary Kerry continues to have discussions with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, a feckless pursuit that puts him in the role of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football that Lucy always whisks away. And through it all, Obama seems impervious to the spectacle of a policy that has collapsed around his his ankles. Last September, he warned Vladimir Putin against becoming involved in the “quagmire” of Syria, but Putin has successfully propped up his client Assad, and so far has navigated the quagmire considerably better than we have.
Aleppo is not only a heart-rending humanitarian crisis but, despite the death and destruction it has endured, it continues to be of key strategic importance. A Stratfor analysis in April, “The Fate of Syria Rests in Aleppo” put it succinctly:
[T]he rebels are fighting for the survival of their cause. If the rebels lose Aleppo, any military victory against Damascus will become a distant dream, and their negotiating position in Geneva will be severely compromised.
Events in the intervening months have done nothing to change that analysis. A victory in Aleppo would not only prolong Assad’s survival indefinitely, but would strengthen the hands of his patrons, Russia and Iran, throughout the area. The consequences for the United States are not easy to define but they are clearly significant. ISIS may pose the most dramatic threat in the Middle East, but it is not the only one.
Given that Hillary Clinton was Obama’s Secretary of State, and has cast herself as heir to his legacy, it is not surprising that she would avoid discussion of the Syria in general and Aleppo in particular. On the other hand, since Trump has overlooked few opportunities to criticize Obama and Clinton, his silence is curious. Perhaps it is best explained by a reluctance to compromise his instinct for cozying up to Vladimir Putin.
To be fair, it is not obvious how best to provide more effective support to the rebel forces in Aleppo or to bring more pressure to bear on Russia. No one is advocating the deployment of U.S. ground troops in defense of Aleppo and even the use of air power and missiles carries its own risks. Apart from the possibility of conflict with Russian aircraft, there is a question as to how effective such measures would be. Further, there are legitimate issues as to whether military operations against Assad would be lawful under both domestic and international law. (See, e.g., Lawfare, June 20, 2016, “Would Airstrikes Against Assad Be Lawful and Effective?: Reactions to the State “Dissent Cable”). Nevertheless, such uncertainties are no justification for simply ignoring the desperate situation. Perhaps, as the campaign wears on, the media will attempt force the candidates to address the plight of Aleppo and its implications for Syria and the region.
The situation in Afghanistan, similarly ignored by the candidates, is also difficult and complex, but in this case the issue and the action required, seem relatively straightforward.
On July 6, President Obama announced an intention to reduce the size of the American military in Afghanistan to 8,400, representing a reduction from the current force of 9,800. The reduction was less than his previous goal of 5,500 and it clearly reflected the fact that the military situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. As Obama reluctantly acknowledged:
The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. The Taliban remains a threat. They’ve gained ground in some places.
In fact, according to recent United Nations estimates, Taliban forces now hold more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since our invasion in 2001. In addition, the Islamic State group has also established a presence in Afghanistan.
The announced troop level in July was less than that urged in a June 6 letter from previous high ranking diplomatic and military officials who urged that the force level be retained at approximately 10,000 troops. The letter was spearheaded by General John R. Allen, former commander of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan and later Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.
As the Allen letter pointed out:
The broader Middle East is roiled in conflicts that pit moderate and progressive forces against those of violent extremists. As we saw on 9/11 and in the recent attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels, the problems of the Middle East do not remain contained within the Middle East. Afghanistan is the place where Al Qaeda and affiliates first planned the 9/11 attacks and a place where they continue to operate—and is thus important in the broader effort to defeat the global extremist movement today. It is a place where Al Qaeda and ISIS still have modest footprints that could be expanded if a security vacuum developed. If Afghanistan were to revert to the chaos of the 1990s, millions of refugees would again seek shelter in neighboring countries and overseas, dramatically intensifying the severe challenges already faced in Europe and beyond.
The letter noted that “emergency conditions” might even require a “modest increase” in the force level, but said that a freeze at the current level would “allow your successor to assess the situation for herself or himself and make further adjustments accordingly.”
We admit to not having the military competence to assess the difference in capability between a force of 10,000 and one of 8,400. Our instinct, however, would have strongly been to maintain the current force. Indeed, we are not persuaded that even that level of deployment is sufficient. While specific information is hard to come by, a June 1 article in the Washington Post suggested reason for concern. According to the article, “Current restrictions on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and a heavy reliance on civilian contractors are eroding the skills and cohesion of units deployed to the country.”
And what of Trump and Clinton? A July 6 column in the Washington Post by Paul Waldman was titled “War without end: Neither Clinton nor Trump knows what to do about Afghanistan.” Waldman documented that Clinton’s references to Afghanistan had been vague and glancing and that Trump’s had been, as is his norm, inconsistent and incoherent. In Clinton’s case, we note that she has been endorsed by General Allen (who also spoke at the Democratic Convention). We are hopeful that if Clinton is elected, General Allen will be a strong and persuasive voice for maintaining a sufficient military presence in Afghanistan. Failing to do so would not only create a serious threat to national security but would betray the thousands of men and women who served there gallantly under difficult conditions, and most especially those who suffered grievous wounds or gave their lives.