While many US officials blatantly disregarded the security concerns of their fellow NATO member Turkey by orchestrating and promoting a battlefield alliance with the YPG/PKK terror organisation in Syria, outgoing US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis was not one of them. Mattis always tended to tread a respectful line when it came to attempting to preserve rather than destroy Washington’s long standing friendship with Ankara. In many ways he was unique in this respect, especially when contrasted with other officials appointed by Donald Trump.
While Mattis served in both Afghanistan and in America’s wars on Iraq, it was Afghanistan that Mattis always prioritised as a military red-line for the United States. Furthermore, it was under Mattis that the US began intensifying attacks in Afghanistan. This included not only a US troop surge into Afghanistan during Mattis’s first year at the helm of the Pentagon, but it also included the controversial dropping of the so-called MOAB (the mother of all bombs) on an alleged terrorist target in the country. It still remains unclear how much damage if any that the MOAB did to alleged Daesh positions in Afghanistan. It is more likely than not that instead, the dropping of the MOAB in 2017 was more of a show of force designed to intimidate regional rivals than it was a pragmatic way of attacking Daesh networks.
By contrast, under James Mattis’s tenure as US Defence Secretary, the US shows of force in Syria were generally anticlimactic. Missile strikes on western Syria in the spring of 2017 and another in the spring 2018 were in hindsight designed more for domestic consumption among Trump’s political opponents than they were designed to either inflict damage on the Syrian government or frighten other parties to the conflict in Syria.
“The fact that the conflict in Syria has long passed a meaningful point of no return for its authors, means that one of the few intelligent men in the Donald Trump cabinet, James “Mad Dog” Mattis has no real interest in Syria but is instead focused on two far more important theatres of war for the United States.
Unlike Nikki Haley or John Bolton who operate with a clear ‘Israel first’ policy, Mattis is more of a traditional neo-imperialist who thinks globally rather than regionally. Furthermore, Mattis thinks in terms of great power rivalry, something that is generally anathema to the “Israel firsters”, people who have an unhealthy obsession with dominating the Arab world while neglecting other vital strategic regions.
Because of this, Mattis realises the futility of the Syrian conflict from a strategic perspective as the strategically important lands of Syria are now firmly in the hands of the legitimate government and their allies. He also alluded to something even more important, when he said that the US would consider withdrawing troops from South Korea as part of a de-nuclearisation process on the peninsula. If Syria is a waste of time for the US in terms of its grand strategy, Korea has become an expensive burden that is also becoming an unrealistic place from which to provoke China. The Korean peninsula is literally China’s back-door and as a result, even the slightest future provocation against China from the peninsula would result in a crushing response.
Therefore, Mattis has opted for a more traditional containment strategy aimed at China which seeks to use Afghanistan as a means of sowing instability in Pakistan – China’s link from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, while also using Afghanistan as a place from which to potentially provoke conflict in Russia’s soft Central Asian underbelly, particularly in Tajikistan. Afghanistan is an ideal location to both contain and provoke China and Russia, all from the same location. The fact that the ongoing US war in Afghanistan is keeping countries like Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan away from Afghanistan’s natural resources is just an economic bonus for a war intentionally designed to have no tangible end point”.
This characterisation of Mattis remains true and is likely why he took the decision to announce his departure from his position as US Defence Secretary shortly after Donald Trump indicated that he wants to replicate his Syrian troop withdrawal in respect of the US war in Afghanistan.
For Mattis, the great-game style strategy of using Afghanistan as a means of retarding China’s regional economic progress and that of its Pakistani partner, of Russia and of Iran, was of supreme strategic importance – far more so than pretending that the US could still remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Damascus -something that incidentally was a tall order even before Mattis was appointed by Trump, due to the presence of Russian soldiers and assets in western Syria.
Therefore, it is not likely that Trump’s withdrawal from Syria which stands to benefit Turkey but have no real effect on Russia, Iran or the Damascus government, was the straw that broke the camel’s back in respect of forcing Mattis out. Instead, it was Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw thousands of US troops from Afghanistan that was almost certainly incompatible with Mattis’s personal strategy in Asia.
For years it has been clear that the US had not required a traditional victory in order to achieve its main objectives in Afghanistan. Instead, the US goal has been one of manifold obstructionism. This strategy has including the following goals:
–obstructing the fomenting of peace in Pakistan’s Balochistan province
— obstructing Iran-Pakistan reconciliation
–obstructing the wider development of China’s Belt and Road and specifically obstructing progress in CPEC (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) which runs through Pakistan’s Balochistan province
–obstructing Afghanistan’s ability (and that of its genuine partners) to cultivate its own mineral wealth
–obstructing a genuine war on drugs in the region that would have otherwise brought stability
–obstructing Russia from becoming a moderating power in the region
And yet, in spite of America spending billions of Dollars and wasting needless US lives in a war that few in the US even think about and when they do, they hardly understand the point of it – the US has nevertheless failed to consummate most of the aforementioned obstructionist aims with the possible exceptions of prohibiting Afghanistan and other potential partners from cultivating the country’s mineral resources, as well as prohibiting a genuine war on narcotics from taking place.
Thus, while Mattis is what many in the US call “a soldier’s soldier”, one thing he is not is an economist. By contrast, economic expert and fiscal conservative, former US Congressman Dr. Ron Paul stated that the most realistic motivation for any US withdrawal of troops in foreign theatres of conflict will ultimately be because the US cannot afford its military adventurism.
While Trump does not share Dr. Paul’s fiscal and monetary conservatism in a doctrinal sense, as a former businessman, Trump has regularly emphasised that he is tired of spending so much money overseas. Because of this, while Mattis almost certainly wanted to stay the obstructionist course in Afghanistan, Trump may well have realised that in addition to being costly, America’s Afghan war has not in fact retarded the progress of CPEC and Belt and Road, it has not done too much to prevent Pakistan and Iran from improving their relations, it has certainly not lessened the influence of China and Russia in the region (if anything it has increased both Russia and China’s influence) and it has not ultimately stopped Pakistan from scoring multiple victories against multiple terrorists threats that were largely unleashed and feed by the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. Thus, when Mattis’s troop surge and intensified bombing campaigns were all said and done, there was little that the US had to show for it, even by its own standards.
Therefore, the private “battle” between Trump and Mattis was largely that between a neo-imperial military adventurer-soldier and that of a New York penny-pincher. The fact that US diplomats have tended to respond positively to the current round of Afghan peace talks in the UAE also means that Trump now has the perfect excuse to pull at least some of the plugs on America’s Afghan quagmire and likewise pretend to do so from the position of a victor – just as he did in respect of Syria.
If reports on a US withdrawal from Afghanistan do come to pass, it means that not only was Mattis’s erstwhile troop surge in Afghanistan all for nothing, but it will have meant that Trump’s sense of money saving ended up trumping Mattis’s grand strategy in a war that has always been something of the “Mad Dog’s” pet project.