US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull all American troops out of Syria and reduce by half the US forces in Afghanistan marks the end of a prolonged phase of American military interventions in the Middle East and South Asia. The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and 14,000 in Afghanistan. If the president does not change his mind, Delhi will have to take take into account the consequences for India’s western neighbourhood, especially in Afghanistan where Washington has been fighting the longest war in American history. Those familiar with Trump’s worldview and the current fault lines in the US foreign policy debate will not be surprised either by the president’s decision or by the fierce reaction against it in Washington’s national security establishment, including from within Trump’s own party. The US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, who advised against the withdrawal, has resigned and will step down in February. He is the last of the traditionalists in Trump’s national security team and his departure is bound to sharpen the conflict between Trump, who has demanded a thorough overhaul of America’s external commitments, and the establishment.
As America’s internal tussle on its external trajectory makes Washington an unpredictable factor in international politics, the rest of the world has no option but to factor it into their own geopolitical calculus. Through his presidential campaign during 2016, Trump has questioned the benefits of the US alliances in Europe and Asia. He criticised US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as extremely expensive and politically foolish. Rather than spend American blood and treasure abroad to serve other people’s causes, Trump insisted he would put America First. After his election, Trump, however, was persuaded by the defence establishment to stay put in the Greater Middle East. But his patience has apparently worn thin and he is now determined to play by his own instinct.
Critics argue that Trump’s move will undermine the war against the Islamic State, help legitimise the Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad, and boost his backers in Moscow and Tehran. In Afghanistan, the decision to downsize troop presence comes at a moment when Washington has embarked on direct talks with the Taliban brokered by Pakistan. Trump has been accused of abandoning the Kurdish allies in Syria and weakening the government in Kabul. At the same time, the domestic interests of great powers often override the commitments made to friends and partners. And there is no question that Trump is redefining America’s interests. Insofar as Delhi is concerned, it must start preparing for the inevitable geopolitical turbulence, including the resurgence of the Islamic State and the potential return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, that could follow the American retrenchment in the Middle East and Afghanistan.