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By Paul Rogers, professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group.. Originally published at Open Democracy.
With the US election campaign entering its final weeks, one of its oddities so far is that Donald Trump is saying very little about the global aspect of his mission to “Make America Great Again”. True, there are plenty of reasons to concentrate on affairs at home, but all the falsehoods and fake trails on COVID-19, law and order, the economy, wildfires and the rest are doing little but shore up his base.
What makes this odd is that the Trump team are more than skilled enough to manipulate their presentation of foreign achievements as successes if not triumphs. The thorny issue of North Korea is currently sidelined, with Trump able to argue that his deal-making skills have brought Kim Jong-un to the table, while being vague on the details, and he can claim to be a peacemaker in the Middle East with the Israel-UAE-Bahrain agreement.
On Afghanistan he can point to the current peace talks between the government and the Taliban and the steady withdrawal of US troops, with plans being to bring back almost all the uniformed troops by next May, with half of them back home before the election. As for Iraq and Syria, he can also hail the withdrawal of US troops from those countries. It all sounds a good package from his perspective, especially if the pudding is hugely over-egged by a cursory regard for facts.
On all those issues, though, the actual circumstances are trickier. Things certainly are quiet at present on the North Korean front but so far it is Kim who has outplayed Trump and got more of what he wanted. Sanctions continue to have a dire effect on the North Korean economy, but China is providing sufficient support to avoid collapse, while the development of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads continues with little fuss from Washington.
Three years ago, an array of missile tests included the Hwasong-15, an ICBM with a range estimated at 13,000 kilometres – sufficient to reach any part of the US. In his election campaign in 2016 Trump made it clear that he would never allow the North Koreans to threaten the continental US, yet a further test of this missile would be enough to show he has broken that promise. There have been recent indications that the North Koreans could conduct such a test at short notice, so any campaign attempt by Trump to trumpet victory could suddenly look rather silly. Perhaps best to leave that item out of campaigning for now.
As for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, that is certainly the intention, but problems are already emerging. The peace talks with the Taliban got under way two weeks ago. Within ten days, however, there were strong indications that the Taliban were continuing their offensive operations across the country, and US sources believe the progress of the talks will at best be tortuous.
The Afghan government’s concern is that the Taliban are entrenched across so much of rural Afghanistan that they are essentially negotiating from a position of strength and that the US is simply walking away because of domestic considerations. This would leave the government having to concede far too much. Among many sufferers from a Taliban role in governance would be women’s rights, but that means little or nothing to Trump.
He may well try and make something of his ‘success’ in Afghanistan, but it will be more difficult with Iraq and Syria. Here, again, ‘success’ depends on how you see it. US troop withdrawals have already cost the Kurds dear and are they are being left in the lurch. In any case, in spite of the four-year air war against ISIS which destroyed its caliphate, it is still a significant force even in Syria. It has even increased its attacks on US troops, so much so that earlier this week the Pentagon announced it was sending a mechanised force across the border into eastern Syria to protect US troops guarding oil installations against ISIS.
Trump can claim success in his dealings with Israel, but the agreements with Bahrain and the Emirates will, again, only shore up core support, no more.
Meanwhile, Islamist paramilitaries continue to maintain and even increase their influence in North Africa and across the Sahel. There are reported to be more than 5,000 ISIS paramilitaries in deeply unstable Libya and the instability in Mali following the recent coup does little to diminish their influence there.
Across the continent, Shabab in Somalia and North-East Kenya is sufficiently emboldened to increase its direct attack on US units. One Pentagon response to this is to argue for armed drone operations to be run from Kenya, provided the government will agree.
Overall, given his capacity for wild statements and unpredictability, Trump may still bring these issues into the campaign and will no doubt embellish the claimed successes.
Where he would remain vulnerable, though, is that his recent criticisms of the senior US military, and especially his widely reported comments on US troops killed in action being “losers”, mean that any reference to military successes can easily be connected to those views. If Trump, as he hints, is ready to challenge the election result, he may come to need the support of the Pentagon. Perhaps best, therefore, not to raise the defence issue during the next few weeks.