Local Trust and the Syrian Withdrawal
One Marine’s Experience with an Afghan Elder
The recent discussions about President Trump’s decision to pull American troops from the complex political and military quagmire of the Middle East leaves me with mixed responses. While I understand how we got here, overall I do not think that we should be in Syria right now; no national policy goal is being achieved by our presence. Still, I am wary of the manner that the decision was reached, and I am concerned for those Syrians who decided that America was a force for good and worthy of trust.
Every time I think about this, memories inevitably drift to the surface of my mind. The most vivid of which I both yearn for and repress. These are memories of the vast Helmand River Valley of Southern Afghanistan. As a Corporal of Marines, the age of a college junior or senior, I was charged with leading a dozen Marine riflemen over the crags and through the nestled villages that lie in the south of Helmand Province – “the edge of the empire,” where the Helmand River twists west on its southward journey. Our mission was mostly contraband interdiction and guarding the flank of the other battalions that were operating to our north. To accomplish this we had grenade launchers and machine guns, “fast-movers” and up-armored trucks. And, for better or worse, we had each other.
Infantrymen are taught to think tactically. Our concepts of how to control a battlespace were conventional, anachronistic: find the tactical high ground, identify avenues of approach; assess enemy courses of action. We would secure roadways and ferries to search for drugs or weapons, and we would enroll everyone we found in our biometrics systems – no matter how many times they had been previously enrolled. The Mujahideen, Arabic for holy warriors, though, they thought differently. They conceptualized not just in strategies but in local leaders, not just in tactics but in controlling narratives. We had the battlefield picture, but somehow they still controlled the battlefield.
On one patrol near the end of my tour, we were operating on some intelligence that my squad had gathered. We knew that there were some “shady dealings” taking place in a small hamlet of mudbrick houses that sat overlooking the Helmand. Driving about ten kilometers west from our combat outpost, we set up a patrol base with our trucks and humped the last few klicks in on foot towards the river and the target. The village was engulfed in a lattice of poppy fields, interlaced with irrigation ditches fed from a canal along its border. The canal water was supplied by a pump that drew from the Helmand. It reminded me of a moat. The only tall trees around were cultivated to offer shade to the compounds. God, it was hot.
Other than the one pump, the village had no power, no running water. The roads were of hard packed dirt and ancient; we didn’t dare to take them. Instead, we walked through knee high briar patches where we knew the Taliban did not want to plant IEDs. Our flame-resistant uniforms were so thin that the needles penetrated them as high as our waists. Trying to get the drop on any visitors to the village, we snuck in from the north, loudly jumping the canals in 60 pounds of gear, and nestled into the foliage. The brush grew thick, pulling at my gear and ripping my glasses off my face. It reminded me of stories I’d heard of Vietnam.
Crossing the canals is a dangerous business and my squad began to fan out along the mudbrick compound that encroached the bank to make sure that there was no ambush waiting for us. Before we could get moving again, the lieutenant called me. The elder whose compound we had semi-encircled was babbling at him energetically, waving his arms like he was on fire. Through our linguist, the elder explained that the Taliban had come to his house just prior to our arrival. They had set an IED for us. We couldn’t surprise anyone around there.
The Taliban were waiting for us in some dense foliage down a route next to his house, ready to trigger the IED with a command wire as soon as we were in the kill zone. There was no way that we would have found the IED before it found us in that humid maze of mud and trees. We maneuvered around the danger zone intent on coaxing the Taliban into a gunfight; our forte. But they were ghosts and we couldn’t catch them. The rest of the day was a cat-and-mouse game; tactical terrain and speed against technology. Like most other days it was fruitless.
Months later, I learned that after we had returned to our combat outpost the Taliban payed a visit to the elder who had saved our lives. For his generosity to us he was rewarded with a savage beating, likely with the buttstock of an AK47.
Lessons are hard learnt in the Helmand River valley, but it was we Americans who taught him the real lesson: a month or two later we left. The unit that replaced us was scheduled to de-mil our infrastructure in preparation for the withdrawal of American troops. Only a skeleton crew of Afghan soldiers and Border Patrol was to remain. Today the whole battlespace is likely Taliban town. The old fool stood up for us and we left him to his fate. For that I am grateful; and ashamed.
In 2015 Colonel Scott Mann, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, wrote a fantastic book called Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Extremists. In it he details the lessons that the Special Forces community gleaned from their similar experiences of generosity, risk; abandonment. He explains that while the conventional forces were focused on supply routes, the Taliban were identifying key leaders. While the non-Afghan Taliban learned the local dialects, embraced ancient customs, and invoked tribal Pastunwali to influence local leaders, my battalion had a four-hour culture briefing. As we tried to cobble a confused narrative about… democracy? hearts-and-minds? the Taliban had a tried and true (and entirely fabricated) meta-narrative describing the war as a Crusade against Muslims – an attempt to rob them of their culture and colonize Afghanistan. Compared to theirs, our tactics were baffling. Even more effective than all this, however, was the Taliban’s most driving talking point: “the Americans are leaving. The government won’t help you. But we are here to stay.” We had the guns and bombs, but they had the story – and the commitment to live it out over the long term.
In any local endeavors like this, be they in Africa, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, or Syria, developing rapport with between the locals and the soldiers on the ground requires a kind of trust – a kind of risk – that most Americans have never experienced. If the locals side with the United States and we stay to help them secure their village or district or state, they win the gamble. The lives of their children and their children’s children for generations will improve. But if they lose, if we leave and they are left to face the butt end of an AK47, the insurgents are likely to eliminate their entire family for their troubles. How can we ask these people to make such a terrible wager, especially when we are not even sure if we will be around after the next election?
I do not envy the Americans that are coming home right now knowing that the locals who placed their families in America’s hands are now at the whims of Assad, Erdogan, and Al Baghdadi. I know some veterans who, after coming stateside, have received desperate phone calls from their old indigenous friends begging for help as their villages were being overrun. I can’t imagine what it would be like to listen to a friend who is losing everything because they put their trust in American fidelity.
But then I zoom out to the macro-picture. And when I do, I find myself in agreement with NEWSREP’s Jack Murphy, who reminds us that “there is no concrete U.S. military strategy in Syria” and that a withdrawal is in America’s best interests.
I know that it seems like a hard departure from the struggles on the ground, but it’s more complicated than that. The dilemma that these locals faced when they trusted America is an inevitable manifestation of a decade of poor regional policy and unenforced “red lines” in an inherently tragic and malevolent world.
We did the Iraqis wrong when we blindly withdrew in 2010. We did them wrong when we failed to implement a reasonable government in 2003 after the invasion (to say nothing of the invasion itself or the intelligence failure that was the 2002 Senate Report on Pre-war Intelligence on Iraq). As the drawdown began, we left countless villages in Afghanistan to their fate after they trusted us. The cocktail of geopolitical influences is multifarious, but we cannot allow that to overshadow our responsibility to the locals that we befriend. If we just burn everyone who trusts us, will anyone trust us in the future?
Murphy, an accomplished Special Forces operator himself, argues that we must withdraw in a manner that does not abandon our allies on the ground. He argues that we cannot simply leave a vacuum because doing so will only “plunge the region right back into chaos.” Murphy suggests imbedding a Special Forces company with our allies in Syria, which will ensure that neither Assad nor Erdogan will massacre them. Knowing that America will not remain in the Levant, for example, has already generated parleys between Damascus and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
An improper American withdrawal will certainly create a vacuum. There is no doubt that Murphy is right that such a vacuum will immediately be filled – whether by the Russians, who have acquired full rights to Syria’s oil fields; by the Iranians, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are attempting to consolidate with Lebanese Hezbollah on their front against Israel; or by the Islamic State, an entity that is almost messianic in its ability to raise itself from a most certain grave.
President Trump, for his part, has agreed to a longer timeline for a more stable withdrawal and appears to have been persuaded to consider the complexities on the ground. While I am grateful to see that he has no tolerance for endless wars and quagmires, I frankly expect to see us do right by our local friends. Time will tell what happens to them and to the regions we have recently occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Time will also tell whether we Americans have learned our lesson about bluffing when we must be firm, and about the responsibilities that we as a nation have to our indigenous friends. Of the former I am hopeful, but of the latter I am not.
When it comes to the question of Syria, a proper withdrawal, one that does right by our allies, might be the best option in an array of poor ones. I would have liked the President’s withdrawal announcement to be less spontaneous, but I have had to accustom myself to off the cuff announcements from this White House. What has shocked me, though, is the reality of Murphy’s warning: “As it stands,” he notes, “there is no anti-war movement in America — which is something that should give us reason to pause.”
When President Trump ordered the withdrawal of forces of Syria there were no celebrations from any anti-war camp in the United States. Even the foreign policy doves took their turn to attack the president for ending the American involvement in Syria. This is indeed something that should give us pause.
Jake Davis is a father, husband, brother, and a Christian. He has been deployed worldwide as a United States Marine and then continued his service as a Private Military Contractor.