Donald Trump’s wanton use of force around the world is causing excessive civilian casualties, diminishing American soft power and will lead to violent backlash.
This week, a fight between Afghans and Kurds in the Grande-Synthe camp near Dunkirk got out of hand. After six were injured with knife wounds, someone started a fire that injured 10 people and destroyed the homes of 1,500 others. French authorities were planning to shut down the camp anyway because of clashes in the past. The camp was home to people trying to make it across the channel to the United Kingdom. Nigel Farage would be delighted to learn that now they won’t.
The fight in France pales in comparison to the tensions over North Korea. The United States has promised it will not tolerate any more provocations by Pyongyang. In response, the Hermit Kingdom has threatened a nuclear strike. China is rather sagely saying that military force cannot resolve tensions. Instead, it has called for talks to achieve a peaceful resolution and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, its state-run newspaper is advising North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear program and promising that China would protect his country if he did so.
Tensions between Russia and the US are on the rise too. According to US President Donald Trump, relations between the two countries “may be at an all-time low.” Reassuringly for Europe, NATO is “no longer obsolete” for Trump.
A state of emergency is similarly no longer obsolete. For 31 years, from 1981 to 2012, Egypt lived under a state of emergency. This gave security forces the power to lock up anyone they wanted, torture them with impunity and try them in special courts without due process. It was lifted only after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. After attacks by the Islamic State (IS) on two Coptic churches killed 44 people and wounded many more, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has announced a three-month state of emergency. IS will still be around after three months, but the regime will certainly crackdown on opposition and stifle dissent.
Yet all this pales in comparison to “the mother of all bombs” that the US dropped in Afghanistan.
As per the US military, they were targeting IS. The bomb was dropped in the Achin district of the border province of Nangarhar. The capital of this province is Jalalabad, which lies midway between Kabul and Peshawar in Pakistan. It was meant to destroy bunkers, tunnels and minefields. The Americans claimed that a 300 meter-long network of tunnels and caves was destroyed. According to Afghan officials, it also killed 36 fighters of the Islamic State.
Afghanistan has been home to the Taliban. Only in January 2015 did IS announce the establishment of its Khorasan branch. By choosing the name Khorasan, which literally means the land of the sun, IS sent a nostalgic message to those seeking to recreate the past. Khorasan once comprised northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan.
In the 7th century, it became part of the Umayyad Caliphate and of early Islamic culture. The 8th century Abbasid revolution apparently began here. It is here that the now infamous black banner was first used by the Abbasids. Websites still debate that the validity of the hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) that prophesies black banners appearing from the East and the Mahdi emerging from Khorasan. Choosing such a name demonstrates the Islamic State’s well-known mastery of propaganda and allows it to deny the legitimacy of modern nation states like Afghanistan or even Pakistan.
Initially, IS did well in Nangarhar. However, its fighters were largely foreigners who behaved with barbaric brutality. In hardly any time, the proud Pashtuns of the province came to resent them bitterly, and the inevitable backlash from the Taliban was ferocious. The US-backed Afghan forces also hammered the Islamic State and, in May 2016, the Middle East Institute concluded that IS would fail to carve its own space in war-torn Afghanistan.
In the light of the relatively insignificant threat posed by IS in Nangarhar, the use of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (MOAB), as this 9,800 kilogram bomb is officially called, seems disproportionate. In particular, it is baffling because President Trump is yet to chart any policy or spell out goals or objectives for Afghanistan.
IS IT MADMAN STRATEGY YET AGAIN?
Once upon a time, not a long time ago, the US fought a war in Southeast Asia. A young man in New York was then chasing skirt and developed bone spurs in his feet, which mysteriously disappeared even from his memory. Naturally, this dashing young man did not serve in that war much like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Now, this man with his expansive vocabulary, energetic decisiveness and electrifying charisma is president. Trump, a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, is proving to be rather trigger happy in the Oval Office.
Perhaps Trump is only putting into practice the “Madman Theory” that Richard Nixon once employed with devastating effect. Nixon and his adviser, Henry Kissinger, hit upon a cunning plan to intimidate their opponents. Their strategy was to make “the other side … think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.” They did so by embarking upon nonstop military operations around the world in October 1969. Kissinger and Nixon surmised this use of “excessive or extraordinary force” would make their opponents bend to American will in diplomatic negotiations.
Napalm, Agent Orange and carpet bombing pounded Vietnam relentlessly. Kissinger and Nixon decided to bomb neutral Cambodia as well to scare Ho Chi Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp into submission. The US wanted their stubborn enemies to fear madman Nixon who might go nuclear to win if need be. The savage American attack on Cambodia was a grave war crime and led to the rise of the Pol Pot. Needless to say, it did not quite work.
After ordering strikes on Syria, talking tough with North Korea and standing up to Russia, Trump has unleashed the MOAB on IS in Afghanistan. Just as the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably not only meant to decimate Japan but also possibly to cow down the Soviet Union, the MOAB might have been intended more to scare the enemies of the US and less to destroy the Khorasan chapter of IS.
If all goes to plan, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and even Xi Jinping will quake in their boots before crossing Trump. After all, the US has the greatest military in the world and Trump is making it even greater. Besides, the president’s gung-ho trigger-happy ways might convince the enemies of the US to throw in the towel, allowing Trump to make the great deals he has promised the country.
WILL IT WORK?
Assuming Trump is following a madman strategy, the big question arises as to whether it would work. Before headlines regarding the MOAB drowned out all other news, the Pentagon admitted that an airstrike in Syria had mistakenly killed 18 rebels from the Syrian Democratic Forces. These are the troops that Washington supports but they fell to American friendly fire. Such casualties do not bolster confidence in allies. Similarly, dropping large bombs is unlikely to win Afghan hearts and minds.
Throughout his election campaign, Trump kept declaring that the US was losing, that it had become weak and that it was no longer respected. He promised voters that their grand and glorious country would return to its rightful place in the sun. Acting decisively when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons boosted Trump’s standing even among Democrats who loathe him. The fact that Syrian warplanes took off the very next day from the air base bombed by the US did not matter much to most Americans. They take their role as moral arbiters of the world seriously and were satisfied that Trump had pulled the trigger where Barack Obama had failed to when Assad used chemical weapons and crossed the Harvard man’s “red line.”
Americans might feel good about Trump’s machismo, but they are forgetting an important fact. On March 31, Jason Le Miere of Newsweek reported that, under Trump, the US military might have killed over 1,000 civilians in March in Syria and Iraq alone. Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International has observed that evidence in East Mosul “points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside.”
Reports of excessive civilian casualties have dogged the Trump White House right from the outset. In Yemen, a Navy SEAL and 25 civilians, including an 8-year-old American girl, died in a raid gone wrong. Similarly, 30 civilians reportedly died in Syria’s Raqqa province and another 40 in an airstrike that purportedly hit a mosque.
Many might argue that these are small numbers compared to the carnage wrought by the Islamic State or Assad. However, the US claims to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. The US president is supposed to be the leader of the free world. Given the US record in Iran, Vietnam, Latin America and other parts of the world, this might be patently untrue, but most people still believe in Pax Americana.
The Trump administration’s wanton use of force might be boosting the president’s popularity ratings, but it is damaging the US tremendously. What Antonio Gramsci called “cultural hegemony” and what Joseph Nye has called “soft power” has been the greatest strength of the United States. US actions are damaging that. Besides, they are likely to fuel rising resentments and multiple mutinies. Ultimately, the madman strategy did not work for Nixon. It certainly will not work for Trump.
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
The Real Threat to US Interests in Afghanistan
If Russia and China make progress in Afghanistan, they will be emboldened elsewhere.
On March 9, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the press briefing room to announce a review of American policy in Afghanistan. His major point? That the White House is “working with … key military leaders to create an approach to address Afghanistan to defeat” the Islamic State (IS), an indication that the Trump administration sees Afghanistan policy and counterterrorism policy as one in the same.
The recent attacks — one on a hospital in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter and one on a convoy of aid workers in Jowzjan — by IS have increased hypersensitivity in Washington about the growing aggression of the terrorist group in Afghanistan. However, the true threat to US interests in Afghanistan is not IS, but encroachment by Russia and China on Afghan sovereignty. President Donald Trump’s focus on “utterly destroying” the Islamic State has not only diverted attention from a resurgent… Read more
The Next Two Years for Modi
To truly win the respect and trust of the people, the Indian government should focus on three issues.
The recent legislative electoral wins for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are partly a verdict on its policies of the past three years and partly due to anti-incumbency factors working in its favor. Electoral politics in India is perhaps the most complicated in the world. With no major legislative elections till 2019, albeit one state, the government should step on the pedal and take advantage of this two-year window to implement some path breaking if not big bang reforms. Many issues require attention, but there are three that will have far-reaching impact and give a strong visceral feeling of progress to its citizenry.
First, the legal system is the elephant in the room. People have suffered the painfully slow system for decades. The court visits and expenses break their spirit and turn their hair gray. This broken system is… Read more
Iraq’s Women: From Poster Children to Peacemakers
When it comes to peacebuilding, women are often relegated to more traditional gender roles while their untapped capacity to wage peace is left ignored.
In discussions of conflict and its associated processes of resolution, women are often defined by their relationships to their male counterparts or as tokens representing the brutality of war. Women are either the sisters, mothers or daughters of both perpetrators and peacemakers, or they are mere poster children of victims caught up in battles over power, land and ideology.
When we think of war and armed conflict, we envision traditionally masculine traits such as aggression, power and strength. So why is it that we do not envision opposing traits such as trust, cooperation and fairness when seeking peace? As seen worldwide, when it comes to peacebuilding women are often relegated to more traditional notions of gender roles while their largely untapped capacity to wage peace is left ignored. Before discussing exactly how to challenge… Read more
Cuban-American Relations in 2017
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute.
Upon Fidel Castro’s arrival to power in 1959, the United States and Cuba built up an oppositional animosity toward one another. The US responded to Cuba’s communist ideology with an embargo in hopes of overthrowing the regime. Strict regulations were enforced until President Barack Obama began to make progress toward normalizing this protracted animosity. On July 20, 2015, Washington and Havana marked the restoration of diplomatic relations. This has led to an ease on remittances and travel, but financial, economic and commercial restrictions still remain.
Although Obama made efforts toward removing hostility between the two countries, shortly before leaving office he ended the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy implemented in 1995 allowing for Cubans to remain in the US once they reached its shores. While the cancellation of this policy coincides with the new Trump administration’s views on tightening immigrant documentation, many US… Read more
Whither Europe, Whither the World
A crumbling Europe consumed by nationalism, petty infighting and aggression could have an impact on the international order.
The international order is under siege in Europe. European Union (EU) and NATO nations once worked alongside the United States to expand a liberal, rules-based order across the globe. Today, those same countries struggle for the order’s survival at home. Amidst chaos in the Middle East and China’s rise in Asia, Europe — beset by Russian aggression from without and a crisis of liberalism from within — has become the bellwether for the international order. Should that order collapse in Europe under these dual strains, its prospects wane precipitously on the global stage.
Until recently, European nations were among the strongest proponents of the international order. As a collective security and economic community safely ensconced in “the end of history,” the expanding European project seemed to reflect the victory of democracy and markets over the 20th century’s ideological alternatives. A supposedly post-national… Read more
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: vadimmmus