The week began with an important speech by President Trump on his Afghan policy. Important not just because it confirmed the Americans aren’t leaving, but also for wider reasons.
The Fort Meyer speech was on autocue. Without one the President sometimes appears to be making things up as he goes along. However, when he’s reading a script – it contains the considered thinking of senior policy advisors.
He announced extra troops will be sent to Afghanistan, details were not forthcoming but it’s thought the number will be around 4,000. This will shore up the faltering training programme for the Afghan forces who are losing territory to the Talban.
He also came down hard on Pakistan accusing it of taking billions of dollars from the USA while, in his words ‘housing the very terrorists we are fighting’. So, he said, ‘the next pillar of our strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan’. This is music to Indian ears.
With senior White House advisor Steve Bannon gone the speech was another sign that the Generals have greater influence now. James Mattis at Defence, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Jospeh Dunford the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and John Kelly –White House Chief of Staff all know Afghanistan well.
There was lots going on in the Middle East – but of course that’s something we can say every week…
On Thursday Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Iran. They’d been broken in early 2016 in solidarity with Saudi Arabia after mob attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. But this year Qatar has fallen out badly with its Gulf neighbours, who accuse it of supporting terrorism. Restoring relations with Iran is a clear snub to the Gulf countries and another sign that Qatar is digging in.
The boycott of Qatar is hurting the country, its credit rating has gone down, but it remains fabulously wealthy and is working on ways to get around the sanctions imposed by the Gulf states.
Up in Iraq the lines are now drawn for the Battle of Tal Afar.
A combination of several Iraqi forces, totalling 40,000 men. They spent the week surrounding the city which is controlled by ISIL. Tal Afar sits 35 miles to the West of Mosul which fell to the Iraqi Army this summer. Its pre-war population was about 200,000 people, most of them ethnic Turkmen and Sunni Muslim. This matters because Turkey has a military base near Mosul, and says it may need to protect the Iraqi Turkmen. Tal Afar is also just two hours drive from the Turkish border. It also matters because although most of the Iraqi forces are from the Army, some are Iranian trained Shia militiamen who are not always known for their respect for Sunni civilians. Add to this the Kurds, watching from the north, and we have a situation which is not just about how long it will take to beat ISIL in the city – but what happens afterwards.
Speaking of the Kurds –they are ringing alarm bells all over the region. Next month the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq holds an independence vote. Now, if there’s one thing Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Russia and the USA all agree on – it’s that they don’t want the vote to go ahead.
This week US Defence Secretary James Mattis showed up in the Kurdish capital Irbil. The message was – ‘Please postpone the referendum.’ Mattis, like all the players here fear a declaration of independence could spark conflict. Iraq does not want to lose a large chunk of its territory, while Turkey, Iran and Syria all have Kurdish minorities. They fear an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will encourage their own minorities to seek independence and possibly even join together in one state.
That’s fighting talk. That was the week that was.