President Trump’s abandonment of our Kurdish partners says one thing: America does not stand with our allies. Furthermore, it runs the risk of demoralizing our own troops and raising doubts among critical allies around the world.
Each day every year, Special Forces Green Berets are embedded with partner forces in over 80 countries around the world. The nature of our mission as Green Berets is to build relationships based on trust sufficient to enter into battle alongside citizens of other nations. While the missions may vary, what remains consistent is that you will find a 12-man team of Green Berets paired with partner forces 10 to 20 times larger than their number. By living, training, and conducting missions with these partner forces, Green Berets develop their host-nation militaries and strengthen existing forces — ultimately protecting US interests around the globe while minimizing our footprint. In order to achieve this, a significant portion of our time as Green Berets is spent building rapport. Effective training and missions depend on the rapport we build with our host counterparts.
What does this rapport look like?
To me, it is the Afghan commando who walked into the line of fire in order to pull me to safety after I had been shot and immobilized by a Taliban sniper’s bullet. Despite the fact that only three months earlier then-President Obama had announced his plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, he was there for me in my darkest hour. His was the first face I saw after being shot: not a fellow Green Beret.
It is difficult to understand this bond if you have not lived it. It is nothing to be taken lightly. Those who have served alongside the Kurds are making it widely known that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria will not soon be forgotten. As one retired US military officer told Foreign Policy magazine, “There will be a whole generation of US military that will never forget this betrayal, nor stop apologizing for it.”
As a nation, we have to question this foreign policy with urgency and outspokenness. We must follow the lead of former secretary of defense James Mattis, who implicitly, through his resignation, asked all Americans to challenge Trump’s treatment of our foreign allies. Consider this: Trump first tweeted his intentions to pull US troops out of Syria on Dec. 19, 2018; Mattis resigned the following day. His letter of resignation spends three of its paragraphs directly addressing the importance of our allies and the maintenance of those partnerships: “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships . . . we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis undoubtedly anticipated the consequences of abandoning our Kurdish partners. Trump’s actions have now undermined the trust of our partner forces, endangering US troops and our allies the world over. This impetuous withdrawal has left the door open for the Turkish invasion, advancement of Russian and Iranian interests, and the resurgence of the Islamic State in the region.
The Green Beret mission is De Oppresso Liber: to free the oppressed. We are failing this mission.
But it is not the fault of our dedicated service members; the blame lies with President Trump and his policy makers. When I was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I would say to my colleagues going into policy work, “Policy has a start point and an end point. It starts in Washington, D.C., and it ends with a 25 year-old staff sergeant trapped on a mountaintop because he has an enemy machine gun tracing his every move.”
I was once that young kid staring death in the face due to policies and decisions that were made thousands of miles away. This could be any of the US troops deployed in combat zones today, and they will probably be depending on partner forces, like the Kurds, for survival.
As Trump makes policy decisions from the safety and comfort of the White House, I implore him to remember the tens of thousands of US troops around the world who depend on their partner forces. I am living proof: I am alive because of the Afghan soldier who risked his life for mine.
Kevin R. Flike, who retired from the US Army Special Forces after being shot in Afghanistan, works for a cybersecurity firm in Boston and delivers motivational speeches.