Announcing his new Afghanistan strategy in August, President Donald Trump insisted “we are not nation-building again.” The pledge—made while increasing indefinitely the American commitment to the government in Kabul—put him in the company of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who like Trump campaigned in part on rejecting the idea of nation-building. They also, like Trump, promptly surged troops and money into wars and reconstruction efforts overseas.
And the president has quietly embarked on another such project—in Syria, where the U.S. has put down roots and is making plans to stay.
Officials in Washington remain tight-lipped about the exact outlines of the effort in the Kurdish-dominated northeastern corner of the country, where some 2,000 U.S. troops—joined by a growing army of diplomats and aid workers—are overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of reconstruction and security projects. What they do insist on, as the White House’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, did recently, is that “we are not engaged in nation-building exercises and long-term reconstruction.” And in the most expansive public comments by an American official about the U.S. strategy for Syria to date, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that the United States is committed to “maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved.” In his remarks, delivered at Stanford University, he offered no timetable for when that might be.