Team Trump’s travel ban, or pause, or whatever reverse politically correct term you want to call it, has sparked simmering fury among America’s Muslim allies. The media splash meant to show that President Donald Trump means business about keeping America safe, and keeping his campaign promises, is ironically damaging the very campaign against terrorism he wants to put into overdrive.
Key allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State are dumbfounded, but few are making official statements, unwilling to pick a fight with the pugnacious new White House.
Iraqi parliamentarians have called for similar bans against U.S. citizens, and Iranian-backed militia groups have called for American troops to be ejected from their country.
But the Iraqi government, managing a fragile and fractious multi-ethnic coalition against ISIS, is treading carefully. Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the AP that Iraqis are hoping the "measures will be temporary and for regulatory reasons and not permanent at least for Iraq."
Other allies? Not so diplomatic.
“This is an insult to us all,” said one Afghan official reached Sunday. “To treat all as terrorists is not what inspires support and confidence among friends.”
Afghanistan is not among the seven nations listed in President Donald Trump’s executive order, but the official said the public response to the order was prompting questions in Kabul about how long the government could allow U.S. troops to remain, without suffering a backlash from its own people.
The order signed Friday suspends travel for 90 days for travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations deemed to be centers of terrorist activity – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The executive order also suspends the entire U.S. refugee program for four months. Trump insists it’s “not a Muslim ban” but he’s also spoken of giving Christian refugees priority, which has been read in the Muslim world as casting them as second-class citizens.
Anger is spreading to the Arab street, reflected in social media and newspaper articles – the kind of RAGE that fueled the Arab Spring revolt against Mideast dictators – therefore, the kind Muslim leaders take very seriously.
Like the Afghan official, others say that if this sentiment builds, it will make it harder to cooperate publicly with the U.S. on counterterrorist issues, and harder still to host U.S. troops on their soil.
The various officials who spoke to The Daily Beast say they understand the implementation had to be a surprise, so as not to spark a rush for the U.S. border ahead of an announced deadline. But the haphazard execution at U.S. border entry points, and the lack of briefings even after the order was signed have made it harder for them to defend America’s actions back home.
“We read about it in leaks to the media, and kept waiting for State Department officials to brief us, but the calls never came,” said a senior Mideast diplomat who didn’t know what to tell his government when the news broke.
That may be because most State Department officials were blindsided too, according to multiple persons familiar with the matter. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad complained the ban would keep a top Iraqi general in the ISIS fight from visiting family in the U.S., stop General Electric from hosting Iraqi delegates in the U.S. as part of a $2 billion energy deal, and send the wrong signal to some 62,000 applicants being considered for relocation for aiding the U.S. during the war. That was among the possible fallout of the new policy, listed in a letter obtained by The Wall Street Journal, sent Saturday from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to the State Department.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the letter, but said they remain “in close contact with our coalition partners on a range of issues,” in the quest to defeat ISIS.
Already, Iraqi militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called on all American citizens to leave Iraq. Sadr’s group killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but has held its fire during the ISIS fight, as it technically answers to the Iraqi prime minister, under the umbrella of the 140,000-strong Popular Mobilization Forces. General Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition effort in Iraq, told The Daily Beast in December that PMF forces were behaving mostly lawfully and not attacking U.S. troops. The U.S. even intercepted some communications from some members asking their leadership for permission to attack the Americans – and being told to stand down.
But that was before the Trump White House delivered what is being taken as an insult to Muslim pride – seeming to apply suspicion to all, in the same vein as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s tweet that “Fear of Muslims is rational.”
So far, the mission against ISIS has been going as planned.
“We remain focused on killing the bad guys,” with strikes, training, surveillance and intelligence support to the Iraqis and other local forces continuing, said a U.S. military official who is part of the fight. “All those missions continue with no disruption.”
But it's unclear to U.S. military officials what sort of knock-on effect this will have on programs that bring Iraqi officers or politicians to the states for short term courses or high-level meetings – the kind of effects the U.S. embassy warned of in its letter.
“We gotta let the rules play out and determine what the impact is,” the officials said.