Saturday, June 24, 2017
America’s Bad Habit of Starting Wars It Cannot Win
It is fascinating – in a bad way – to watch a series of American presidents continue the war in Afghanistan with the fervent belief that we can “win.” You might not know this, but I began this blog back in 2008, in protest to an American policy that thinks of modern asymmetrical warfare in terms of “winning” and “losing.” Old world concepts when the enemy is a concept without fixed and clear territory. Having lived in the Middle East in the 1960, a time when Americans were liked and welcome is most of these Islamic nations, I watched in horror as my Yale classmate, George W. Bush, succumbed to the hidden agenda of his Vice President, Dick Cheney, in post 9/11/01 turmoil plus the manufactured a war in Iraq (2003 to ??? even though there was a technical withdrawal US forces as of December 16, 2011).
Before and during the Bush W years, Cheney openly championed a government under a powerful “unitary executive” – without the continual oversight of Congress during hot times – but faced a post-Vietnam War congressional mandate that severely limited the President’s power to engage in military conflicts. To get Congress to repeal those restrictions, he needed a congressional vote. The 9/11/01 attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers were a pretty terrific excuse.
The bill to create that “unitary executive” and repeal those congressional restrictions: The USA Patriot Act, well over 300 pages, was introduced on a Friday in October of 2001 and passed with a huge majority the immediately following Monday. Virtually no Congress person who voted for it read it. Since the bill was introduced about a month and a half after the 9/11 attacks that motivated passage (the terrorists who perpetrated the hits were trained in Afghanistan), Cheney had long-since had an on-hand a draft of the bill he wanted to get before Congress; it only required a few minor tweaks to get it ready.
With Afghanistan seemingly collapsed – the Taliban gave up power – based on cruise missile attacks, a few U.S. forces and not much more, Cheney needed a rallying point to support further expansion of Presidential powers. He needed a really war with a real threat. W. Bush fell for Cheney’s failed logic. Our intelligence agencies were pretty much instructed to “find weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) in Iraq. Contrary intelligence was to be ignored. The evidence of WMDs was false, and no such weapons were ever found. The above and now discredited satellite photograph was one of the pictures the U.S. presented to the United Nations as “proof” of such Iraqi WMDs.
While former Congressman and CIA head, President George H.W. Bush knew better than to depose Saddam Hussein (a member of the Sunni minority community) after the first Gulf War (1990-91) – knowing that this would unleash Iraqi Shiite (Iran’s overwhelming Islamic faith) power creating an inevitable alliance with America’s sworn enemy, Iran – W. ignored his father’s warning and followed Cheney’s quest for a full-on war with Iraq.
Meanwhile, the United States imposed mega-corrupt “democratic” regime on Afghanistan and promptly redeployed a large segment of U.S. forces there to Iraq. The Taliban began to reconfigure, along with more than a few local warlords, to the point where the new Afghan government controlled little more than Kabul and its environs. Iraq lived up to H.W.’s fears and is now a staunch ally of the Iranian theocracy.
We never left Afghanistan. The Afghan conflict is now America’s longest war. Terrorism has exploded since our involvement there. General after general has been deployed to deliver a victory in the harsh land where the Afghan Mujahedeen defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s, literally precipitating the downfall of the entire Soviet regime. Dealing with alien terrain, an abysmal literacy rate, proliferation of several languages, a strict religion that differs dramatically from what most American military and political leaders understand, an alien culture, an innate local distrust and lack of understanding of foreigners and the world outside their local communities, no familiarity with democracy (mostly warlords, a monarchy or a religious dictatorship)… it is this vacuum that our military leaders have been asked to deliver a “victory.”
Since the inception of the war, the Taliban have never been as strong as they are today. It is a war we have not won… and one that we will not win. Instead, we continue to think that swatting as a wasp nest is a really good idea. What exactly do we think we offer the Afghan people that they remotely want? We don’t even understand who they are.
The notion of militant jihad is hardly confined to a “place.” It exists in pockets everywhere, as the recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and England attest. You can whack-a-mole anywhere, and the one true thing is that it will pop up somewhere else (or many somewheres). Crush ISIS entirely, and we can still expect attacks by comparable groups in numerous other venues. Al Qaeda, which we hailed as defeated when bin Laden was killed, is stronger than it has ever been, with operations in many more countries around the world.
So now it’s Donald Trump’s time at bat. He’s pretty much abdicated his role as commander-in-chief role to the Pentagon. He’s told his commanders to ramp up to whatever level of troop strength they feel they need to get the job done… a job that they can never accomplish. But they have been modest in their request, knowing that too big of an “ask” will turn the nation off from this failed military effort, further going against Donald Trump’s campaign pledge of less involvement in international conflicts.
“[The] Pentagon issued a news release late one afternoon last week [mid-June] confirming that the president had given the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, the authority to send several thousand additional troops to a war that, in its 16th year, engages about 8,800 American troops.
“Mr. Trump, who writes avidly on Twitter about war and peace in other parts of the world, said nothing about the announcement. But its effect was unmistakable: He had outsourced the decision on how to proceed militarily in Afghanistan to the Pentagon, a startling break with how former President Barack Obama and many of his predecessors handled the anguished task of sending Americans into foreign conflicts.
“The White House played down the Pentagon’s vaguely worded statement, which referred only to setting ‘troop levels’ as a stopgap measure — a tacit admission of the administration’s internal conflicts over what to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan…
“But former commanders and military scholars said that in sending troops before having a strategy, Mr. Trump has put the cart before the horse, eroded the tradition of civilian control over the military, and abdicated the president’s duty to announce and defend troop deployments.
“‘A commander in chief keeps control of limited wars by defining missions, selecting commanders and setting troop levels,’ said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who was a top commander and the American ambassador in Afghanistan. ‘To delegate any of these is dangerous.’
“The decision to send additional troops represents at least a temporary victory for Mr. Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, over Mr. Trump’s aides, including his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who had warned that sending more troops was a slippery slope toward nation building, anathema to nationalists like him who reject both the interventionist neoconservatives of the George W. Bush administration and the limited war fought by Mr. Obama.
“Those objections stymied the troop proposal several weeks ago. But officials said the White House was rattled by a huge truck bomb in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that killed more than 150, as well as by fears that military trends are running against the government of President Ashraf Ghani, an American-friendly former World Bank official, to the point that it might be in danger of collapse.
“General McMaster — who served in Afghanistan as the head of an anti-corruption task force and is closely allied with Mr. Mattis, another former general with Afghanistan experience — argued passionately to Mr. Trump that the military effort had to be expanded without further delay, according to one official.
“‘What we are seeing now is that the president has acknowledged that the Afghan mission is important, and we ought to do it right,’ said James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation who advised Mr. Trump’s presidential transition.
“White House officials say they are still debating America’s role in Afghanistan — one senior adviser said they would consider issues as basic as whether the country needs a strong central government, rather than the warlords who have historically divided power there. In the meantime, the Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to send 3,000 to 5,000 troops to try to stabilize the country.
“But it is not clear what Mr. Trump’s view of the strategy is, or even how involved he is in the debate. Officials said he did attend two National Security Council meetings last week — the first to discuss the troop issue, and the second to discuss the broader policy for South Asia… ‘Three thousand to 5,000 additional advisers and trainers is essential,’ John R. Allen, a retired general who served as the commander in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, said in an interview.
“When he served as the commander in Afghanistan, General Allen envisioned a residual force of 13,600 Americans and 6,000 NATO and other foreign troops — a force level that would have allowed advisers to be placed at all of the Afghan Army corps headquarters, to accompany Afghan brigades on some operations, and to set up a national training center in Helmand Province.
“The White House is calling its strategy a South Asia policy, to distinguish it from the Obama administration’s so-called Af-Pak policy. Officials said it would include diplomacy with Pakistan, India and even Iran, a nation that American diplomats cooperated with during the early months of the Afghan war but that the White House now sees as a bitter foe.
“But the administration’s efforts to harness diplomacy may be handicapped by the depleted condition of the State Department. And that suggests to some that whatever strategy the Trump administration eventually arrives at will be dominated by the military.
“‘I am not against a troop increase,’ said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Mr. Obama. ‘But this appears to be tactics waiting for a strategy.’” New York Times, June 18th.
No one sums up our hopeless situation better than Ambassador James Dobbins (former State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) in the June 23rd The Cipher Brief: “The American war in Afghanistan is in its 16th year. It was preceded by 12 years of civil war, and before that by the Soviet Union’s war. So the country itself has been in, more or less, continuous conflict since 1979.
“Today, the Trump Administration is facing the same set of alternatives that confronted the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, this is not a choice between winning and losing. The former objective is not obtainable in any foreseeable timeframe. It is a choice between losing and not losing.
“At present, the Afghan armed forces are gradually ceding ground to the Taliban. The Afghan government still holds all the major population centers, but the Taliban is increasing its control over the countryside. This result was foreseen by the Obama Administration when the president announced in May of 2014 that American troops would be out of the country by the end of his term. The expectation was that once American and European forces departed, the Kabul government’s control over the country would gradually erode. Although Obama and his team never acknowledged it, they were looking for what Henry Kissinger described, apropos of Vietnam, as ‘a decent interval’ between the American withdrawal and the local regime’s collapse.” We just don’t seem to learn, despite history’s rather clear lessons.
And when you think that the United States has not won a major war since WWII, you really do have to ask yourself what all those trillions of dollars spent on Defense procurement have really accomplished. Or we can keep swatting at wasp nests and hope that those 1.6+ billion Muslims around the world will just keep letting us fight without even more dire consequences.
I’m Peter Dekom, and whatever happened to well-informed civilian oversight of our military services?