Monday, July 31, 2017
When Taking the Gloves Off Just Makes It Worse
Passing the decisions to commanders in the field, eschewing trust in a deeply-understaffed Department of State, usually generates the laws of unintended consequences. The Trump way. In fairness to Donald Trump – not so easy to do – Barack Obama’s failure to follow-up on his 2012 redline threat – should the Assad regime again resort to chemical weapons against his own people, which of course they did – only emboldened Assad to keep up the genocide, making matters so much worse. But that was Obama’s mistake. Trump has already begun to create his own litany of serious missteps in the Middle East and the surrounding area, mostly born of a rather dramatic failure to understand the realities he is actually facing.
When you take to the military equivalent of bare knuckle fighting, you can win, you can lose or you can deepen and lengthen the threat. Unless your opponents lay down their arms and surrender, which seems a stupid tact against a big bully that has not been able to win a major war since WWII despite its massive military superiority, you probably will just stiffen resistance, forcing you enemy to alter their tactics. If their holding hard territory is a failing strategy, you can expect new asymmetrical attacks – terrorism and cyberattacks – back on your home turf. It’s not about land right now.
We seem to have this habit of declaring victory – “mission accomplished!” – when we liberate real estate – cities, towns and often entire regions. But the enemy has a bad habit of withdrawing, biding their time, and returning when our forces inevitably withdraw and head home. Like when we shoved the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan for their complicity in the 9/11/01 attacks. Seventeen years later, the Taliban hold the most Afghan territory they have held since we “threw them out.”
In 2003, we shoved Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority government out of Iraq, allowing a strongly anti-Sunni Shiite government (with revenge on their minds) to take power instead. That government quickly began arresting Sunni leaders, allowing Sunni towns and farms to deteriorate without any assistance from Baghdad, and seeming to declare war on that 20% Iraqi Sunni minority itself. That gave Sunni terrorist groups – from ISIS to al Qaeda – a foothold in those abandoned Sunni communities, which erupted into the conflicts that dominate the entire area today… and will for the foreseeable future. Our destruction of the Hussein regime also moved Shiite Iraq into becoming Shiite Iran’s closest regional ally and a supporter of the brutal minority Shiite Assad regime in Syria. Mission accomplished!
But here is the reality of so many of these vicious struggles: These are not traditional battles or wars where conquering and taking real estate constitutes a victory. This is not like taking down Adolph Hitler and “freeing Germany and its allied peoples.” This is as much a religious and cultural war as anything else. So if a religious and cultural physical stronghold falls, the underlying concepts don’t vaporize. These ideas and ideologies float way above land and population centers, reinforce each other through social media, and pop up elsewhere. Scattered as well as concentrated. Like metastasized cancer. The ideological torch might be carried by the same players or by the next generation – always waiting in the wings – ready to reignite passions and doctrinaire fervor. Whack-a-mole is a “light” version of this reality. But there are almost 1.7 billion Muslims on this plant, and even if a tiny minority have hatred and killing on their minds, it is a terrible problem. We just do not seem to know how to embrace that community instead of pushing it into the hands of extremists.
Where we are really failing, where we are actually helping to recruit and build forces against our own best interests or transfer alignment to our competing nations, is through a litany of policy missteps, some less obvious than others. In the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. For example, when we cut foreign aid to a nation under our profoundly misguided “America First” antagonist mantra, literally baiting the rest of the world to defend themselves against us, China happily steps in the next day with even more aid… extracting political and economic concessions from the recipient nation. These beneficiaries of China’s newfound largesse no longer have any stake in protecting American interests and will instead accommodate Beijing’s priorities.
Or when we instituted a “travel ban” – enhanced with vicious rhetoric from our President – it has almost universally been viewed (even our allies) as a “Muslim ban” as part of a larger purported American “war on Islam.” These statements – fully available online – along with our history of “enhanced interrogation” (torture under international treaties) make for extremely powerful recruitment materials to engage terrorists worldwide. “Defend the faith,” they scream. Remember, as violent as the effects truly are, this is a war of religious fervor and not primarily about taking and holding land. Given the concentration of traditional military forces in the Middle East, these terrorists are currently less interested in recruiting soldiers for these regional wars and more committed to finding locally-sympathetic residents in Western nations to foment terrorism there.
And when the Commander-in-Chief issues a “gloves-off” directive to his generals in the field, when the concerns about “collateral damage” are officially lessened, another nasty unintended consequence comes into play. Here is an interesting take from a July 26th The Cipher Brief’s interview of Stephen Biddle, a professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, who recently co-authored a paper on U.S. security force assistance, “Small footprint, small payoff: The military effectiveness of security force assistance.”
“[All] sorts of contradictory statements come out of this Administration, so saying the Trump Administration believes x and not y is already a problem; different people in this Administration think and mean different things, and the president apparently means different things on Tuesday than he means on Wednesday, so one has to be wary when making the following claim. But the Administration appears to believe that U.S. interests would be better served in these places by taking the gloves off and being more forceful and constraining the U.S. military less. They seem to think it was political correctness for the Obama Administration to have worried so much about civilian casualties, and unlike Obama they’re not politically correct; therefore, they’re not going to be as constrained. My guess is that’s what’s going on with the reduction in constraints on airstrikes. I happen to think they’re wrong about that assessment of U.S. interests. Loosening collateral damage constraints will inevitably increase collateral damage, and to worry about this isn’t just liberal hand-wringing – there are good national security reasons to think that increased civilian fatalities at U.S. hands can increase local resistance to U.S. forces.”
In addition to making new “collateral damage” enemies, with all this negativity, imposing our populist slogans on distant lands where there is little or no concern about American politics, we are literally placing the entire burden of protecting what we hold dear on our own, isolated shoulders. Americans are just not happy with continuing to send hundreds of troops into harm’s way… over there. We think we can win with aerial assaults and the prudent use of well-placed U.S. Special Forces “connecting with leaders and people.” Really? But what’s really in it for the locals? What does Professor Biddle think about that?
“The U.S. Special Operations Command believes that a big benefit of [trying to create regional stability] is to build relationships, not necessarily to improve military effectiveness per se, but to make people more inclined to work with the United States. But there’s very little evidence that it actually works that way. At the end of the day, on issues of national security and internal balancing that are important to the recipient country, having a friendly relationship with a group of 20- to 40-year-old American soldiers is a lot less important than what they think their own national interests are.
“Other things being equal, it’s always better to have some pre-existing relationship with any other human being. Human connections are a good thing. But if the issue is that we would like country x to crack down on a terrorist movement within its borders, and country x doesn’t want to because they think it’ll cause internal violence in their country, and so they’d rather tolerate the threat – will they crack down because they have a good relationship with the 12 American special forces commandos who were there last year, whereas they otherwise wouldn’t? Of course I’m presenting a complicated issue in a telegraphic way, but on balance I think that’s a lot less likely than some may hope.”
The naiveté of these American efforts never ceases to amaze me. We have bumbled and blundered into creating the greatest instability this region has ever seen, mostly since our most inane military strategies from 2001 onwards. I remember living in the heart of the Middle East (Lebanon) as the son of an American diplomate decades ago. Man, did they love America and Americans! I was in the friendliest place I have ever lived. But that was then…
I’m Peter Dekom, and the notion of purging educated Middle Eastern/African specialists from the ranks of our responsible leadership and replacing them with under-informed sloganeers just cannot be in our best interest.