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Archive for the ‘Military Polilcy’ Category

Originally published in RURAL RUMINATIONS

The development and implementation of the Trump administration’s current Afghan policy appears to have been deferred to the Pentagon. All we know about Trump policy toward that region is that he vowed during the presidential campaign to completely destroy ISIS, Al Qaida and any other threatening terrorist organization.

Estimates coming out of the Pentagon indicate the likelihood of an additional commitment of several thousand troops to Afghanistan. Before we make any moves in Afghanistan, it is important to look critically at the past and at our motivation for what to do now and in the future.

We got to Afghanistan based on two realities. The immediate catalyst was 9/11. Second, we saw it as a key element in our oil interests in the region, a way to get our foot in the door. The outgrowth of that was our fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq. which morphed into our current array of difficult dilemmas in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

In short, that momentous decision in 2001 launched us into a region which our government studiously never chose to understand and which was so incredibly complicated that it flummoxed one US administration after another.

So, what do we want or expect from our continued military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Apparently, we would like to see a stable region under democratic rule. We never hear US officials talking about self-determination, only about regime change and democracy.

In fact, it makes no ultimate difference what the US wants for Afghanistan and the Middle East. It only matters what they want for themselves and as long as we are pushing values and ideas that are alien to them, we will never see the end of chaos.

Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it an important cog in the Middle East. It has been fought over and occupied for millennia by big powers seeking regional hegemony. That has relatively recently included England, Russia and the United States and none of those powers has succeeded in changing the country or the minds of its peoples. Over many centuries, those and other struggles have caused hundreds of thousands of Afghan deaths and significant resentment.

Given recent developments in the world, oil no longer plays the role that it did 25 years ago.   That alters one of our reasons for remaining militarily engaged in the region.

Terrorism is our other worry. We were hard hit on 9/11, but that sort of operation against us seems to be far better controlled now than it was in 2001. The fact is that the nature of terrorism has changed. It no longer requires hideaways in the mountains or deserts of the Middle East where terrorists can be given rigorous military training. Terrorism today involves self-motivated, highly disaffected individuals who volunteer to ISIS or any other terrorist organization to carry out suicide attacks. They work with automatic weapons and murderous vehicles. Even bombs are within their reach and recent operations have shown that those weapons can be developed undetected in apartments in major western cities.

Terrorists have no need for “bases” like those previously operated in the Middle East. All they need are volunteers and central direction and that can be found, as is now the case, in countries that are not in the reach of US troops assigned to Afghanistan or the Middle East, making them no longer critical to our counterterrorism needs.

What, therefore, could possibly motivate US policy makers to continue and even augment a decades-long war that is today virtually irrelevant to the realities and motivations that got us there in the first place? It would seem that the only rationale that stems logically from that is that we are interested in regime change and the subsequent maintenance of a democracy imposed on them by us. And yet, we know that doesn’t work.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Middle Eastern nations have values that differ from ours. In doing that, we would also have to acknowledge that there are major, conflicting differences between some of the states in that region and that to leave them to the resolution of their own conflicts would likely be a violent process.

Yet, the only real peace and stability that can ultimately exist in the region is that engineered by the people involved. Perhaps we should give them the opportunity to work that out in the absence of on-site US military power while limiting ourselves to diplomatic, political and economic involvements.

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

During the Cold War, America and the USSR spent vast resources on the non-aligned world. Preeminent in that world were the countries of the Middle East. They were important because they produced much of the world’s crude oil and because control over that resource represented an incredibly powerful economic weapon. Both the Soviets and their Western competitors actively sought influence and control in that region.

Clearly, from 1945 until very recently, it was in the critical national Interest of the United States to maintain its influence in the Middle East. We needed the oil and we needed stability in the region.

“National interest” is defined in many ways, most of which focus on matters that are crucial to the wellbeing of any given state and often argue for military intervention.

Much has changed since our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11, America had a reasonably positive reputation in the Middle East. Today, less than one-in-five Palestinians, Egyptians, and Jordanians offer a favorable opinion. In the past ten years, polls have shown that roughly 75% of Muslims have an unfavorable view of the US Government, believe the US goal in the region is to weaken and divide Islam, and condemn American attacks that harm civilians. A like majority approve attacks on American troops in the region and favor the goal of getting America to withdraw all its troops from Islamic countries.

And this is in the face of a Muslim population, over 85% of which does not support Al Qaida, share its views or approve its methods!

In today’s world, an organized proficient terrorist organization does not need to hold land for terrorist training and planning. They can plan and carry out operations from any decent sized metropolis in the Western world. The real dangers reside in the angry minds of self-motivated crazies like those who have recently struck in Canada. They are not military problems. They are problems that can only be contested with intelligence and law enforcement assets.

The simple act of putting American uniforms on the ground in Islam has completely changed realities there. Instead of combatting terrorism, we have been forced to challenge and fight those who have wanted to change governance in their countries. Add to that our ongoing use of air power with all its unintended consequences. This has inevitably resulted in local populations supporting their own, whether the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria/Iraq, rather than the foreign invader and occupier, thus creating insurgencies for us to deal with.

In post war, post colonial Islam, we had two preeminent foreign policy goals, the maintenance of stability and control of the oil. In a Cold War setting, in a region where we were constantly contested by the Soviets, that policy made sense because it was in our national interest.

But what about today?

The Arab Spring gave Muslims the hope of self-determination. The problem in the region is not only that there is no history of that, but that stability and order have been maintained in the past by repressive governance. And if we are to understand Muslim attitudes towards us, we have to realize that they deeply resent the fact that those repressive governments were maintained in power by US Cold War policies. Unfortunately, stability, where it exists today, is still largely dependent on repression.

Add to that our ongoing attitude and policy toward Palestinians, our tolerance of Israeli settlement activities, our military invasions of the region, and our precipitous fall from favor in Islam becomes more clear.

And what of oil? With its newfound focus on shale, the United States has now surpassed Saudi Arabia in crude oil production.

The resources that are needed to fight movements like ISIS, Khorasan, Hizbollah and other fundamentalist Muslims groups, belong to the countries where they are active. If Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb and the Gulf states feel threatened, it will and should be up to them to provide the military power needed to combat them. It is not and should not be our fight because it is not in our national interest.

So, how can we find a “national interest” in present and future military activity in Islam? The simple answer is that we can’t. It is far wiser that we concentrate on intelligence and Special Operations – both of which are acknowledged to be the most effective tools against terrorism.

The worst mix in the world is the conventional US military trying to deal with terrorism on foreign soil. It will only, inevitably make matters worse morphing terrorism into far more difficult and expensive to contest insurgencies, as it already has in the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

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Originally published in The Herald of Randolph

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.  If America attacks Iran or can legitimately be accused of approving such an attack by Israel, the results will be a disaster for us.  Even if Israel goes ahead with such an attack without our approval, the world will be in deep trouble.

It is an unfortunate fact that in matters like this, US foreign policy is normally made on the basis of the domestic political needs and objectives of the party in power.  What that means today is that the Democrats probably believe that it would be political suicide in the face of the upcoming national elections to do anything that would appear to be contrary to the Israeli government’s needs or wishes.

That reality has given the Republicans conservatives the opportunity to attack the Democrats if they do not take on Iran, either through Israel or unilaterally.  In fact, the war cries from the far right are increasingly strident.

Yet, in Israel, relative calm and prudence remain.

Current and former Israeli military and intelligence chiefs continue to maintain that they do not support a strike on Iran and that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel.

A recent Tel Aviv University poll found that 62.9 percent of Israelis strongly or moderately oppose Unilateral Israeli attack on Iran.  That same poll found that 70% of Israelis believe such an attack would be ineffective in “stopping Iran’s nuclearization for a substantial time”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency and the US intelligence Community have both said that Iran has not yet decided whether or not to build a bomb.  In addition, Michael Hayden, the former CIA Director said recently that the CIA under President Bush II determined that an attack on Iran was a bad idea and strongly advised against such an attack today.

Further, American intelligence and military estimates say that at best an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay their nuclear program and could “carry unforeseen risks”.

Consensus in the US intelligence and military communities, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates concludes that damage would not be great and that Iran would rebuild. “The regime’s resolve to build a weapon, if it so chooses, may only be hardened” and that “If Iran did attempt to restart its nuclear program after an attack, it would be much more difficult for the United States to stop it.”

The more practical military question is whether or not either the US or Israel actually has the weapons needed to have any real impact on the Iraqi nuclear program.  Largely as a result of perceived threats from the United States and Israel, Iran long ago decided the put that program as far out of reach as possible.  That decision lead to burying the program far under ground in locations that are extremely difficult to attack.  That fact makes the construction of an effective weapon technically difficult and requires extraordinary precision in delivery and aim.  It is unclear whether either of these criteria can be met and whether there is any hope of materially damaging the Iranian program.

What would a post-attack world look like? The first danger would be to all US military and civilian personnel and interests in the Middle East.  Acting through Shia allies throughout the region, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran would certainly move to make our lives as untenable as possible.  In addition, they would likely close the Straits of Hormuz, shutting down the movement of one fifth of the world’s crude oil to its western markets and creating western economic chaos

In the longer term, an attack on Iran, whether by Israel, the US, or both, is about the only thing that can unite the essentially pro-Western, anti-regime population in Iran against us.  That bodes really ill for the future.  Along with that would come the virtual guarantee that Iran, irrespective of what we think they are doing, or not doing today, will undertake a nuclear weapons program in the future.

There certainly doesn’t seem too much in it for the United States in an attack on Iran.  In fact, it looks like a disaster waiting to happen.  In return for an attack of highly dubious efficacy, we get in return Iranian and Iranian-sponsored attacks on us and our interests, international economic instability and regional chaos.  And we would be a part of this without conclusive proof that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon?

When does America get to define her own national interests?


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Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

Over the past dozen years, the United States has spent vast amounts of its human treasure and national resources on a series of foreign interventions.  We have now been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with Syria and Iran and Central Africa representing candidates for the immediate future.

All of this has been and will be done without declarations of war, over the supine body of our Congress, without the agreement of the majority of the American people and without real scrutiny from the press. We have become a nation of onlookers.

In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to “declare war”. However neither the US Constitution, nor the law, tell us what format a declaration of war must take.  The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a “state of war” existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania Since then, the U.S. has used the term “authorization to use military force”, as in the case against Iraq in 2003.

For a variety of reasons, all of which are based on local historical, tribal, ethnic and national realities, our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not turning out as we might have wished.  Despite early warnings from our governmental and academic experts on those areas, it seems clear that any hopes we had for bettering the situations that existed there are likely to fail.  In fact, our military involvement in the region has lead to instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as it almost certainly will if we succumb to local and international pressures to become involved in Syria and Iran.  And now we are told we should become militarily involved in Central Africa.

This is all well and good, but one key ingredient is missing.  We have never had a national discussion about the efficacy of American military intervention abroad.  We have seen two Presidents act in ways that made Congress disposed to support them without intelligent discussion of the activities proposed.

Over the past year, two thirds of Americans have been polled as opposed to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are now faced with the specific prospect of military activity in Syria and Iran and with further future interventions around the world, it is time for America to have this discussion.

First, we need to discuss whether or not we want to conduct such operations at all.  If so, should we act independently of the UN and international coalitions, as stipulated, or unilaterally as many of our hawks and neocons would wish?

We need to have a discussion that defines the specific intervention problem and its solution.  We need to know the precise goal of the intervention, how long it will last and what the likely response to our intervention will be.

Then we need to and how it will be funded.  Are there to be more unfunded interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when we are already in deep economic trouble resulting from our past interventionist adventures?

Additionally, we need to be reassured that if the intervention involves terrorism, our approach will be limited to police and intelligence work.  We have learned far too much from Iraq and Afghanistan to again involve our military establishment in counterterrorism operations.

If we learn that an insurgency is involved, we need to know how our government plans to avoid subsequent nation building and the export of democracy.  Again, Iraq and Afghanistan provide the wholly negative lesson for us here.

Finally, we must determine whether or not any proposed intervention is in our true national interest and we need to do that in the absence of foreign pressures.

The only way we will learn the answers to these critical questions is through a national discussion of any proposed future intervention.  Our Government isn’t holding such a debate except for a little squawking by individuals now and then.  The media should and could do so, with one or more news organizations making it a front-burner item, interviewing experts and political leaders and staying on the subject.

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Reasonably careful attention to the news media, shows that writers and talking heads are increasingly surprised that things are not going our way in the Middle East. Recently a number of commentators have expressed surprise that Iraq looks to be sliding toward chaos and indignation at the recent killings of some of our advisor/soldiers in Afghanistan.

We have now been in Afghanistan for over a decade. That is twice as long as we were involved in World War II – and longer than any foreign war in our history. We went to Afghanistan to redress the attack of 9/11. We then completely took our eyes off the ball and invaded Iraq, an act that may well turn out to be the greatest foreign policy gaff in the history of the United States.

We went into Afghanistan on the premise that we were fighting the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and in fairly short order we had completely eliminated Al Qaeda from the Afghan countryside. By 2002, GWOT/Afghanistan was all over. In 2003, we invaded Iraq, destroying whatever planning continuity we may have had for Afghanistan. And guess what happened. As time dragged on, the struggle in Afghanistan ceased being a counterterrorism program and became a counterinsurgency with Afghan people rising up against us. The Bush administration avoided acknowledging that. They purposefully continued to call it counterterrorism. It’s easier to get sympathy and support fighting terrorists than it is fighting insurgents.

The problem here is that, according to the US Army’s own experts, a counterinsurgency program requires 25 troops for every 1,000 indigenous residents, which would have meant a commitment of 850,000 US troops to effectively combat the Afghan insurgency. So, by 2011, ten years in, we were fighting an insurgency with a force that was one eighth the size required by the facts on the ground.

How did we manage to get to the point where we are so roundly disliked by the Afghans? A look back on our behaviors in Afghanistan show a pattern that clearly was not designed to win Afghan hearts and minds. The torture and abuse of Afghan prisoners at Bagram began in 2002 and came to public light in 2005. Helicopter and drone attacks have regularly caused collateral civilian damage. Afghans have seen American soldiers urinate on Afghan dead. And most recently, we have been burning Korans, which is an incredible sacrilege in Islam.

This is certainly not to say that we have purposefully committed these acts. Clearly, the haze of war, cultural ineptitude and plain old stupidity are co-responsible. What is fact, however, is that we are the foreigners in Afghanistan and we have been there for over a decade. The average Afghan, if he remembers at all, thinks we came to get rid of Al Qaida. And we did, by 2002 at the latest. So they ask, why have we stayed?

Are these American troops perhaps here for some other reason? Are they here as the new Crusaders to occupy Afghanistan? Are they here to bring us Afghans a new form of government – democracy, for example? If that is the case, we Afghans are uninterested. The point is that, having been given absolutely no good answers to their questions, and given the fact that Afghanistan has been invaded innumerable times in the past, they simply have to be suspicious of us and our motives. Even the roundly disliked Taliban is preferable to the foreign occupiers.

The Afghan people have never supported a strong central government. Quite the opposite, they are tribally and nationally diverse people. They are Pushtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Amak, Turkmen, Baloch and many others. They have survived over the years by keeping power at home in their valley, being suspicious of everyone not in their tribe and keeping Kabul at arm’s length.

There is no news here. This is the way the Afghans have always been and may always be. What is sad is the fact that Americans who really understand Afghanistan have known this forever. In the process of getting mired down in Afghanistan, many of those experts spoke up and predicted quite accurately what the future held for the US in Afghanistan.

Of course, the problem is that our politicians didn’t listen to them. Do they ever? Did they on Iraq? They went ahead with their plans for their own internal domestic political reasons and in doing so, proved conclusively how wrong they were.

George W. Bush’s great Neoconservative Middle East experiment is drawing to an end, leaving a deeply fractured America, with trillions of dollars of debt wasted on military adventures we rationally never could have concluded in our favor.

 

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By the end of this month, there will be no more American troops stationed in Iraq, and if the American logistical team is as good as we hear, there won’t be any US military hardware, not even uniforms and toothbrushes left there either.

March 19, 2012, would mark nine spent years in Iraq.  Precise numbers of casualties are disputed, but it would seem that over that period of time, we have suffered almost 4500 deaths and over 33,000 wounded.  The only dispute here is on the numbers of US wounded, with some sources claiming that over 100,000 would be closer to the truth.  In any event, the care and treatment of wounded, whatever the number truly is, will continue for decades and cost close to a trillion additional dollars.

In direct financial costs, the Brown University “Costs of War” project estimates that the Iraq war alone has already cost in excess of 1 trillion dollars.  That number does not count any future costs, whether medical or interest payments on the billions borrowed to pursue the war, or anything else.  It’s not too hard to remember Bush Administration officials telling us that the Iraq war “would pay for itself”!

Saddam Hussein, unless you were on his team, was a horrific leader.  He murdered countless numbers of his fellow Iraqis, using poison gas on his own people.  On the other hand, if you take a totally self-serving, cynical point of view, he represented a number of things that have been important to United States administrations in the past.  He maintained a stable government and country – by repression, of course.  He maintained the flow of Iraqi oil to the West. He and his large army represented the only truly effective deterrent to Iranian hegemonic goals in the Gulf region.  He was on “our side” in the Cold War.  Additionally, he attacked and made war against Iran between l980-88.  All of these things, at one time or another, have been important to, approved and encouraged by American administrations, particularly the war with Iran, which took place during Ronald Reagan’s administration.

One of the things our attack on Iraq accomplished was to end all of the above practices which were appreciated, even encouraged by a variety of US Administrations.  So, what good did it do for anyone?

The roughly 100,000 Iraqi dead didn’t appreciate our invasion.  The Sunnis, a minority in Iraq’s complex ethnic and secular structure, who had ruled mercilessly there, have not fared well in the aftermath of the invasion.  It’s really hard to figure just how the Kurds have made out.  If they can continue their semi-autonomy there, which they clearly plan to fight to do, they could conceivably be considered winners.

Regional Sunnis are not pleased with Shia ascendancy in Iraq since that basically empowers contiguous, Shia Iran.  After all, Sunni Iraq had been the major bulwark against Iran’s quest for Gulf hegemony at the expense of the Sunnis.  Thus, the Shia, who represent 60+% of the Iraqi population are clear winners.  Having been horribly repressed by a succession of Sunni governments, they are finally in charge.

The far most important winner in the region is Iran.  With their confessional confederates in charge in Iraq, they no longer are faced with an implacable Sunni neighbor.  With our final expulsion from Iraq, Iran is now virtually free to pursue its hegemonic goals in the Gulf.  There is literally no army in the region that is remotely capable of taking them on.  Their active duty military establishment is over half a million strong with an additional 600,000 in the active reserve.  Iran is a country of 78 million people living on 1.6 million square kilometers, the 18th largest country in the World.  They are intelligent, capable people who, in the millennium before Christ, ruled the entire region that we now call the Middle East.  It was, at the time, the largest empire ever constructed by man.  Iranians have not forgotten these facts and seek to be taken more seriously in their region today.

How is the future shaping up for Iraq today?  With Nuri al-Maliki heading a government made up largely of pro-Iranian, Shia Islamists, hope is fading for a calm transition to a secular Islamic government.  It now appears that the national and sectarian instabilities of the past, Sunni/Shia, Arab/Kurd and Arab/Iranian are likely to determine the future.

Any country that is inherently politically unstable and volatile, like Iraq with its history of sectarian conflict, is heading for trouble.  There is every possibility that a renewal of the sectarian fighting of 2006-2007 that killed thousands of Iraqis could be just around the corner.

And remember, this time, the Shia will be in power, not our old “friends” the Sunnis, with Iran not very far behind.


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America’s involvement in wars in the Middle East has opened a number of difficult discussions here at home.  First and foremost, why did we get involved in the first place and why have we mortgaged our future pursuing those wars?

But those are questions that have been discussed since our invasion of Iraq and that will be discussed for decades to come.  It is possible that before all the Bush era decision-makers have passed on, we might even learn why we got so involved.

There is one more issue that is now beginning to be discussed.  It is an issue that is even more difficult than those above and that stems from the way America has come to run its military and to make wars.  It is, moreover, an issue of how we treat those who actually fight those wars.

In 1971, a nation tired of the Viet Nam war passed legislation ending the military draft in favor of an All-Volunteer Force (AVF).  The end of the draft was formally announced in 1973.  This status quo went along relatively smoothly until we got involved in our first unpopular post-Viet Nam war.

In that regard, in 2010, roughly seventy percent of Americans said the Iraq war was not worth it.   Sixty percent are opposed to our continued military involvement in Afghanistan.  It is parenthetically interesting to note that in the Muslim Middle East, 90% are against US military involvement where 57% of Israelis support that involvement.  And we thought we were in it to bring democracy to Islam!

In purely practical terms, the AVF has amounted to a Praetorian Guard for both the Republicans under Bush and the Democrats under Obama.  Aided and abetted by a compliant Congress that has largely opted out of its constitutional responsibility for declaring war, those administrations have been able to do pretty much whatever they wished with the AVF, including initiating and continuing two very expensive, unfunded and unpopular wars.

Today’s AVF is often criticized for not being representative of the US population.  According to a 2006 Rand study, “Recruits come primarily from families in the middle or lower middle classes. Few recruits come from upper-income families”, and recruits from the Southern states are overrepresented.  Nevertheless, despite such criticism, the AVF has functioned extremely well in its combat role.

So what’s the complaint?  We have a AVF that does its job well, in the process, using less privileged Americans and thus absolving the “upper classes” of bearing any responsibility for manning our military.

When we had an army of conscripts, as was the case in Viet Nam, jut about all of us had a dog in the fight.  We had relatives or friends who were in uniform.  For that reason, when we turned against the Viet Nam war, we had real influence.

We were able to actually affect the conduct of the war and that reality led to our withdrawal.  That is no longer the case.  Now, only a few of us have that dog in the fight.  There is little personal incentive to do the things necessary for a citizen to affect policy.

The toughest aspect of this new reality comes in the way we treat those who are in the fight.  We all remember how badly we Americans treated our troops when they came back from Viet Nam.  We spat on them, both figuratively and literally.  We don’t do that now.  Now we shower them with platitudes.  “Thank you for your service to our country” we say, thanking the Lord that we don’t really know them and that they are not actually related to us.

So, what do you do if you think that these 21st Century wars never should have been undertaken?  What do you say when you consider the trillions of dollars that our Middle East adventures have cost us?  Precisely how do you deal with the dichotomy that very brave and dedicated young men and women have been and now are participating in conflicts that you think are the result of terrible errors in leadership judgment?

The increasing number of Americans who believe that these wars have not been in our national interest clearly have to continue to argue against such involvements.  However, far more importantly than that, we have to recognize the extraordinary physical and mental damage these wars have done to those who actually participated in them.  The effects of that involvement will be with us as long as those veterans live.  It will be monumentally and increasingly expensive.

What we can all do is accept that fact and support those troops that way, irrespective of how we feel about the wars that caused that reality.

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