Monthly Archives: September 2014

Number Crunching

One of the more fascinating comments recently came from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence.  As he was describing the failure to predict the collapse of Iraqi security forces and the rise of ISIL.  His quote from Washington Post is: “It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”  And there in lays the problem.  That is exactly what the National Security officials should be trying to assess.  Instead of looking at the numbers of soldiers, police, and etc. the analysts should have been looking at the human element.

It seems there is a basic disconnect between the real world and the analysis that guides our foreign policy decision making.  War and conflict by their inherent nature are human endeavors.  To try to analyze them without taking into account human will and actions is useless.  As the OODA loop so elegantly shows the final step required to complete the loop is for the subject to Act.  For a person to act in a conflict requires the strength of will to do what is required to accomplish the mission.  In war that requires the will to fight, which the US trained Iraqi forces clearly lacked.

As the Director mentioned in his interview this is the same mistake we made in Vietnam, and yet we still refuse to learn from our mistakes.   Our ability to imprint our ways of war on someone else’s military is extremely limited.  The reason we fight the way we do is based on our society and cultural upbringing.  To think that you could have someone, especially someone whose society is dramatically different from ours, to fight the way we do is folly.  As Taliban and ISIL demonstrated, the poor copies of the Western Armed forces that are the Iraqi and Afghan army, are at a disadvantage when facing a native force that is willing to fight and die for what they believe in.

With regards to intelligence analysis, any assessment regarding ally or enemy capability has to be based on the assessment of the people.  A tank or an APC is useless without a crew that is willing to fight and yet we keep thinking that if we just give enough equipment to a foreign army that somehow that by itself will make it effective force.  Afghanistan is a prime example.  Once we withdraw from Afghanistan that army will most likely fall apart because it lacks the will to fight.  There are a multitude reasons for that, which in the end really mean nothing, except to show that the continued US support of those armed forces and others such as them will by itself not lead to success.  If the native forces are not willing to fight and die for their own country, then the only thing we are doing is prolonging the conflict.  US forces should not be more willing to die for Afghanistan then the Afghans are.  That’s what the intelligence analyst should be highlighting to the decision makers.  Maybe then we won’t continue to waste our lives and money.  That fact that they don’t combined with the lack of accountability for poor previous analysis traps us in a cycle of poor decisions.

There is no easy or quick fix.  The culture of the intelligence agencies has to change.  Critical thinking which seems to be absent, in both civilian and military analysis, has to be nurtured and number crunching removed as an analysis tool.  Numbers of tanks and other equipment matter. but not as much as the human analysis.  People centric is the only way to analyze and predict what our adversaries will do.  The people we are fighting or will fight in the future are not faceless robots and neither are our allies.  If we treat them as such then we will continue making the same mistakes we have made since Vietnam.  By still supporting allies with our blood and treasure who are unwilling to fight for their own country.  On purely military level as ISIL demonstrated over the past few year, an effective fighting force can be created in the Arab world in a short time, without any foreign assistance.  Our Arab allies should be able to do the same, if they have the will to fight.

As our own history shows, you have to be willing to fight for what you believe in.  At Antietam more than 20,000 Americans lost their lives or were wounded in single day of battle.  Does any one truly believe that Iraqi and Afghan Armies are willing to take those kind of casualties in a single day?  And that sums up our current dilemma,  Lacking a clear analysis we are stuck repeating the same mistakes over and over.  Until we change the way we look at our adversaries and allies we will keep doing the same things, expecting different results.


The training paradox

As the US airpower is pounding ISIS or ISIL back into an insurgent organization, there are continued calls to train the “moderate” opposition in Syria and the Iraqi security forces.  The fact that there are calls do so from both military and civilian foreign policy decision-makers is troubling.  Add to that, the never ending training mission in Afghanistan and someone has to ask the question.  Are the people we are training idiots?  By the time we are done with this most of the US military personnel would have served their time and retired.  The fact that we keep throwing good money after the bad is indicative of a crisis in the strategic thinking and analysis.  The question no one seems to ask is how is that that ISIL and Taliban both achieved their military strength, without a massive billion dollar training program

With regards to Syria and ISIL.  Three years ago both “moderate” opposition and ISIL were in their infancy.  I put moderate in quotations because it is a truly useless term.  How does one define a moderate Islamist?  Do they only want to convert the non believers on the odd days of the week?  Do they plan for Sharia law to be only applied in certain cases?  What does that really mean?  Do they also carry moderate ID card, so we can identify them?  I kidding of course. Moderate Syrian opposition is a dream that only exists in theory.  There is no platform to my knowledge from any Syrian insurgency group that call for a multi-religious modern democratic state.

Getting back to the beginning.  The fact is that the Syrian opposition with the exception of ISIL is composed of losers.  ISIL was able to grow into a force it is today because they have an idea they believe in and are willing to fight and die for.  As repugnant as their ideas are, they do drive the success of their army.  While the rest of the opposition is divided with each group trying to gain advantage over others.  Why should we train them?  ISIL did not need training.  The question never asked is why given the same beginnings did ISIL prevail and the so called moderates did not?  ISIL did not appear from a movie screen, armed and organized ready to fight.  They had to build up from scratch, just like the rest of Syrian opposition.  The only answer I can see is that the rest of the opposition is composed of incompetents, unable to win regardless how much training we put in.

The example of the Iraqi army should have been a wake up call.  Despite billions in training and equipment they chose to become a force more interested in corruption than fighting.  The more we train the worse they seem to be.  The same will happen in Syria.  As ISIL so aptly demonstrated by capturing Syrian army ammunition and equipment, what Syrian opposition needs is not US money and equipment, but guts and willingness to fight.  My advice to the “moderate” opposition is to capture what they need from Syrian army or ISIL.  If they can’t, then they don’t deserve to win.  The only thing our support will buy is temporary salvation for the incompetents in charge.  Once that support ends just like the South Vietnamese government and South Lebanon Army (depraved of Israeli support), the opposition will collapse.

The money we are currently wasting and are preparing to waste training these people could be put to better use upgrading the equipment of the US armed forces.  The 500 million the President asked for Syria could be better spent upgrading the USAF F-16 fleet to a generation 4+ fighter capability.  Which would be a lot more useful strategically to the United States in case China or Russia is an issue at some time in future.

Mowing Grass In The Desert

This morning there is news of US airstrikes in Syria.  The exact composition of the strike packages is unknown, but according to the reports the U.S. officials said that in addition to Jordan; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar also aided in the raids, although Qatar’s role was described as a supporting one.  As far as the aircraft involved, for the first time the F-22s have been used in “combat”.

It is good to see some involvement from the Sunni Arabs in combating ISIS.  However, there is still no strategic answer and no strategy as to how all of this ends.  There is no doubt that tactically, airpower combined with Kurdish, Shia Arab, and other anti-ISIS ground forces will degrade and most likely destroy ISIS as a cohesive organization.  ISIS has no ability to Observe US aircraft and therefore can never compete with the US OODA loop.  Once the ISIS captured tanks and other armored vehicles are eliminated, that organization will be forced to resort back to an insurgency type campaign.  Once that happens, even an army as incompetent as Iraqi one could keep them contained as they have for two years prior to June 2014.

But, what happens afterwards?  The underlying Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arab goals of either living free from or ruling over Shias in their respective countries remain unchanged.  Additionally, it is highly likely that the Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia will just shift their funding to a different Sunni Arab group.  All we will see in a few years is a remnant of ISIS transforming itself into a different yet similar organization involved in terror, representing the views of the Sunni Arabs.

Also, it is important to remember that while ISIS is a terrorist group, it is supported by the Sunni population in the areas it controls.  Until the Sunnis choose to use other means besides terrorism and combat to accomplish their political goals, nothing will change.  This is only possible if the Sunni Arabs are no longer under the control of Iraqi and Syrian Shia regimes.  If that happens and there is an independent Sunnistan, then and only then could be a possibility of peace.  It would be based on mutual deterrence, along the lines of North/South Korea or Turkey/Greece relationships.  Anyone who thinks that Shias and Sunnis can live in a single state, side by side, does not understand the dynamics of their religious struggle which has been going on since the death of Mohamed.  Based on the current events co-existence based on mutual respect is simply not possible in the Middle East until there is some fundamental religious change, similar to the European Enlightenment.  Until that happens we will continue mowing grass so to speak, destroying terrorist organizations only to see them grow again.

As to the F-22 use in “combat”, there have been a number of misinformed comments such as this from Washington Post At long last, F-22 Raptor fighter makes its debut in combat over Syria.  What the writer and other like him don’t understand is that the use of F-22s does not mean that somehow now this weapon system’s purchase is justified.  It was justified a long time ago. The writer fundamentally does not understand that the best military weapon is the one you never have to use, because the enemy is so scared of you using it.  Think nuclear weapons.  Just because we have not used one in a war since 1945 does not mean we should not have acquired them.  Nuclear weapons prevented a world war along the lines of WWII between superpowers in which millions would have perished.

What the 381 F-22s, that former Secretary Gates reduced to 177, provide is deterrence to insure that there would not be a war between US and a near peer competitor, which could take thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives.  Unfortunately his focus on the police actions we call wars reduced the number of F-22s acquired and by extension reduced the ability of the US to deter an adversary from a major conflict.  The F-22s have not been used for the past 10-15 years for the same reason we did not use nukes in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were not needed.  Police actions we call wars require police presence and police response.  People should think of F-22s as they do of house or flood insurance, something that you buy hoping to never have to use.  To use F-22s now against an adversary such as ISIS that has no Air Force is a waste of resources and reduces US ability to deter better equipped adversaries.



A real strategic challenge – China

The Economist had an interesting piece regarding China’s current leader Xi Jinping.  You can read it here Xi who must be obeyed.  There really is nothing new to anyone who has been watching the Chinese developments for the past year or so.  Xi is continuing to consolidate power using the anti-corruption drive to eliminate opposition.  The US should be concerned.

Once Xi is able to consolidate power he will no longer be constrained by the consensus decision making that characterized China’s foreign policy after Mao.  For the students of history it is worth to remember that the times China used its military force since 1949 has been during the time of Mao’s rule, 1950s and late 1960s.  Therefore, once Xi is firmly in charge there will be a much higher chance of US-China conflict.

There are some out there that believe Xi will actually reform China and reduce corruption.  That belief is false.  The reason China is corrupt in the first place is because of the political system Xi is trying to strengthen.  There is no doubt there will be corruption show trials, similar to Stalin’s purges of 1937, with high ranking individuals convicted, however afterwards the corruption will continue.  The only way for Xi to actually fight corruption effectively would be to change the political system and introduce a system of checks and balances.  That, he will not do as it will lead to his and Chinese communist party downfall.

So, now the US is entering into a more dangerous period of US-Chinese relations.  The reason for this is that once the anti-corruption campaign winds down the Chinese citizens will see that nothing has really changed.  The Chinese state will remain corrupt.  Its current claim to legitimacy through high economic growth is already being challenged and as evident by the Chinese economic slowdown.  If the growth continues to slow and the state is not reformed, the Chinese people will start question the legitimacy of the Chinese elites that rule them.

If that happens, what is the best way for the leadership to deflect Chinese people’s anger?  Foreign conflict is most likely and there are no shortage of pretexts.  The old question of Taiwan is number one.  A close second is the South China Sea claims.  The ridiculous nine-dashed lines Chinese claim of the whole area is already being used to inflame passions in both China and the other five countries laying claim to the same area.  The inclusion of that map on the new Chinese passports should be a wake-up call to those who think the issue can be negotiated away.

For those who think armed conflict is impossible, should think again.  Wars have been started for less.  Once Xi is the sole decision maker, it will be more likely that a miscalculation on his part could lead to an armed conflict between China and US.  The Chinese will lose but they could hurt the US if we are not ready.

So, what can US do?  Number one priority is to continue re-balancing force structure towards the Pacific region.  Limit involvement in the Middle East, which drains the material and financial resources that could be used to strengthen deterrence against China.  Continue the development of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine.  Transition training across all services away from COIN towards Major Combat Operations.  Ensure our allies in the region continue to modernize and develop their armed force for major conflict against a near peer adversary.

While it is impossible to know what Xi or a leader such as him is thinking, it is highly unlikely that his is suicidal.  That is, he will not start a conflict he knows he will lose.  Therefore the best way to ensure there will not be a conflict is to present an overwhelming force of deterrence.  The Chinese leadership has to know that based on the US commitment to the region any war between US and China will result in Chinese defeat and most likely overthrow of the Chinese communist party and the dismemberment of the Chinese state.  The non-democratic regimes normally do not survive a battlefield defeat as evidenced Austria-Hungary and Russian Empire after WWI.

The latest Xi Jinping news should refocus US strategic planning towards a true threat to our existence and away from the mosquito-like threat represented by the terrorist groups such as ISIS.  Very simply we cannot lose a war against a near peer adversary, such as China.  At the same time if we chose to engage the minute threat represented by ISIS and similar groups, we should not over-hype the danger from those group.  Contrary to what some believe the 30,000 ISIS members will not “kill us all.”


Iraq does not want US troops

An interesting article today from AP, you can read it at Iraqi prime minister interview.  What stands out from his statement: ( “Not only is it not necessary,” he said, “We don’t want them. We won’t allow them. Full stop.”) is his clear rejection of US ground troops.  Which of course flies in the face of statements by some leaders in Congress and the military which demand and encourage US ground involvement.  It would be beneficial for the nation if the position of those who advocate US ground forces were shown to be clearly against the will of the Iraqi government.

Then again during 2011 withdrawal, despite clear Iraqi desire to have all US forces leave, there were some decision makers that continued advocating a dreamlike scenario where with just a little bit of diplomatic effort the US ground forces could have remained in Iraq forever.  It was false then and it is false now.  It is really not surprising giving the lack of critical journalism in the press that those same people who were advocating leaving residual force in Iraq are now taken seriously with regards to redeploying combat troops there.  One of the best decisions President made was to leave Iraq completely and he should not let the minimal threat of ISIS drag us back in.  The AP should show both the statements of the Iraqi prime minister and the statements of US leaders who advocate ground forces on the same page to showcase how disconnected from facts on the ground they really are.