Monthly Archives: December 2014

2014 Recap, 2015 Predictions

As 2014 fades away into history it is good to reflect on this year’s strategic and tactical successes and failures.  Throughout the year there were a multitude of crises which no one could have predicted in their entirety, which involved the use of American instruments of power.  The overarching theme of our engagements in the world this year can be characterized by the saying: two steps forward, one step back.  Our national foreign policy apparatus is slowly moving in the right direction, but here and there we are still distracted by the conflicts that have no realistic possibility of major impact to our way of life at the expense of the ones that do.

Tactically we reigned supreme.  Any time US combat forces have been involved in operations around the world, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan we have been tactically successful.  The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) premise remains true.  Especially with regards to Air Power employment our adversaries can not even Observe out intentions.  Which leads to complete battlefield dominance on our part.  We on the other hand can run the OODA loop at our place and time of choosing.  The past four months of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria with no US losses clearly showcases our tactical success.  The strategic effects are a different story, but no one can deny the US military is tactically supreme, at least against low tech opponents.  Whether that same tactical prowess can be carried over to a conflict with a near peer adversary is unknown, but for now the tactical missions assigned to the US armed forces can be accomplished with little difficulty.

Strategically on the other hand we are still having trouble finding the right strategy for each crisis we encounter.  There have been some good steps we have taken this year and some not so well thought out.  The good this year, was our response to the developments in Ukraine.  The economic sanctions against Russia were exactly what our response should have been.  Ukrainians are a nation of 45 million people and they can, if they have the will to do so, fight off Russian aggression.  The US sanctions by themselves would not accomplish much quickly but they are useful in weakening the Russian president in the long term.  The Russian economic free fall of the past few weeks only highlights the success of the sanctions regime.  Given the fact that no one now is calling Putin’s moves strategically brilliant is a clearest indication that the strategy for dealing with Russia is the right one.  Hopefully next time around the people that were proclaiming Putin’s genius will be ignored with regards to the foreign policy strategy discussions.

With regards to Iraq and Syria.  Here is where the bad strategic decision making is evident.  Our current strategy of air strikes without any long-term planning for viable political solution is self-defeating.  Pouring our resources into the area to support the local forces is not the answer.  The Islamic State has established itself over the past few years without any help or foreign support, the Iraqis should be able to do so to.  ISIL were able to come from nothing and now control parts of Syria and Iraq.  The reason they are able to do so is Sunni Arab desire for power, lost after Saddam’s defeat.

Our major strategic mistake in Iraq is our continued attachment to the idea of unified Iraq.  As mentioned in previous posts unified Iraq is an idea whose time is no longer viable.  The differences between Shiite and Sunni can no longer be papered over.  The best thing we can do for Iraq is to divide into three different states.  It is highly unlikely that the Sunni Arabs and Kurds will accept the continued Shiites Arab domination in Iraq.  Therefore no matter how much we would like the Iraq of 1990s and not coming back.  The Shiite dominated Iraqi army and militias will not be able to peacefully subdue the Sunni areas of Iraq under Islamic State control.  While there is no doubt we will weaken or ultimately destroy the Islamic State, another organization will take its place to fight for Sunni interests.

With regards to Syria.  The story there is the same. Our air strikes can and will degrade or destroy the Islamic State however something similar to it will rise up and its place.  Until the Sunni Arabs accept their defeat or modify their political goals, all our actions will do is achieve tactical success without strategic impact.  Combined together Iraq and Syria demonstrate a continued lack of strategic vision with regards to the Sunni Arab fundamentalist problem.  A much better strategic goal would have been to let the Iraqis handle their own problems while pushing for the separation of Iraq into three viable states the Shiite Arab, the Sunni Arab, and Kurd.  Similarly in Syria we should have pushed for the division of Syria into Sunni and Allawite/Christians states.  To pretend that in either country the old borders can hold, is to delude ourselves and set an unachievable strategic goal.

In Afghanistan our strategic goals need adjustment.  Our continued support for the current government of Afghanistan is not achieving our desired strategic results.  Given the current political situation there, it is clear that the local elites do not view the situation there as critical.  The delay in forming the government only underscores the fact that we seem to care more about Afghanistan then they do.  Our support should have been withdrawn until the Afghans showed that they actually wanted to fight for and govern their own country.  The U.S. presence there only enables the current Afghan elites and to enrich themselves at our expense.  Until that ends well matter how tactically successful our strategic objectives will not be accomplished. To compare, the Taliban did not have a massive influx of money and trainers to create a viable combat organization.  Unlike our Afghan partners they actually seem to have the will to fight.

Therefore 2014 ends on a somewhat positive note.  We are slowly learning how to use a strategy commensurate with a problem we’re facing.  The example of Ukraine should be clear in our minds as a proportional response to a specific problem base on achievable goals.  The Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan examples on the other hand showcase our continued lack of understanding of how to accomplish our desired strategic goals.  Unfortunately in that area we still mistake tactical success for strategic achievement.  No matter how many bombs you drop or troops you train if the initial strategy is unachievable with success will be impossible to come by.   And so two steps forward, one backwards.

Quick glance at 2015. While it is impossible to predict what will happen in future some trends are clear. Russia will continue its downward spiral. It is unclear at this time if this will lead to any political change in that country, but it does make it more painful for Mr. Putin to continue on the present foreign policy course. The Ukraine conflict itself will be solved by Ukrainians.  If they are smart and the use their time wisely they could create enough combat units to provide military solution to the problem of Russian aggression in 2015. Specifically if they had a number of fully combat capable combat fighter/bomber squadrons those could truly prove decisive in combating the Russian incursions.

In the Middle East our current strategy will no doubt bring tactical success.  What will not change is the fact that strategically we will still be facing a Sunni fundamentalist group under a different name.  The name might change from ISIL to something else, but the results will remain the same.  The Iraqi army could possibly take back some of the land occupied by ISIL but it is highly unlikely that they could do so in the face of Sunni resistance across all Sunni areas.  As bad as ISIL is, it does represent the response of the Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Iraq to the lack of their political power.  It is a given that another organization will take ISIL’s place to promote Sunni Arab goals. The best thing we can do in 2015 is to set up both Syria and Iraq for a peaceful breakup.  Only then, separated into individual nation-states can the inhabitants of those two countries build a viable future.

Our greatest danger in 2015 however lies in the South China Sea.  It is there that our next conflict against a near peer adversary has the highest potential to begin.  The consolidation of power by Xi in China will continue.  Combined with the current nationalist Chinese rhetoric this could lead to a series of escalating provocations over South China Sea to which we would have no choice but to respond.  The threat of this conflict means our forces cannot be spread thin fighting in conflicts where we aren’t achieving our strategic objectives.  The South China Sea has the greatest potential to be a threat to our way of life.  Low probability, but extremely high impact event of US/China confrontation has the greatest chance to start there.  The right strategy in other parts of the world is what would allow us to successfully contain this possible conflict and why we can no longer afford in 2015 the “tactics first” strategy in the Middle East.




Cuba, Russia, and Iraq (the Perpetual War)

The three countries mentioned in the title of this post more than anything else demonstrate the current state of US Grand Strategy, what it could be and what it currently is.  The normalizing of our diplomatic relations with Cuba and the dire straights of the Russian economy show on one hand what a realistic and smart strategy can accomplish.  While the continued quagmire of Iraq and the claims of the top U.S. commander overseeing the military mission in Iraq that a “minimum of three years” will be required for training showcase the failure of our strategy there.

With regards to Cuba, the move to normalize relations is a reasonable step forward.  Despite the multitude of protests, that are based on a disconnect from reality, isolation has not worked.  It is completely disingenuous of the critics of the President’s move to ignore our to trade with communist nations of China and Vietnam or the despotic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, all of which have horrible human rights records.  While then protesting the opening of relations with Cuba because of their human rights record.  The only reason for the protests that make any sense, is the critics desire to pander to the expat Cuban community in Florida.  Many of whom despise the Cuban regime.  Nonetheless, it was right of the President to do what he did.  The opening will expose the Cuban people to the prosperity and multitude of choices that our system brings and could long term lead to a change in the island regime.  That course of events is not guaranteed, but definitely better than the status quo, which benefits no one but the ruling communist elites.

The continues collapse of Russian economy is another example of what can be accomplished using realistic smart foreign policy strategy.  The sanctions leading to collapse of the ruble, combined with the reduction of the oil price all point to an economy that is about to enter recession.  The slow and steady strategy of targeted sanctions are truly bearing fruit and it is no surprise that the many critics of President’s strategy from this summer are quiet.  There are no more pronouncements of Putin’s strategic brilliance.  The events demonstrated that he is nothing more than a competent tactician with no strategic vision.  The fact that Soviet Union experienced similar economic problems following the 1980’s oil price fall, and that Putin has done nothing to diversify the economy away from oil should speak for itself.  This lack of strategic vision and strategic understanding could in the end be what brings him down.  Though it is hard to see how he could have transformed the rentier state he rules into an industrial power house without true democratic reforms.  At a certain point no matter how much oil you have you can’t create and innovative and prosperous economy without underlying democratic fundamentals. Much like Emperor Nikolas II of 1914, President Putin of 2014 should be thinking about what could happen a few years down the line if his country’s economy continues to tank.

Lastly to Iraq.  The pronouncement that it would take three years to train Iraqis, is ridiculous.  At what point will we actually hold somebody accountable for this waste of resources.  There still has been no answer as to how ISIL could rise up from nothing in a few years to a dominant force it is today, while at the same time the Iraqi Army needs our continued help just to survive.  The commanding general who made the “three year statement” is wrong or quiet simply does not understand the implications of what he is asking.  He seems to simply pretend that the Iraqi Army has not already been trained by us for past nine years.  If we continue to train the Iraqis, we are enabling their continued dependance on us.  Or we are such terrible trainers that we don’t know who to teach.  As mentioned in previous posts, the country of 20 plus million people should be able to confront the 50,000 estimate ISIL fighters without any help.  The reason they do not is because of the continued crutch we are providing with our support.  Until that support ends Iraq will never be able to stand on their own and the training will continue in perpetuity.  Our policy should let Iraqis fight for their own country.  We could still support them diplomatically, but they will have to make those hard choices.

The examples of Cuba and Russian demonstrate the slow transition that the US making with regards to a realistic foreign policy.  The diplomatic steps taken with Cuba and Russia achieve our desired objectives with minimum of effort. They are and will be successful because they rely on a clear understanding of what works in a real world.  If only we could make the same analysis with regards to what Iraq and Afghanistan need, then we could truly begin to transition from a Star Wars like foreign policy of the early 2000s towards a realistic foreign policy that actually achieves our objectives.  Cuba and Russia are the moves in the right direction, hopefully Iraq and Afghanistan policy will transition to a similar, reality based policy.


The End of US “combat mission” in Afghanistan

This past Monday, December 8, 2014 the US officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan.  It was a good sign, which could have been better if all of our troops were scheduled to leave that country this month.  This was a mission that was run, as most of our combat operations are, without any concrete strategy or pursuit of viable strategic goals.  There never seemed to be an understanding that combat operations led by the US military and the effects of our massive presence there strategically negated any tactical success we had in the field.

To start with, our assault and destruction of Al-Qaeda was fully justified by the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.  Taliban less so, but they did provide sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and therefore deserved what they got.  However, once the initial mission was accomplished, we should have never stayed.  The people of Afghanistan have to figure out how to run their own country without us guiding them like children.  As US foreign policy apparatus frequently forgets, the local elites can govern when they choose to do so.  They did so prior to 1980s and can do so again.  They do not in Afghanistan because they know they could get our money and troops to support their failed state for nothing.  While in return they could remain corrupt and enrich themselves.

Therefore it was no surprise that the Taliban was able to rebuild itself.  The great failure of our strategy in Afghanistan was not to realize of why this was happening.  In our “Star Wars” like foreign policy the reason for Taliban resurgence was ignored.  They were just there because they were bad.  Our policy apparatus was unable to discern that the Taliban were there because of Afghan government corruption and inherent cultural divide between Pashtuns and Tajiks.  Without this basic understanding we just kept pouring resources into tactical military actions without actually addressing the root of the problem.  In addition our presence in the Pashtun heavy south only inflamed the Pashtuns further as we were perceived as invaders in this Muslim land.

With regards to Taliban rebuilding our decision makers also ignored the fact that the Taliban did so without massive military aid and support.  Yet we continue to provide such support to Afghan security forces.  How is it that the same people can be so inventive when part of Taliban, and so dependent on others with our support?  We wouldn’t be pouring so much money into Afghanistan if we could see and understand this paradox.  The answer is simple, it is because we took on responsibility for their country instead of making them responsible for it.  People will act based on expectations others have of them.  If you expect little, that is excatly how they will act.  If Taliban can rebuild itself without massive foreign aid, so can the Afghan army.  They just have to have the will to do so.

Another unfortunate part of our involvement there was that the military effort was allowed to go on without the requirement for the Afghan government to clean itself up.  This in itself would have been a Herculean task.  However, without a somewhat clean Afghan government that could provide for a just resolution of local disputes, our military efforts were in vain. We don’t seem to understand that a person’s basic need is for justice, not schools.  The predatory Afghan government corruption produced such negative response, that it negated any schools we built or social services we provided.

There is no doubt that the countryside in the Pashtun south will fall under Taliban control, because the people there want it so.  Despite our pronouncement to the contrary the Afghan security force, made up mostly of non-Pashtuns, will not be able to control that territory, except possibly for the major cities.  Which is exactly what can be expected to happen when military operations are carried out without regard to the political causes of the conflict.  The Pashtun-Tajik issues were never fully resolved, and possibly never could be without the break up of Afghanistan.

Given the Pashtun nature of the Taliban and the traditional Pashtun domination of Afghanistan it is hard to see how a functional Afghan state can be established.  The current elites in Kabul are interested in lining their pockets with government money, rather than actual governance.  The 10,800 American troops left there will not be able to accomplish much beyond the current situation.  The military solution was simply never there despite all the PowerPoint slides at the commanding General’s briefings.  It would be refreshing to see a true after action report on why we failed to accomplish what was our stated goal.  However much like Iraq involvement this self-reflection is unlikely to happen.

Update – 2 December 2014

The past few weeks offered no major changes in strategic outlook for the US.  The Middle East continues its slow religious war between Sunni and Shia.  The North Korean leader continues to reshuffle the positions of power at the top by adding his sister to the mix.  While China’s leader Xi continues with his power consolidation under the guise of anti-corruption movement.  The most interesting news this week came from Russia where the economy is now predicted to enter recession, according to Russian Economic Ministry.  While here at home Secretary Hagel resigned.

With regards to Middle East the “50,000 ghost soldiers” on the payroll of Iraqi army as disclosed this week should serve as another warning flag to the US foreign policy decision makers.  This is just the latest evidence of Iraqi corruption and incompetence.  I wonder how those advocating continued US presence think we could stop something such as this from happening?  The Iraqi government and armed forces do not deserve our help in their current form.  All we are doing with our aid is enabling the continued corruption as demonstrated by the ghost soldiers on the payroll.  If Iraq actually had those 50,000 extra soldiers, maybe they would not have been pushed back as far this past June.  Our continued involvement will add no impetus for Iraqis’ to change their behavior.  And why should they.  They rob and squander their country’s wealth and no matter what US rides to the rescue.  We should let them fight for their own country.  If they are incapable of doing so, then they don’t deserve to have it.

In the US, the resignation of the SECDEF will change nothing in our strategic outlook.  No SECDEF in recent memory actually enforced accountability for performance in combat and the chance that the new SECDEF will do so is extremely low.  But as they say, never say never.  It would also be interesting to see if the new SECDEF will recommend a change in strategy or if we will continue with our never ending war.

The last interesting tidbit of new is regarding Russian strategic situation.  In summary, since last summer Russia has been put under sanctions, kicked out of G8, and now the economy is entering a recession.  All of which could lead to widespread anti Putin protests.  And in return Russians annexed Crimea, where they already had a naval presence for the next 30 years and possible two new statelets in Eastern Ukraine.  Which only makes that clear, that anyone who thought the Putin is some kind of strategic genius, is greatly mistaken.  Based on what has happened, it is clear Mr. Putin has no idea of what is actually good for Russian long term interests.  Instead every time he makes a move he seems to be digging further and further down into the hole.  I would be watching next year, when the Russian standards of living start to decrease, to see how population will react.  There might be some tough times in Mr. Putin’s future.