Category Archives: Current Events

2016 Predictions

As the New Year begins it is worthwhile to reflect on the year that has past and asses the past strategic predictions.  I look at my previous post 2014 Recap, 2015 Predictions and there were a number of points that were right on.  The events that continue to distract us in the foreign policy arena remain the same with some minor additions.  When we look at the year to come, there is no doubt some things will still surprise, but the general strategic trends remain unchanged.

The major long term problem facing the US foreign policy is the rise of China.  As predicted in last year’s post, the South China Sea is becoming more of a possible flashpoint, especially given the amount of island building conducted by China there.  Late last year, the US began responding to the Chinese unilateral actions by sending ships and airplanes through the air and sea claimed by China.  It is a good start for the US response, which should continue into 2016, to the Chinese provocations especially given that their nebulous claims are based on the “Nine Dashed Line.”  In the coming year the US has to continue to remind China that no matter what facts on the ground China tries to make, the US will not recognize their island builds and land grabs in the South China Sea.

The potential for conflict between the US and China is still low, but has increased slightly given the current Chinese economic slowdown and the election of a new Taiwanese president. The best way a dictatorship can distract from domestic problems is nationalism, militarisms and their attendant problems.  It remains to be seen if this year Chinese leadership will put more emphasis on these distractions.  Contrary to previous popular belief, and as demonstrated by the incompetent handling of the Chinese stock market crash, the Chinese leadership and decision making leaves a lot to be desired.  There is no reason to believe that they would handle an international crisis any better.  The US could find itself in a shooting war sooner than we think.

With that in mind, the Middle East drain on our resources has to stop.  It would be a true game changer if the coming year was actually the one when we stop wasting our resources fighting other people’s wars.  While the Iran nuclear deal gives us a generational opportunity to realign our policy in the Middle East, our support of Sunni Arab dictators enabled the current Sunni extremists’ religious attacks against us, and to stop it we have to stop our support of those same Sunni Arab countries.  The worst offender, Saudi Arabia, should be completely cut off from any US support and protection, given the Saudi financial support of the Wahhabi religious movement. The sooner the house of Saud falls, the better. Until it is dealt with, the US will be under the perpetual low grade threat from the Sunni extremists supported by the Saudi government.  There really is no difference between what Saudi Arabia and ISIL both support, except the people in charge. Given the Sunni extremists hatred of Shiites, Iran is our natural ally in this fight.  It doesn’t mean that they are somehow our best friend, but it does mean we have the same goals to accomplish.

The probability of this realignment happening is unfortunately very low.  We still refuse to believe that the problems of the Middle East will be solved by the people that live there, while ignoring the root of the problem.  The best we can do is to guide the process along, while preserving our resources.  Our continued insistence on preserving the borders of countries which were created in the middle of WWI by the former colonial powers is fallacy.  Until we recognize this and push for the breakup of countries such as Iraq and Syria, the conflict will continue.  Our highest probability of success in that region would involve us recognizing that such realities already exist on the ground.  To imagine that we can somehow make people that hate each other live in the same country peacefully is a fantasy.

With regards to ISIL, not much will change.  Their base of support in the Sunni community remains the same.  The continued bombing will tactically degrade ISIL, but will not strategically defeat it.  The group itself might disappear, highly unlikely, but even then some other Sunni Arab Wahhabi group will take up its cause of Sunni Arab dominance.  Our best strategy would be to treat them as a minor irritant and to rely on the local Kurd and Shiite allies to contain them, while at the same time cutting off their source of men and funding from the Gulf States.

Russia is going to continue its slow decline. It will remain our regional adversary but not someone we should be concerned about.  The Ukrainian crisis will remain a frozen conflict.  Until Ukraine fundamentally changes and becomes a country people want to fight and die for, Russia will have the upper hand in any local conflict given its numerical and economic superiority.  Nevertheless, the conflict does not fundamentally affect our foreign policy.

Afghan government will slowly continue to lose ground.  Their corruption and incompetence will impede any possibility of them actually governing the country and creating armed forces that are willing to fight and die for it.  With continued US support, the Afghan government could hold the major population areas, but until it reforms itself, all we are doing is throwing good money after the bad.  Supporting a corrupt and predatory government is not a winning long term strategy as showcased by South Vietnam.  We should remove our support completely from Afghanistan.  Only then will the Afghan government take responsibility for governing their country.

As 2016 takes shape, our strategic thought has to be focused on China.  The distractions of the Middle East and Afghanistan can be dealt with by the locals there.  Unless we rebalance our military force towards the Asian theater, the potential for conflict there actually increases as the time goes on.  Only complete and overwhelming force can prevent a shooting war between US and China.  That force can only be assembled if we stop being distracted by the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Realistic ISIL Strategy

The attacks in Paris a few weeks ago brought to the front call from a variety of people to change the strategy with regards to operations against ISIL.  The calls are understandable given the number of people killed by the terrorists; however they are misguided on several levels.  For one, the calls for more troops and airstrikes are really just calls to use different tactics, while the focus on ISIL at this time is totally disproportionate to the threat it represents to the world.  What is missing from these discussions is the actual long term successful strategy that deals with ISIL or their successor organization which will inevitably spring up.

What is ISIL?

The first problem with our current strategy is that we really don’t understand what ISIL is.  The generic tendency among both press and analysts is to describe ISIL as a terrorist organization, while the reality is much more complex.  The problem is that we do not get to the root cause of what ISIL truly is.  It is true that ISIL uses terrorist tactics to advance its goals.  However the tactics should not define them exclusively.  ISIL is a Sunni Muslim state.  To deny them that label is to misunderstand what they truly are.

Right now ISIL run government controls on millions of people.  It runs education, collects taxes, and provides healthcare.  To gloss over these things and to focus only on the terrorist acts is to skip over the most important parts of what ISIL is.  It is a functioning state and as such any strategy that deals with ISIL has to take that into account.  It is also very important to remember that ISIL is a Sunni Muslim state, along the lines of Gulf Monarchies and Saudi Arabia.  Another thing that gets overlooked is that the religious beliefs in the ISIL controlled territory are also very similar to the Saudi Arabia propagated Wahhabi belief system.  They are actually so similar, that it is no surprise most of the support ISIL gets is from Saudi Arabia, both in terms of personnel and money.  Of note, both Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram are also Wahhabi Sunni organizations.

ISIL did not spring into existence out of nowhere.  It was the logical outgrowth of a number of factors.  First, was the decades long effort by Saudis and other Gulf Monarchies in spreading their puritanical version of Sunni Islam across the Muslim world. Millions of kids were indoctrinated in the Saudi supported madrassas to belief in the Wahhabi version of Islam.  As such, it is not surprising the barbarity displayed by ISIL towards non-Sunnis; it is what the Wahhabi version of Islam is all about.  The second factor that helped create ISIL is lack of true institutions of state in the Middle East.  There is no upward mobility possible to someone born in the wrong tribe or family.  The current social and political systems stifle any possibility of upward mobility, while at the same time ISIL offers a different way forward.

Lastly, the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war both provided a cause for Sunni grievances to develop. In Iraq, the Sunnis lost the dominant position they held since the founding of the country and became a minority block, dominated by the Shias.  While in Syria, the Sunnis, long second-class citizens to the Allawites, were no longer content with their status.  The Sunni grievances both against current Iraqi and Syrian government are why ISIL is the strongest in the Sunni areas of both Iraq and Syria.  So when you combine long term indoctrination, with lack of future in the current political landscape, and add disaffection, the result is ISIL.  A Wahhabi Sunni state located within the borders of Iraq and Syria, which draws the disaffected Sunni Muslims from across the world.


ISIL threat to the Homeland

How much then, is this Sunni Muslim state a threat to the Homeland?  The answer is, very little.  Every year thousands of Americans die in auto accidents, falls, suicides, drownings and other instances that we accept as a daily fact of life.  While at the same time ISIL has had very little success in targeting US citizens.  It has been estimated that Sunni Islamic terrorism has been responsible for about 20 deaths in the US since 9/11.  And while every life is precious, 100 Americans die every day in car crashes.  You actually have a higher change of getting struck by lightning, then dying in a terror attack.  Therefore as stated before, despite the breathless reporting and panicky pronouncement, ISIL is not a threat we should really worry about.

Every point of access to the Homeland we control.  Hypothetically, what can ISIL do?  Build an aircraft carrier and then try to fight their way thought the US Sixth Fleet, land on the beaches of New Jersey, defeat the US Army and Air Force, backed up by the National Guard.  Go through Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies to cause Americans harm.  Of course not.  The only way ISIL can get into the US is by using a mode of transportation available commercially.  We control not only all points of access that, but also have procedures in place to safeguard against terrorists coming through.  Does that mean that there will be 100% guarantee that no terrorist attack will ever occur in the US? No.  But the odds of that are so small, that it is not even worth talking about.


So while ISIL is not a threat to the Homeland, it is a state that has to be dealt with.  We can tactically defeat ISIL within a very short time, but then what?  Without dealing with underlying causes of ISIL another Sunni Wahhabi group would just take its place.  The strategy to deal with ISIL long term should be focused on containment.  ISIL at its core, as mentioned before, is based on the ideology of Wahhabism.  As such, the first step of such containment has to deal with our “allies” in the Gulf that propagate that ideology.  To stop the indoctrination, the source of the Wahhabi funding has to be cut off.  Most effective would be sanctions against oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, unless they stop all financial support of Wahhabi religious establishment.  While it won’t eliminate the damage already done, the lack of finances would stop the future spread of Wahhabism.

To address the lack of governance across the region, the US should support all democratically elected governments, even if they disagree with us.  Policy of supporting autocratic regimes in the interests of short term stability comes at the expense of long term US interests.  It doesn’t mean that we should cut ties with every regime in the Middle East, but it does mean no support for countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt just to name a few.  Without this dramatic change in policy, ISIL-like states will continue to spring up in response to the failure of Arab governance.

Lastly, strategy should address dealing with ISIL threat and the territory they control.  The old borders set up after WW I should no longer be kept sacrosanct.   The people of Iraq and Syria, given their ethnic and religious composition, do not want to live together.  And we should not force them to do so.  We were able to accommodate the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and can do the same for Iraq and Syria.  To pretend otherwise only perpetuates the conflict.  Syria and Iraq did not exist as nations 100 years ago and there is no reason they should continue as countries.  Right now the Shia and Sunni divisions are too great to allow for peaceful co-existence, therefore separation is the only option.

Once that is accomplished and we deal with ISIL as a state, there are more steps we can take.  As mentioned previously, ISIL is a Sunni Muslim organization.  As such, their biggest foes are Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  We should use that to our advantage.  Iran, the world’s preeminent Shiite power is our natural ally against the Sunni Wahhabi extremists.  They are the ones that should be leading the fight to contain the Sunni threat.  We can also rely on Kurds to provide a buffer against ISIL in northern Iraq and Syria and for that reason they should also be supported, up to and including the creation of a Kurdish state.  Both Shiites and Kurds will not defeat ISIL decisively, but that is really not possible anyway.  As described before, ISIL is an idea, born of the Wahhabi ideology and Sunni grievances.  Until they both wear themselves out, the best we can do is containment with Kurds and Shiites as our partners.



South China Sea

The US destroyer approach last week, within 12 nautical miles of Chinese reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, signaled a new phase of US-Chinese relations.  With disregard of the Chinese claim of 12 mile buffer for their reclaimed artificial islands, US accomplished two things.  First, if the Chinese government had any illusions that the US would acquiesce to their de-facto control of the South China Sea, they are now gone.  The second is the signal to the five other nations claiming parts of that same area that the US will not let the Chinese unilaterally change the status of that area.

Strategically, long term, the US moves mean that there is now a much higher likelihood of armed conflict between US and China.  The threat of conflict is not imminent, but there is a high probability of it occurring in the next five to seven years.  The contributing factors to this possible outcome are as follows.  From the Chinese side, the claims in the South China Sea are expressed in terms of righting a historical wrong.  There are claims from the Chinese leadership that the South China Sea is historically a Chinese possession.  The Chinese passports have had the “nine-dashed line” printed in them, signifying Chinese belief that the whole area belongs to them.  While lately, another line of justification for China’s aggressive reclamation activities in the South China Sea is that by not doing so is tantamount to “shaming their ancestors.”

History shows pretty clearly, that when a government uses nationalistic and historical language to justify action there is a high likelihood armed conflict will follow.  The examples of both WW I and WW II show how different nations used historic and nationalist argument to justify their aggression.  Whether it was Russian support for the historical rights of the Slavic people in the Balkans in 1914 or German desire to redress the wrongs of WW I defeat in 1939, the outcome is the same.  War.

In the Chinese case, there are additional contributing factors.  China is a country in transition, much like Imperial Russia of 1914.  The government is still autocratic, but some of the people are getting the taste of free choice and what it means.  The bargain that the communist party deserves to stay in charge, in return for economic success, is coming under pressure.  The continued slowdown of the Chinese economy could produce conditions ripe for social unrest.  The Chinese anti-corruption campaign is another factor that could create backlash against the central government.  Lastly, 2022 is when President Xi is supposed to step down after completing his 10 year term.  Will he?  That’s another question.  After arrest and conviction of previous Politburo members, what’s to stop someone from doing the same to him if he relinquishes power?

All of which means that in five to seven years a number of contributing factors will be coming together with a high potential for volatility in China. To deflect the blame, the government of China has a ready-made historical excuse.  Assert its rights in the South China Sea to demonstrate to the Chinese people that the communist party deserves to be in charge.

What can the US do to mitigate that potential armed conflict with China?  Unfortunately there is not much we can do to change the Chinese intentions, but there are some steps we could take.   First, continue to conduct freedom of navigation patrols to remind the Chinese government that they will not have a free pass in the South China Sea.  Second, dramatically reduce US involvement in the Middle East and use the savings provided to recapitalize both Air Force and Navy air power with more capable aircraft.  The Army and Marine Corps will also have to change the bulk of their training towards major combat operations and away from COIN.   As the Chinese government observes these future changes, there is still a chance that they would not use military action to enforce their claim of the South China Sea.  However, the contributing factors previously mentioned could occur in such a way that the only way the communist party could stay in charge is to appeal to the nationalist instincts of the Chinese people.  In that case, the Chinese government has a ready-made excuse for war based on perceived need to right a historical wrong.


The Never Ending War – continued

The announcement last week that the US will be increasing the number of personnel that will remain in Afghanistan should come as no surprise.  Tactically, the decision continues the current US posture, while strategically it does nothing to address the long term problems.  The Afghan government is not interested in governing and that is the reason that increasing forces now will do nothing to prevent future failure.

The mission to advise and support Afghan security forces is a failure.  It is a failure precisely because the tactical goals are divorced from underlying strategic problems.  The key to a stable Afghanistan has always been to have a government that is broadly acceptable to the majority of Afghan people.  A government that is capable of governing within the constraints of Afghan society.  As of now it is hard to imagine a government of Afghanistan that would be acceptable to the major ethnic groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Thirty or forty years ago that might have been possible.  Now, there just doesn’t seem to be any one leader capable or willing to unite the country.  With deep ethnic divisions, any advantage one group gains over the other produces resentment.

With such rivalry in play, the current Afghan government is more interested in the spoils of government than attempting to govern.  The list of its failures is long and includes two failed elections, dubious status as the third most corrupt country in the world, and no Minister of Defense for the past year.  While that is just a tip of the iceberg, the examples clearly demonstrate that the current government of Afghanistan is not government capable of governing the country.  Unfortunately for the US, this is the government we are determined to support.  Given its faults and the inherent ethnic tensions, it is not surprising that the security forces we trained and support are failing.

Successful military force can only exist if the government it supports is viewed as legitimate and acceptable by the majority of the people.  This dictum has been true both in South Vietnam in the 1970s and Iraq in 2014. Both militaries collapsed because the governments of both countries were corrupt and incompetent and no amount of tactical assistance by the US could make the soldiers of those countries willing to fight and die for those governments.  The same quandary exists in Afghanistan.  The continued training mission which addresses only tactical problems, without solving the strategic problem of bad governance, is destined to fail.

Additionally, are the Afghans really that incompetent that they need assistance year after year without end?  This seems unlikely given the 14 year timeframe.  It doesn’t take that long to figure out how to fight.  The Taliban took over the country in two years starting in 1994, without a massive training program.  At some point the Afghan forces have to take responsibility for their country without US support.  After 14 years, it is clear this can only happen if the US sets a firm date for withdrawal.  As seen on the other side, the Taliban keeps increasing their capability every year without a huge influx of foreign money and training or air support that the Afghan government gets every year.

There is no easy fix.  However, the US should have only extended our stay in Afghanistan if the Afghan government demonstrated the will to fight.  Without such commitment any additional US troops will not make any noticeable long term difference.  The reason the Taliban is successful is because they, in spite of their 7th century ideology, do address the concerns of the people with regards to the corrupt and predatory central government in Afghanistan.  Until that concern can be addressed by the Afghan government, the US could be in Afghanistan another 50 years without accomplishing much of anything and supporting a government that is not interesting in governing.  Our limited resources instead can be better spent in the Pacific theater where a rising China presents a true threat to our security that has to be addressed.

Tactics over Strategy

The recent mistaken targeting of Medicines San Frontiers (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan highlighted continued US involvement in the Afghan conflict.  This incident and the preceding capture of most of the Kunduz city by the Taliban forces prompted a number of different voices to call for increased US presence in the country post 2016 withdrawal date.   Those voices could not be more wrong.

The tragic events surrounding the attack on MSF hospital demonstrate the limits of what could possibly happen if the incompetent local forces are supported by the US firepower.  The first question that should have been asked is why the numerically superior Afghan government forces needed the US air support.  By all accounts the Taliban forces were not only inferior in numbers, but consisted only of lightly armed troops, without armored vehicles.  That the numerically superior and better equipped Afghan government forces were unable to prevent capture of Kunduz should speak volumes.  The subsequent partial recapture of the city by the Afghan forces only when accompanied by the US Special Forces only highlighted the fact that the US training mission in Afghanistan is a failure and should no longer be continued.  The root cause after all is the Afghan government itself.

The failure of Afghan government is easy to see.  From the elections last year that brought to power an ad hoc Ghani/Abdullah coalition, to the fact that the there is still no Afghan minister of defense a whole year after the government was seated.  This only demonstrates to any critical thinking observer that the Afghan government is more interested in power politics rather than trying to defeat the Taliban.  The fact that we continued to waste money and train Afghan military without addressing the underlying failure in governance is not surprising.  The Afghan government clearly does not believe it is in the fight for its survival.  Why do we?  The US military is really good at tactics, but terrible at strategy, especially at the strategic level of leadership.  How else can the continued emphasis on tactical training without regard to the state of governance in Afghanistan be explained?  From the beginning, the only way the US should have been involved in training the Afghan security force is if there was a viable Afghan government to support.  Ironically if that was the case there would probably be no need to train Afghan forces, as they would be fighting for the government they believe in.

The failure of Afghan forces in Kunduz is just the beginning.  Similar to Iraqi military, the Afghan military trained and supported by the US will have a lot of difficulty stopping the numerically inferior Taliban.  The reasons for that are strategic; the failure of the Afghan government is the root cause.  Until the Afghan government gets its act together, no amount of tactical training by the US will be able to compensate.  For years Afghanistan relied on US tactical superiority to support their strategic failure of poor governance.  With that support gone, there is no surprise that the poorly led local forces are not willing to fight and die for the government they do not believe in.  The tragic attack on the MSF hospital should instead serve as another wake-up call to those advocating continued US presence in Afghanistan.  No amount of tactical support will ever overcome lack of poor governance.  The support, which from the beginning should have been contingent on a viable Afghan government. To continue to do what we are doing now will mean expending resources and possible American lives in pursuit of objectives that do not provide any benefits for the US foreign policy.  No matter how much we want, good tactics still don’t supersede a viable strategy.