Category Archives: Strategy

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.

Russia in Syria

The recent increase in Russian presence in Syria highlights two important facts.  The first is that anyone who thought this civil war would be resolved through victory of one side over the other has been proven wrong again.  The second and much more important result of this increased Russian presence should be the realization by those advocating further US involvement in Syrian civil war that they are completely and utterly wrong.  Their mistake is that they tend to forget that the adversary also gets a vote.  A popular but naïve narrative has taken place in the discussion of the US policy towards Syria.  That is, if the US would only come in on the side of the Sunni Muslims then Assad would fall from power, producing an outcome acceptable to the US.

The Russian presence has no bearing on post-Assad discussion, so it will only be discussed briefly.  The imagined post-Assad Syria where the 25 percent of non-Sunni population would be treated equitably is a fairy tale.  One only needs to look at the nearby Sunni dominated states and the results are clear, there is no equal coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups.  The Sunnis are dominant and treat Shiites and other religious groups as second class citizens.  That such a peaceful coexistence would emerge in Syria post-uprising is a fantasy.  The presence of ISIL in Syria only makes this more likely.

The true lesson of Russian presence in Syria is that the US was right not to get involved deeper.  As Russian commitment shows, increased US involvement would have only increased Russian and Iranian involvement without changing the Syrian balance of forces dramatically.  As mentioned before, the adversary also gets a vote.  Therefore, those arguing for increased US involvement in the past and present are wrong.  Their advice would have only entangled the US deeper in the Syrian civil war, without achieving any viable strategic goals.  There is one way the US could have possibly imposed its will and removed Assad from power: that is to invade and occupy Syria.  This, as the former Secretary of Defense Mr. Gates so well said, means that anyone who proposes such course of action needs to have their head examined.

The proxy involvement on the side of anti-Assad rebels would have only provoked a counter reaction from the states supporting Assad without achieving our strategic objectives.  As the current increased Russian presence shows, they are not prepared to let Assad fall.  The result of their and Iranian involvement is a continued stalemate between Sunni rebel and Government side.  The only solution feasible at this time is not more US support for the Sunni groups, but rather a division of Syria into Sunni and non-Sunni states.  Same as Yugoslavia was broken up post the civil war in the 1990s.  The current discussion whether to support the rebels more or with/without Assad Syria misses the point because the Syria of 2011 no longer exists.

A Realistic Foreign Policy

The nuclear deal agreed to yesterday after two years of negotiations by the P5+1 and Iran is an outstanding example of true strategic foreign policy success.  Given the opposition from multiple quarters against the negotiations, it is good to see some common strategic sense prevail.   The details of the deal run into 100+ pages, however what is clear is that the US got what it wanted.  That is, a verifiable way to ensure that Iran does not move towards a militarized nuclear threshold for the foreseeable future.

For the opponents of the deal, I have no sympathy.  Their ability to critically think and ask the “why question” appears to be lacking.  They never had a realistic alternative to dealing with a nuclear Iran.  Military strikes, while appealing tactically to those who do not comprehend strategy, would have at most set the nuclear program back just a few months.  While at the same time only confirming for Iranians the need to develop nuclear weapons as deterrence.  To think that the US intelligence could find every secret site responsible for nuclear production to target is ludicrous.  The US intelligence couldn’t even figure out that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction.  To accomplish this search for secret nuclear sites, a full invasion would be required.  Does anyone sane really think that it would be a good idea?  Probably only those same experts that said Iraq would be a cakewalk.

The negotiations were always based on a simple premise.  The Iranians are rational actors.  If they were not, as many opponents of the deal seem to believe, then they would have no reason to negotiate.  If the Iranians where truly irrational and suicidal, then they would just ignore sanctions, don’t negotiate, and build a nuclear bomb in secret.  After that they would attack Israel and then watch as their country was turned into radioactive wasteland by the Israeli counterstrike.  Such scenario is ludicrous, as is the belief that the Iranians are irrational actors.  Now, that doesn’t mean that they are robots in their decision making, they are just people after all, but it does mean they could be bargained with.  Ronald Reagan did so in the 80’s as many opponents of the deal seem to forget.

In the agreement the US got everything it wanted without resorting to military force, which in itself would only be a poor temporary solution.  For those who thought that other issues should be part of negotiations, such as Iranian support for Shiite terrorist groups or recognition of Israel, they are wrong or naive.  The US continuously negotiates or even directly supports states such as China or Saudi Arabia, which are not Jeffersonian democracies.  To tie those issues to the issues of the nuclear negotiations only confirmed to me that the people supporting such view are either ignorant or simply trying to sabotage the negotiating process.

What will happen in 10-15 years when the agreement expires, no one knows.  If someone tells you they can predict the future they are lying.  For all we know in 10 years Iran will be a Jeffersonian democracy.  I highly doubt it, but stranger things have happened.  For those worried the Iranians will break their word, don’t worry, we still have the ability to exercise military action if required.  In that case, the military option would actually be justified if the Iranians cheated.  I do not believe they will, as they have nothing to gain from that course of action.

To sum up.  The agreement reached yesterday is a text book example of a realistic foreign policy, based on achievable strategy.   It is good to see our foreign policy apparatus moving away from the “Star Wars” like foreign policy of the past.  One can only hope that this is just a beginning of a realistic US foreign policy, which is grounded in facts, not wishes.


Afghanistan – Helping Those Who Do Not Want To Help Themselves

Two days ago, once again the Afghan Parliament rejected the nominee for the post of the Defense Minister.  The latest events should be a wake up call for those in the US foreign policy apparatus who still think we have a partner in Afghanistan.  The fact, that the country which is facing an existential threat to its existence is unable to even come up with one person to lead their armed force is a disgrace.  The Afghani elites are clearly not that worried about possible Taliban takeover or are simply relying on the US forces to keep them in power forever.

The indefinite support for the Afghan government, proposed by some in the US is the worst possible strategy.  The Afghan elites are clearly not interested in governing.  As such the US should not continue pouring resources into supporting the dysfunctional government in Kabul.  After all the years in Afghanistan it is tough to walk away, but not doing so risks the never ending support for the political system which has no interest in governing, just collecting rents.  Right now, it seems that the US is more interested in preserving Afghanistan, then the Afghani elites are.  Until that changes the government of Afghanistan will not bring about successful conclusion to this war.

The Taliban are successful, because the government is corrupt and incompetent.  To fight the insurgents, without actual true reform of the Afghani state means a never ending commitment on our part.  At some point we have to make the Afghans responsible for their own security and governance.  If the Afghani people do not hold their leaders accountable for their failure to govern, the US should not bail them out by providing continued support.  The best course of action now is to withdraw all US forces and make the Afghan government take responsibility for this fight.  They will be forced to reform or will be replaced by someone who will take the necessary action to reform the state.  If no one rises to the occasion to become the true leader of the country, then we move on.  It will only prove that we never in fact had a partner, just someone who was using the US support to stay in power and enrich themselves.