The long twilight struggle

Sometime late next year, a young man or woman who was not yet born on September 11, 2001, will raise their right hand and join the U.S. armed forces.  Given the tempo at which those forces have operated the past 17 years, that young person likely will be sent quickly to the Middle East in some capacity.

There, they will form part of the second consecutive generation to fight this “war.”  Unlike my uniformed cohort, they will have no memory of the events that led to them being there.  Nor will they have a concept of a time when the TSA didn’t exist, and the government didn’t conduct constant surveillance.  For them, America has always been at war.

The same will hold true of their contemporaries who stay in civilian life.

So what have we accomplished thus far, at the expense of nearly 7,000 dead and almost $3 trillion?  Very little, it would seem:

…Al Qaeda may be stronger than ever. Far from vanquishing the extremist group and its associated “franchises,” critics say, U.S. policies in the Mideast appear to have encouraged its spread.

What U.S. officials didn’t grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that Al Qaeda is more than a group of individuals. “It’s an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps,” she said.

In fact, a good case can be made that the resilience of jihadi groups in the face of the most technologically sophisticated military force on the planet only underscores the righteousness of their ideas.  In swatting bees with sledgehammers, we’ve only increased the size of the swarm, with no vision of how this is supposed to end:

There is a stunning lack of strategic vision in America today. The range of foreign policy activities, beyond so-called “traditional diplomacy,” extend across military power and include everything from financial aid to information to exchanges of all kinds. These instruments are, however, seemingly applied without synchronization or thoughts about end states. The different bureaucracies often work together only on an ad hoc basis and rarely share collaborative requirements and communications with their respective oversight committees in the Congress.

Our few and feeble attempts to articulate vision have been badly flawed, and rarely considered the cultural and political realities of where we were fighting.  I was in Baghdad when the Bush administration declared our objectives there were a stable, unified, democratic Iraq.  A quick wit in our section soon had those diagrammed with a triangle on a marker board with the caption “pick any two.”

While pursuing this quixotic endeavor abroad, we have also failed to secure our own borders or effectively increase scrutiny of those entering our country.  The 9/11 hijackers covertly but legally entered the United States.  Now we have a veritable open fifth column of Islamists spreading the influence within the country.  Since many young Americans have been conditioned to believe their nation to be a blight on history, it’s difficult to mount an effective ideological defense.

Our continued thrashing about in the world only underscores our nation’s diminishment.  One measure of “just war” — a pillar of Western thought rarely referenced in the general public these days — is whether a conflict results in improved circumstances.  Can anyone say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen… or the United States are better off after a generation of warfare?  Is this likely to change when the sons and daughters of the original military force are the ones doing the fighting?

Seal the borders.  Deport the disloyal.  Bring our troops home.  That’s a coherent proposal, and at least has the benefit of not yet having been seriously tried.  Anything short of that is insanity — defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  That’s no way to honor the memory of those who died 17 years ago… or the tens of thousands of American servicemen dead or disabled since then.

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Time and place… Time. And. Place.

Donald Trump will never win an award for being a silver-tongued orator.  It’s his willingness to say what he thinks, however, that endears him to many of his supporters.  In Monday’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump disappointed many when he declined to press Putin publicly on the accusation of cyberspace meddling in the 2016 election.  This resulted in shrieks of “treason” from his detractors in the U.S. (note to these: take a tranquilizer and calm down; your constant Chicken Little hysterics are embarrassing).  Being civil with Putin, however, doesn’t mean being in his pocket:

[Trump] is, as Greg Gutfeld noted on The Five, his own good cop and bad cop all rolled into one.  The good cop part is what we saw with Kim Jong-un and now with Putin — complimenting tyrants to an almost uncomfortable degree.  It’s oddly a Christian love-the-sinner-but-hate-the-sin kind of thing.

The bad cop part is what Trump actually does concretely — and, as Putin certainly knows, this is far more important than photo ops and press conferences with all the attendant words.  Trump’s actions vis-a-vis Russia have been considerably more stringent than his predecessor’s — opening the energy spigots, increasing sanctions, arming the Ukrainians, ejecting 60 Russian agents, etc.  As Walter Russell Mead pointed out, if Trump is in Putin’s pocket, he’s doing a terrible job of it.

Barack Obama — although the New York Times would burn down its own building rather than admit it — did an abysmal job with Putin and was indeed the one who was truly “owned” by the Russian.  And it wasn’t just the silly reset button and the embarrassing video of Barack whispering into Medvedev’s ear to tell Vlad he — Barack — would be more flexible on missiles after the election.  (What a toady!)  Even worse, in his Chamberlainesque ardor to make a deal with Iran’s mullahs, Obama let Putin play him in Syria, agreeing not to honor his redline against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in order not to endanger the  deal.  Trump never did anything nearly that pathetic.

Too many in our government find purpose only in confronting adversaries, whether it’s Russia, Iran, Syria or North Korea (or for warmonger John McCain — who still hasn’t resigned his Senate seat despite terminal cancer that allegedly prevents his being in D.C. — all of the above).  If things are too calm they’ll create the next Hitler of convenience (see: Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Ghaddafi).  Keeping these pots on a low boil is useful to the ruling class; when people start catching on to Uncle Sam’s misdeeds, they simply turn up the heat on one of the burners as a “rally ’round the flag” distraction.

If the various “Q”-related rumors are true, the administration is about to unmask considerable — possibly unprecedented — malfeasance within our own country’s leadership.  In such a case it would be prudent to wall off any potential foreign distractions, which may underpin Trump’s focused efforts with North Korea and Russia these days.  Putin’s revelation that Hillary Clinton received $400 million in questionable campaign funds from Russian sources, and Trump’s comments at the press conference about the missing DNC computer server and other unresolved scandals serve to underscore what fights our president has chosen to pursue at this time.  Regardless what success he has on that front, Trump is absolutely right in responding to those who urged him to cross swords with Putin or refuse to meet him at all:

“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”

Trump’s foes have consistently underestimated both him and his base of support.  This tends to downplay in my mind all the pundits who claim Trump is either coopted or naïve about Putin.  They may find he was simply ensuring a fight on only one front at a time, fully aware that he still needs to keep Putin under a watchful eye.  “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” as the saying goes.

Such wisdom is to be desired in a chief executive.

Sounding a Mayday

A new memoir by retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz revisits the decision by then-Secretary Robert Gates to shut down the F-22 Raptor production line well short of the service’s calculated minimum operational requirement.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been tremendously expensive for the United States, both in lives and money.  As time goes on, we may find the largest cost of those conflicts was to cause such an intense focus on counterinsurgency warfare that our higher-end capabilities were allowed to atrophy.  Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has considered Russia and China “near peer competitors” — in short, not quite the superpower America is.  That situation is changing more rapidly than many planners anticipated even a decade ago.  China fielded its first operational stealth aircraft years before expected.  While they are still having some growing pains, this development invalidated some of the reasoning behind shutting down the F-22 — that the U.S. Air Force was largely untouchable.

…Schwartz’s predecessor General Mike Moseley “never gave up in his principled attempts to get those 381 F-22s” the book states. That push ended up getting Moseley fired along with his civilian counterpart, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynn. After the culling, the brass thought that the new bomber was simply too important and that the chances of winning both the F-22 and bomber arguments with Gates, who was staunchly averse to building high-priced weapons that couldn’t be used in Iraq or Afghanistan, was next to zero.

Schwartz, in an attempt to see if a reduced F-22 production number would be palatable to the Defense Secretary, executed an independent assessment that ended up stating 243 F-22s was the absolute minimum the force could get by with. But Gates balked at that number as well.

In the end, the production line was shut down after only 188 Raptors were built.  The F-22 is designed to ensure air supremacy by sweeping adversaries’ aircraft from the skies.  For context, it is assuming that role from the 1970s-vintage F-15 Eagle, of which the Air Force procured nearly 900 over the decades since its debut.  That number does not include the 225 F-15E “Strike Eagles” specially designed with more focus on ground attack missions than air-to-air operations.  The F-15 production line continues to operate today, fielding orders from major U.S. allies more than a dozen years after the United States bought its last Eagle.

In short, the U.S. bought far too few Raptors, and now has no option to build more (the production line having been dismantled).  The Air Force was able to replenish its F-15 fleet over the years, purchasing newer aircraft and retiring older airframes.  This will not be an option for the F-22 design, as reopening production is cost-prohibitive.  As a result of this shortfall, the Air Force has kept a large number of F-15s in service as teammates to the Raptor.  But this generates the cost of maintaining four distinct fighter platforms: the F-22, the F-15, the smaller F-16 (most known for its use by the Thunderbird Demonstration Team), and the new F-35 attack aircraft.  The F-15 and F-16 were built concurrently as a “high-low” mix: a smaller number of highly capable F-15s to defeat enemy air forces, and considerably more of the less capable (and less expensive) F-16s to operate in a mostly “permissive” environment.  The same approach was intended for the F-22 and F-35.  With the premature closure of the F-22 line, the Air Force has to choose between keeping the F-15s around longer (adding to budget strain), or shifting some of their air superiority mission to the larger (but less capable) F-16 fleet until sufficient numbers of stealthy F-35s are flying.

This was not the first time the U.S. shot itself in the foot while buying a major aircraft system.  The B-2 bomber, which critics love to point out cost more per unit than any aircraft in history, was originally supposed to be a fleet of 100 aircraft.  Rattled by the program cost at a time the Cold War was winding down, Congress funding the Air Force for only 21 (of which only 19 are in operation today).  After 9/11 the system proved far more versatile than its original mission of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union, flying incredibly long missions non-stop from the U.S. to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.  Instead of 16 nuclear weapons, the aircraft can carry up to 80 satellite-guided 500-pound bombs, accurately hitting scores of targets on each mission.  Such capability creates high demand, but with such a small fleet these demands have worn out the B-2 force and the Air Force is scrambling to produce a replacement system as mentioned in the book excerpt above.  It’s arguable an original fleet of 100 aircraft would have reduced or eliminated the need for another design procurement this soon.

But such is the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” ways of government acquisition.  The F-22 and B-2 are arguably the most advanced and capable aircraft ever built — and no more of either can be produced because the facilities have shut down.  It has been 65 years since an American soldier was lost to enemy airpower — in 1953, during the Korean War.  Three generations of military planners have been able to reasonably assume the U.S. would control the skies in any conflict they foresaw.

Our investment decisions in recent years may soon call that assumption into serious question.  Penny-wise, pound-foolish is bad, but not nearly as bad as penny-wise, blood-foolish.

Decision time

The United States must decide whether it is a sovereign nation with defined borders, or merely the “promised land” for anyone in the world who wanders, sneaks, or breaks in.  For more than a couple generations we’ve sent such mixed signals on this issue, that plenty of people are willing to make dangerous journeys in the hopes of having their status legalized later.  This is the result:

For five days now hundreds of Central Americans — children, women, and men, most of them from Honduras — have boldly crossed immigration checkpoints, military bases, and police in a desperate, sometimes chaotic march toward the United States. Despite their being in Mexico without authorization, no one has made any effort to stop them.

Organized by a group of volunteers called Pueblos Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders, the caravan is intended to help migrants safely reach the United States, bypassing not only authorities who would seek to deport them, but gangs and cartels who are known to assault vulnerable migrants.

Organizers like Rodrigo Abeja hope that the sheer size of the crowd will give immigration authorities and criminals pause before trying to stop them…

So we have 1,200 or more people making their way en masse to the U.S. border, with Mexico’s complete complicity in allowing them to pass through from Central America. If 1,200 people (roughly the size of a U.S. Army battalion) showed up at our border with weapons and walked across, that would be considered an invasion. Is it any less of an invasion if they are unarmed but still uninvited when they cross? Is it any less of an invasion when recent years show the border is being probed and scouted in an increasingly aggressive and confrontational manner?

If the group traveling through Mexico arrives together at our border, what will be the nation’s response?  I’m certain the mainstream media will seek to tug heartstrings with accounts of what these people left, the challenge of their journey and what they “dream” of being in the U.S.  None of those same outlets will balance their stories with information about what illegal immigration costs the U.S. taxpayer, and how it affects employment and wage prospects for the most vulnerable of our own people.  None of them will confront the simple fact the U.S. physically can’t be a lifeboat for the entire world.  In short, the corporate news will act as a fifth column already within the gates, trying to convince us we don’t need gatekeepers at all.

What gets me is our nation spends north of $600 billion a year on our military… the traditional role of which is to secure our territory and interests.  Generations of Americans are used to seeing our military in action overseas, but I believe few could conceive of it garrisoning our own border as it once did.  And that’s regrettable, because this issue is kicking into overdrive, and the Border Patrol is ill-equipped to handle the problem.  It makes no sense to fund an overseas expeditions while leaving our own border undefended.  As commander-in-chief, Trump has the authority to order military reinforcements to the border.  The million-dollar question is, will he?

It would seem that in the next couple of weeks, we will either see a demonstration of renewed resolve to defend our sovereignty, or we will show the world conclusively that the U.S. border is simply a welcome mat for anyone who cares to show up.

Stay tuned.

A scary situation

Since it’s Halloween, everyone’s focused on spooky things.  Here’s a spooky thought: the U.S. national security strategy is “insolvent:”

Too few resources are chasing too many ongoing operations, forward presence commitments, and potential conflicts. U.S. military leaders have been unanimous in warning that they do not have enough troops, equipment, or funding to execute the national defense strategy. … There aren’t enough available dollars to sustain the current U.S. military strategy, which aims to simultaneously keep American global posture intact, conduct an ongoing military campaign against ISIL, sustain a global counterterrorism effort in its 16th year, and be ready for multiple contingencies against highly capable regional challengers.

Much like Maverick from the movie Top Gun, whose ego was accused of “writing checks your body can’t cash,” the United States after World War Two extended its umbrella of protection across the world, underwriting the security of what became known as the “free world.”  While that may have been appropriate (debatable) at a time when our economy represented nearly half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, it is untenable now that our government borrows 10 to 20 percent of its annual budget, and rising interest rates make servicing the debt one of the fastest-growing Federal expenditures.

Russia.  China.  Iran.  North Korea.  Islamic terrorism.  Border security.  It’s essential the U.S. prioritize the threats (and in the case of Russia, perhaps take action to live less in conflict with other great powers).  Trump was right on the campaign trail to say that many of our allies (*cough* Europe *cough*) need to shoulder a greater portion of the burden of their own defense.  When we’re playing Twister with our national power to try to cover U.S. interests, it makes no sense to be subsidizing others at the same time.

Our current global posture is in many ways a bluff… and our potential adversaries know it.  That creates both uncertainty and potential adventurism.  It’s time our stated objectives and our commitment to maintaining them were brought back into balance.

But instead of just spending more on the military, maybe we should stop writing so many checks.

“[America} goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” – John Quincy Adams. 1821

 

Never forget September 11, 2001

Sixteen years.  That’s how long it’s been since the worst terrorist attack in American history.  A total of 2,996 people dead or never accounted for.  Symbols of American power struck without warning: both World Trade center towers and the Pentagon.  The actions of informed passengers on a fourth plane likely averted a strike on the White House or Congress.

An entire generation had horrifying visions of previously unimaginable events happening in their own nation, with memories firmly etched into their minds.

They say time heals all wounds. And for the families of those lost that day I hope there is some measure of truth in it. But there is a flip side: such events fade in the public consciousness, such that they no longer inform or shape how the nation acts. To quote the opening of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,”

“…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth…” (click “continue reading” below to continue)

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Back to Bagram?

It seems the President has been swayed by his military advisors (both in and out of uniform) that it’s time to “surge” in Afghanistan again:

…shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia. My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts.

But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.

I arrived at three fundamental conclusion about America’s core interests in Afghanistan. First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.

Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists.

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

Third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.

For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict….

Surging troops (particularly only 4,000 more) is not a strategy.  Killing individual terrorists is not a strategy.  These are but tactics.   What is the desired end state?  It’s proven to be extremely difficult to build a competent, effective Afghan government and army.  Only when those exist is there any chance of us offloading this burden without creating the vacuum Trump references.  So why isn’t there more emphasis on that?  I’m not just talking about training troops (who have a tendency to run away — even when training in the U.S.!).  I’m talking about identifying real leaders, people Afghans are willing to rally around, that provide another pole of power besides the Taliban.  We may not like the leaders we find; they’re hardly likely to be Jeffersonian types.  But if they are committed to fighting the return of the Taliban and ensure Afghanistan doesn’t return to being a terror sanctuary, that should count most.

I really wish our leaders would pick up a book series I’ve recently been reading.  It’s written by a disaffected former U.S. Army Lt. Colonel who pulls no punches about the flawed premises under which we’ve operated since 9/11.  It’s not easy to read — using a science fiction story as allegory he frequently and graphically lays bare the moral quandaries of this type of war.  But as distasteful as some of his recommended approaches might be, one has to wonder if letting this festering sore drag on for 16 years is far worse.  Respect for U.S. power has waned, even as our forces have worn down from years of constant use.  Maybe it’s time we simply left, and made clear that any nation from which a future attack is launched against will find us, in Kratman’s title quote, making “A Desert Called Peace.”  There are easy ways to do so without “boots on the ground.”  And in the meantime, we should be hardening our borders and entry processes into America immediately.  It’s already long overdue.

Half-measures haven’t gotten us anywhere.  We’re too forceful to be loved, but not forceful enough to be feared.  Sooner or later we’re going to have to choose one or the other.