A worthwhile New Years resolution

…would be for the United States to admit we’ve achieved everything we’re likely to in Afghanistan (i.e. not much), and end the operation:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept…

Indeed, Afghanistan represents the triumph of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and sectarian awareness, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and other groups competing for patches of ground. Tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that control the drug trade rule huge segments of the country…

The United States’ special adviser to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to broker a diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.

That may be the real reason the United States keeps spending so heavily in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is terrified of a repeat of 1975, when panicked South Vietnamese fled Saigon as Americans pulled out and North Vietnamese forces advanced on the city. The United States military did not truly begin to recover from that humiliation until its victory in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. An abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could conceivably provide a new symbol of the decline in American hard power.

There is also the fear that an Afghanistan in chaos could once again provide a haven for an international terrorist group determined to perpetrate another Sept. 11-scale attack. Of course, Yemen, Somalia and a number of other places could also provide the setting for that.  The point is, we remain in Afghanistan out of fear of even worse outcomes, rather than in the expectation of better ones.

Afghanistan has become America’s “tar baby.”  The more we try to do there, the more we seem “stuck” with no vision or endgame in sight.  The writer of the linked article is correct that our misadventures there are likely to signal to our adversaries we aren’t the power we used to be.  But what is far worse is that our indecision and inability to know “when to fold them” demonstrates poor strategic judgment as well.  Nothing encourages aggression like thinking your potential opponent is both weak AND a fool.

(Chinese) Rear Admiral Lou Yuan has told an audience in Shenzhen that the ongoing disputes over the ownership of the East and South China Seas could be resolved by sinking two US super carriers.

His speech, delivered on December 20 to the 2018 Military Industry List summit, declared that China’s new and highly capable anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles were more than capable of hitting US carriers, despite them being at the centre of a ‘bubble’ of defensive escorts.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Admiral Lou declared.
He said the loss of one super carrier would cost the US the lives of 5000 service men and women. Sinking two would double that toll.

Our extended presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan underscored our country’s emphasis upon what the military calls “force protection.”  It’s natural for any military to seek to limit casualties, but when it becomes apparent that even a few deaths are enough to change national policy, outside observers begin to doubt one’s resolve.  The thoughts expressed by Admiral Lou Yuan echo those of the Japanese militarists in 1940: the U.S. is a paper tiger, and will acquiesce to its rivals if smacked hard enough on the nose.  Japan’s miscalculation led to a brutal Pacific War that ended in atomic fireballs over two of its cities.  To see the line of thought being resurrected by the Chinese, whose potential to oppose the U.S. dwarfs that of Russia, should give plenty of people pause.

Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires” for a reason.  The sooner we recognize that, and take steps to restore the deterrent credibility we’ve lost there, the better.  The misguided 17-year (and counting) occupation may have sought to avoid another 9/11.  But at this point, it risks far worse outcomes by emboldening rivals who believe they’ve taken our measure by watching us there.  Perhaps America in 2019 lacks the ability to muster the resolve shown after Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Then again, perhaps not.

The only certain thing is it’s better to ensure we never have to find out.

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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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As I’ve been saying…

this fellow also says it well (emphasis added by me):

War is and always will be an ugly business.

That knowledge should lead Western governments to use their technological and economic advantages to avoid getting into wars with the barbarians on the edge of civilization. Instead, they start wars they never intend to win, so they can preen and pose about their virtue and morality, when something terrible inevitably happens…

The point of war is to kill the enemy and break up their stuff. The hope is they quit before you kill all of them and break all of their stuff, but you plan otherwise. If the Afghans knew all along that helping Osama bin Laden was most likely going to mean their cities and large towns would be flattened, they would have chose differently. Let’s assume they played it the same and Bush had firebombed Kabul, what would have been the result?

Yeah, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing and pearl clutching in Washington, but every other nutjob in the Middle East would have been re-calibrating his plans. A lot less death and destruction would have come as a result.

Not long after it became clear we were in both Afghanistan and Iraq for an extended engagement, I told a fellow Airman our country was making a huge mistake.  Rather than just strike and leave, our country was arrogant enough to believe we could “make democracy bloom” in a soil that has never yet produced it on its own.  Americans today have no stomach for the kind of occupation (both scope and duration) it would take to create that level of change in the region.  To put it bluntly, unless we’re willing to seal off and occupy the countries until we’ve educated a couple new generations, it ain’t happening (and probably wouldn’t then, either).  I said at the time we’d have been better off after 9/11 by turning the Taliban and Kabul into the world’s largest man-made crater as a warning to others, then leaving everyone in literal shock and awe (“Who else wants some of that?  Any takers?”).  Instead, our half-hearted wars of choice over the last decade and a half have eroded the respect and fear (not to mention the capability) our military once commanded.

You’re not powerful just because you’re throwing military forces around.  You’re powerful when nobody dares challenge you, even indirectly, for fear of the deathstroke you’re expected to deliver.  That’s the difference between deterrence and playing expensive whack-a-mole all over the earth.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  – Sun Tzu

But failing that,

“The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.”  – Marshall Ferdinand Foch

 We as a nation don’t have a will.  We’re too hesitant to be feared, and too reckless abroad to be respected.  And that’s why there’s not a way to win.  Trying to fight a war at the level of a low and long simmer is about as sensible as a doctor trying to operate without losing any blood.  Either America has the will to fight — including responsibility for the inevitable horrors — or it doesn’t.  Either there’s a reason to break things and kill people, or there’s not.  If there is, let it be done quickly, relentlessly and efficiently until a better future is secured (that’s Just War theory, by the way).

If, however, there isn’t will or a reason, the families of more than 8,300 Americans deserve to know why their loved one were sent to die.  Tens of thousands of scarred Americans also deserve to know what their sacrifices were for.