Canada’s Train and Equip Mission in Iraq Turns Offensive (Like Always)

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Canadian special operations forces scan the horizon (Canadian Armed Forces photo)

Canadian special forces in Northern Iraq are performing offensive operations against Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) according to Canadian military officials. Lt. Col. Stephen Hunter, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), told reporters on Monday that Canadian troops have sometimes shot first in engagements with IS when Kurdish forces were not present.

“Because they have demonstrated hostile intent, we’re able, through our rules of engagement, to use our own weapons systems to engage that kind of threat,” said Hunter. This sort of preventive attack in the name of self-defense is the same justification U.S. forces use in Afghanistan to attack the Taliban two years after “combat operations” ended.

But the revelation that Canadian soldiers are attacking IS is significant because Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau supposedly ended combat operations in Syria last March. He announced the Canada would suspend its bombing operations and instead focus on training and defending allied forces—namely the Kurds.

Canada, like the U.S., is succumbing to mission creep—even with a left-leaning Prime Minister who vowed to take Canadians out of combat. Similarly, what started as a deployment of an extra 275 personnel to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as IS quickly took territory in Iraq has become well over 5,000 in both Iraq and Syria.

It is important to identify that the idea that U.S. and Canadian forces can engage in offensive operations under the authority of self defense is doublespeak. A similar blurring of the meanings of words occurred when former President George W. Bush used the concept of preemptive war to embroil the U.S. in Iraq from which now the American government seems unable to disentangle itself.

The American and Canadian examples show that it is not only the Russian government that utilizes their military overtly while saying they are not (as they did during the annexation of Crimea and are doing in Syria). We must hold our governments accountable when they tell us one thing and do another.

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Canadian Joint Task Force 2 assault demonstration (Patrick Cardinal photo)

It is more important now more than ever as the Trump Administration prepares to move into the White House heralding an era many have coined as “post-truth“. Liberals in American society allowed President Obama to do things they found unsavory, like expanded surveillance, extra-judicial killing, and re-intervening in Iraq because they trusted him. Likewise, conservatives are already turning blind eye to President-elect Trump’s admission of intention to break campaign promises.

Interestingly, public support of the war against IS is rising. Recent polls have suggested that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favor of utilizing ground troops against IS while American opinion is mixed but growing. With the support of their citizens, one wonders why the governments of Canada and the U.S. use doublespeak regarding their military operations.

It appears that in a (debatable) post-Cold War world, it is not just the Russians embracing deception operations. We as a people must decide whether we find this in accordance with our democratic values. Malcolm X said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified U.S. forces as Canadians

America’s Longest War Will Continue into Next Presidency

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President Obama delivers speech on Afghanistan on July 6th, 2016

Today, President Barack Obama announced that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan at least until the end of his term. This is an increase from the 5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.

In his speech today, Obama admitted that despite nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan, “the Taliban are still a threat.” He argues that it will “continue to take time for [Afghanistan] to build up military capacity that we sometimes take for granted. And given the enormous challenges they face, the Afghan people will need the support of the world led by the United States.”

During his speech, the White House tweeted in a coordinated communications effort about US progress in Afghanistan. One tweet highlighted the fact that Obama brought 90% of troops in Afghanistan home since taking office.

But the chart in the tweet’s data betrays its title. According to the chart, Obama took office in 2009 with roughly 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. He will be leaving office in 2017 with 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. That leaves 22% of the troops in Afghanistan that were there when he took office. So since taking office, Obama brought home about 78% of “our troops” from Afghanistan.

If we use the surge numbers instead, the tweet makes more sense. Since the surge, troop levels have reduced by 92%, but Obama himself raised the troops from 38,000 to 100,000. He did not inherit that from Bush. And unfortunately, as Obama admitted himself, the Taliban is still a threat. So what was that surge for?

Obama reminds us of what we have accomplished in nearly a decade and a half in Afghanistan: improvements in public health, democratic elections, and a government that is a strong partner with the US in combatting terrorism. But the list seems short when taking into consideration that since taking office, 1,301 American troops and 1,540 contractors have died in Afghanistan. And according to the United Nations, over 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since Obama took office and total casualties have climbed every year of his presidency.

“The Taliban are still a threat.”

– President Barack Obama, July 6th, 2016

As many predicted, the war in Afghanistan will not see any change in the status quo until the next administration. “Today’s decision best positions my successor to make future decisions about our presence in Afghanistan,” said Obama in today’s speech.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that it was a “terrible mistake to get involved there in the first place,” but that he would “probably” have to leave troops in Afghanistan because “that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave.”

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton supported Obama’s withdrawal reversal last year and said, “We have invested a lot of blood and a lot of treasure in trying to help that country and we can’t afford for it to become an outpost of the Taliban and [Islamic State] one more time, threatening us, threatening the larger world.” It does not look like the war in Afghanistan is ending anytime soon.

As I said in my reflections on leaving Afghanistan, Bagram 2035, indeed.

 

The Cost of Forgetting US Military Failures

090219-A-6797M-101        U.S. Army 1st Lt. Larry Baca from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment monitors the weather as a storm moves in outside of Forward Operating Base Lane, Afghanistan, on Feb. 19, 2009.  DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.  (Released)

DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.

The Atlantic put out a good piece titled Forgetting Afghanistan a few days ago about how the US government and public seem to be consciously forgetting Afghanistan as our attention shifts back to Iraq and IS. It seems that it is not solely a shift in focus, but a deliberate attempt to remove the failure of the war in Afghanistan from society’s collective thought in an attempt to relieve the guilt and shame that may be associated with the military (and diplomatic) defeat there.

The article points out that this concept is not new. After the Franco’s death in Spain, the Spanish government decided the best way to move forward was to commit to la desmemoria—the disremembering—choosing not to remember its authoritarian past in order to transition to democracy.

But this is not even the first time the US has chosen to disremember a military failure. The article also mentions that after the Vietnam War the US Army Special Warfare School threw out its files on counter-insurgency.

Perhaps I am naive, but this shocks me. I think it is well established that the US Army is not a learning institution. But to destroy records in an attempt to get out of the business of counter-insurgency is a level of infantilism from the Army that I was not prepared to accept. Once again, the US finds itself distancing itself from COIN as it deploys more tanks to Europe and refuses to send anyone but inside-the-wire advisors to Iraq.

Obviously, forgetting our COIN lessons in Vietnam did not prepare us for success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who knows what those records contained, but the US Army should be training for any mission it is called to undertake, not just the ones it wants. As long as civilians control the government, the military is going to have to do things it would rather not do. As the United States has not won a war in over twenty years, and since World War II has lost more wars than it has won, it is probably time the DoD becomes a learning organization.

Even though the US may be purposely forgetting Afghanistan, for the moment it seems that the administration is doing its best not to disremember some of the lessons from Iraq and that is encouraging. While the main goal might only be to limit US troop casualties and prevent the nation from being bogged down again in an unwinnable situation in Iraq, at the very least we are looking at our failures from the last ten years or so and saying, “let’s not do that again.” It’s clear that Obama is doing the bare minimum there until his presidency is over. As the president who was elected to end wars, he does not want to leave another one for his successor.

The United States is currently limiting its engagement overseas for political reasons, but this cannot last forever. As the political climate changes, the DoD must prepare for the next unfavorable mission—even if that means COIN or whatever we will be calling it in 2025. Clausewitz wrote:

We must therefore familiarize ourselves with the thought of an honorable defeat. We must always nourish this thought within ourselves, and we must get completely used to it. Be convinced, Most Gracious Master, that without this firm resolution no great results can be achieved in the most successful war, let alone in the most unsuccessful.

Without honorably accepting our defeat and learning from it we will never truly win again.