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the 5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.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.

 

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What We Can Learn from T.E. Lawrence About Today’s Middle East Policy

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I recently stumbled across an article in Foreign Policy written by James Stravadis titled How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic StateAs a researcher who writes about Islamic State (IS) and a personal fan of Lawrence (my dog is named T.E.), this type of article was right up my alley.

If you could use a refresher, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” after the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same title, was a British Army officer who successfully trained and equipped an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. With an army of irregulars, he employed guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans, blowing up trains, attacking and melting away — he led the same type of insurgency the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade.

What was so special about Lawrence was his deep understanding of both Arab and Ottoman societies. He was a British intelligence officer working as cartographer and archaeologist in the Middle East when World War 1 broke out. He was sent to liaise with Arabs from the Hashemite tribe in present day Saudi Arabia who the British thought might be sympathetic to their anti-Ottoman war effort.

Lawrence’s appointment was supposed to be temporary until a replacement could be sent, but he ended up nearly single-handedly (from a Western perspective — there were thousands of Arabs involved) leading a revolt in the desert. In the vernacular of today, we would say he was a special operator training and advising local national fighters. (One might imagine that today an Obama Administration official would make the distinction that he was involved in “non-combat operations” despite the numerous raids he went on.)

That Lawrence was so successful in working with Arab groups to successfully implement Western policy in the Middle East is what draws our attention to him today. Many of the candidates in this year’s American presidential election called for the creation of a Sunni Arab coalition to fight IS. Stravadis’s article recommends we rely on our Sunni allies as well — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. But the war against IS today reflects a different reality.

The aforementioned countries minus Oman are currently caught up in a war in Yemen, while Egypt is dealing with its own insurgency in the Sinai. Meanwhile, in the military intervention against IS, Jordan has participated in only token air strikes against Syria –mostly after one of their pilots was executed in a brutal and widely plublicized video. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in Syria, but only nominally. President Barack Obama has been forthright in his opinion that our Sunni allies need to do more, but we should also remember that those five countries’ defense budgets combined is about $110 billion, or only about 15% of what the US spends.

“While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups.”

Instead, what the US has done (after twin failed Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency train and equip programs in Syria) is make the Kurds of northern Syria and northern Iraq along with the Shiites of southern Iraq our de facto fighting force against IS. Our new baby in Syria, a coalition of militias in Syria called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” are mostly Kurds.  The US has also established an airfield in Kurdish-held Syria.

In Iraq, US special operations forces have also set up an airfield and outposts in Kurdish controlled areas. US troops are now operating out of an airbase near Erbil and a US Marine was killed by indirect fire from IS at an outpost in the area. Additionally, a Delta Force soldier was killed during a raid with Kurdish forces, as was more recently a Navy SEAL while training Kurds. Successful territory gaining operations against IS thus far in Tikrit were mostly comprised of Shiite militias and the Shiite Badr Corps were on the ground in the liberation of Ramadi.

So what is the lesson we can learn from Lawrence of Arabia? During the successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia were promised kingdoms in a Middle East. Faisal bin Hussein was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. After being ousted by the French who had received Syria in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, he became the first King of Iraq with the help of the British.

Faisal’s brother, Abdullah I, became the first King of Jordan after being convinced by the British not to attack the French in retaliation for removing his brother. Finally, Faisal and Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Ali, declared himself King of the Hejaz (an area in present day Saudi Arabia), but was never recognized by the global community and the British-backed al-Saud tribe forced him to flee in 1924.

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Arab revolt fighters, 1918 (Library of Congress photo)

Today, the only remaining Hashemite ruler in the Middle East is King Abdullah II of Jordan.  The Hashemites were overthrown in Iraq in 1958 during a bloody coup resulting in the death of many members of the Hashemite family. The Sauds conquered the Arabian peninsula and created modern Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence, perhaps disgusted with how the Hashemites he fought with were essentially betrayed by the British and French governments, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1920 under an assumed identity, distancing himself from his past identity as Colonel T.E Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt.

The lesson here is that the US needs to be careful about who it supports in its fight against IS. While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups. The YPG, a Kurdish militia the US is supporting in Syria, has made it known that it intends independence. Shiites in Iraq have habitually disempowered Iraqi Sunnis and will likely continue to do so.

Whether or not the US plans acquiesce its current allies plans for self-determination, it must be prepared for the next conflict after IS is defeated. It is unlikely that in a post-IS world, empowered and well-armed Kurds will willingly return to the old status quo. Similarly, it is not a stretch to imagine Sunnis in formerly IS-held areas to rebel against their Shiite conquerors. Much of our modern turmoil in the Middle East is thought to be related the failed promises and poor planning of the post-conflict after the Arab revolt —and it has lasted nearly a century. Are we prepared for another hundred years of conflict in the Middle East?

 

The United States and the ‘Fight for the Future of Islam’

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (Ben Lieu Song photo)

Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent out a mass email asking for feedback on a speech on United States relationships in the Middle East that he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations last January. Murphy is a Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has styled himself as the leader of a movement for a progressive foreign policy.

Murphy’s foreign policy goals are a marked difference from the early 2000s Neoconservative foreign policy of preemptive war and this decade’s Neoliberal foreign policy of endless covert war. Murphy calls for increasing foreign aid spending versus defense spending, the end the president’s authority to wage limitless war, and reigning in mass surveillance and drone strikes.

“Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance?”

In his speech about US policy in the Middle East, Murphy makes it clear that he understands how our ally, Saudi Arabia, makes the world less secure by investing enormous amounts of money in spreading Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Sunni Islam that is considered intolerant by the West. At the end of his speech, he argues that it is time to stop being myopic when it comes to our relationships in the Middle East:

“If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, then our horizons have to extend beyond the day to day, here and now, fight in Iraq and Syria.

We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality, and the U.S. needs to lead by example by ending our effective acquiescence to the Saudi export of intolerant Islam.

And we need to be careful not to blindly back our friend’s plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums, into which ISIS and other extremist groups can fill, like what is going in Yemen today.”

I commend the Senator on his unusually canny understanding of the Middle East and Central Asia. It is refreshing to see frankness instead of mealy-mouthed support of least bad options in our relationships there. After all, often it is our allies who cause many of the problems we attempt to solve, from Pakistan protecting the Taliban (and the US-designated terrorist Haqqani network, and perhaps Osama Bin Laden), to Israel and its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, to the Gulf States arming jihadist groups in Syria.

However, sandwiched between two great points in the quote above, the Senator makes a very troubling remark: “We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines.”

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Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (US Senate photo)

Murphy should reflect about what that statement means. Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance? Does it have the right to get off the “sidelines” (and is a sports reference appropriate)? The separation of government and religion is a cornerstone of American democracy. While the US does have some history hypocritically prohibiting the free exercise of religion abroad, Murphy must understand that making a statement about the US’s role in the “fight for the future of Islam” is exactly the type of shortsightedness that he is rejecting.

It should be plainly obvious that most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims would not support the government of the nominally secular, culturally Christian United States making any decisions on the future of their religion. If he thinks the anti-Americanism in madrasas is bad now, just wait until they find out that the US is getting off the sidelines in fight for the future of Islam.

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Men praying in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons photo)

I think Murphy is an ambitious, smart guy who truly wants the best for the US and I admire the type of world he is attempting to create. Perhaps the sentence in question was simply a phrasing error — I would like to think that he does not believe the US government should have a prominent role in shaping a religion. Nonetheless, Murphy must be aware of how that type of messaging will backfire among the people he is attempting to fight for.

Murphy’s team asked for feedback on his speech. I urge them to consider this point when talking about Middle East policy in the future.

The GOP Wants to Defeat Islamic State, But Doesn’t Understand the Syrian Civil War

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Donald Trump never stops saying absurd things about the Middle East (Gage Skidmore photo)

An updated and expanded version of my post about the Republican plans for defeating Islamic State went up at Fair Observer, a global journal in partnership with the United Nations Foundation and Oxford University School of Politics and International Relations, on Wednesday.

“The three candidates’ plans for defeating Islamic State may differ tactically, but they all want to put American troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS while avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War. This is the type of half-planning that needlessly endangers Americans troops and exposes the US to blowback.

The power vacuum in Iraq and Syria that facilitated the rise of IS has been attributed by many Republicans to President Obama’s miscalculating the consequences of the Iraq withdrawal and inaction in Syria. But to advocate putting American troops in Syria to fight IS while keeping them neutral against Assad’s regime is not just bad strategy—it is wishful thinking.”

More here.

After 15 Years, Weighing the Options in Afghanistan

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(DoD/Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Yesterday, Anders Corr wrote an opinion piece for Forbes comparing three realistic policy options in Afghanistan: maintain the 13,000 coalition troops indefinitely, increase troops slightly and intensify the air campaign, or withdraw all troops completely.

The current policy of maintaining a limited troop presence does have its benefits of training the Afghan police and military, providing the Afghan National Army with air support, and having some quick reaction force elements in place in case the Taliban’s fabled overwhelming spring offensive finally takes place. Yet it also puts troops at risk, certainly is not free, and does not seem to be making Afghanistan any safer.

As Afghans slowly lose village after village to the Taliban and the security situation in Kabul deteriorates, a natural solution is to do more: increase troops and bomb more things. This seems to be the reaction the current administration is reluctantly leaning into with the recent deployment of an infantry battalion to Helmand  — the first major deployment of combat troops back to Afghanistan since the end of the NATO mission in 2014 — and an increase in operations against Islamic State in the east.

But, as I have written about before, airstrikes without significant and reliable ground forces can do more harm than good. And as Corr’s piece rightly points out:

“If we didn’t win with 140,000 NATO troops, we are unlikely to win with an increase of ten or twenty thousand.”

Thus, if the current troop levels are not working, and increasing troop levels will not work, is it time for the United States to cut its losses and leave? If our war against the Taliban is failing after 15 years and at least $685 billion spent, it is time to stop fighting the Taliban. Corr quotes me in his piece:

“Richard White, a security specialist in Afghanistan, messaged me on the subject. ‘The Taliban insurgency will … only be defeated if it is legitimized into the political system as perhaps Hizbullah and Hamas were.’ White continued, ‘Maybe that can happen without a U.S. military presence, maybe not. I am positive that we cannot continue to invest in Afghanistan with little to no return indefinitely, though.’”

Interestingly, a 2008 Rand study found after an examination of 648 terrorist groups that  the most common way terrorist groups end is by transition to the political process. The US government seems to at least partly understand this and is once again attempting direct peace talks with the Taliban. Terrorism and insurgency are not identical, however, and the study noted that terrorist groups most likely to enter the political sphere were those with narrow objectives.

Perhaps a complete withdrawal makes the most logical sense at this point, but without the American public demanding it, I doubt the US government will willingly leave on its own — after all, it is not their money they are spending. More Americans than ever now consider the Afghanistan war a mistake, but still only a little less than half. And as a prominent Middle East scholar once told me after I submitted a piece on Afghanistan to his blog in the hopes of being reposted:

“I can’t explain it, but the public just usually does not respond to Afghanistan stories.”

As long as Americans continue to not care and the Afghan government continues to request assistance, it is unlikely the US is going anywhere.