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5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.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

 

Both Hillary and Bernie’s Plans for Fighting Islamic State Are Problematic

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate – ABC/Ida Mae Astute Photo

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prioritized the threat of Islamic State (IS) in their presidential platforms, yet Clinton has provided much more detail about how she would tackle the IS problem.

In November, Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations about IS. Recently, she rightly chastised a pivoting Sanders, who dodged a question on his anti-IS strategy by talking about his Iraq invasion voting record. Clinton interjected, saying “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

Sanders said in the most recent debate that IS was the biggest threat to the United States, over North Korea, Russia, and Iran. But on actual strategy, he has said little, acknowledging that there is no “magic wand” for fixing Syria and that Hillary Clinton has much more experience than him.

Here is how the Democratic candidates’ strategies against IS breakdown:

Hillary Clinton

Goal: “Defeat and destroy” Islamic State by intensifying and accelerating current strategy, but keep American combat troops at home

How? Clinton wants to start a new phase of anti-IS operations that would “deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria.” In Syria, she wants to:

  • Rely on local Sunni troops to engage in infantry combat against IS
  • Increase deployment of special operations forces (SOF) and allow SOF to support allies with air strikes
  • Enforce “coalition” no-fly zones on the Turkish/Syrian border against Assad’s air force in partnership with the Russian air force
  • Lock down the Turkish/Syrian border to prevent refugees from entering Europe
  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad

“We have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force.”

Hillary Clinton 11/19/15

What about Iraq? In Iraq, Clinton plans to:

  • Allow troops in Iraq training Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to embed in Iraqi units and help target air strikes
  • Arm Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq (with or without Baghdad’s approval)

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and Iraq where IS controls no territory

Bernie Sanders

Goal: Defeat IS while not repeating the mistakes of the war in Iraq using a coalition led by Middle Eastern allies

How? Sanders has made it clear that he thinks the destruction of IS is a “struggle for the soul of Islam” that must be led by Muslim nations with support from global partners. He wants to:

  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad
  • Create a NATO-like international organization to confront the threats of the 21st century and defeat violent extremism
  • Obtain a commitment from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE to make the fight against IS their priority
  • Arm Iraqi Kurdish militias

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and a Middle East where IS is defeated largely by their own efforts

There are some confusing aspects to Clinton’s IS strategy — namely, her enthusiasm for no-fly zones. She wants to stop the bombing of civilians by both Assad and Russia, but also wants to partner with Russia to enforce this hypothetical no-fly zone (who would thereby be abandoning their number one ally in the Middle East). These no-fly zones would serve to protect refugees, who would not be allowed to leave Syria because in her ideal world the Turkish border is locked down.

“It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one.”

Additionally, Clinton’s plan to arm and train Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq with our without Baghdad’s approval is a bit troubling. After IS is defeated, what incentive do these militias have to disarm and re-enter the Shi’a dominated Iraqi political system?

It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one. In the last debate he said he agreed with most of Clinton’s strategy, yet hardly elaborated. It is clear that Sanders does not want the US to lead operations against IS and instead would rather pressure other nations to take a more active role in the region. Essentially, his strategy is entirely dependent on external forces.

I find it interesting that he supports arming the Peshmerga in Iraq but no other militias in Iraq or Syria. I wonder if this was simply a matter of misspeaking or if he specifically supports the Peshmerga for some reason.

Clinton seems more prepared to take over Operation Inherent Resolve than Sanders. Unfortunately, whether or not her plan is ultimately more effective than Sanders’ “Can’t someone else do it?” approach will never be tested, because only one of them can become Commander-in-Chief in November — and neither might.

Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State

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Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

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Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.