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Danny Sjursen

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Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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Danny Sjursen, USA 02/09/2018 0

The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command) — And It’s Not the War on Terror

— from TomDispatch

Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it’s well that they did. The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country’s artificial border. In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong.

More than two decades of involvement and, at the war’s peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam’s military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.

There’s just one thing. Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the “orthodox” school) subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not. Instead, they’re still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.

The Big Re-Write

In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War. It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus’s impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war. Though he did observe that Vietnam had “cost the military dearly” and that “the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services,” his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called “low-intensity conflicts” and are now known as counterinsurgencies. His takeaway: what the country needed wasn’t less Vietnams but better-fought ones. The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.

Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq, he and a whole generation of COINdinistas (like-minded officers devoted to his favored counterinsurgency approach to modern warfare) embraced those very conclusions to win the war on terror. The names of some of them — H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, for instance — should ring a bell or two these days. In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his acolytes would get their chance to translate theory into practice. Americans — and much of the rest of the planet — still live with the results.

Like Petraeus, an entire generation of senior military leaders, commissioned in the years after the Vietnam War and now atop the defense behemoth, remain fixated on that ancient conflict. After all these decades, such “thinking” generals and “soldier-scholars” continue to draw all the wrong lessons from what, thanks in part to them, has now become America’s second longest war.

Rival Schools

Historian Gary Hess identifies two main schools of revisionist thinking. There are the “Clausewitzians” (named after the nineteenth century Prussian military theorist) who insist that Washington never sufficiently attacked the enemy’s true center of gravity in North Vietnam. Beneath the academic language, they essentially agree on one key thing: the U.S. military should have bombed the North into a parking lot.

The second school, including Petraeus, Hess labeled the “hearts-and-minders.” As COINdinistas, they felt the war effort never focused clearly enough on isolating the Vietcong, protecting local villages in the South, building schools, and handing out candy — everything, in short, that might have won (in the phrase of that era) Vietnamese hearts and minds.

Both schools, however, agreed on something basic: that the U.S. military should have won in Vietnam.

The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century. Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington. The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now.

The Go-Big Option

The leading voice of the Clausewitzian school was U.S. Army Colonel and Korean War/Vietnam War vet Harry Summers, whose 1982 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, became an instant classic within the military. It’s easy enough to understand why. Summers argued that civilian policymakers — not the military rank-and-file — had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than on the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. More troops, more aggressiveness, even full-scale invasions of communist safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, would have led to victory.

Summers had a deep emotional investment in his topic. Later, he would argue that the source of post-war pessimistic analyses of the conflict lay in “draft dodgers and war evaders still [struggling] with their consciences.” In his own work, Summers marginalized all Vietnamese actors (as would so many later military historians), failed to adequately deal with the potential consequences, nuclear or otherwise, of the sorts of escalation he advocated, and didn’t even bother to ask whether Vietnam was a core national security interest of the United States.

Perhaps he would have done well to reconsider a famous post-war encounter he had with a North Vietnamese officer, a Colonel Tu, whom he assured that “you know you never beat us on the battlefield.”

“That may be so,” replied his former enemy, “but it is also irrelevant.”

Whatever its limitations, his work remains influential in military circles to this day. (I was assigned the book as a West Point cadet!)

A more sophisticated Clausewitzian analysis came from current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in a highly acclaimed 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty. He argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in failing to give President Lyndon Johnson an honest appraisal of what it would take to win, which meant that “the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice.” He concluded that the war was lost not in the field or by the media or even on antiwar college campuses, but in Washington, D.C., through a failure of nerve by the Pentagon’s generals, which led civilian officials to opt for a deficient strategy.

McMaster is a genuine scholar and a gifted writer, but he still suggested that the Joint Chiefs should have advocated for a more aggressive offensive strategy — a full ground invasion of the North or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country. In this sense, he was just another “go-big” Clausewitzian who, as historian Ronald Spector pointed out recently, ignored Vietnamese views and failed to acknowledge — an observation of historian Edward Miller — that “the Vietnam War was a Vietnamese war.”

COIN: A Small (Forever) War

Another Vietnam veteran, retired Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Krepinevich, fired the opening salvo for the hearts-and-minders. In The Army and Vietnam, published in 1986, he argued that the NLF, not the North Vietnamese Army, was the enemy’s chief center of gravity and that the American military’s failure to emphasize counterinsurgency principles over conventional concepts of war sealed its fate. While such arguments were, in reality, no more impressive than those of the Clausewitzians, they have remained popular with military audiences, as historian Dale Andrade points out, because they offer a “simple explanation for the defeat in Vietnam.”

Krepinevich would write an influential 2005 Foreign Affairs piece, “How to Win in Iraq,” in which he applied his Vietnam conclusions to a new strategy of prolonged counterinsurgency in the Middle East, quickly winning over the New York Times’s resident conservative columnist, David Brooks, and generating “discussion in the Pentagon, CIA, American Embassy in Baghdad, and the office of the vice president.”

In 1999, retired army officer and Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley penned the definitive hearts-and-minds tract, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Sorley boldly asserted that, by the spring of 1970, “the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.” According to his comforting tale, the real explanation for failure lay with the “big-war” strategy of U.S. commander General William Westmoreland. The counterinsurgency strategy of his successor, General Creighton Abrams — Sorley’s knight in shining armor — was (or at least should have been) a war winner.

Critics noted that Sorley overemphasized the marginal differences between the two generals’ strategies and produced a remarkably counterfactual work. It didn’t matter, however. By 2005, just as the situation in Iraq, a country then locked in a sectarian civil war amid an American occupation, went from bad to worse, Sorley’s book found its way into the hands of the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow. By then, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, it could also “be found on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad.”

Another influential hearts-and-minds devotee was Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. (He even made it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.) His Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam followed Krepinevich in claiming that “if [Creighton] Abrams had gotten the call to lead the American effort at the start of the war, America might very well have won it.” In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker “so liked [Nagl’s] book that he made it required reading for all four-star generals,” while the Iraq War commander of that moment, General George Casey, gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a copy during a visit to Baghdad.

David Petraeus and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, co-authors in 2006 of FM 3-24, the first (New York Times-reviewed) military field manual for counterinsurgency since Vietnam, must also be considered among the pantheon of hearts-and-minders. Nagl wrote a foreword for their manual, while Krepinevich provided a glowing back-cover endorsement.

Such revisionist interpretations would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps.

Reading All the Wrong Books

In 2009, when former West Point history professor Colonel Gregory Daddis was deployed to Iraq as the command historian for the Multinational Corps — the military’s primary tactical headquarters — he noted that corps commander Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby had assigned a professional reading list to his principal subordinates. To his disappointment, Daddis also discovered that the only Vietnam War book included was Sorley’s A Better War. This should have surprised no one, since his argument — that American soldiers in Vietnam were denied an impending victory by civilian policymakers, a liberal media, and antiwar protestors — was still resonant among the officer corps in year six of the Iraq quagmire. It wasn’t the military’s fault!

Officers have long distributed professional reading lists for subordinates, intellectual guideposts to the complex challenges ahead. Indeed, there’s much to be admired in the concept, but also potential dangers in such lists as they inevitably influence the thinking of an entire generation of future leaders. In the case of Vietnam, the perils are obvious. The generals have been assigning and reading problematic books for years, works that were essentially meant to reinforce professional pride in the midst of a series of unsuccessful and unending wars.

Just after 9/11, for instance, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers — who spoke at my West Point graduation — included Summers’s On Strategy on his list. A few years later, then-Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker added McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty. The trend continues today. Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller has kept McMaster and added Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger (he of the illegal bombing of both Laos and Cambodia and war criminal fame). Current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley kept Kissinger and added good old Lewis Sorley. To top it all off, Secretary of Defense Mattis has included yet another Kissinger book and, in a different list, Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam.

Just as important as which books made the lists is what’s missing from them: none of these senior commanders include newer scholarship, novels, or journalistic accounts which might raise thorny, uncomfortable questions about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable, or incorporate local voices that might highlight the limits of American influence and power.

Serving in the Shadow of Vietnam

Most of the generals leading the war on terror just missed service in the Vietnam War. They graduated from various colleges or West Point in the years immediately following the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops or thereafter: Petraeus in 1974, future Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal in 1976, and present National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in 1984. Secretary of Defense Mattis finished ROTC and graduated from Central Washington University in 1971, while Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War, receiving his commission in 1976.

In other words, the generation of officers now overseeing the still-spreading war on terror entered military service at the end of or after the tragic war in Southeast Asia. That meant they narrowly escaped combat duty in the bloodiest American conflict since World War II and so the professional credibility that went with it. They were mentored and taught by academy tactical officers, ROTC instructors, and commanders who had cut their teeth on that conflict. Vietnam literally dominated the discourse of their era — and it’s never ended.

Petraeus, Mattis, McMaster, and the others entered service when military prestige had reached a nadir or was just rebounding. And those reading lists taught the young officers where to lay the blame for that — on civilians in Washington (or in the nation’s streets) or on a military high command too weak to assert its authority effectively. They would serve in Vietnam’s shadow, the shadow of defeat, and the conclusions they would draw from it would only lead to twenty-first-century disasters.

From Vietnam to the War on Terror to Generational War

All of this misremembering, all of those Vietnam “lessons” inform the U.S. military’s ongoing “surges” and “advise-and-assist” approaches to its wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Representatives of both Vietnam revisionist schools now guide the development of the Trump administration’s version of global strategy. President Trump’s in-house Clausewitzians clamor for — and receive — ever more delegated authority to do their damnedest and what retired General (and Vietnam vet) Edward Meyer called for back in 1983: “a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam.” In other words, more bombs, more troops, and carte blanche to escalate such conflicts to their hearts’ content.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s hearts-and-minds faction consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to approximately 70% of the world’s nations. Furthermore, they’ve recently fought for and been granted a new “mini-surge” in Afghanistan intended to — in disturbingly Vietnam-esque language — “break the deadlock,” “reverse the decline,” and “end the stalemate” there. Never mind that neither 100,000 U.S. troops (when I was there in 2011) nor 16 full years of combat could, in the term of the trade, “stabilize” Afghanistan. The can-do, revisionist believers atop the national security state have convinced Trump that — despite his original instincts — 4,000 or 5,000 (or 6,000 or 7,000) more troops (and yet more drones, planes, and other equipment) will do the trick. This represents tragedy bordering on farce.

The hearts and minders and Clausewitzians atop the military establishment since 9/11 are never likely to stop citing their versions of the Vietnam War as the key to victory today; that is, they will never stop focusing on a war that was always unwinnable and never worth fighting. None of today’s acclaimed military personalities seems willing to consider that Washington couldn’t have won in Vietnam because, as former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak (who flew 269 combat missions over that country) noted in the recent Ken Burns documentary series, “we were fighting on the wrong side.”

Today’s leaders don’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end. In an interview last June, Petraeus — still considered a sagacious guru of the Defense establishment — disturbingly described the Afghan conflict as “generational.” Eerily enough, to cite a Vietnam-era precedent, General Creighton Abrams predicted something similar. speaking to the White House as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down. Even as President Richard Nixon slowly withdrew U.S. forces, handing over their duties to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) — a process known then as “Vietnamization” — the general warned that, despite ARVN improvements, continued U.S. support “would be required indefinitely to maintain an effective force.” Vietnam, too, had its “generational” side (until, of course, it didn’t).

That war and its ill-fated lessons will undoubtedly continue to influence U.S. commanders until a new set of myths, explaining away a new set of failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, take over, possibly thanks to books by veterans of these conflicts about how Washington could have won the war on terror.

It’s not that our generals don’t read. They do. They just doggedly continue to read the wrong books.

In 1986, General Petraeus ended his influential Parameters article with a quote from historian George Herring: “Each historical situation is unique and the use of analogy is at best misleading, at worst, dangerous.” When it comes to Vietnam and a cohort of officers shaped in its shadow (and even now convinced it could have been won), “dangerous” hardly describes the results. They’ve helped bring us generational war and, for today’s young soldiers, ceaseless tragedy.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen

Danny Sjursen, USA 02/06/2018 0

America’s Syria Trap

Remember when a ground invasion of a sovereign country—perpetrated by a NATO ally—would constitute a big story?

Before Donald Trump, “Russiagate” and the mainstream media’s apparent obligation to cover every presidential tweet, Turkish planes bombing—and tanks rumbling through—Syria might’ve been real news. These days hardly anyone has the energy to care. No, Washington pols have been too busy misappropriating the poor, underpaid military to bolster their own narrative around the three-day government shutdown. Neither side comes up for air long enough to ask real questions about the mission and status of all those American soldiers and Marines still deployed in Syria—not all that far from the Turkish military incursion.

Hate to say I told you so, but I saw the Turkish invasion coming, all but predicted it, in fact. Heck, anyone paying just a little attention could have. Thing is, most Americans—for all their thanks-for-your-service platitudes—couldn’t give a hoot about foreign policy. There’s no draft, no new taxes, they’ve got no “skin in the game.” Well, as the monumental catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war escalates with the latest Turkish invasion, someone ought to remind Americans that they’ve still got a few thousand troops on the ground there.

The whole situation is a mess, and once again it appears the U.S. military is caught in the middle of the maelstrom. Here’s a one-minute review: Syrian President Bashar Assad, assisted by his Iranian and Russian allies, has all but crushed the rebels west of the Euphrates River. The U.S. and its Saudi Arabian allies are none too happy about that, but they are basically powerless to do anything about it. Islamic State—at least in a conventional sense—has been routed by U.S.-allied Kurdish militias east of the Euphrates. These days, a tense stasis between U.S. and Russian-backed forces exists along the river, just waiting for some spark to kick off a truly catastrophic conflict. Enter the Turks—frenemies and NATO allies to boot—who hate American-sponsored Kurdish militias in Syria’s north. Turkey makes no distinction between the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG (our Kurds), and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the other side of the border. The Turks insist they’re both “terrorists”—a convenient label even if it has been so stretched as to elude any real meaning.

So here we are, the American military, staring down the Russians and Assad while holding a weak hand. Nonetheless, senior administration officials and top generals pronounce their intention to indefinitely stay in Syria to “counter Iran” and deny Islamic State’s return.

Haven’t we been here before? I distinctly remember being told my troops had to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan or the “terrorists” would find that mythical “safe haven” in Baghdad or Kandahar. That approach may not be accurate, but it sure is a proven formula for perpetual war. Don’t be surprised when extended U.S. military presence in eastern Syria starts to resemble occupation and a new anti-American insurgency flares up. Call it ISIS 2.0.

The crazy part is, right now, that might be the least of our problems. Turkish planes, troops and armed proxies are rolling toward the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops allegedly are embedded with the YPG. Whether it’s in Manbij or elsewhere, what happens when a Turkish F-16 fighter—designed in America—drops a bomb that kills a U.S. Green Beret in Syria? War with a NATO ally? The closing of strategic U.S. bases in Turkey? An embarrassing climb-down to defuse regional tensions? None of those options sound too appealing, and de-escalation doesn’t strike me as President Trump’s game.

Should Turkey’s bombing and ground incursion catalyze or exacerbate Syria’s broader ethno-sectarian nightmare, well, that’d suit Islamic State just fine. Count on those remarkably resilient and eminently malleable jihadis to exploit the ensuing chaos to reconstitute in Syria’s Sunni heartland. Islamic State may never again field conventional legions, but a slow-burning and no less horrific insurgency appears conceivable. ISIS and other Islamists have a knack for thriving in war-ravaged locales. Need proof? Check out Yemen, where another U.S.-backed war has only empowered the local al-Qaida franchise. This is counterproductivity. The new American way.

The point is as simple as it is alarming. Once again, Washington has trapped itself in a byzantine Mideast quagmire largely of its own making. Worse still, it’s unclear if the administration’s “adults in the room” have anything resembling a coherent exit strategy from Syria. Who’s asking the tough questions? Is anyone piloting this ship? I, for one, am not so sure.

Pay attention, folks. It’s about to get a lot worse in the Middle East. Again. But hey, Americans do love sequels.

Top photo: “Don’t be surprised when extended U.S. military presence in eastern Syria starts to resemble occupation and a new anti-American insurgency flares up. Call it ISIS 2.0.” (Photo: Kurdishstruggle/flickr/cc)

Danny Sjursen, USA 02/05/2018 0

America’s Syria Trap

— from Truthdig

Before Donald Trump, “Russiagate” and the mainstream media’s apparent obligation to cover every presidential tweet, Turkish planes bombing—and tanks rumbling through—Syria might’ve been real news. These days hardly anyone has the energy to care. No, Washington pols have been too busy misappropriating the poor, underpaid military to bolster their own narrative around the three-day government shutdown. Neither side comes up for air long enough to ask real questions about the mission and status of all those American soldiers and Marines still deployed in Syria—not all that far from the Turkish military incursion.

Hate to say I told you so, but I saw the Turkish invasion coming, all but predicted it, in fact. Heck, anyone paying just a little attention could have. Thing is, most Americans—for all their thanks-for-your-service platitudes—couldn’t give a hoot about foreign policy. There’s no draft, no new taxes, they’ve got no “skin in the game.” Well, as the monumental catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war escalates with the latest Turkish invasion, someone ought to remind Americans that they’ve still got a few thousand troops on the ground there.

The whole situation is a mess, and once again it appears the U.S. military is caught in the middle of the maelstrom. Here’s a one-minute review: Syrian President Bashar Assad, assisted by his Iranian and Russian allies, has all but crushed the rebels west of the Euphrates River. The U.S. and its Saudi Arabian allies are none too happy about that, but they are basically powerless to do anything about it. Islamic State—at least in a conventional sense—has been routed by U.S.-allied Kurdish militias east of the Euphrates. These days, a tense stasis between U.S. and Russian-backed forces exists along the river, just waiting for some spark to kick off a truly catastrophic conflict. Enter the Turks—frenemies and NATO allies to boot—who hate American-sponsored Kurdish militias in Syria’s north. Turkey makes no distinction between the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG (our Kurds), and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the other side of the border. The Turks insist they’re both “terrorists”—a convenient label even if it has been so stretched as to elude any real meaning.

So here we are, the American military, staring down the Russians and Assad while holding a weak hand. Nonetheless, senior administration officials and top generals pronounce their intention to indefinitely stay in Syria to “counter Iran” and deny Islamic State’s return.

Haven’t we been here before? I distinctly remember being told my troops had to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan or the “terrorists” would find that mythical “safe haven” in Baghdad or Kandahar. That approach may not be accurate, but it sure is a proven formula for perpetual war. Don’t be surprised when extended U.S. military presence in eastern Syria starts to resemble occupation and a new anti-American insurgency flares up. Call it ISIS 2.0.

The crazy part is, right now, that might be the least of our problems. Turkish planes, troops and armed proxies are rolling toward the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops allegedly are embedded with the YPG. Whether it’s in Manbij or elsewhere, what happens when a Turkish F-16 fighter—designed in America—drops a bomb that kills a U.S. Green Beret in Syria? War with a NATO ally? The closing of strategic U.S. bases in Turkey? An embarrassing climb-down to defuse regional tensions? None of those options sound too appealing, and de-escalation doesn’t strike me as President Trump’s game.

Should Turkey’s bombing and ground incursion catalyze or exacerbate Syria’s broader ethno-sectarian nightmare, well, that’d suit Islamic State just fine. Count on those remarkably resilient and eminently malleable jihadis to exploit the ensuing chaos to reconstitute in Syria’s Sunni heartland. Islamic State may never again field conventional legions, but a slow-burning and no less horrific insurgency appears conceivable. ISIS and other Islamists have a knack for thriving in war-ravaged locales. Need proof? Check out Yemen, where another U.S.-backed war has only empowered the local al-Qaida franchise. This is counterproductivity. The new American way.

The point is as simple as it is alarming. Once again, Washington has trapped itself in a byzantine Mideast quagmire largely of its own making. Worse still, it’s unclear if the administration’s “adults in the room” have anything resembling a coherent exit strategy from Syria. Who’s asking the tough questions? Is anyone piloting this ship? I, for one, am not so sure.

Pay attention, folks. It’s about to get a lot worse in the Middle East. Again. But hey, Americans do love sequels.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Danny Sjursen, USA 01/02/2018 0

Three Administrations, But One Standard Playbook for Endless War

I remember the day President Obama let me down.

It was December 1, 2009, and as soon as the young president took the podium at West Point and — calm and cool as ever — announced a new troop surge in Afghanistan, I knew.  There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.  In that instant, George W. Bush’s wars had become Barack Obama’s.

But where Bush had seemed, however foolishly, to believe his own rhetoric about America’s glorious military mission in the world, you always sensed that Obama’s heart just wasn’t in it.  He’d been steamrolled by ambitious generals who pioneered generational warfare and hawkish cabinet members like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Bush-holdover Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  Then again, what choice did he have, given the way he’d run his presidential campaign on the idea that Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” and so the foil for Iraq, the “dumb war”?  Now he was stuck with that landlocked, inhospitable little war, come what may.  As we all know (and as I had little doubt then), it didn’t work out.  Not at all.

Like many other idealistic Americans, I’d bet big on Obama.  The madness and futility of my own 15 months in Iraq as a scout platoon leader — you know, one of those “warriors” you’re obligated to thank endlessly for his service — had forever soured me on nation-building crusades in faraway lands.  And the young, inspiring senator from Illinois seemed to have some authentic anti-war chops.  Unlike Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, he was untarnished by the October 2002 Iraq War resolution vote that gave the Bush administration the right to shock and awe the hell out of Saddam Hussein.  Looking back, I suppose I should have known better.  Obama had only been a state senator with an essentially nonexistent record on foreign policy when he first criticized Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Still, after so many years of Bush’s messianic adventures, anyone seemed preferable.

That was more than eight years ago and somehow the United States military is still slogging along in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What’s more, Bush’s wars have only expanded in breadth, if not in depth, to Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Niger, among other places.  Yes, ISIS as a “caliphate” has been defeated.  As a now-global franchise, however, anything but, and victory — whatever that might mean at this point — couldn’t be further off as our next president, Donald Trump, approaches his one year mark in office and he and “his” military only ratchet up those wars further.

Good Instincts?

The Trump-Clinton election fiasco of 2016 was, to say the least, disturbing.  And while I was no fan of Mr. Trump’s language, demeanor, or (however vague) policies, when it came to our wars he did seem to demonstrate some redeeming qualities.  Running against Hillary the hawk presented him with genuine opportunities.  She, after all, had been wrong about every major foreign policy decision for more than a decade.  Iraq? She voted for it.  Afghanistan? She wanted another “surge.”  Libya?  She was all in and had a fine chuckle when autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was killed.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, while visibly ill informed and anything but polished on such subjects, occasionally sounded strangely rational and ready to topple more than a few sacred cows of the foreign policy establishment.  He called both the Iraq and Afghan wars “stupid,” criticized the poorly planned and executed Libyan operation that had indeed loosed chaos and weaponry from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals across North Africa, and had even questioned whether military escalation, supposedly to balance Russian moves in Eastern Europe, was necessary.  Whether he really believed any of that stuff or was just being an effective attack dog by pouncing on Hillary’s grim record we may never know.

What already seems clear, however, is that Trump’s version of global strategy — to the extent that he even has one — is turning out to be yet more of more of the same.  He did, of course, quickly surround himself with three generals from America’s losing wars clearly convinced that they could “surge” their way out of anything.  More troublesome yet, it seems to have registered on him that military escalation, air strikes of various sorts, special operations raids, and general bellicosity all look “presidential” and so play well with the American people.

In constant need of positive reinforcement, Trump has seemed to revel in the role of war president.  When he simply led a round of applause for a widow whose husband had died in a botched raid in Yemen early in his presidency, CNN commentator Van Jones typically gushed that he “just became president of the United States, period.”  After he ordered the launching of a few dozen cruise missiles targeting one of Bashar al-Assad’s air bases in Syria, even Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria lauded him for acting “presidential.”  War sells, as does fear, especially in the America of 2017, a country filled with outsized fears of Islamic terrorism that no one knows how to stoke better than Donald Trump.  So expect more, much more, of each next year.

A Brief Tour of Trump’s Wars

Where exactly does that leave us?  Like Obama before him, and Bush before him, President Trump has opted for continuing, even escalating, America’s war for the Greater Middle East.  Long gone are the critiques of “stupid” interventions.  As he announced a new mini-surge in Afghanistan, he did admit that his instinct had been to end America’s longest war, but it wasn’t an instinct that stood tall in the face of his war-fighting generals.

Now, after nearly a year in office, those instincts of his seem limited to whatever his generals tell him.  An ever-so-brief tour of his wars suggests — to give you a little preview of what’s to come (should Americans even care) — two things: first, that on the horizon is more of more of the same; second, that the result is likely to be, as it has largely been in these last years, some version of stalemate verging on defeat.

* Afghanistan is a true mess.  Now entering its 17th year, the war in that infamous graveyard of empires has left the U.S. military short on answers.

Afghan Security Forces (ASF), the foundation of American “strategy” there, are being killed and wounded at an unsustainable rate.  And all that sacrifice — to the tune of perhaps 20,000 ASF casualties annually — has delivered precious little in the way of stability.  More Afghan provinces and districts are contested or under direct Taliban control today than at any time in these years of American intervention.  Corruption is still endemic in the government and the military and few rural Afghans seem to consider the regime in Kabul legitimate.

It’s all been so futile that it borders on the absurd.  Without an indefinite influx of Western money, training, and logistical support, the Afghan government simply cannot hold out.  Despite the efforts of hundreds of thousands of American troops and countless bureaucrats, Washington has never been able to deal with or alter the essential quandary that lies at the heart of the Afghan mission: the Taliban still counts on sanctuary in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan and so long as that’s available — and it seems it will be in perpetuity — there is no way to militarily defeat them.  Besides, the Taliban harbor no discernible transnational aspirations and most al-Qaeda operatives have long since left Afghanistan’s mountains for other locales throughout the Greater Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s generals and their troops on the ground have no answers to these confounding challenges.  One thing is guaranteed: 3,000, or even 50,000 more troops won’t break the stalemate, nor will loosing some of the last Vietnam-era B-52s to bomb the countryside.  When I last surged into Afghanistan myself in 2011-2012, I was joined by more than 100,000 fellow Americans.  It didn’t matter.  We achieved about as much as this current “strategy” will: stasis.

* Iraq is rarely in the headlines anymore, except maybe as an offshoot of America’s anti-ISIS campaign in Syria.  Nonetheless, with more than 5,200 U.S. troops on the ground (and don’t forget the private contractors also in-country), you’ve not heard the last of Washington’s 14-year-old campaign there.  What exactly is the U.S. charter in Iraq these days anyway?  To defeat ISIS?  That’s (mostly) done, in a conventional sense anyway.  The so-called caliphate has fallen, though ISIS as a global brand is thriving.  To stabilize the country in order to avoid ISIS 2.0 or block the growth and spread of well-armed Shia militias?  Don’t count on a few thousand troops succeeding where 150,000 servicemen failed at similar tasks thelast time around. 

Iraq remains divided and ultimately unstable.  In the north, the Kurds want autonomy, which the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime will have none of.  In the north and west, Sunnis, living in the rubble of their unreconstructed cities, remain distrustful of Baghdad.  (A year after its “liberation” from ISIS, for instance, significant parts of Fallujah still lackwater or electricity.)  Unless they are somehow integrated more equitably into the Shia-controlled political heartland, they will predictably support the next iteration of Islamist extremists.

The only real winner in the Iraq War was Iran.  A mostly friendly, Shia-heavy government in Baghdad suits Tehran just fine.  In fact, by toppling Saddam Hussein, the United States all but ensured that Iran would gain increased regional influence.  The bottom line is that Iraq has many challenges ahead and Washington doesn’t have a hope in hell of meaningfully solving any of them.

How will Baghdad divide power between its various sects and factions?  How will it demobilize and/or integrate those Shia militia units that checked ISIS’s expansion in 2014-2015 into its military or will it?  How much autonomy will President Haider al-Abadi allow the Kurds?

The all but perpetual American military presence in that country seems unlikely to help with any of Iraq’s countless problems.  And given that, like just about anyone else on this planet, Arabs don’t take kindly to even the most minimalist of occupations, whatever they may officially be called, expect those U.S. troops to end up in someone’s line of fire sooner or later. (Recent history suggests that sooner is more likely.)

* When it comes to Syria, can anyone articulate a coherent strategy in the devastated ruins of that country amid a byzantine network of factions, terror groups, and the once again ascendant government and military of Bashar al-Assad?  It seems like another formula for certain disaster.  Somehow, Syria makes even the situation in Iraq seem simple.  Perhaps 2,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in north and southeast Syria.  Getting in was the easy part, getting out may be all but impossible.

U.S.-sponsored, mainly Kurdish forces, backed by American air power and artillery, seized ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, and helped turn the militants of the Islamic State back into a guerilla force. Now what?  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Syrian President Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Iranians all loathe the Kurds and are none-too-keen to allow them any form of long-term autonomy.  A tenuous stalemate has developed between Assad’s army and his foreign backers on one side and the small U.S. force with its allied Kurdish fighters on the other.  Sooner or later, however, it’s a recipe for disaster as the possibilities of “accidental” conflict abound.  The Trump team, like Obama’s before them, appears to have no consistent vision for Syria’s future.  Can Assad stay in power?  Does the U.S. even have a say in that question any longer?  Assad, Putin, and Hezbollah appear to hold a far stronger hand in that country’s six-year civil war.

In addition to yet more destruction, division, and chaos, it’s unclear what the U.S. stands to achieve in Syria.  Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Pentagon recently announced that, just as in Iraq, U.S. troops would stay in Syria after the final defeat of ISIS.  On the subject, a Pentagon spokesperson was quite emphatic: “We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.”  In other words, the U.S. military will remain there until when exactly?  Long enough for the civil war to end and liberal democracy to burst forth in the Syrian countryside?

That country is hardly a vital national security interest of the United States and the Trump team’s plans seem as vague as they are foolish.  Nonetheless, on the intervention goes and where it ends nobody knows.  It’s not, however, likely to end well.

* Yemen, Niger, Somalia, Libya, and various other smaller conflicts round out the exhausting list of what are now Trump’s wars.  U.S. troops still occasionally die in those places, which few Americans could find on a map.  Even hawkish wonks like Senator Lindsey Graham seem unclear about how many troops the U.S. has in Africa.  Fear not, however, Senator Graham assures us that Americans should expect “more, not less” intervention on that continent in the years to come and, given what we’re learning about the Pentagon’s latest plans for places like Somalia suggests that he couldn’t be more accurate and that the American version of what retired general and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus has termed (in relation to Afghanistan) “generational” warfare is now spreading from the Greater Middle East to Africa.

Washington’s efforts in Yemen and North Africa have been and continue to be nothing if not counterproductive.  In Yemen, the United States is complicit in the Saudi blockading and terror bombing of the poorest Arab state and a resultant famine and cholera outbreak that could affect millions, especially children.  This campaign isn’t winning America any friends on the “Arab street” and only seems to have empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In Africa, from Nigeria to Somalia, infusions of U.S. troops have not measurably improved regional stability.  Quite the opposite, despite the protestations of U.S. Africa Command.  In fact, there are now more radical Islamist groups than ever before and terrorist attacks have all but exploded on that continent.

All these wars, once Obama’s, are now Trump’s.  The only differences, it seems, are of form rather than substance.  Unlike Obama, Trump delegates troop-level decisions to his secretary of defense and the generals.  Furthermore, when it comes to what the public can know, there appears to be even less transparency about the exact number of soldiers being deployed across the Middle East and North Africa than had previously been the case.  And that seems to suit most Americans just fine.  A warrior caste of professionals fights the country’s various undeclared wars, taxes remain low, and little is asked of the populace.

Call me a pessimist but I have no doubt that the United States is in for at least three more years of perpetual war — and it probably won’t end there either.  There’s no silver bullet for such conflicts, so the military won’t be able to end them in any reasonably easy way or it would have done so years ago.  And that’s assuming that far worse in the way of war isn’t in store for us in the Koreas or Iran.

Trump will not be impeached.  He may even win a second term.  Crazier things have happened, like, well, his election in 2016.  And even if he were gone, America’s wars like the Pentagon’s budget have proven remarkably bipartisan affairs.  As the Obama years make clear, don’t count on a Democratic president to end them.

Children born after 9/11 will vote in 2020.  In that sense, at least, General Petraeus is right.  These wars truly are generational.

Top photo:”The bottom line is that Iraq has many challenges ahead and Washington doesn’t have a hope in hell of meaningfully solving any of them.” (Photo: the U.S. Army/flickr/cc)