September 25, 2012

The Vagaries of War

A number of stories have hit-the-wire over the past few days regarding the end of the 'surge' in Afghanistan, the recent Taliban attack on Camp Bastion, and the publication of a new book by Michael Gordon and LtGen Bernard Trainor (USMC, Ret), 'The Endgame' (review here by John Barry (thanks for the h/t, Wes) the key points of which are summarized by Gordon in this NYT piece.) Much too much to cover in a single post so I'll just make a few remarks:

- Iraq. Read Gordon's NYT piece first, then Barry's book review. The short story: lots of mistakes were made, certainly, but that's the nature of war. What can't be forgiven is the lack of understanding and willpower exhibited by the Obama administration necessary to address America's long-term interests vis-a-vis Iraq, Iran, Syria and the larger Middle East. While he did inherit the war via election, he had to deal with the presence of the US in Iraq and the consequences of the situation that could evolve along a number of paths. Obama's opposition to Iraq in favor of the 'good war' in Afghanistan was essentially a political tactic in his contest with McCain. Once in office, he couldn't backtrack on his campaign pledge to 'end the war in Iraq' and shift emphasis to Afghanistan. That said, his higher responsibility was for the long-term security interests of the US which did not include the rise of a dysfunctional Iraq and a leadership overly influenced and leverage by Iran. Much like Afghanistan, our military leadership advised certain force levels to accomplish stated objectives but were ignored in favor of a domestic political agenda that did not account for the compromised security situation that would result from short-changing our efforts.

- Afghanistan. The 'surge' was a strategic mistake. As mentioned by Fred Kaplan here, our initial war objectives were accomplished fairly early on in Afghanistan, i.e. the breaking up of the Taliban and subsequent damage to Al Qaeda to eliminate it as an effective threat to the US (something very different than eliminating Al Qaeda). Though Obama had to make good on his campaign rhetoric to reinvest US efforts in Afghanistan, he committed a fraction of what his military commanders assessed (and privately requested) was necessary to accomplish the objectives articulated by his Administration. So, lives and treasure were committed to an end that could not be achieved. What a waste. For their part, the military commanders did the best they could with the resources they had, but given the odds stacked against them it was a fools-errand. As in Vietnam, successful tactics were found such as the Marine Corps' CAP effort. Counterinsurgency properly done however is very manpower- and time-intensive. Obama committed neither the necessary manpower nor the time. Further, like in Vietnam, one can only do so much when the host country's national leadership structure is fundamentally corrupt. 'Free and fair' democratic elections are the result of democracy, not the catalyst for it.

- War objectives and reasonable expectations. The military is inordinately fond of quoting Clausewitz, but for good reason. It was he who said 'war is the continuation of politics by other means,' meaning that war is carried out to achieve some political end...not for its own sake. Therefore, the resources committed to war must reflect the political objective to be achieved by means of military action OR the objectives must be adjusted to account for the resources available or the objectives that can actually be achieved by military action. In Afghanistan we have seen a terrible disconnect between objectives and resources. Gian Gentile gets at this point in his latest opinion piece entitled 'War: Sometimes There Is a Substitute for Victory,' I only disagree with Gentile in my interpretation of the extent to which the military has argued 'for' national building in Afghanistan. As stated above, the military does its best to accomplish the mission handed to it. It is not in our (US) military tradition for our forces to refuse orders from the civilian leadership. Tell our men and women to dig wells, promise democracy, establish local security, etc., and they'll given their lives to the cause. All the more important, then, for our civilian leadership to think carefully before ordering 'surges'.

It has been said that the primary objective of NATO during the Cold War was to "keep the U.S. 'in', the Russians 'out', and Germans 'down." In other words, the political-military alliance had broader motives than just marshaling the military strength of many countries to offset the numerical superiority of the Soviet Union. The strategic thinking underlying the compact took into account the characteristics of the primary actors, their main objectives, and the context of Europe...all necessary to maintain peace in the region.

We've forgotten this and so many other lessons of history these past few years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, we're doing much the same thing in the Middle East with respect to the "Arab Spring," Israel, Iran, and Egypt and even in Asia when one considers the evolving dispute in the South China Sea and increasing tensions between China and Japan.

What a mess.

1 comment:

  1. Thermopylae? There was only one survivor, but he was considered a coward. "Thermopylae had one, the Alamo had none." just remembering my Texas history. Whatever the outcome of the Islam vs West war happens to be, it should be emphasized it started with George w. Bush's miscalculations when he invaded Iraq. The U.S. lost its moral superiority that was earned by never attacking a country that did not attack us first. Bush's delusions of grandeur and ego-driven actions opened the door to all the repercussions that we are now seeing all across the Middle East; the most serious one is Iran and their quest for nuclear weapon capability. Obama was hampered by a tanking economy and ignored the problems that would have been addressed in order to make Iraq a more viable and governable country. The end result will be a very reduced American influence while Putin will move in to become the power to reckon with. .