14 September 2014

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the American Withdrawal

I gave these remarks over two years ago. I thought it time to bring them back and see if they still ring true. I think they do.

Remarks for Great Decisions -  Foreign Policy Association, 8 March 2012
Bulverde, Texas

Dr. Donald S. Inbody
Captain, United States Navy (Ret.)

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak with you this evening.  Afghanistan has been at the core of American foreign and military policy for a long time, now, and it appears that it will remain so for the near future. Its position in American national security interests seems to be all out of proportion to its lack of economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities.  So, this evening I want to discuss this apparent paradox and invite your commentary.

Afghanistan has never been a nation-state the way we think of that term. Being a nation-state would imply some sort of unity.  That unity might be in the form of a similar culture or historical background, a strong central governing system, or a pervasive ethnic identity.  We have none of that.  Indeed, Afghanistan has been a traditional tribal society for as long as we have records.  However, it is untrue to say that there has never been a power political power in the region.
Afghanistan comprises about 250,000 square miles of territory and has a population of about 30 million.  The geography is made up of mountainous regions, arid deserts, few cities or towns, and has a sparsely maintained road system.  It has a Gross Domestic Product of about $18 billion with a GDP per capita of under $1,000.  
The average age in Afghanistan is 18.  Compare that to the average age in the United States which is 36.
As you can see from the slide, the people of Afghanistan are comprised of at least 9 different ethnic and linguistic groups.  The majority, mostly living in the south of the country, are Pashtun, the group from which the traditional leaders of Afghanistan have come. Indeed, the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, pictured here, is a Pashtun.  This tribe considers itself to be the natural leaders in the region. 
What has made the country so violent and difficult to govern are the other tribes that do not consider the Pashtuns as the natural leaders and, indeed, often view them as oppressors.  For example, the Hazara, who live in the central highlands of Afghanistan, speak a completely different language and have a distinctly Mongol or Chinese appearance, have been the object of suppression for a very long time.  Only their relative isolation in the mountains have kept them safe.

The Mix of tribes in the northern half of the country, often referred to as “The Northern Alliance,” are essentially the non-Pashtun tribes who have banded together in opposition.  Prior to 9/11, Afghanistan was essentially involved in a civil war between the Pashtuns, backed by the Pakistanis, and the northern tribes, backed by India.  That dynamic has not markedly changed and drives politics in south Asia, complicating any negotiations.
"Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to defeat its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."  (President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009)
So, just what are we doing in Afghanistan and what is American policy there?  President Obama, essentially repeating the policy of the Bush administration, stated that we were there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida.”  Note that he combined Afghanistan and Pakistan in his statement.  That is not an oversight or an overstatement.  Understanding Afghanistan requires understanding Pakistan to a great extent.  More on that later.

By January2002, just four months after the events of 9/11, there were about 4,100 American troops in Afghanistan.  Most of those troops were in Khandahar, in the south.  By the end of that year there were about 10,000 troops deployed and by the end of 2004, over 20,000 troops were assigned to Afghanistan.  With the growing violence in 2007 and 2008, President Obama surged the American presence to over 60,000 troops and then again in 2010 to nearly 100,000.

According to announcements by the President and the Department of Defense, some 30,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by September of this year, reaching about 68,000.  Official policy says that the number will continue to decrease at a steady pace after that, but no specific numbers have been released.  General John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has publically said that he wants the number to remain steady at 68,000 through the end of 2013.

The announced policy today is that Afghanistan will take over primary responsibility for security by 2014.  Some here in the United States have interpreted that statement as we will have withdrawn by then, but that does not appear to be true.  The DOD has already begun talking about establishing “Joint Facilities” in Afghanistan and that some level of American military presence will remain after 2014.

So, it appear that American policy with respect to troop levels in Afghanistan is to draw down to about 68,000 by the end of the summer and to continue a slower paced drawdown in the months following that.  However, there is no clear policy for after 2014.  And that is the heart of the Afghanistan dilemma.

We often hear complaints about the lack of support for Americans by Afghans.  One that was making the rounds recently in numerous forwarded emails was a well-written article in the Armed Forces Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis.  His critique is hard-hitting and points out one of the principal problems we face in Afghanistan – the Afghan people don’t want to cooperate.

To understand that we must look at some recent history of the region.  Remember that if you are an Afghan under the age of 40, you have only known war.  Simply stated, that means that the overwhelming majority of the population of Afghanistan, at least three quarters, has never known anything but war.  They have seen the Russians and the Americans come into their country, make promises, and then leave.  Anyone who made deals with either the Americans or the Russians found themselves at least isolated if not actually killed for their efforts.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, remaining there for the next decade.  Their intervention was in response to civil unrest and a desire to stabilize the government, supporting a pro-communist administration.  After ten years of warfare, they were unable to overcome the Mujaheddin – largely backed by American military aid.  You do remember Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson and his famous “Charlie Wilson’s War” where he campaigned for and largely succeeded in providing arms to the Afghans fighting against the Russians.  However, once the Soviets left Afghanistan, the promised made by Charlie and the Americans were largely ignored, leaving those who relied on those promises high and dry.  They remember that today and are reluctant to get too close or to rely too greatly on American promises of support.

Upon the withdrawal of the Soviet military in 1989, the preexisting civil strife broke out into full-fledged civil war, lasting until the American intervention in 2001.  The basis of that civil war remains today and underlies the instability of the Afghan government and their inability to provide for their own national security.

Afghan policy rests on American policy.  Our policy is pretty clear for the next year or so, but is unclear beyond 2014.  So, if you are an Afghan trying to decide whether or not you are going to trust an American, not knowing if that American is going to be around in a year will have serious impact on the decision.  When your decision can literally mean a life or death decision for not only you but your family, you will tend to be reticent about getting too close to Americans. 

Without a firm American policy beyond 2014, it is essentially impossible for the Afghans to have a firm policy.  Remember, Afghanistan borders Pakistan and Iran, two countries with a great national interest in what goes on in the region, perhaps far more interested than even the United States and certainly going to actually be in the region long after the United States departs. 

So, where is the United States after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq?   We have largely broken up Al-Qaeda.  The relentless attacks, most of which were secret “black” operations, have essentially weakened the organization developed by Osama bin Laden to the point of near irrelevance.  American and allied intelligence operations world-wide are much more robust than they were ten years ago and all serious terrorist attempts at violence have been either disrupted or stopped.  The attacks that have occurred are largely those by amateurs with little training, as sign that the “professional” terrorist operations are either completely broken up or have been so disrupted that they are unable to operate.

Afghanistan is, as has been true for centuries, led by a Pashtun dominated government opposed by an alliance of non-Pashtun tribes, none of whom believe that a central government in Kabul will adequately represent their needs.  Afghanistan will remain unstable in the foreseeable future.

Saddam Hussein has been removed from power in Iraq and replaced by a reasonably democratic regime.  It is unlikely that Iraq will pose a threat to any country in the region in the foreseeable future.  However, Iraq will clearly be unstable for some time to come.

It has already cost us about $4 trillion.  The price will undoubtedly continue to climb if we include the costs of long-term promises and engagement in the region, not to speak of the costs of caring for those injured in the war.  To date, nearly 33,000 U.S. service members have been wounded by combat action.  The time, effort, and expense of treatment for those injuries will be part of the American budget for decades to come.

Pakistan remains a problem.  Any solution in the region must necessarily include Pakistan. The Taliban base themselves in the western tribal regions of Pakistan and are the targets of American drone attacks.  Those drone attacks are the cause of tension between the Americans and the Pakistanis.  Providing bases for those drones will drive American basing in Afghanistan even after we have largely left the region.

Despite all the attention we pay to Iraq and Afghanistan, and regardless of our future level of effort in those countries, the state that dominates the region, now, is Iran.  Note where it sits geographically.  It borders on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  It lies on the north of the Persian Gulf and dominates the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20% of all the world’s oil, and over one third of all sea-borne oil passes.  Recent issues with nuclear power and the potential for nuclear weapons have begun to dominate American politics.

Now, why should we care about all this? 

Let’s examine the nuclear issue alone.
  • Iran clearly has a nuclear development program.
  • Their public announcements say it is only for nuclear energy – the production of electricity.
  • Most intelligence assessments are reasonably sure that Iran is planning on developing nuclear weapons.
  • Public announcements from Iran have threatened Israel. Israel takes such announcements seriously.
  • Israel will not sit still for a nuclear-armed Iran.
  • Unless they can be sure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, they will probably take measures to destroy the Iranian capability, i.e., they will attack Iran.
  • Regardless of American involvement in any such attacks, Iran will assume that we are involved.
  • The United States will defend Israel from any attacks by outside forces.
  • Many in the region will assume that the United States is involved.
  • American security will be decreased and the need to increase military spending will rise.
In my view, we can’t afford the expense, monetarily or otherwise, therefore we must take all efforts to reduce the conflict between iran and Israel.  The problem is I don’t have a good answer about how to do that, but international pressure on Iran is the only way to make that happen and much of that pressure must come from Russia and China.

So, what do I believe the take-awaysought to be from the discussion this evening?  First, that the threat by Al Qaeda, while not gone, is minimal and manageable.  Second, that Iraq will remain unstable for decades to come, but will be unlikely to fall under the type of authoritarian rule we saw under Saddam Hussein.  Third, Afghanistan will remain unstable in the foreseeable future and the likelihood of the government being able to provide security throughout the country is low.  Fourth, that solutions to instability in Pakistan is the critical piece in the puzzle to finding stability in Afghanistan.  And fifth, Iran is the future flash point and the country to which we need to be paying close attention.

I thank you for your invitation to talk and for your kind attention this evening.  I am ready to respond to your questions and engage in any conversation about this fascinating and important topic.

Don Inbody also published this essay at http://civmilblog.com

06 September 2014

"Thank You For Your Service

I hear this a lot. I appreciate it, but it always seems perfunctory. I never doubt that the person who says it means it, but, like Wes Moore, I now that they really don't understand what it was that I did for a living for so long.

Like Wes, I did not join the Navy to go to war. I did not join the Navy to fight or to kill people. I learned how to do all those things, though. I learned it well. I even learned how to lead Sailors and Marines into war and how to give them orders that might get them hurt or killed.

The Navy was hard work. The Navy was fun work. The Navy was rewarding work. The Navy taught me lots of things about people, both good and bad.

"Thank you for your service" is a phrase I began hearing shortly after 9/11. I appreciated the thought. Like Wes's experience, I wanted to talk about my experience. I wanted to share what I learned about the world and what I learned about people. But, they did not want to hear that. They didn't have time. It was like "How are you?" and not really wanting to know. It was perfunctory.

If you want to really thank someone for their service, perhaps you need to know that many of our military men and women carry wounds that will stay with them for life. Missing body parts. Missing memories. Missing friends. Missing relationships.

Those military people don't want your sympathy. They want you to understand them, what they did, and why they did it. It does not matter whether what they were asked to do is something you agree with. They responded their country's call. They responded to your call. They responded to our call. We owe them something for doing that and while a simple "thank your for your service" is perhaps better than nothing, it is insufficient.

This country will be paying for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Somalia, and Syria, and...) for decades to come. We will be paying for the injuries for a long time. With the draw down from the wars interest in supporting the Veterans Administration will decline. Interest in supporting the plethora of charities that support our Wounded Warriors will decline. The interest of our elected officials in such things will decline as the interest of the public declines.

So, do you really want to thank them for their service?

Then, don't forget them. When you see a veteran of the wars - and not just the recent ones, but all of them - sit down and talk to them. If they will let you, ask them what they did. Ask them what they learned. Ask them why they valued their service. Ask them what they think about their comrades in arms.

We who spent time in the military have a conceit. We don't think anyone without such experience can ever really understand us. We don't think that those without military service really know what defending the nation is all about. You can break through that, though, with patient conversation with those one or two veterans of war that you probably know. 

Don't offer sympathy. Offer an ear. And, if you are really serious, listen and don't forget. 

27 August 2014

ISIS and State-Like Entities

Photo Credit: NYMag.com
The recent successes of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) raises an issue I have been wondering about for a long time. The current situation in realist and liberal international relations is that the "state" is the central factor in considering how things work. I wonder if we must broaden that understanding to "state-like entities." States are generally defined as a defined territory with a government that at least assumes control over the people and processes in that territory. We have codified that definition with the advent of the United Nations into entities that are formally recognized as states by the UN. 

This poses some problems. 

Gaza is not a state - at least not a state by the above definition. However, it looks like a state to the casual observer. It has a defined set of borders. It has a population over which a government claims authority. It has a military that offers to defend those borders and a definite foreign policy. 

The Islamic State is not a state, but its very name indicates the intention of its leadership. It meets a lot of the normal definitions of a state. It has a territory, a population, a government, a military, and, apparently, an economy.

The upshot is that if it looks like a state, it probably must be treated like a state, if not diplomatically recognized as sovereign, then at least pragmatically.

The Islamic State is posing a problem for the West. We have been fighting insurgencies and terrorist groups for so long that we think of them as large or small nuisances within a larger state run system. The statement by Secretary of Defense Hagel that this is beyond anything that we've seen," is just not true.  Thinking of ISIS as a terrorist group leads to that thought. Thinking of it as a state - a state-like entity - changes the thinking.  We have fought organizations like this before. Fight it like a state. They have territory they value. They have population they value. They have a military they value. 

Develop a plan to threaten those things and you have a strategy to defeat them. If you don't want to do that, then they will establish themselves as a new "state" that erases old borders drawn by Sykes and Picot and will become what they intend to be - a new state.

17 June 2014

War, Air Power, and Repeated Mistakes

The attached opinion piece raises a point that we have forgotten many times in the past. War cannot be won by air power alone. Too many times we have mistakenly assumed that we can somehow make war "clean" by using precision (some use the term surgical) air strikes to win without casualties...to our own side.

This mistaken idea comes largely from the strategic bombing folks of the first half of the 20th century, beginning with Douhet, who presumed that once air power became involved, war was too horrible to contemplate.

So, as the good Commander below reminds us, air power cannot defeat ISIS in Iraq. What needs to be added to this piece is another reminder about war that Clausewitz told us of in the early 19th century. "In war, the result is never final." (On War, Chapter 1, section 9)

As Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS) insurgent forces advance on Baghdad, some American political leaders, led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have urged that the United States begin airstrikes immediately to stop the growing unrest in Iraq. Although air power may be the only expedient and politically acceptable option, there are several reasons why that all-too-familiar impulse to use our asymmetric advantage in airpower will not defeat ISIS.
In fact, history is almost devoid of examples of air power—when used alone—achieving anything resembling a decisive result. The 1999 NATO punitive bombing operation against Serbia stands as one of the only successful uses of air power alone in achieving a stated political objective.
History’s one example of such success embodies two lessons that can be drawn for comparison with the situation in Iraq/Syria. First, in the self-declared ISIS there is no recognized government that can be coerced into negotiation. That suggests that complete annihilation of the group will be necessary to return control to the Iraqi government. Which leads to the second point: Even if air power can achieve a measure of success, securing the peace after ISIS forces are defeated will require boots on the ground. Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, stated on National Public Radio’s 16 June evening news program that “Iraq does not want, or need U.S. boots on the ground. . . . Iraq will provide the soldiers.” He went on to say that what Iraq needs to prevent what would be “one thousand [Osama] Bin Ladens” setting up camp in Iraq is U.S. “air supremacy, training, and assistance.”
The ISIS insurgents probably do not care that the United States moved another carrier strike group (CSG) into the Persian Gulf. If the United States can sort out the complex situation and actually determine what targets to hit in the dense ISIS-ontrolled urban territory, the mufti-clad insurgents will only hug the civilian population closer. Sorting out the bad guys will be a daunting task from 10,000 feet.
Our regional allies and the American public may appreciate the gesture of an extra CSG, but lawless insurgents are concerned only with local optics. Back to Kosovo, it was only when NATO realized that stopping a few Serbian military forces in Kosavar villages armed with cans of gasoline and a pack of matches was a tough mission for an F-15 that they began picking off important economic and infrastructure targets. It was then that the Serbian government agreed to negotiations. One must wonder of the wanna-be nation of ISIS: What are the economic and infrastructure targets that matter to a terrorist-led group that longs for the good old days of A.D. 900?
Finally, the most popular counter-factual argument being voiced by pundits is that if the United States had left a counterterrorism task force in Iraq, then crisis either wouldn’t have happened (because the insurgents would have feared the U.S. military), or the insurgents could have been easily defeated. If that is valid, then why is the flow of foreign fighters and motivated insurgents still a problem in Afghanistan? And why did it remain a persistent problem throughout our seven-plus years in Iraq? We have total air supremacy in Afghanistan and had it in Iraq, but that did not yield a decisive victory in either conflict. Air power alone did not win those wars—why then would it win this one?
The urge for the United States to apply some measure of expressive power is understandable, and assuming it can find someone or something worth blowing up, that is arguably the correct response. However, if the United States and its allies wish to preserve the shape of the world as depicted in the map that Sykes-Picot drew in 1916, a much larger and far more costly commitment to defeating ISIS will be required. Perhaps our ability to provide responsive air power is the best way to buy time for the reeling Iraqi government and security forces to catch their breath and prepare for the counteroffensive.

06 June 2014

Samsung Chromebook 2 - Reaction/Review

A Samsung Chromebook 2 with the 13.3 inch screen arrived yesterday. I had been researching Chromebooks for the past couple of years and had been holding off purchasing one until the new series arrived on the market.

Right out of the box I was impressed with the quality. It is made of plastic, but it feels good in the hand, solid, and weighs very little (3.06 lbs). Plug it in immediately, then turn it on. It will find your wireless network and then will load the latest version of Chrome to get you started. There is nothing tricky about the setup - just answer the questions.

With 4GB of RAM, the machine is quick and responsive with the only delays I have noticed being due to the internet.  As with all Chromebooks, once you log in with your Google account, it sets up exactly like you have it on your desktop Chrome browser complete with Web Apps and Chrome extensions. The Chromebook adds a few more apps, some of which are free or low cost offers.

This machine comes with an amazing screen. Advertised as a 1920 x 1080 HD screen, it actually has a 2150 x 1215 resolution available. While that is is entirely too tiny for the 13.3 inch screen, since the Chromebook has an HDMI port, that resolution becomes handy for hooking up to an external monitor. In 1920x1080 resolution, the typeface is amazingly clear and easy to read.

Be sure to ask for the additional 100 GB of Google Drive space. You get that free for two years and will be handy.

In short, this is a nice machine that will be useful for years to come.

04 June 2014

'People were going to die': submarine crew trapped in searing heat after catastrophic systems failure http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10874875/People-were-going-to-die-submarine-crew-trapped-in-searing-heat-after-catastrophic-systems-failure.html

28 May 2014

Observation Point: Right now, one cannot get federal funding, from any source, to research gun violence. Period. Congress has ensured that no federal research money will go to anyone wanting to factually discover what is behind gun violence. Of course, a house committee just voted to prevent the U.S. Military from planning to deal with the results of global warming. "Nothing to see here...move along!"

None are so blind as those who refuse to see.