Tag: combat troops

No Mr. Secretary, It Is Not in America’s “Interest” to Stay in Iraq

In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the United States has an “interest” in keeping troops in Iraq past the agreed date of withdrawal, December 31, 2011.  Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pressed Gates by asking:

How can we maintain all of these gains that we’ve made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don’t have any military there whatsoever,” Hunter asked. “We’d have more military in Western European countries at that point than we’d have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?

The logic of Rep. Duncan’s question provides some interesting context. His logic implies that the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in wealthy, developed, Western Europe is both necessary and beneficial to our current interests. But this is not a very good argument as European countries continue to cut their defense budgets in large part because they are sheltered under the American security umbrella. It is in fact highly questionable why Americans should be willing to accept massive deficits as far as the eye can see and spend still more on our military, so that our allies can continue to shirk their fundamental obligations to their own people. There is no reason why we should want to adopt the same model for Iraq.

And yet, Rep. Duncan assumes that U.S. troop deployments in Europe are the model for providing political and economic stability everywhere in the world. If U.S. troops withdraw, all of our “gains” in Iraq would be lost.

This assumes that, first, U.S. troops can provide this stability, and second that our strategic interests in Iraq are on par with those in other parts of the world. But leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another two, five, or seven years will not advance American security. It is not now, and should never have been, the responsibility of U.S. troops to create a functioning state in Iraq. That is the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their government. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

There is no doubt that there are political and security challenges in Iraq, but these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for a continued presence. And these risks will persist no matter how long U.S. troops stay. The future of Iraq lies with the people of Iraq, and it is well past the time when they must take the reins.

A handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. As we are currently seeing with European defense budgets, the United States has been in the business of doing for other governments what they should be doing for themselves.  Now would be a good time to start to change this pattern.

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

Afghan_SigmaMatt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

Iraq’s Future Is Up to Iraqis

The U.S. is not yet out of Iraq, but American forces have pulled back from Iraqi cities.  Iraq’s future increasingly is in the hands of Iraqis.  And most Iraqis appear to be celebrating.

Reports the Washington Post:

This is no longer America’s war.

Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks Monday in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation’s troubled history: Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States on Tuesday is withdrawing its remaining combat troops from Iraq’s cities and turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles as of Wednesday will largely disappear from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq’s other urban centers.

“The Army of the U.S. is out of my country,” said Ibrahim Algurabi, 34, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen now living in Arizona who attended a concert of celebration in Baghdad’s Zawra Park. “People are ready for this change. There are a lot of opportunities to rebuild our country, to forget the past and think about the future.”

On Monday, as the withdrawal deadline loomed, four U.S. troops were killed in the Iraqi capital, the military announced Tuesday. No details about the deaths were provided. Another soldier was killed Sunday in a separate attack.

The Bush administration never should have invaded Iraq.  The costs have been high: more than 4,000 dead American military personnel.  Tens of thousands more have been injured, many maimed for life.  Hundreds more military contractors and coalition soldiers have died.  And tens of thousands of Iraqis – certainly more than 100,000, though estimates above that diverge wildly. 

The U.S. has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and the ultimate cost is likely to run $2 trillion or more, as the government cares for seriously injured veterans for the rest of their lives.  America’s fine fighting men and women have been stretched thin and America’s adversaries, most notably Iran, have been strengthened.  Yet another cause has been added to the recruiting pitch of hateful extremists seeking to do Americans and others harm.

Nevertheless, let us hope that Iraqis take advantage of the opportunity they now enjoy.  It will take enormous statesmanship and restraint to accommodate those of different faiths and ethnicities, forgive past crimes committed by Sunni and Shia forces, eschew violence for retaliation and revenge, resolve even bitter disagreements peacefully, and accept political defeat without resort to arms.

Other peoples who have suffered less have failed to surmount similar difficulties.  But it is no one’s interest, and especially that of the Iraqis, to lapse back into sectarian conflict and political tyranny.  Let us hope – and dare I suggest, pray? – that they prove up to the challenge.

Some Early Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

I listened live to the president’s Cairo speech this morning on my ride into work. I know that it will be parsed and dissected. Passages will be taken out of context, and sentences twisted beyond recognition. At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups.

That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising. He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions – including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda – that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

Two particular comments jumped out at me (the speech text can be found here):

1. The president clearly stated his goals for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pledged to “honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July,” “the removal of our combat brigades by next August,” and “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

This might not seem like much. As noted, it is the established policy of the U.S. government and the Iraqi government under the status of forces agreement. Some recent comments by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, however, implied that U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for a decade. I’m glad that the president cleared up the confusion.

2. President Obama wisely connected U.S. policy in the 21st century to its founding principles from the earliest days to remind his audience – or perhaps to teach them for the very first time – that the United States was not now, nor ever has been, at war with Islam, or with any other religion. George Washington affirmed the importance of religious equality in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. President Obama quoted John Adams, who saw no reason why the United States could not enjoy good relations with Morocco, the first country to recognize the United States. When signing the Treaty of Tripoli, Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

But the president also drew on the Founders to convey a broader message. They believed that the new nation should advance human rights and the cause of liberty by its example, not by military force. Some of our recent leaders seem to have forgotten that, and a few pundits have actually scorned the suggestion. The president wisely cast his lot with the earlier generation, quoting Thomas Jefferson who said “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

It is a good quote. I use it in my book, too.

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.