Tag: troops

Administration Should Speed Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years. U.S. troop levels peaked at 140,000 in 2010. More than 2200 Americans died in a conflict reflecting little more than purposeless inertia.

The U.S. is leaving, but not entirely and maybe not soon. Warned NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove in January, “we are going to continue to have casualties.” The formal combat mission might be over, but combat is not.

Roughly half of the 10,600 American troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, with the rest scheduled to go in 2016. But the administration is considering slowing the withdrawal.

Washington intervened in Afghanistan with two overriding objectives:  destroy al-Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. The U.S. quickly fulfilled both goals. But then the Bush administration lost interest in the country.

Instead of ending Washington’s half-hearted misadventure at nation-building, the Obama administration twice doubled down. Some progress was made, but when I visited I found only limited confidence in private.

Washington and its allies built a large government bureaucracy and security force in Kabul, but on a potential foundation of sand. The Afghan government is noted for venality, incompetence, and corruption.

Thoughts on the F-35’s Extra Engine

I’m a bit late to the party in commenting on the passage of the Rooney Amendment, a successful effort on the part of 2nd-term Republican Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) to strip funding for the F-136, an engine that the Pentagon doesn’t want for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

A few additional thoughts: unlike nearly all other amendments to the CR, Rooney’s passed, and fairly easily. Part of the reason is strong administration support for the effort, key especially to securing votes from Democrats – those who don’t have F-136 plants in their districts, that is. But Gates had signaled his displeasure many times previously, so that alone doesn’t explain this rare victory for budget hawks.

I would guess that an additional factor is the slew of new Republicans elected on a platform of fiscal prudence. Having Rooney as a champion for the cause certainly helped, with 110 Republicans voting for the amendment (vote tally here). A majority within the GOP still treat weapons contractors with kid gloves, but claiming that every single weapon system is essential to the nation’s survival can get pretty laughable, especially when the Secretary of Defense and all the relevant uniformed officers disagree. 

(Speaking of laughable, wouldn’t it be absurd for the Obama administration to threaten to veto the CR because it now has too little money for the Pentagon? Wait. That happened.)

Much as I would like to dwell on the defeat of the F-136 in the House, however, I am sobered by the reality of budgeting for the military. This is hardly the final blow in this battle. Opponents and supporters of the extra engine in the Senate have already lined up their forces. The engine might yet re-emerge. And we must not lose sight of the fact that the total amount saved – $450 million – is tiny relative to the Pentagon’s budget of around $540 billion in this fiscal year. Perhaps rather than debating the need for a second engine, we should be debating the need for a plane that is grossly over budget, badly behind schedule, and riddled with performance problems?

So kudos to Congressman Rooney for leading this fight, but there is still much, much more to do to bring military spending down to reasonable levels. (For example, removing U.S. troops from Europe, a policy that already enjoys considerable support.)

Concerning the End of “Combat Operations” in Iraq

Several of today’s front pages feature iconic images of U.S. troops marching onto troop transports and into the sunset in Iraq. Today’s story by Ernesto Londoño in the Washington Post, features Lt. Col. Mark Bieger of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,  “This is a historic mission!” Beiger bellows as his troops prepared to depart Baghdad for the last time, ”A truly historic end to seven years of war.”

No disrespect to Col. Bieger and his troops, but the war isn’t over, and it won’t be so long as there are significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq at risk of being caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi government, more than five months after nationwide elections, remains in limbo. Talks over a power sharing arrangement have broken down. Meanwhile, violence is on the rise. Call it whatever you like, but the 50,000 troops who remain in Iraq are still dealing with a lot of challenges.

Much of the confusion in the media reporting revolves around semantics, words and phrases such as “combat” and “combat units.” It doesn’t help that George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that ”major combat operations in Iraq have ended” under that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. But beyond Bush’s irrational exuberance, such terms are increasingly misleading in an era in which conventional, state vs. state organized violence – what we used to think of as war – has been replaced by murky, disorganized violence, perpetrated by disparate militias, or merely disgruntled individuals unhappy with their lot in life, and determined to take it out on anyone who happens to be around at the time.

Unfortunately, I have very little confidence that that state of affairs will change any time soon. And I seriously doubt that our people – our men and women in uniform, and, explains Michael Gordon in the New York Times, soon many more U.S. civilians and contractors – will be able to put everything right, and not for lack of trying. Meanwhile, I am deeply troubled by the rising chorus of voices calling on the Obama administration to ignore the remaining provisions of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and prepare for an indefinite military presence in Iraq. (On this, see Ted Galen Carpenter’s latest entry at TNI’s The Skeptics blog.)

So, no, the war isn’t over. For better or worse (and chiefly the latter),  Americans will remain associated with an unpopular and government in Baghdad as it struggles to hold together the country’s disparate factions. They will be at great risk if the current political paralysis collapses into still wider violence.

Needless to say, I hope that doesn’t happen. But I won’t be striking up the band and declaring the war American in Iraq to be truly over, until all of our troops are back home.

It’s the End of 2009. Where Are Our Troops?

This is not the change we hoped for. President Obama rose to power on the basis of his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it. But after a year in the White House he has made both of George Bush’s wars his wars.

Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, candidate Barack Obama said, “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” The following month, under fire from Hillary Clinton, he reiterated, ”I was opposed to this war in 2002….I have been against it in 2002, 2003, 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8 and I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.”

Indeed, in his famous “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow” speech on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he also proclaimed, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when we ended a war.”

Now he has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to keep the war in Iraq going for another 19 months, after which we will have 50,000 American troops in Iraq for as far as the eye can see. If McCain had proposed this sort of minor tweaking of the Bush policy, I think we’d see antiwar rallies in 300 cities. Calling the antiwar movement!

President Obama’s promises are becoming less credible. He says that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future (“in July of 2011,” but “taking into account conditions on the ground”). Voters are going to be skeptical of both these promises to accelerate now and then put on the brakes later.

The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ – a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars – and should also remember the years of stagflation and slow growth that followed President Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state.

President Obama to Announce Troop Increase in Afghanistan

afghanistan mapThere are two things that President Obama’s plan won’t do: win the war, or end the war.

While all Americans hope that the mission in Afghanistan will turn out well, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine says that stabilizing a country the size of Afghanistan would require far more troops than the most wild-eyed hawk has proposed: about 600,000 troops. An additional 30 to 40,000 troops isn’t just a case of too little, too late; it holds almost no prospect of winning the war. Accordingly, this likely won’t be the last prime-time address in which the president proposes sending many more troops to Afghanistan; my greatest fear is that this is only the first of many.

But we shouldn’t just commit still more troops. President Obama should have recognized that the goals he set forth in March went too far. A better strategic review would have revisited our core objectives and assumptions. It would have focused on a narrower set of achievable objectives that are directly connected to vital U.S. security interests—chiefly disrupting al Qaeda’s ability to do harm—and that would have left the rebuilding of Afghanistan to Afghans, not Americans. President Obama’s national security team seems not to have even considered this course. Instead, the administration focused on repackaging the same grandiose strategy.

Secretary of Defense Gates fixed on the dilemma several weeks ago when he pondered aloud: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?”

It turns out you can’t. The president’s decision to deepen our commitment to Afghanistan while simultaneously promising an exit is ultimately absurd on its face.

I’d be surprised if any foreign policy analyst would bet his or her next paycheck that this is going to work. I wouldn’t.

Emanuel on TV and Filkins on McChrystal

A. It’s encouraging to see Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry saying that we shouldn’t up force levels in Afghanistan without a reliable partner. But if we shouldn’t send 40,000 more troops to prop up a crooked government, why keep the 68,000 we have there? A focused counter-terrorism mission would require far less than that.

B. According to Dexter Filkins’ article in the New York Times Magazine, the war in Iraq taught General Stanley McChrystal the following:

No situation, no matter how dire, is ever irredeemable — if you have the time, resources and the correct strategy. In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.

What’s interesting about this claim is its utter confidence in the potential efficacy of US military power – it is not just necessary to solving Iraq’s problems, but sufficient. If this view is right, Iraqis themselves, and their civil war, were unnecessary to the limited political reconciliation that occurred there.

Filkins, surprisingly, seems to agree, depicting the evolution of the war this way:

For four years, the American military had tried to crush the Iraqi insurgency and got the opposite: the insurgency bloomed, and the country imploded. By refocusing their efforts on protecting Iraqi civilians, American troops were able to cut off the insurgents from their base of support. Then the Americans struck peace deals with tens of thousands of former fighters — the phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening — while at the same time fashioning a formidable Iraqi army. After a bloody first push, violence in Iraq dropped to its lowest levels since the war began.

Note the use of the word “then” preceding the sentence about peace deals. It carries a heavy load. Filkins wants to say that the hearts and mind theory of counterinsurgency caused the Anbar Awakening. But he offers no real causal story about how they are connected; he just says that one happened and then the other.

Another view, one that leaves Iraqis some agency, is that the growth of the al Qaeda Iraq and the progress of the civil war changed the Sunni insurgents’ strategic calculus, such that they decided to cooperate with Americans to gain locally. And that in turn, limited violence. U.S. forces had a role in this – the covert killing campaign that McChrystal led and Filkins chronicles probably pressured insurgents and weakened AQI, for one. But the deals – the awakening – began well before the troop surge and before David Petraeus took command and tried to implement a new counterinsurgency doctrine. The key American decision was willingness to play ball with insurgent groups. This decision had little to do with winning hearts and minds via population security and increased troop levels. And by empowering forces at odds with the central government, it contradicted the goal of state-building in Iraq, at least in the short-term.

I obviously agree with the latter view. Our dependence on local politics limits what we can accomplish in counterinsurgency. We can certainly affect what happens in Afghanistan, but it is hubris to think we control it.

Filkins also quotes McChrystal on Afghanistan’s effect on Pakistan:

“If we are good here, it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” he told me. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems — it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.

It’s sensible to conclude chaos nearby is unhelpful to stability in Pakistan, but it goes way too far to say that Afghanistan’s stability is necessary to Pakistan’s, which has been fairly stable for long periods while Afghanistan was not. What’s more, as Robert Pape argues, it is likely that U.S. forces are a cause of insurgency in both countries.

Wednesday Links - Afghanistan Edition

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Cato foreign policy experts have been following and analyzing the war since the beginning. Here’s a round up of their assessment thus far:

  • In today’s podcast, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent discusses the future of policy in the region.