Tag: U.S. military

Colonel Gian Gentile on the War in Afghanistan

Last Friday, Colonel Gian Gentile, an award-winning historian, associate professor of history, and director of the military history program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spoke at the Cato Institute about the misapplication of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan for the purpose of destroying al Qaeda. In a new Cato video, conducted with Cato multimedia director Caleb Brown, Colonel Gentile elaborates on America’s narrow aim of defeating al Qaeda. He also explains how that aim can be pursued without a costly, multi-decade, troop-heavy campaign, and puts the application of counterinsurgency doctrine in a historical context.

On a slightly different note, mainly for those readers concerned about leaving the Taliban unmolested, the United States and its coalition allies have come to accept the region’s geopolitical landscape, in which it seems there is no way to avoid the Taliban and other anti-Afghan government forces becoming part of some future political order. Consider this statement by Philip Mudd, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the FBI’s National Security Branch: “On September 12, 2001, can you imagine asking the question: Is the Taliban really a threat? Today, 12 years later, I’d say, well clearly it’s not a threat!”

Food for thought. Check out the video below.

Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission:

Why the United States Might Never Leave Afghanistan

In autumn 2001, America’s initial purpose in Afghanistan—which made perfect sense—was to destroy or incapacitate al Qaeda and punish the Taliban government that hosted it. This was accomplished 11 years ago. Today, the purpose of the U.S. mission is ill-defined, but clearly involves nation building. What the coalition desperately needs is an achievable, realistic endgame, not an indefinite timeline that commits thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan until or beyond 2024.

A common argument is that America and its allies must create an effective Afghan state that can rule the country and prevent the return of the Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. Aside from the fact that al Qaeda can exist anywhere, from Hamburg to Los Angeles, it’s not at all clear that the coalition can either eradicate the Taliban or come close to creating an effective Afghan state.

As a Department of Defense Report declared earlier this year, “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined with a significant regenerative capacity, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of [improvised explosive devices] and conduct isolated high-profile attacks that disproportionately field a sense of insecurity.”

Arguments that the coalition must eradicate the Taliban lose sight of what the term “insurgency” actually means. Guerillas typically fight when the opportunity is ripe. They can melt easily into a population, making it difficult for conventional troops to distinguish friend from foe. Combined with the Afghan insurgency’s ability to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, coalition gains can be quickly undone by such systemic factors that make insurgents resilient. Additionally, reporters Dexter Filkins and Kelly Vlahos provide excellent analyses that draw out the ethnic divisions and political factionalism posed by Afghan warlords, many of whom are regrouping and could potentially touch off a civil war in the years ahead.

As for the common contention that America must stay until Afghans can police and govern themselves, the current state of Afghan institutions ensure that it would take a decade or more before coalition forces could withdraw, with little promise of success.

detailed report released last year by the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals, and other facilities that exceed Afghan funding capabilities. For instance, the $82 million Afghan Defense University will cost $40 million a year to operate, which is well beyond the Afghan government’s financial capacity to sustain, according to DoD officials. Long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the Afghan National Security Forces could continue through 2025. Similar findings were uncovered by auditors at the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The expectation is that the United States will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, while the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan will need $3.9 billion a year through 2024 for economic development. Ironically, when foreign policy planners in Washington make clear that they never intend to abandon Afghanistan, it’s their ambition to create a centralized state that will perpetuate that country’s dependency on foreigners.

What’s So Great about a Heavy Footprint?

I generally like David Sanger’s reporting. His recent books (The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal) provide an excellent overview of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s approach to world affairs, filed just before the two men faced off in their third and final debate, was one of the best that I had seen.

But I’m confused by this passage from his story in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground during the fight, and his decision to keep America’s diplomatic and C.I.A. presence minimal in post-Qaddafi Libya, may have helped lead the United States to miss signals and get caught unaware in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

We have had many tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and a sizable CIA presence, on the ground in Afghanistan for years, and that hasn’t stopped attacks on Americans. Ditto for the massive troop presence in Iraq, when we had one there. We have been caught unaware in other places where we have had a massive and long-standing presence on the ground; meanwhile, some places that boast no U.S. presence at all have been quiescent for decades.

In short, what happened in Benghazi is certainly a tragedy, and possibly an avoidable one, but that one instance hardly proves that a heavy footprint (i.e. sending U.S. ground troops into the middle of distant civil wars) should be the preferred option going forward.

The American people’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a broad, bipartisan desire to avoid future such wars, constrains the president’s options. And that is a good thing. If policymakers understand that they can’t accomplish ambitious goals with small numbers of troops on the ground—or with none at all—that should compel them to focus on more limited objectives, missions that advance U.S. security, and avoid those that do not.

Solution to Fiscal Cliff Should Include Senator Coburn’s $68 Billion in Pentagon Spending Cuts

The fiscal cliff is looming and Washington is scrambling to reach a deal to avoid a Thelma and Louise ending in January. To start, policymakers need to identify spending cuts, and they could begin with Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) just-released report on wasteful and duplicative spending in the Pentagon. The report identifies savings totaling at least $67.9 billion over the next decade in the Department of Defense. The common thread linking these disparate recommendations—from axing non-military research and development projects ($6 billion) to eliminating Pentagon-operated grocery stores ($9 billion)—is that the expenditures “have little to do with national security” and therefore could be implemented “without impacting our national security.” “Many of these programs, initiatives or research projects,” the report explains:

may serve worthy interests, but should not be the job of our military tasked with fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

Unfortunately this mission creep has essentially transformed the Department of Defense into the Department of Everything.

The five missions examined by this report—research and development, education, alternative energy, grocery stores, and support and supply services—could be or already are being better delivered by more appropriate federal agencies or departments, civilian federal employees, or even the private sector. (Emphasis in original.)

Sen. Coburn is to be commended for his willingness to take on the self-proclaimed defenders of defense, those men and women who aver that the Pentagon’s $600+ billion budget is sacrosanct, and who have rushed to the ramparts with the cry of “not a penny more out of defense.

And this is not the first time that Coburn has stepped forward with specific recommendations for spending cuts. In July 2011, his “Back in Black” plan identified $9 trillion in savings and deficit reduction, including $1 trillion from the Pentagon’s budget.

Combined with a number of other recent studies—including by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which identified $2 trillion in deficit reduction, including $672.5 billion from “national security”; and the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), which just yesterday put forward specific recommendations for Pentagon cuts totaling more than $550 billion—Coburn’s latest provides ammunition to those taxpayer advocates who are calling for serious spending cuts. More importantly, it should strike fear in the hearts of those faux conservatives who are urging Republicans to preemptively surrender to President Obama’s demand for higher taxes (Exhibit 1; Exhibit 2; and Exhibit 3) in order to keep the spigot open to defense contractors.

I have praised Sen. Coburn before, including here and here, but I will confess to being disappointed that this report doesn’t go far enough. According to the PDA study mentioned above, President Obama’s latest 10-year plan calls for Americans to spend $5.757 trillion on the Pentagon. Against that baseline, Coburn’s sensible reforms would save a mere 1 percent.

Coburn explains that he wants to “refocus the Pentagon to its true mission: fighting and winning the nation’s wars.” That is a noble goal. But none of the recommendations in this latest report address the aspects of the Pentagon’s budget that goes to fighting other nations’ wars. Coburn boasts that his plan doesn’t cut “any Army brigade combat teams, Navy combat ships, or Air Force fighter squadrons.” A truly transformational plan would.

Coming to grips with our bloated defense budget begins with a clearer understanding of what is meant by the “common defense.” To the Founders of the Republic, and to the vast majority of Americans today, it means defending us, these United States, our citizens, and our interests. The bipartisan consensus in Washington believes something very different: that American taxpayers should be on the hook for defending other countries that can and should defend themselves. Until and unless that changes, we won’t be able to make significant in military spending without overstressing the force. A smaller military should have fewer missions.

All that said, Dr. Coburn’s courage and wisdom should be emulated by others who care about this country’s security—both fiscal and physical. And those who are the first to criticize this report will reveal themselves for what they are: mindless advocates of more spending, consequences be damned.

On Veterans Day, Support the Troops by Scrutinizing the Missions

Today is a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day and we should all pause a moment to reflect on the sacrifices our veterans have made. But today is also an opportunity to reflect on the current state of civil-military relations. In today’s New York Times, Tom Ricks addresses this and notes:

[T]oday, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.

That is a serious problem.

But it goes beyond scrutiny of a military leader’s execution of a particular strategy, which does occur occasionally. More importantly, scrutiny from politicians and others should include hard questions about a given strategy’s likelihood of success, even if the execution is flawless.

Instead, whenever someone raises a point of clarification about how COIN is supposed to work in a country like Afghanistan, or even whether it worked as well as advertised in Iraq, that person risks being lumped together with reflexive critics of all things military.

An angry blogger will invoke MoveOn.org’s execrable General Betray-us ad, and – voila – the person trying to make a point about the wise deployment of strategic assets (and, yes, whether the particular mission in question is worth risking the lives of American soldiers in the first place) is portrayed as somehow hating the troops.

On the contrary, they value the troops more than those who harbor doubts but remain silent.

When politicians step out and ask serious questions, despite the certain counter-assault and character assassination, they deserve respect. It is, after all, their job. And when they duck that responsibility out of fear that a legion of angry bloggers will call them names, they deserve our scorn.

How Not to Fact Check a Presidential Debate

After last night’s debate, I watched the postgame on the Fox News Channel.

They had some problems with their fact checking.

They got off to a solid start, going through the back-and-forth on whether or not the Obama administration attempted to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq that would have exempted U.S. troops from being subject to Iraqi law and therefore left them in the country. Governor Romney was right on that one, and Fox called it for Romney.

Then Chris Wallace decided to “fact check” the repartee over Romney’s point that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it has had since 1917. Just as a refresher, here are the relevant bits:

ROMNEY: Our Navy is old — excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.

I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.

[…]

OBAMA: …I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities…

So how did Fox fact check this go round? Here’s what Chris Wallace said:

Well, as it turns out, in the middle of the debate, after he heard this, a Marine tweeted Fox News and said, “The Marines still use bayonets,” so it may not be clear who doesn’t really understand what the military currently uses.

I always thought Chris Wallace was a pretty sharp guy, but this makes me question that judgment. The point wasn’t that bayonets don’t exist anymore, or that they aren’t issued to Marines—they are. The point was that fighting wars is very different than was fighting wars in the early 20th century. Bayonets are not causes of mass death in combat as they were, say, right around 1916 (see photo). The point was that simply tallying the number of ships isn’t apples to apples because one American warship can do so much more today than one warship could back then.

The more precise point would be that we currently measure our navy in terms of tonnage. But don’t take it from me, take it from former Bush/Obama defense secretary Robert Gates:

As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, for example, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined—and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.

Wallace’s idea that what he was doing was somehow a “fact check” overlooks the point that there wasn’t a fact in dispute. There was an argument, slightly more complicated than a simple factual dispute. And Obama’s argument, that the nature of militaries and combat has changed dramatically—nuclear weapons, anyone?—since 1916 and that we measure combat power differently as a result, was clearly correct. Even trying to count the number of bayonets would have been a silly effort to miss the point.

It is disappointing in the extreme to see VP candidate Paul Ryan on television this morning in one breath seemingly understanding Obama’s point, then immediately claiming not to understand the point (“to compare modern American battleships and navy with bayonets, I just don’t understand the comparison…”)

Election 2012: Thank God it’s almost over.

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