Afghanistan

Foreign Policy at the State of the Union

On foreign policy, the State of the Union was classic Donald Trump.

There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/3/19

Happy New Year! The Defense Download is back after a brief break for the holiday season. This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum.

Shulkin Out at VA

President Donald Trump has dismissed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin amid disagreement within the administration over the future of the beleaguered  Veterans’ Health Administration, a single-payer health system whose closest analogue is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. 

Counterinsurgency Math Revisited

When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the U.S. has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today. And it begs the question of just how can the terror ranks grow so fast when they’re being depleted so rapidly.

As early as 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the potential mathematical problem when he asked, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” In his memo, Mr. Rumsfeld correctly identified that both sides have a vote: the U.S. can deplete the terror ranks, while the terror groups and their supporters can replenish them.

What Rumsfeld had not yet imagined, however, was the possibility that military force might inadvertently benefit terror recruitment efforts. Specifically, he ignored the blowback a marauding U.S. military might engender among the Muslim world.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal pushed the conversation in that direction. He pointed to the counterintuitive aspects of terror recruiting. Calling it “COIN Mathematics,” he laid out his argument. “Let us say that there are 10 [insurgents] in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed.  How many insurgents are left?  Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them.  Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different.” 

Though McChrystal did not explicitly connect U.S. military operations to the perceptions of the broader Muslim community, Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, certainly did. Five years before 9/11, bin Laden railed against the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites of Islam. On other occasions he spoke of the “American crusader forces” and “American occupiers.” His recurring theme of grievance centered on the U.S. waging war with Islam. Later, in 2005, al-Zawahiri put an exclamation point on it. In a letter to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, he reminded him, “The Muslim masses…do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American.”

Vietnam, Afghanistan and U.S. Decisionmaking

In 1979, Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts released a book on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, entitled “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked.” Unlike most previous treatments of the conflict, Gelb and Betts didn’t argue that the U.S. failure in Vietnam was the result of a poor foreign policymaking process. Nor did they argue that policymakers had been misinformed or misled about the conflict. They didn’t even argue that policymakers were under any illusions about how unlikely success in Vietnam was.

More of the Same: Cato Scholars Weigh in on Afghanistan

Last night President Trump informed the nation that he is escalating America’s war in Afghanistan. That means that our longest war will continue for at least four more years, and likely longer. It also means that more Americans will be sent across the globe to fight – and die – in the pursuit of unclear objectives, and in a conflict that is not vital to U.S. national security.

Fatal Fallacies in the War on Terror

As I argue in my recently published policy analysis here at Cato, the American-led war on terror has clearly failed. Unfortunately, rather than accept the obvious fact that the campaign was badly misguided and focusing homeland security efforts in more fruitful areas, the Trump administration appears ready to embrace, and perhaps even to escalate, the American commitment in the Middle East. Though President Trump himself has frequently voiced concerns about nation building in Iraq and the mission in Afghanistan, few of his senior advisers appear to share his worries. And sadly, few voices from the foreign policy establishment have questioned the need for continued American intervention.

The near total lack of debate begs a simple question: Why do so many smart people support the continuation of a strategy despite its abject failure over sixteen years and in the absence of anything even remotely approaching a new theory of victory?

Though there are undoubtedly many different contributing factors, one important cause is the influence of several mutually reinforcing fallacies about terrorism and the use of force.

The first of these is the “political will” fallacy. This is the misguided idea that the United States can outlast the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other local actors simply by illustrating sufficient political resolve. Once the terrorists and insurgents understand that the United States is truly  “in it to win it” they will admit defeat. The reality, however, is that resolve is not something the White House can create. Resolve is a force that stems from how meaningful the objective is to a nation and how much its people are willing to pay to achieve it.

Given this, America’s adversaries clearly enjoy a decided advantage. Local actors like the Taliban have a tremendous stake in the outcome in Afghanistan – it is their home, after all. Americans, on the other hand, are rightly dubious of the value of slugging it out for a country of little significance to their security. Thus, much as happened during the Vietnam War, no matter how much firepower the United States brings to the fight local adversaries like the Taliban will always have greater resolve to keep fighting.

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