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The Forever War We Need to Keep Waging

The Forever War We Need to Keep Waging

There’s little that Democrats and Republican Trumpers agree on to be sure, but on one issue at least they may be united: the need to end America’s forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in each of which we’ve been involved for almost two decades. 

Trump has threatened to abandon both places. He’s already betrayed the Kurds in Syria who fought so well and loyally essentially as our infantry against Daesh, and he seeks to do the same by withdrawing all American forces from the country in which the plan for 9/11 was hatched.. But Trump is an idiot and his desire to withdraw from Afghanistan has less to do with strategy or a hardheaded reassessment of our commitments abroad than winning brownie points with his base before a tough re-election campaign. But such a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a serious strategic and moral mistake and I really hope a Biden administration, if there is one, will agree, even if it means the commitment of a modest force indefinitely.

Of course the case for staying isn’t helped by the fact that its strongest advocates are some of the same nincompoops whose enthusiast cheer led us into the 2003 Iraq invasion ordered by George W Bush, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute and retired army general Jack Keane joined by a guy I’d hoped never to see or hear from again, Joe Lieberman and we all know how that went (although as an ardent opponent of that war it would be churlish indeed not to acknowledge that the United States plucked a solid military victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to the 2006 surge of forces under a more capable general and the fortunate timing of an alliance with the Arab Sunni Awakening; but at a bitter cost to both Iraqis and Coalition forces). We still live with the unpleasant reality that the principal beneficiary geopolitically has been Iran who lost a formidable enemy and found a new best friend in the now Shia-dominated Iraqi government.  

But just because they were wrong about Iraq doesn’t mean they’re wrong now and O’Hanlon in particular makes a compelling case for retaining the current residual force of between 5-10,000 American and NATO forces.  And whilst both O’Hanlon and Keane emphasize the critical counter-terrorism role of such a force, and rightly so given the ongoing threat of Daesh (ISIS-K) and the ever present possibility of a rejuvenated al-Qaida, I would argue that we should also help to thwart a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We can do this by continuing to provide training, logistics and even air support to Afghan forces. And let’s not forget the all-important moral support our presence provides. 

Why should we do this? Because of the effort and sacrifice our Allies and ourselves have made to the cause; and because Afghanis, especially women and young girls, have come too far to be sent back to the 15th century by the fundamentalist rigidity of another Taliban regime. And make no mistake, that is the alternative if we fail to continue helping the Afghans.

Fulfilling our obligations and commitments is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue. And betrayal doesn’t sit well with us, nor should it.

Obama As Drone Warrior Irks Krauthammer

Obama As Drone Warrior Irks Krauthammer

I usually don’t read Charles Krauthammer. His columns about President Obama in particular are too often marked by high levels of vitriol and meanness, not to mention wrongheadedness, which simply make them distasteful.

A column published on May 31 in The Washington Post titled: ‘Barak Obama: Drone Warrior’ is fairly typical. Presumably with the aim of undermining Obama’s sterling record on the war against al-Qaida, he manages to find a way to sully and trash Obama’s role in finding and killing Osama bin Laden. He also has a problem with Obama’s direction of the drone strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It’s not that Krauthammer has a problem with these drone strikes; no, his problem is that Obama doesn’t have a problem with them.

Krauthammer, you see, scorns the fact that Obama stopped the torturing of terrorist suspects in detention following his criticism of George W Bush for doing so, yet personally orders drone strikes that will assassinate terrorists in the field. His reasoning is that this represents a muddled morality on Obama’s part. How is one any better or more moral or legal than the other? He also is critical of the reliance on drones to kill rather than capture terrorists, thereby foregoing the opportunity to seize terrorists and wring from them valuable intelligence.

However, I think it’s Krauthammer who, as usual, is muddled.

The use of armed drones was, as we all know, initiated by the Bush administration. Obama simply took an effective tool and put it on steroids. The strategy has enabled the United States and NATO to eviscerate al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan and to deal serious blows to the Taliban as well other terrorists groups or al-Qaida branches (such as in Yemen).

What do all the countries in which drone strikes occur have in common (you can probably add Somalia to the list)? In none of them does the government exercise full control of the whole country; and in those bits they don’t control, terrorists offer armed resistance against the host government whilst plotting against western countries in general and the United States in particular. For example, strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan would be unnecessary if the government controlled them.

The drone strikes are a rationale and reasonable response to the threat of al-Qaida et al. In an unconventional war in which the enemy is a trans-border terrorist group rather than a specific country, using armed drones to strike at them makes perfect sense. And whilst civilian casualties cannot be entirely avoided, great pains are taken to minimize them, certainly compared with most previous wars (including Iraq where civilian deaths and injuries as a result of our invasion were horrific). The ungoverned areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are both the battlefields and the bases of the terrorists. It was the right-wing who insisted that we elevate al-Qaida to the level of warriors. Obama is simply doing what any Commander-in-Chief would do, namely directing the killing of unconventional enemies by whatever reasonable means we are able.

Torturing those in our power who can no longer do us harm is an entirely different kettle of fish and Obama is right to make the distinction. Killing our enemies in their havens is both moral and legal; torturing them in our prisons is neither, no matter how Krauthammer tries to cut it.

Regarding the supposed intelligence windfall Obama is foregoing by killing rather than capturing terrorist leaders (as argued by others on the right, including the CIA officer who ordered the destruction of the tapes which showed waterboarding of key al-Qaida detainees) this argument is equally spurious.

Most of the targets are deep in hostile areas of foreign countries. Is Krauthammer really suggesting that American Special Forces regularly violate Pakistan sovereignty, for example, to snatch them? We did it once to kill OBL and the stink caused by that raid was enough to almost destroy the US-Pakistan relationship. Not to mention the danger to our forces if anything went wrong. Capture by ground forces, no matter how skilled, in most cases is simply not a viable option either in terms of the potential collateral damage or the risk.

President Obama’s has waged a stellar campaign against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. And nobody can take that away from him, no matter how much it sticks in Krauthammer’s craw.

Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

President Obama has made our commitment to Afghanistan a central plank of his foreign policy.  Everyone agrees that the reinvigorated Taliban, helped by al-Qaida in  Pakistan, represent a formidable foe in their mountainous home.  And whilst it is widely recognized that building a stable Afghanistan will require much more than the application of military force, it is equally clear that we cannot make substantive progress whilst the Taliban controls large swaths of the countryside.  

Yet there is not a single brigade-sized or larger unit in either the United States Army or Marine Corps that is specifically trained for the sort of mountain warfare that would help prepare them for combat in rugged Afghanistan. The Army’s 10th  Mountain Division, unlike its illustrious World War II predecessor, is a mountain division in name only.  It lacks any particular training or expertise in mountain warfare.

To be sure both services have mountain warfare schools but these primarily are for individual rather than unit training. No major US ground force unit is based at or regularly trains at a high elevation camp or post. This in contrast to the WWII era 10th Mountain Division which was based and trained at Camps Carson and Hale in the Colorado Rockies. 

Specialized unit training of troops for mountain warfare is both expensive and resource intensive.  It requires them to be able to become acclimated to high elevation movement and maneuver; to be equipped for the bitter cold and very possibly with new weapons, such as artillery, that are specially designed for being packed in to otherwise inaccessible terrain. Yet the rewards of training our conventional troops well enough  to go toe-to-toe with the fleet-footed Taliban warriors even in their most inaccessible redoubts and sanctuaries could be enormous.

It’s no secret that the Marines are keen to be redeployed from Iraq to the campaign in Afghanistan, where they believe their talents will better utilized..  To date, Secretary of Defence Gates has resisted the idea of having the Marines take the lead force there although a small number has already been deployed.  In fact having the Marines as the principal conventional force in Afghanistan is an excellent idea.  To win their point the Marines should immediately expand the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center in California and ensure that every battalion slated for deployment in Afghanistan is given lengthy and sustained mountain warfare training and altitude acclimation before shipping out. 

If the Army continues to have the principal role in Afghanistan, why not make the 10th Mountain Division a mountain warfare specialist in more than just name?

We are likely to be battling the Taliban for years to come in the mountains they know so well. It is long past time we treated the challenge with the seriousness it deserves by adequately preparing our troops for what will be a long and arduous struggle.