Month: June 2016
Seeking Atlas; a Q&A with Telesur on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria
Following the news the US would be expanding airstrikes in Afghanistan I was interviewed by Charles Davis of Telesur. Charles’ article, which puts my comments into excellent context can be found here, while my full answers to Charles’ questions are below.
Are airstrikes likely to have a tangible impact?
-The renewed airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan will have the same effect as the thousands and thousands of previous airstrikes we have conducted against the Afghan insurgency. American airstrikes will make for triumphant press releases from the US military in Kabul, and it will kill many Taliban fighters, and also many civilians, but, strategically and long term, the airstrikes will not significantly weaken the Taliban, and, very likely, may strengthen them by providing more public support due to the civilian casualties the air strikes will cause. Under General Petraeus, starting in 2010, the US initiated scores of airstrikes, as well as dozens of nighttime commando raids, daily against Afghan insurgent targets. Many of these strikes hit legitimate targets, but many more of them hit civilians. The surge in the increase of public support for the Taliban in the areas of the air and commando strikes is undeniable. Similarly, this surge in American attacks only saw an increase in Taliban attacks. Rather than weakening the Taliban, the Taliban’s ability to fight, judged by nearly all indicators (number of Americans killed and wounded, number of assassinations, number of IEDs, etc) increased, year by year. There should be no doubt as to the effectiveness of American air power against the Afghan insurgency in the achievement of strategic and political goals in Afghanistan: at best there is no evidence the air strikes had a positive strategic effect pursuant to American goals, except to provide political cover for the American withdrawal; and at worst the evidence is that the airstrikes were entirely counter-productive. In Afghanistan, during our nearly 15 year occupation, there has been no reliable, non-corrupt, non-predatory, local Afghan forces that have been able to hold ground against the Afghan insurgency, let alone claim the support of the Afghan population, primarily Pashtun, in the East and South of Afghanistan. Without a militarily capable and locally endorsed Afghan ground force, no amount of American air power will be successful.
In concert with local proxy forces they appear to be helping reduce ISIS’s hold on land in Iraq and Syria… does that mean they could work against the Taliban?
-In Iraq and Syria US airstrikes have had a role in pushing back the Islamic State and its allied Sunni fighters, but the overwhelming reason for this has been increased success by sectarian forces, Kurdish in Syria and Shia in Iraq, on the ground against the Sunni forces. It is very important to realize the sectarian nature of this conflict and to note that all sides are committing atrocities, as noted by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Those atrocities, in turn, motivate continued sectarian conflict and provide an existential reason for Sunnis, Kurds and Shia to support their respective sides. You’ll note that in the cities in Iraq from where the Islamic State has been forced to retreat from, Ramadi and Tikrit particularly, the cities have been massively destroyed, widely looted and are mostly empty of their previous Sunni residents due to the occupation of the Shia militias. The Shia militias are the primary reason for the success of the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, as the Iraqi Army is still very corrupt and ineffective. American air strikes in Iraq and Syria are a supporting mechanism only and on their own cannot push the Islamic State from the (Sunni) territory they hold.
Is this a slippery slope that will lead to US troops eventually returning to a combat role?
-In terms of US troops going into full scale ground conflict in either Iraq or Syria, I don’t believe it will occur for any military reason, but rather will occur for a political reason such as the American president making a “red line” statement or due to an atrocity, both of which were the reasons offered by the Obama Administration to enter into the Syrian civil war in 2013 (in a manner that would have placed American forces in a position where their objectives and goals were directly aligned with those of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups). Regardless of the rationale, the reasoning will be political and it will be because the US president feels she or he needs to strengthen their display of American resolve in the Middle East, which would be in line with President Johnson’s decision(s) to escalate the Vietnam War and President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009. By saying there is no military reason, I mean that no mid- or long-term outcome can come out of American troop involvement in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria other than American boys and girls once again patrolling hostile city and village streets in a country half a world away they do not understand while being under constant guerrilla war attack. I think the biggest impetus on US troop involvement would be in protection of the Kurdish oil and gas fields in northern Iraq, particularly if the planned attack on Mosul, by the Iraqi government, Shia militias and Kurdish forces, fails (if the attack ever happens), and the Kurds, and the large number of American and European energy firms resident in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, feel threatened as they did in 2014.
Does the US even have a strategy?
-The US does not have a strategy in any way that any person who has ever put together a plan of action or strategy for a business, construction project or even a kids’ soccer game would expect. Rather the US is simply reacting to events in Syria and Iraq that failed to meet the hopes and aspirations of politicians and politically inspired planners in Washington DC over the last decade and a half. This really has been and continues to be a foreign and military policy based upon allegiance to neoconservative ideology, whether carried out by a Democratic or Republican administration, and propelled by “hope” that things will fall in line with expectations due to an unwavering belief in American superiority and faith in the righteousness of American supremacy. The US has found its role in both Iraq and Syria by unleashing sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria and then being disappointed when those sectarian forces have ignited civil wars that cannot be controlled. For example, since 2011, in Iraq the US hoped to use the Shia dominated government to control Sunni discontent and to keep the violence of the Islamic State in check, while in Syria, right across the border, the US hoped to utilize Sunni discontent and the Islamic State’s violence to overthrow the Syrian government.
What is apparent is an American strategy in the Middle East that is astonishingly detached from reality, let alone history, both this and last century’s. The success of such a policy as America’s would require the intervention of a determinist deity, such as Atlas, to hold together the badly fracturing Middle East that had previously been held together, in definition, by America’s massive arms and financial support to despotic monarchies, revolutionary groups, and unquestioned support of Israel. Such a house of cards could never stand.