Posted tagged ‘Taliban’

Afghanistan, The Middle East All Over Again?

May 13, 2017

The Trump Administration is mulling once again taking a greater presence in Afghanistan. The concern these official site is the growing Taliban strength and the clandestine support the Taliban are receiving from Russia. Government sources are leaking that increased military presence is intended to drive the Taliban back to negotiations and not to pursue nation building. Hmmm.

The Taliban resurgence should surprise no one. Afghanistan is closer to a “failed” State than an emerging democracy due to the ethnic and tribal difference reinforced by years of corruption and drug dealing. Before 9/11, the Taliban did ruled Afghanistan but only with the brute and cruel force of its boots. Is that the type of Afghan Government the US wishes to emerge?

With respect to Russian involvement, please get me a glass of water as I sit down to catch my breath. Who would have thought? When Russia invaded and attempted to occupy Afghanistan in the 80’s, it was the US who armed and covertly trained the opposition (mostly Taliban). Pay back?

On a different front, there is less but similar talk about Syria and Iraq where American advisors are helping Kurds and Iraqis to retake Mosel and Raqqa and rid those cities of ISIS control. Ending the Syrian civil war and driving ISIS out of Iraq appear clearly worthwhile objectives, most would agree. Not surprisingly, more American advisors and air support are felt necessary to provide combat help, training, and tactical advice.  Hmmm.

Of the Trump Administration senior appointees, Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor H R McMaster are consider top shelf, experienced, principled, and capable. Both Mattis and McMaster should be expected to act prudently and with the country’s best interest in mind. Never the less, any talk of increasing American military presence in the Muslim world should worry us. Why?

There are several reasons.

  1. Increasing troop presence can easily lead to the proverbial slippery slope. One foot in will quickly lead to a second, third, and, fourth step and possibly many more steps.
  2. Greater US presence, while arguments can be made about short term objectives, really begs what are the US long term interests and goals.
  3. And most importantly, what would be the exit plan should our goals not be reached or our interests change?

Former President Obama had chosen a foreign policy based upon urging Muslim countries solve their own differences (mainly religious, Sunni versus Shiite, moderate versus radical fundamentalist) in order to earn US military support. With President Trump it is unclear whether he views the greater Middle East similarly or even whether he is capable of holding any strategic (versus tactical) views. Therein lies the danger.

Committing US forces without a strategic vision harkens memories of heroic US military efforts followed by constant erosion of any gains. Hmmm.

With a President who excels in distraction, Americans must be careful not to cheer the commitment of more young men and women to a war which cannot be won.

The Case For Afghanistan

November 24, 2014

President Obama has announced the complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Unfortunately it appears that one of the phased withdrawal steps due by January 2015 will not be met. The President has agreed to allow US troops to conduct further operations in coordination with Afghan forces. Hmmm.

The decision to withdraw completely almost assuredly will set up an analogous situation in Afghan as we have just seen in Iraq. The Taliban will gain ground and continually threaten major Afghan cities. If the US has withdrawn, its capability to confront Taliban forces will severely strained.

A bigger risk, however, will not be on the battle field but at home in the political world of the 2016 Presidential election. Once again, the GOP will label Democrats as soft on defense and ineffective as leaders. Hmmm.

Afghanistan represents a difficult piece of culture and geography. From the days of Alexander the Great, each successive invader has had difficulty deciding when to leave.  What’s in it for the US to remain?

One advantage, some say, if the US keeps a sustainable Afghan force, is this presence would require an overall military size helpful in responding to flare ups other places in the world. The support infrastructure to maintain an Army in Afghanistan could also support a more rapid deployment of US troops to other locations in Asia or the Middle East, for example. And with a growing Chinese presence and a rejuvenated Russia, maintaining US military strength is a strong argument.

We must be careful, however, if any of our political or military leaders suggests that staying in Afghanistan is necessary to complete the Afghan transition to democracy. While Afghanistan does not present the Middle East “Sunni-Shiite conflict”, Afghanistan presents its own set of obstacles.

Afghanistan is a relatively recent State which has been cobbled together from dozens of ethnically different groups. The idea that modern Afghanistan can be anything other than a loose confederation of tribes for the foreseeable future is just dreaming. Poverty, corruption, and tribal jealousies will rule the day. The reason to remain in Afghanistan does not include helping to birth a democracy.

The rub in the “being ready for other contingencies” argument is an statement the US cannot make publicly.  More to the point, it will not sell well on the Sunday talk shows.

Another damaging aspect will be the budgetary considerations. How can the US support a continued war while cutting domestic spending?

Former President Johnson once said he would not be the first US President to lose a war when referring to a Vietnam withdrawal. President Obama may see that same writing on his history wall.  While leaving Afghanistan is inevitable since connecting it to US national interests any longer is too much of a stretch, President Obama may be thinking, “not on my watch”.

The case for Afghanistan is for the Afghanis to decide. We went there in hot pursuit of al Qaeda and removed the Taliban government because they tolerated al Qaeda presence. It is not our position to tell the Afghan people what type of leaders they should have. If religious conservatives like the Taliban, so be it.

The risk, of course, will remain that ISIS or al Qaeda or some other look alike will return. But frankly, a residual force of 14,000 will not be much of a deterrent anyways.

What say Chuck Hagel?

Dysfunction Begins With Thinking

June 5, 2014

Congress has been accused often of being a dysfunctional organization. Many times this dysfunction has been correlated with individual Congress members’ personal search for financial support. Other times, the dysfunction could be more associated with blind party loyalties.  American citizens’s needs, however, has been normally vague in Congressional action (or non-action).

The current brouhaha over the swap of 5 Taliban detainees for Sergeant Bowe Burgdahl has reinforced a third reason for Congressional dysfunction. Too many simply do not think.

President Obama has pointed out (in professorial tones) that the US military does not leave behind on the battle field any of its ranks if it is at all possible to recover them. Full stop.

This position has long been a core value of our military top command and represents nothing new or modified. What’s hard to understand about that?

“Well”, say the critics, “Bergdahl is a traitor”. Hmmm. What do these people think the words “we do not leave any US military” mean?

For those who might not argue about the Bergdahl repatriation, instead mount their high horse over the release of 5 former senior Taliban detainees. Some think 5 was too many and others think that anyone of them was too many. They infer these 5 will rejoin the Taliban and create havoc for the US.

The President has pointed out (again professorially) the nature of the agreement releasing these detainees (exile in Qatar for a year and a promise to not rejoin Taliban military operations).   There is of course always a chance the promises will not hold.

But think about it. Not releasing these detainees now begs the question “when”?

Our Constitution sets the standard of rule by law and prohibits indefinite detention (except in time of war). Guantanamo Detention Facilities represent internationally a dark smudge on the US reputation, and domestically, honesty with itself is missing.

Guantanamo represents a departure form American ideals and the potential onset of a two tier judicial system. It leaves open the possibility for future authorities to detain Americans indefinitely simply because they are charged with being a terrorist threat.

Congress members might be justified in holding the position that 5 was too many or the 5 individuals were the wrong 5, but they are irresponsible (and guilty of not thinking) if they do not have an equally clear position on how these 5 and the rest of the Guantanamo detainees are to be render a law based disposition of their status.

Dealing with the Guantanamo mess will require thinking and courage. Congress appears short on both qualities.

A Dim View

December 29, 2013

It must have been a dark and dreary day yesterday at the Washington Post.  Otherwise, why would they published an article predicting a dim future for Afghanistan?  Why would they hare written that much of the allied gains will be subject to reversals in the months ahead?  What will we ever tell the veterans of over ten years of Afghan conflict?

Most of us have been raised with visions of victory whenever the US fights on the side of what’s just.  The most powerful country in the world must prevail if it sends its troops into action.  Hmmm.

The ugly truth is that military force is transient, here today, gone tomorrow.  Soon US forces will be reduced to much lower levels, allegedly by the end of 2014.  This could be akin to former President Nixon’s secret plan to get out of Vietnam… simply declare victory and leave even though the enemy (North Vietnam) would take over the day we left. The most important aspect of Nixon’s “plan” involved leaving NO military behind.

Washington-types (military, think tankers, and many politicians) want to leave a residual force (maybe as high as 30,000) for training and rapid response purposes.  A “status of forces” agreement has been negotiated but as yet not ratified by the Afghans.  Justifications run a wide gamut… from interrupting drug trafficking to training to keeping an eye on the region.

Those opposed question the cost, the potential for further US deaths, and the futility of working with a largely illiterate, corrupt tribal population.  Hmmm.

So to write a headline that casts a dim light and predicts that geographic gains might be reversed once troop levels are decreased borders on sophomoric.  On what basis should anyone expect that lasting gains would have been made?

Our military and our DC politicians, of course, have a vested interest in describing our 10+ years Afghan odyssey as heroic and just.  Hmmm.  How about misguided and sad?

What will we tell our service men and women who sacrificed and accepted deployment and imminent danger in Afghanistan?  How can we tell thousands of relatives that the loss of their loved one was a mistake or at least done without hope of sustained gain, for either the US or the Afghans?

Rooting out the Taliban government in 2001 for having operating as a failed State and harboring al Qaeta is relatively easy to understand and justify.  Staying beyond the time necessary to oust the Taliban, and allowing mission creep to keep our troops there amongst rampant Afghan Government graft and corruption can only be seen as foolish at best and malfeasant at the worst.  In any case, there is scant justification to remain.

A rewrite of the Post story might better carry the headline, “Ray of Sunlight as Afghan War Ends”.  A sub headline would read, “Afghans Will Sort Out Their Future”.

The Military Cliff

November 13, 2012

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has his plate full.  He is currently leading the implementation of defense spending cuts ordered by President Obama last year, and is facing the prospects of sequestration which will bring another $50 billion in cuts.  How to do this while winding down the Afghan War and the repositioning of American power to Southeast Asia?

Oh, and lest we forget, the election is over and the Iran option is again possible.  What about Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and the eternal Israeli-Arab conflict?  How can we cut defense with all this sitting out there?

Secretary Panetta seems eminently qualified for this task.  His ego is well contained.  His personal interests appear not to include a publicist.  No autobiography are on the horizon for Leon.  My guess is that Secretary Panetta can see which steps need to take place first before he clearly see the next best direction.

Step one should be to end the military involvement in Afghanistan.  That means no further military missions to engage the enemy or for the purposes of nation building.  If the Afghan government cannot provide security, or should fall under Taliban pressure, so be it.  The US has already spent enough in lives and dollars.  It’s time to fold this hand.

Panetta’s Step One has a question of what size “residual force” should remain.  In the best of all worlds, the answer is zero.  But these are not the best of times and the world is very complicated.  So it will become very important to clearly state the mission of any residual force.

Is it for further training of the Afghan forces?  Is it for a backstop should the Afghan military stumble and need help fighting the Taliban?  Is it “just in case” there are problems in Pakistan or Iran?  Or, is it part of the overall “repositioning” of US assets into the Southeast region?

Whether there is a residual force or what its purpose should be are critical questions the Defense Department needs to be told.  The new mission is a political decision.

There are many reasons offered when war breaks out.  Buried in whatever any country claims as its reason are always economic interests.  Conflict areas usually represent potential customers, raw material suppliers (think oil, water, or precious minerals), commercial rivals, or strategic geographies such as ports, rivers, or key trade routes.  In other words, wars are usually fought for money and not some noble reason.

In the past decade we have seen the advent of “asymmetrical” warfare.  Suicide bombers, 9/11 type attacks, and non-uniformed fighters have changed the face of war.  Cyber attacks are predicted to lie ahead.  What can soldiers, tanks, fighter jets, aircraft carriers do against these new menaces?

The Obama Administration has a big job.  The world still has a lot of bad guys.  Drones, computer viruses, and financial sanctions are alternative tools which may prove effective in some cases.  Committing US ground forces (and all the support effort that goes with them) seems more and more like something we cannot afford, something that is less likely to accomplish any goals we might have, and something we should do only on rare occasions.

If Secretary Panetta allows the Generals to delay troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the US will be heading for a “military cliff”.  Ground wars are not the path to achieving America’s national interests, and are out of step with solutions to the nation’s fiscal cliff.







Another Vote For President Obama?

September 12, 2012

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at it again.  With less than 60 days to go before the US Presidential election, Netanyahu has opened a new attack on President Obama.

The US, Netanyahu says, needs to define a “red line” over which any Iranian movement would mean an immediate attack (by whom?).  Intelligent agencies have reported that Iran is moving very close to the time when its nuclear weapons development programs can be conducted in safe underground facilities.  Israel wants to attack now and the US does not.  Hmmm.

To be fair, this is not the first time Israel or Netanyahu has requested US action.  And to be clear, Israel knows that is not the foreign policy option of choice for the Obama Administration.  So why bring it up now?

Could it be that a President Romney might be more accommodating to Israel’s position?

Americans generally support Israel and absolutely support the right for Israel to exist.  Americans do not always understand the negotiations (or better, the lack of negotiations) with the Palestinians.  This confusion is increased whenever Hamas or Hezbollah performs some dysfunctional act of violence.  So life, in Americans’ eyes sort of just goes on in the Israeli territories.

Americans have also learned a lot about the Middle East thanks to President George W Bush (and friends).  After having wasted over 4000 lives, the better part of $1 trillion, and about 9 years, Americans see the Iraq War for what it was.  A complete foreign policy failure.

Afghanistan is somewhat different.  Al Qaeda organized in Afghanistan with help and support from the Taliban government.  Invading Afghanistan made sense.  The 10+ years of war that has followed, however, offers little or no reward for the lives, costs, and lost opportunities.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan have elected governments.  Both countries are graft and corruption full.  The governments are based upon tribal and religious favoritism, and show no sense of modernity.  While Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were no saints, they were local problems.

The US’s hand in nation building has shown little success.  Iraq and Afghanistan are unstable regimes and what comes next is anyone’s guess.

So why should anyone expect that military action versus Iran will suddenly produce a modern, western oriented country?  I think Americans sense that.

Time will tell how Mitt Romney plays this card.  He could step up on his soap box and cry big tears for Israel.  (Where will he get the money to fight a new war and still reduce the deficit?)  He could also see if there is any populist response in support of Netanyahu first, and then get on his soap box.

If Romney takes the bait, my guess is that he will lose some more moderate voters.  Netanyahu’s rants will turn into more votes for President Obama.

Why, Why, Why?

August 7, 2011

The news reported today that a US Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  There were 38 dead US service men reports indicated.  The night raid apparently did not catch the Taliban sleeping.

In quality training, there is a technique called the “5 whys”.  When something does not go as planned, you are suppose to ask questions beginning with “why” until you get to the root cause.  When someone tries to spin the answer, asking enough “whys” will usually get the inquiry back on track.


1. Why were 38 service members killed?  They were on an aircraft that was shot down.

2. Why were the 38 on the aircraft?  They were on a night time raid against suspected Taliban locations.

3. Why was the raid necessary?  The raid was part of on-going military operations.

4. Why are there on-going military operations of this type?  The Taliban are fighting an insurgent war and the US must strike in order to show other Afghans that there can be peace and security once the Taliban is broken.

5. Why are we still fighting after 10 years, hasn’t the Taliban been broken by now?  The US is close to winning.

6. Why are we only close to winning after 10 years?  The Taliban is receiving help from Pakistan and Iran.  This allows the Taliban time to rest and rearm.

7. Why does the US allow this help to take place?  Diplomatic measures have been unsuccessful in eliminating this aid, but efforts continue to stop Pakistan and Iran’s involvement.

8. Why do we continue in Afghanistan when our military tactics do not eliminate the Taliban and do not restore peace and security?   It is a complicated world and our Government’s policy is to stabilize the region.  (Read here, the US worries about an over throw of the Pakistani government and their nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, and we are worried that Iran may become overtly active in the region as their nuclear program matures and produces nuclear weapons.)

9. Why is sending out 38 US service members on a night raid the best way to stabilize the region?  Pause, there is no suitable answer other than to repeat what has been said. 

Conclusion.  The US lost 38 service members for no fundamentally necessary reason.  The overall US Afghan operation has no clear finish line.  More dangerous, the Afghan operations may have morphed from  “get al Qaeda” to “nation building” to “regional stabilization”.  Troops in Afghanistan means they are on the ready for deployment into Pakistan or Iran if necessary.

Is this what we want?

Afghanistan’s Future

June 20, 2011

Washington DC’s question of the week is should the US begin its troop pull out and if so, how many and how fast?

In an ideal world, the President would put forth a foreign policy which defined clearly America’s national interest and then proposed how actions in Afghanistan fit that policy.  Congress could debate the policy but the President’s actions would be the prerogative of the executive branch.  When Congress was adamantly opposed to the policy (not the specific implementation), it could take the steps of cutting off funding.

We, of course, do not live in a perfect world.  Congress often does not seek to know the policy and when it does, it objects simply because the policy was proposed by someone of the other party.  In addition, Congress likes to object to the specific actions employed by the executive regardless of its position on the policy.  It is mighty tough being the chief executive.

Afghanistan represents a somewhat similar, yet quite different story.  Can you quickly state what the US policy is?  Can you outline how US national interests are being served with about 100,000 troops risking their lives?  Can you imagine a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan nestled in between Iran, Pakistan, and all the “Stans” to its north?  Why should we expect this country to suddenly follow a rule of law and end its dependance on growing poppies and producing heroin?

Our politicians speak of denying al Qaeda a safe place to plan and train for worldwide terrorism.  But casual inspection tells anyone that Afghanistan is not the only place for terrorists to train.  Logic tells us that the US cannot police every suspect country in the world even if we had the money to do so.

Recently our military has been saying “we are close to winning”.  Winning what?  In a country where most all military recruits are illiterate, you must be kidding to say Afghanistan is ready for democratic rule.

This weekend the great Washington DC discussion was will President Obama announce a small, token withdrawal of say 5,000 troops, or will he announce something significant like 15,000?  Should I kiss you on this cheek or the other one?

“Winning” the military describes reflects the absence of overt Taliban presence.  The military wants to keep the Taliban out while secret peace talks are conducted.  One can only assume that the military sees the possibility of a Afghan-Taliban coalition emerging.    If the Palestinian-Israeli talks are any indication, this could be a long time.

This presents President Obama with a quandary.  A coalition stable government sounds like a real win.  Why not wait a little longer?  On the other hand, our experience to date with the present Afghan government and our memory of the Taliban crowd, does not present a good picture for the future.

For sure it is the President’s call.  He can rest assured that whatever his call, Republicans (and many Democrats) will disagree.

My advice would be to announce a full withdrawal to be completed in three years subject to further discussions with the Afghan government.

With Pakistan on one side and Iran on the other, the presence of a small strategic base (maybe 20,000 soldiers/airmen) might make sense to US national interests.  It would take an Afghan government decision to affirm that this presence was in their best interest too.  Lacking this confirmation, no amount of winning will change anything and full withdrawal makes the most sense.

Reality Check

May 18, 2011

The Obama Administration has begun a familiar old song.  “Just a little more time, please”.  You can hear the spokespeople for staying in Afghanistan crying out this refrain.  I am sure they mean it, but what are they thinking?

GAO reports on US aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan reveal lots of missing dollars.  Further, much of the money accounted for has gone to patently corrupt uses.  Why should we be surprised in countries as desperately poor as these two?

Actual military spending dwarfs this.  Our officials tell us that we are so close to eliminating the Taliban.  The Taliban’s credibility with Afghans is in trouble.  Just a little more time.

Let’s fast forward this video.

Does anyone think that in 10 years there will not be the Taliban or some other group fighting in Afghanistan?  Look at Indo-China.  The French fought for years and then America fought its costliest war ever.  And when finally, Nixon declared victory and pulled out American forces, Vietnam, a desperately poor country too, did just fine.

As a purist, I would recommend stopping all payments to both countries.  As a realist, I think the US can get the most bang for a buck through “aid” to the sources in obth countries that provide the most control (within some bounds of reasonableness, like maybe not backing another Sadaam Hussein).

The maintenance  of ground based US military is an extremely costly arrangement.  Not only are lives lost and soldiers seriously wounded, the military infrastructure to support one soldier with one gun is about 10 to 1.  With wars there are more Generals and more Generals means more money.

It is time to stop digging this hole.

Land Mine

September 7, 2010

Afghanistan presents the US and President Obama a very murky path. He has declared that this was the war (and not Iraq) that the US should have been focused upon all along. It seems he is more right than he may have realized.

Afghanistan and its Taliban radical Islamic Government was a candidate for “failed State” recognition. By world norms, the Taliban governed with bizarre measures. From simple actions that kept women in a second class, uneducated status to more overt floggings and stonings, the world witnessed governance that rivaled the middle ages.

If that was all, the world might have not paid attention.

The Taliban also accorded al Qaeda a free hand for training and logistics planning. The result we know as 9/11. So, in the spirit of hot pursuit, it is understandable (and certainly justified) that the US invaded and deposed the Taliban Government.

Unfortunately, what is also clear is that the US, despite all the education available did not understand Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the cultural nature of Muslims living there. Once the US embarked upon a nation building mission which had as its primary assumption that the Afghan people would support a freely elected government, the US stepped off into an abyss.

Quite aside from the Afghan realities, US political theater has made both Afghanistan and Iraq images that they are not. Politicians and activist media have told us the local people thirst for freedom and once given its taste, will develop into modern peace loving nations. Politicians have also warned that al Qaeda will follow us home if we were to leave. Conservative politicians have also hinted that only Republicans are strong on defense and in effect cast Democrats in a lose-lose roll. Pull out, you are weak on defense, stay and get pounded, you weak on offense.

Fortunately Iraq is on a path to its end. The Shiite (and Iran) dominated government wants the US out. Afghanistan is on a different time line. The Karzai government wants us to stay as long as there is money to be diverted into the pockets of Karzai associates. There is almost no indication that President Karzai has any idea of a time line when his government will be strong enough to govern (or what the democratic freedoms might look like at that time).

The US military (and particularly the senior officers leading the effort) do not want to be forced out of Afghanistan on their watch. More men, more guns, more time is what we hear from them. Their request while partially understandable also means more money and more death and injuries.

There should be little doubt that if and when the US does pull out, the Taliban will return to power. There should be little doubt that the Taliban will reintroduce the same middle age practices that marked their first government. There should be little doubt that Muslim extremists will be welcome once again. What a mess.

Victory (as in subduing the Taliban) will not happen. Propping up the Afghan government so it can defend itself is propositionally unlikely and certain too costly and too lengthy an operation for the US to support. Staying will not work. Leaving leads to unwanted outcomes. What is President Obama to do?

How about the Nixon approach. Declare victory and pull out. In leaving state that should extremists be allowed the means to train and launch overseas actions, the US would return to punish the host government and destroy the training camps. While costly, it would be far less costly than the 10 year (and running) war we are now in.

Of course, there is another approach. Punt and wait until the next President just like George W Bush did.