The present-day U.S. military qualifies by any measure as highly professional, much more so than its Cold War predecessor. Yet the purpose of today’s professionals is not to preserve peace but to fight unending wars in distant places. Intoxicated by a post-Cold War belief in its own omnipotence, the United States allowed itself to be drawn into a long series of armed conflicts, almost all of them yielding unintended consequences and imposing greater than anticipated costs. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces have destroyed many targets and killed many people. Only rarely, however, have they succeeded in accomplishing their assigned political purposes. . . . [F]rom our present vantage point, it becomes apparent that the “Revolution of ‘89” did not initiate a new era of history. At most, the events of that year fostered various unhelpful illusions that impeded our capacity to recognize and respond to the forces of change that actually matter.

Andrew Bacevich

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Update for Saturday, April 20, 2019

Today I'm going to focus on Iraq. As I did last week for Afghanistan, I want to establish the context.

The Iraqi parliament is hosting a meeting of regional nations including rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen where this will go, but it is noteworthy that Iraq is an important Arab nation that has close relations with Iran and is also trying to establish good relations with the Gulf states. Perhaps it can play a role in moderating regional tensions. Newsweek's Tom O'Connor discusses this possibility and briefly reviews some relevant history.

A senior Iraqi MP says Iraq is indeed trying to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have executed a security agreement

The Institute for the Study of War is a hawkish think tank closely allied with the U.S. military, which I mention because otherwise somebody might likely point it out. Nevertheless their assessment of the status of IS is credible and includes some helpful recent history. For some reason there hasn't been a lot of attention paid to this by U.S. media or politicians, but with the conquest of the last territory held by IS the Syrian Democratic Forces accepted the surrender of some 55,000 women and children, many or most of whom remain loyal to IS, and transferred them to a camp near the Iraq border. Nobody seems to have a good idea of what to do about this situation. ISW is reporting that meanwhile, IS is rebuilding its guerilla networks in Iraq and producing numerous bomb attacks. Iraqi forces continue a campaign against IS in northern Diyala province. So no, this is not over.

As for the U.S. presence, the DoD does not state publicly how many U.S. forces are in Iraq and Syria. Since I'm a U.S. taxpayer and voter, I tend to resent that. However, there are 5,200 U.S. troops known to be in Iraq, probably not counting some special forces and mercenaries. The U.S. has said they will stay there "as long as needed," with the stated need being to combat IS. However it is not clear that U.S. troops have an important or necessary role in that campaign, and many Iraqi politicians have called for U.S. forces to leave. President Trump stated publicly that the rationale for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq was to "watch Iran," a proposition universally rejected in Iraq.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Update for Saturday, April 13, 2019

This is the first of planned regular weekly posts. I want to begin by recommending this year by year timeline of the U.S. war in Afghanistan from the Council on Foreign Relations.  Among the highlights are Donald Rumsfeld declaring an end to "major combat" in May, 2003, when there were only 8,000 U.S. troops in the country; followed immediately by the expansion of the NATO mission to a total of 65,000 troops from 42 countries. In May 2005 U.S. president Bush and Aghan president Karzai signed an agreement to:

strengthen U.S.-Afghan ties and help ensure Afghanistan's long-term security, democracy, and prosperity." Moreover, the agreement calls for Washington to "help organize, train, equip, and sustain Afghan security forces as Afghanistan develops the capacity to undertake this responsibility," and to continue to rebuild the country's economy and political democracy.
By July 2006 violence was surging around the country:

"As with most insurgencies, the critical precondition [to the Afghan insurgency] is the collapse of governance," says Afghanistan expert Seth G. Jones. Jones and other experts point to the many Afghans who lack basic services, the government's difficultly setting up its police forces, and the lack of international forces to assist with security.
By November of that year U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates was criticizing NATO for not sending more troops. In 2008 U.S. air strikes killed large numbers of civilians, alienating the population. In 2009, president Obama recommitted to Afghanistan and sent 17,000 more troops, at the same time promising to withdraw by 2011. In March, Obama sent 4,000 additional troops and pledged to bring about an end to Pakistani support for the insurgency. In July, U.S. marines launched a major offensive in Helmand province. By August there were more than 65,000 U.S. troops in the country. In December, Obama announced another major escalation.

In November 2010 NATO agreed to hand over full responsibility for security to the Afghan government by 2014, beginning in stages in 2011. The 100,000 U.S. forces then in the country were to hand over responsibility first in relatively stable places. Obama announced that withdrawal of troops would begin and that 33,000 would be removed by the summer of 2012. By that time, after a decade of war, the U.S. had spent $444 billion and lost 1,800 troops. In 2012 secretary of defense Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. combat role would end in 2013.

Afghanistan officially took responsibility for security in June 2013, and Obama announced that only 9,800 forces would remain in a purely training and advisory role, although special forces would confront al Qaeda. But in 2017, with the insurgency continuing to erode government control, president Trump announced he would be sending several thousand additional troops. In 2017 he pledged an open-ended commitment. But by 2018 the Taliban were carrying out bold attacks in the capital and elsewhere around the country. Currently the U.S. and Taliban are engaged in peace talks, so far futile, and it is unclear whether U.S. troop withdrawals will be contingent on an agreement.

Although there hasn't been an official announcement, it is obvious that U.S. troops are engaged in combat against the Taliban. However, here's some of what happened in just the past few days.

Taliban attack a police convoy in Ghor, killing 7, including the head of security operations for the province.

Taliban announce a spring offensive with the aim of "eradicating occupation" and "cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption," the Taliban said in a statement.

Four Romanian troops are injured in an attack in Kandahar.

Taliban attack Kunduz from four directions, so far are repelled.

Government claims 27 Taliban killed in a battle in Nangarhar, with 2 government forces dead. [These very lopsided reported casualty totals are common, it's unclear whether they are reliable. They are not confirmed by independent journalists.]

Government says it repulsed an attack in Faryab killing 11 militants.

So here's the question. With the support of tens of thousands of highly trained, heavily armed and well equipped North American and European forces; hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid including an air force and armored vehicles; air support from the U.S. including drones, fighter jets, and gunships -- why is the Afghan government losing to an insurgency that has no recognition or declared financial or military support from a single country. Yes, they get safe haven in Pakistan and probably get access to weapons and some other help from Pakistan, but that's it. There have been reports of arms from Iraq given to Taliban forces near the Iranian border. That's somewhat dubious due to their ideological differences, but Iran might want to have influence in that region.

Otherwise, the asymmetry of the situation is astounding. The Taliban don't need foreign trainers, or advisers, or money. They have no air support whatever. They have little or no artillery and only a few armored vehicles that they have managed to capture by overrunning government military bases -- something they do quite frequently. And they are winning.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Update for Tuesday, April 9, 2019

I suspended posting here because the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, with no real end or purpose in sight; and because Americans have largely forgotten about both of those countries. I felt that I was just yelling at the clouds, and my time was better spent on other projects.

The occasion of four more U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan, while obviously a small event compared to the suffering of Afghanistan's people, brings me back to make a formal administrative statement. I don't know if anyone is reading, but I would like to set up a regular schedule to post here to follow longer-term developments, such as they are.

With the elimination of IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, the situation in Iraq has settled into what seems a stagnant situation of corrupt and incompetent government, low-level guerrilla war by Islamist extremists, and little progress toward reconstruction or refugee resettlement. We have been given no rationale for the continued U.S. military presence there.

In Afghanistan, what looked like stalemate now looks like gradual erosion of territorial control by the Kabul government, and deteriorating security in spite of the massive ongoing investment in the government by the U.S. and allies. The U.S. is essentially trying to negotiate terms of surrender in order to withdraw its remaining forces (reminiscent of Vietnam), but that may yet turn out to be politically unpalatable in Washington.

Under the circumstances it seems to me that weekly posting might make sense here. My mission will be to provide an informational resource for people who are interested in the two countries, from the perspective of a U.S. citizen who has always dissented from both interventions. I principally care about the people of the two countries, but I also care about the welfare of the U.S. troops and civilians who serve there, who do not make policy choices. If anybody is interested, I will be here again, mostly on Saturdays.