The Iran Puzzle

Excellent editorial by the NYT on what role Iran plays in American Middle Eastern “strategy.”

Trump administration officials worry that the Iranians, aided by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, will seek control of enough territory in two adjacent countries, Syria and Iraq, so as to establish a land bridge from Tehran all the way to Lebanon. There they could resupply their Hezbollah allies, thus enlarging their regional influence.

I tend not to think that an emergence of a “Persian Crescent” is as big of a deal as other tend to make it be. Either way, without any conceviable strategy towards Iran in operation, the U.S. should cooperate with Tehran on overlapping interests (i.e. stability in Iraq, defeating ISIS, and frankly, keeping Assad in power) while the contrasting interests appear to be on the backplate (nuclear spread, Iranian meddling in Yemen (at least I haven’t heard of any Iranian meddling in the conflict as of lately) and state sponsored terrorism directed at Israel).

 

Why America should withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for over 16 years. As of this writing, America has approximately 8,500 troops there now, mostly regulated to an advisory role. The Trump administration is reportedly sending an additional 4,000 American troops to theater while authorizing the Pentagon to send more if it deems it necessary.

Why exactly are American troops still in Afghanistan? After the twin towers fell, America launched Operation Enduring Freedom with two objectives. One was to destroy al-Qaeda and their terror camps. The other was to punish any organizations that supported the terrorist network which, after they failed to turn over al-Qaeda’s leadership, included the Taliban.

That was in 2001. Since then, the mission in Afghanistan has gradually grown into a state building project. This change in objective was a consequence of the post-9/11 consensus that ungoverned spaces were a threat to American security. In order to keep America safe from terrorism, it was essential that America build a functional and democratic state in Afghanistan.

When evaluating American progress on the task of state building, the metrics are dismal. For starters, a sizeable portion of Afghanistan is either under Taliban rule or contested. As of February 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates that the American supported Afghan government has no control of 40 percent of Afghanistan. The remaining 60 percent of the country is under the command of the democratically elected government but it is clear that it is not being properly governed. Corruption and abuse of power is utterly rampant. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in 2015, the World Bank’s Control of Corruption and Ease of Doing Business ranks Afghanistan 186 out of 190 for both “dealing with construction permits” and “registering property,” and when surveyed by The Asian Foundation, approximately 90 percent of Afghans responded that corruption was a problem in daily life.

Considering that this is what 783 billion dollars and 20,000 American casualties gets the American public, America should determine if it makes sense to escalate America’s longest war.

It is not clear that it does.

For one, al-Qaeda has had a safe haven in Pakistan. Up until his death, Usama Bin Laden had been managing the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda from what some have referred to as the West Point of Pakistan. In his 2015 work The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell writes “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Ladin’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qa’ida, while Bin Ladin was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Ladin himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.” Other core leadership of the terror network have either been killed in Pakistan or suspected of residing there. Al-Qaeda’s presence has become so influential in their post 9/11 home that some even suggest that we have seen the “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda.

Even if American attempts to eliminate al-Qaeda in Pakistan were successful, it is not even clear that the more dangerous branch of al-Qaeda is in Southern Asia. Under pressure from American drone strikes and special operations, al-Qaeda has become decentralized with arguable more threatening branches emerging in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Writing for The Washington Institute, Aaron Y. Zelin noted that “In many ways, the center of gravity for al-Qaeda has shifted from the AfPak region more to Yemen, Syria, and even Libya…” All three states are essentially ungoverned and if state building in Afghanistan is vital for American security then we should also pursue a similar strategy in these areas.

The truth is that despite having safe harbor in parts of Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa, al-Qaeda has not been able to manage another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Their failure to do so is because of an aggressive anti-terrorist strategy consisting of drone strikes, special operation raids, enhanced intelligence, and the multiple layers of homeland security established after 9/11. Fighting the Taliban and building a government in Afghanistan had little to do with this.

American priorities are mixed up. Washington is sending American men and women to defend a corrupt and self-serving government against an organization that has no larger goal beyond ridding their homeland of Americans. At this point the Taliban are not fighting for a restoration of an Islamic emirate but to expel foreign forces. Therefore, increasing the number of foreign fighters should only be expected to intensify the conflict. The main mission of al-Qaeda, however, has not changed which is to restore a “true” Islamic government in the Middle East. This goal is pursued by committing acts of terrorism against the United States. Al-Qaeda should therefore be defeated yet fighting the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven when the organization already has several doesn’t seem logical. Instead of sending more Americans in harm’s way to defend a government whose democratically elected Vice President is currently on the run for torturing a political rival, the United States should seek a power sharing agreement with the Taliban and not worry so much about what style of government it leaves behind in Afghanistan.

2013 McMaster writing on war

Its title is “The Pipe Dream of Easy War” and it was published in the NYT.

You can’t really pull one bit from the piece and have it be instructive of the writing as a whole, but here is what he offers as the “three age-old truths about war and how our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.his three points on war.”

  1. War is political
  2. War is human
  3. War is uncertain

The point is that many saw the cake walk of Iraq 91 and concluded that future wars would be relatively easy tasks better suited for engineers. McMaster instead argues for a deeper historical perspective of war.

You can read it in it’s entirety here.

The Afghan money pit

A recent NYT piece reports

The United States spent up to $28 million more than it had to on camouflage uniforms for the Afghan National Army because of the sartorial tastes of a single Afghan official, an American government watchdog said on Wednesday.

report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstructionfound that the Pentagon needlessly spent millions to license a proprietary camouflage pattern that replicates lush forests. Most of Afghanistan’s landscape, however, is desert, and the Defense Department owns dozens of similar patterns it could have used free, the report said.

“They picked the pattern based on a fashion preference, not by experts, but by the minister of defense,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general. “That was a dumb decision.”

And we are sending 4,000 of America’s best and brightest to defend this lot.

Utterly unbelievable.

Modern Day Guernica

Below is the WaPo worldview newsletter for today, April 26, 2017. I think this is only available to subscribers which is why I provide it in its entirety.

Sober reminder of the horrors of war, both past and present.

 

The Nazi aircraft appeared above Guernica in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937. It was market day in the historic Basque town, with hundreds of residents congregated in the central square. They couldn’t have imagined what was about to happen: Over the next three hours, the planes dropped 100,000 pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, reducing Guernica to a smoldering ruin.

It was one of the first crimes against humanity to grip the global imagination. The atrocity, carried out by the German air force in league with Spain’s fascist Gen. Francisco Franco, is considered the first deliberate attack on a civilian target from the air — years before CoventryDresden and Hiroshima, and decades before Aleppo. Guernica contained nothing of real military value. It was, and remains, a Basque cultural center and home to a sacred tree that symbolized the traditional freedoms of the Basque people — privileges Franco had little interest in defending.

To this day, the scenes of catastrophic suffering recorded in Guernica are a black mark on Spanish history.

“I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over,” wrote Noel Monks of the London Daily Express“Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.”

The Manchester Guardian reported that “even flocks of sheep were machine-gunned” and that “the fires have been so extensive that many bodies will never be recovered.” Estimates placed the death toll around 1,600 people, though later studies have reduced the number significantly.

Buildings in the ancient Basque village of Guernica are laid waste after an unprovoked aerial attack by the German Luftwaffe on April 27, 1937. (Associated Press)

“The raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history,” wrote George Steer in the Times of Londontwo days after the bombing. “Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”

Indeed, as it later emerged, the bombing of Guernica was part of a trial run for the Nazi war machine. The Condor Legion, a Luftwaffe unit created to fight alongside Franco’s Nationalists, carried out the assault in coordination with Franco’s troops and with support from the air force of fascist Italy. According to one historian’s account, “the destruction of Guernica was planned as a belated birthday present from [Hermann] Göring to [Adolf] Hitler, orchestrated like a Wagnerian Ring of Fire.”

“Guernica, city with 5,000 residents has been literally razed to the ground,” wrote Wolfram von Richthofen, the Condor Legion’s commander, in his diary. “Bomb craters can be seen in the streets. Simply wonderful.”

Such sentiment is chilling and shocking, but it’s no relic of the past. To this day, American politiciansbluster with alarming glee about the prospect of carpet-bombing other parts of the world.

If Guernica’s ordeal still echoes powerfully in the present, it’s in large part thanks to the efforts of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who debuted his now-famous mural of the slaughter at an international arts exhibition in Paris in July 1937.

A “cubist apocalypse,” as British art critic Jonathan Jones recently put it, the painting received mixed reviews from Picasso’s initial audience. But of all the works at the exhibition — lavishly sponsored pieces of propaganda by governments including Germany’s — it is Picasso’s colorless tableau of grotesque forms, broken and brutalized, that is remembered to this day.

“Picasso knew exactly what he was doing when he painted Guernica,” wrote Jones. “He was trying to show the truth so viscerally and permanently that it could outstare the daily lies of the age of dictators.”

Both Franco’s Nationalists and the Nazis initially denied any culpability in the attack, blaming it instead on retreating Republican troops. Their callousness — and the international community’s mute shock — wasinvoked by observers last year as they watched the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies relentlessly bomb rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

“When it comes to incendiary weapons and munitions such as bunker buster bombs and cluster bombs, the U.N. makes it clear that the systematic use of such indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas amounts to a war crime,” said British politician Andrew Mitchell to parliament last October. “We are witnessing events that match the behavior of the Nazi regime in Guernica in Spain.”

A Portuguese cartoonist updated Picasso’s work to show Assad’s face and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin:


It also took a while for Guernica.
 Franco’s dictatorship suppressed Basque rights until his death in 1975. Picasso’s mural, after a peripatetic life around the world, only made its way home in 1981. Eight decades on, Spain is still coming to grips with how to reckon with its bloody, divided past. In Guernica, there is nowa dedicated peace museum, as well as a verdant “peace park” in the foothills surrounding the town.The rebels have been mostly driven out of Aleppo — and so, too, hundreds of thousands of residents. It will take a long time for the devastated city to be made whole again.

And there are survivors.

Earlier this year, Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea, who was 14 at the time of the bombing and saw Guernica burn to ash around him, spoke to the Guardian of what endures.

“We survivors will disappear. We want people to carry on our message. We want every town hall to have a peace committee to talk to their governments,” he said. “When the German ambassador came here to apologize in 1997, I was asked to speak for the town. I said to him: ‘A flag of peace should be raised from the ruins of what our town once was. This must never happen again.’ ”

 

BBC interview with North Korean Diplomat

They are not Iran. They have no ideology they want to export.

They want the regime to survive.

As Vice-Foreign Minister Han made clear to me, North Korea has learned the lessons from recent history, in particular the US-led attempts at regime change in Iraq and Libya.

 

“If the balance of power is not there, then the outbreak of war is imminent and unavoidable.”

 

“If one side has nukes and the other side doesn’t, and they’re on bad terms, war will inevitably break out,” he said.

 

“This is the lesson shown by the reality of the countries in the Middle East, including Libya and Syria where people are suffering from great misfortune.”

I’m not defending the regime (they aren’t the sort of government I want to be ruled by) yet if America does want to fix this issue it should address it’s post-cold war foreign policy first, NK foreign policy second.

From a third party view, NK foreign policy appears to be rational.

You can read the rest here.

What Trump Calls Strength, China Calls Stupidity

That is the title of James Palmer’s recent FP piece.

Here is one bit

Trump might have thought he was signaling a bold willingness to use force to his visitor, but China regards U.S. military might as early U.S. statesman Elbridge Gerry once did the prospect of standing army: “Like a standing member; an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” China’s happy to gradually extend power elsewhere, especially in its own neighborhood. But it hasn’t gone to war for 38 years, since the last spasms of the Maoist era produced a blundering invasion of Vietnam in 1979. (In that time frame, the United States has gone to war in well over a dozen countries, and Russia in close to a dozen.) Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.

 

As with all of American blundering in the Middle East, China is the biggest beneficiary of the recent airstrikes in Syria. Not only does it divert attention away from the “region of the future,” it also heightens the suspicions of potential regional rivals, Russia and China. If you want to know why geopolitics has returned, the American use of force in nonstrategic areas is a start.

You can read the rest here.

 

 

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

Ignoring Diplomacy’s Past and Its Future Promise

That is the title of a NYT editorial.

It writes,

Diplomacy doesn’t always prevent war, Syria being one example, but war becomes far more likely if there are not enough diplomats to work with other countries to resolve disagreements. Compelling examples of diplomacy working include the 2015 deal that is preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon; the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnia War; and the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Other examples include several treaties that committed America and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals significantly. American diplomats have strengthened alliances, built new partnerships with countries like Cuba and Myanmar, promoted democracy so that countries are less likely to go to war with one another and created jobs by helping to open overseas markets to American business.