American Strategic Dissonance Has Lost Us the Mideast
When reviewing the news for the last week, it is often hard to keep up with what’s going on globally when so much of our popular media here is consumed with the sexual peccadilloes of the two presidential candidates. There were three developments in the Middle East that are of vital importance for the United States going forward. The first was the announcement that the ongoing Taliban offensive in Afghanistan is widening, as America’s force posture in the country is weakening. The second issue is the announcement that 500 more American troops of the Army’s famous Big Red One Division are deploying to Iraq. The third and final is the news that Houthi Rebels fired on U.S. Navy warships in a brazen act of war. These three issues are just signs of how feckless our foreign policy for the region has become.
Despite the widening of U.S. air support, the White House believes that the war in Afghanistan is tipping in the Taliban’s favor. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation, a senior administration official called the situation in the country an “eroding stalemate.”
The Washington Post recently reported that the Taliban were both intensifying and expanding the scope of their present offensive in Afghanistan. The Taliban have made gains in the vital Helmand Province and they are currently laying siege to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, they have entered Kunduz, and they are laying siege to Afghan forces in Farah in western Afghanistan. The expanded U.S. Airstrike package that was meant to be a temporary stopgap to get Afghan forces through Fall has been expanded indefinitely, although the fact remains that these airstrikes are just keeping the Afghan Army in the game. They are not allowing for significant strategic gains. Indeed, since President Obama assumed office in 2009, according to Bob Woodward’s account in Obama’s War, the President has been quite consistent about his unshakable conviction that Afghanistan is an unwinnable war that he must simply go through the motions with. His ultimate goal is to be completely disengaged from Afghanistan in due course. Indeed, despite the expanded Taliban offensive–and their impressive gains–the U.S. military is set to draw down its forces in Afghanistan yet again from 9,800 to 8,400 by year’s end. Clearly, the Taliban sense that the U.S. resolve has vanished and that they can press their advantage. I would not be surprised if America sees the Taliban gain effective control over Afghanistan within two years, if trends persist.
The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives in trying to prevent Afghanistan from yet again falling into the hands of the Medieval Islamic forces of the Taliban. Yet, there is little doubt that the Administration (or any other person in power, for that matter) is not seriously thinking about what to do. If nothing is done, if we continue blindly following our timetable, then we will see the United States defeated by the Taliban. Think about that. If that doesn’t wake you up to how poorly managed the War in Afghanistan has been, I don’t know what will.
There are reports coming in from places like RealClearDefense, that the Obama Administration has ordered an additional 500 U.S. soldiers into Iraq from the Army’s famous Big Red One Division. This is on top of the slow drip of U.S. armed personnel and aircraft into Iraq since 2014. All of this is being done to ostensibly fight the Islamic State and prevent the nascent Iraqi state from collapsing anymore than it already has since the Islamic State rose to power. Yet, since the war began, the Islamic State has seen its brand become infinitely more palatable to more and more young men worldwide. Through the Cyber Caliphate–which remains virtually untouched by U.S. counterterrorism personnel–IS has managed to expand its reach and ability to conduct operations globally to unprecedented levels, despite having lost 30% of their physical territory (remember, at one point Mao and the Communists had lost large portions of territory to the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Mao overcame that deficit, thanks to time and geography). Regardless of the fact that the Islamic State is a territorial terrorist group, they are still descended from the non-territorial al Qaeda model. Reverting to that more scattered approach to global insurgency does not represent some great victory on the part of the U.S. It simply means that we are playing Whack-a-Mole with a group of committed fighters. We need a better solution.
There’s one other thing that’s really bothering me: that is the fact that these deployments (and how they’re being spun to the American people) are eerily reminiscent to how the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations sold the quiet trickle of U.S. armed forces into Vietnam before the first major wave of forces that precipitated the Vietnam War in 1965 went in. This slow bleed approach, likely far more concerned about domestic political timetables than military objectives, will do nothing but encourage the enemy, make our allies scared, and make the cost for victory twice as high. If the Obama Administration is serious about defeating the Islamic State and securing Iraq, then it must surge a large force into the region and coordinate with the Jordanians, Egyptians, and other local states who have skin in the game. Otherwise, the Obama Administration is setting us up for a disastrous Vietnam Redux (in the desert). I kind of pity whoever succeeds him as President of the United States.
America has now fought two wars and a half in Iraq. The first time, the force levels were great but the mission was far too narrow. The second time, the mission was expansive but the force levels were too small. Let’s try and get it right this third time. I don’t feel like repeating Vietnam, but this one really does feel like the years leading into the Vietnam War. President Obama either needs to get serious or wash his hands entirely of the situation. This politically expedient approach is going to get people killed and make America look worst than it already does. Meanwhile, IS continues to push its offensives in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier in the week, reports surfaced that missiles were fired at U.S. Navy warships patrolling off the coasts of Yemen. Right now, Yemen is a hotbed of civil strife, as Houthi Rebels, backed by the Iranians, battle Saudi-backed government forces. Previously, the Obama Administration had hailed Yemen as the hallmark of its Counterterrorism Strategy. Last year, the country went up in an Islamist revolt. The Houthis are believed to have been provided with weapons to attack our warships by none other than their Iranian backers. The weapons that the Iranians supplied the Houthis are believed to have been purchased by some of the money that the Obama Administration haplessly handed over to the Iranians as per the dictates of their ill-informed Iran Nuke Deal. The U.S. responded by launching cruise missiles at suspected Houthi Rebel sites on-shore. But, is this all we are going to do? This was an act of war. An act that was sanctioned by our purported Iranian colleagues in the War Against the Islamic State. The absolutely worst thing that the U.S. can be doing right now is to continue its support of the Iran Nuke Deal. Iran is our single-greatest foe in the region. It must be dealt a crippling blow by the U.S. This is even more important than defeating the Islamic State.
A Lost Cause, But A Hopeful Resolution
Looking at how poorly the U.S. has shaped its policy toward the Mideast since the 1970’s, I have become increasingly convinced that we have truly lost the Mideast. American policymakers need to begin thinking of entirely new paradigms for managing our interests in the region–beyond the reductionist non-solutions of either spastic military engagement or complete detachment. These are dire policy issues that must be addressed by both American Presidential candidates. But they are not. I am not even certain what their solutions are. There are few key takeaways, though: the U.S. must maintain a more robust presence in Afghanistan that will conduct Counterterrorism operations. Second, America must decide if it will either put-up-or-shut-up in Iraq. We cannot repeat the nearly decade-long buildup that went into Vietnam, because I can assure you that such a policy will have the same deleterious results for America as it did in Vietnam. Thirdly, Iran must be stopped. Houthi Rebels are one thing, but Iran is the problem. Ridding the region of the Iranian government or, at least, seriously checking its ability to build nukes and conduct terrorism operations outside of its territory is key. In fact, I would dare say that checking Iran would be the greatest victory for stability in the region yet. However, we must not allow for anymore delusional thinking when it comes to the Mideast. We lost it after Iraq in 2003. We now have to build something new in terms of our foreign policy.