It’s a depressing truth, but at least someone has finally had the guts to admit it. The United States has no strategy for its war in Afghanistan, or as Defence Secretary James Mattis put it in testimony to the US Senate, it is a ‘strategy-free time’. Mattis promised to put a strategy together. ‘We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,’ he said, ‘And we will correct this as soon as possible.’
Forgive me if I’m sceptical. The United States hasn’t managed to come up with a winning strategy in the 16 years it has been fighting in Afghanistan. It beggars belief that Mattis has the solution up his sleeve. After all, he’s been part of the war since the beginning.
The United States lacks a workable strategy in Syria as well. Theoretically speaking, US support for rebel forces in Syria is justified by the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is meant to help destroy ISIS. But because of recent advances by troops of the Syrian Arab Army (the official government forces), the rebels are no longer in physical contact with ISIS. As you can see from the map below, they couldn’t fight ISIS even if they wanted to.
You could argue that this is beside the point, and claim that the rebels aren’t meant to fight ISIS; rather, their purpose is to overthrow Assad. But this isn’t much of a strategy either, because it has quite obviously failed. Thus, the Americans are left supporting a bunch of people who can’t fight ISIS but who can’t defeat the government, and who are stuck in an ever-decreasing set of enclaves achieving nothing at all. Meanwhile, the government forces are fighting hard against ISIS in central Syria. Supporting rebellion against the government weakens its hand against ISIS, which is supposedly the Americans’ real enemy. It’s hard to see what purpose all this achieves.
The problem lies in a failure to clearly identify the enemy. The Americans can’t make up their minds if they’re fighting ISIS or Assad, so they end up fighting both. This makes any sort of success impossible. At the same time, America is also waging a sort of proxy war against Iran. This week the US Senate passed legislation increasing sanctions against Iran. Yet Iran is helping the Iraqi government fight ISIS. So, again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Add to that the fact that the Trump administration is said to support the Gulf states’ blockade of Qatar, and you have another enemy on the list. But this enemy is supporting the same rebels in Syria as the United States. So, it’s an ally, while also being an enemy. And then there’s the war in Yemen, which is going nowhere. There the Americans are supporting the Saudis. Yet, many believe that it’s the Saudis who have been the main source of finance for Islamic terrorist organizations. Confused? You should be.
And, of course, there’s also Afghanistan. As ISIS retreats in Syria and Iraq, it is advancing in Afghanistan. Yesterday, ISIS captured Tora Bora, the mountain tunnel complex in which Osama bin Laden hid in 2001. ISIS didn’t take Tora Bora from the Afghan government, however; it seized it from the Taleban. ISIS and Taleban are fighting one another, and the former is making progress at the expense of the latter. But, if the Taleban are fighting ISIS, doesn’t that make them our friends?
Failure in this sort of situation is almost inevitable. Instead of picking a clearly identifiable enemy, the United States is fighting just about everybody without any particular logic.
If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you could say that this is all part of a cunning plan to spread chaos. This, however, ignores the fact that the costs in both blood and treasure are enormous and far outweigh any benefits the USA might theoretically derive from such chaos. It’s also pretty obvious that people like Mattis really want to win all these wars. Their problem is that they’ve got themselves deep into situations they don’t understand and can’t control, but they can’t extricate themselves without looking bad. So, they just keep digging themselves in deeper and spreading the list of enemies in the hope that they can find a solution by going in a different direction.
As I’ve mentioned before, the first principle of war is selection and maintenance of the aim. If Mattis wants a strategy, he needs to select and maintain a single, clear objective. So far, the United States hasn’t. It aims to defeat terrorism, to avoid the loss of face associated with the appearance of defeat, to maintain its status as regional hegemon, to overthrow regimes it doesn’t like, and to transform the Middle East into an oasis of liberal democracy. It tries to do all of these at the same time, despite the fact that the varying aims are often at cross-purposes with one another.
There is only aim which can justify military action – protecting the lives of one’s citizens. Military force should therefore be directed at those who might threaten those citizens, not at others, and even then only if it can be shown to be effective. That means if you fight anybody (and a good argument could be put forward for fighting nobody), then fight ISIS and what remains of Al Qaeda, but not Assad, not Iran, and not even the Taleban (who have never shown any great interest in carrying out terrorist operations overseas). Issues of national prestige, maintaining some mythical hegemony, and exporting democracy and human rights need to be forgotten.
What does that mean? Abandon support for the Syrian rebels, and join hands with Russia, Iran, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments in destroying ISIS. Pressure Saudi Arabia to end its war with Yemen, and work with the parties concerned to make peace. And make a serious effort to get a deal between the Taleban and the Afghan government, and if that fails, walk away.
That would be a strategy – and one which might actually achieve the aim. The odds of it happening, though, are next to zero. Consequently, the failures will continue to mount up.