This week brought a bunch of news about the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have been directly involved in fighting the Taleban for over 18 years. In Syria, they’ve attempted to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad with the help of proxies in various forms, who are now holed up in an ever-shrinking enclave in Idlib province. And in Yemen, they’ve been backing the Saudis in their attempt to reinstall Adrabbun Mansar Hadi as president in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, now under the control of the Houthis. So, how go America’s wars?
A few days ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released his latest quarterly report to the US Congress. According to an email I got from SIGAR’s office, the key points of this report include the following:
- Enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) and effective enemy-initiated attacks (EIA resulting in casualties) during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels in every year since recording began in 2010.
- The month of the Afghan presidential election (September 2019) saw the highest number of EIA in any month since June 2012, and the highest number of effective enemy-initiated attacks (EEIA) since recording began in January 2010. The high level of violence continued after the presidential election; October 2019 had the second highest number of EIA in any month since July 2013.
- According to the UNODC, the overall value of opiates available for export in Afghanistan in 2018 (between $1.1 billion and $2.1 billion) was much larger than the combined value of all of the country’s licit exports ($875 million).
- As of December 18, conflicts had induced 427,043 Afghans to flee their homes in 2019 (compared to 356,297 Afghans during the same period in 2018).
- Between November 2019 and March 2020, an estimated 11.3 million Afghans – more than one-third of the country’s population – are anticipated to face acute food insecurity.
I think that gives a good enough impression. Eighteen years on, things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan.
So what about Syria?
About a week ago, government forces (the Syrian Arab Army (SAA)) launched a two-prong offensive against what were once US-proxy forces in Idlib, but might now be more accurately described as Turkish proxies. News reports suggest that casualties have been heavy on both sides, but the results from the SAA point of view have been very satisfactory. In the north, the SAA advanced a short distance south west of Aleppo, but the real progress was further to the south, where the SAA smashed through the rebel defenses and advanced rapidly to seize the town of Ma’arrat al-Numan, as shown in this map:
Since this map was produced, the SAA have advanced even further, continuing northeast up the M5 highway from Ma’arrat as far as the town of Saraqib. How much further they will go before pausing remains to be seen. But once thing is clear – bit by bit, the rebels in Idlib are being squeezed out. Once they’re gone, the war in Syria will be all but over. The attempt to topple Assad has failed.
Which brings us to Yemen.
As you may recall, in September last year the Houthis crushed a Saudi incursion into northern Yemen, capturing large numbers of prisoners and armoured vehicles. After that things quietened down for a bit, until about a week ago when Saudi-backed forces launched an offensive to the east of Saana in the province of Marib. Before long, the Houthis counter-attacked, with devastating consequences. According to one news report:
Hadi’s forces are now on the back foot. Where once they spoke about taking the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, now they discuss ways to defend Marib, a strategic oil and gas hub. … Ibrahim, a pro-government fighter in Marib province, said that some loyalist soldiers ‘betrayed’ them and withdrew from battles, causing sizeable losses amongst their troops. ‘We were planning to advance towards Sanaa, but our attempt was hindered by the withdrawal of a battalion of soldiers, which gave the Houthis a chance to attack us … This was a betrayal by the soldiers and their leaders.’
Houthi sources claim that Saudi-backed forces suffered 2,500 casualties, and that the Houthis captured 400 pieces of equipment, including tanks, armoured personal carriers, and multiple rocket launch systems. The Saudi defeat has gone just about unnoticed in the English-language media but, for anybody interested, Russian blogger Colonel Cassad has published a bunch of Houthi photographs and videos, such as the picture below, showing the results of the battle (here and here). They make for interesting viewing.
Putting this all together, what we see is the Americans and their allies losing not just one, not just two, but three wars simultaneously. It’s quite something. A few days ago, news emerged that US president Donald Trump had denounced his generals as ‘losers’ and ‘a bunch of dopes and babies’. The story was treated by pretty much everybody as yet more evidence of Trump’s unsuitability to be president. But given the news from the front this week, I have to think that Trump got it right. ‘I wouldn’t go to war with you people’, Trump allegedly told the generals. If only the president took his own advice.