How goes the war?

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?

First, Afghanistan:

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.

18 thoughts on “How goes the war?”

  1. It is a bit surprising, isn’t it? I would think that the recent military technology, UAV, the drones, should give the US a significant advantage. A decisive advantage.

    A bunch of drone operators, stilling in a safe, comfortable office in California, are simultaniously in the middle of the enemy territory. Watching, monitoring, and shooting missiles at will, hitting targets in direct view.

    You’re a military man, Paul, could you explain why this has failed, apparently, to tilt the balance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Out of three wars here, two are not waged by US army directly. Yemen is fought by Saudis, and it seems they are worse at using drones than Houtis (bombing everything to ground is so much better, isn’t it? Apparently, it isn’t). Syria – US largely withdrew support from the rebel groups in favour of SDF (though not completely), and they never supplied their proxies with military drones anyway. The rebels do use drones, but it’s just some DIY contraptions, can be shut down by AA countermeasures and just aren’t good enough.

      As for Afghanistan – I’m not that sure. Probably a combination of terrain and the initiative – drones are less effective at repelling assaults compared to making them.


    2. You’re a military man, Paul, could you explain why this has failed, apparently, to tilt the balance?

      Mao Cheng Ji, I have yet to find out what Paul Robinson may have written earlier that gave you the impression he supported the GWOT and/or the US or UK military decisions to start or join that war.

      That’s not what was on your mind? But?

      Otherwise, do you have any evidence link to earlier articles here on his blog or more generally in his writings?

      You are trying to draw our attention to California. Is that were the relevant US military drone controllers sit?


      1. Highly superficial check. California may be at least 25% correct. On the other hand how easy would it be to translocate that to, let’s say Ramstein?

        They increasingly dot the planet. There’s a facility outside Las Vegas where “pilots” work in climate-controlled trailers, another at a dusty camp in Africa formerly used by the French Foreign Legion, a third at a big air base in Afghanistan where Air Force personnel sit in front of multiple computer screens, and a fourth at an air base in the United Arab Emirates that almost no one talks about.


    3. A couple of possible explanations:

      1. Consistently poor choice of allies and proxies. This might be suggestive of some deeper problem of strategic thought.
      2. Very non-cost effective way of waging war. All that high tech stuff costs a fortune, as do modern professional military personnel and their families. Talebanis and the like fight using low tech, low wage warfare. Costs them a tiny fraction of the same amount. $100 for an IED – several million dollars for the counter-IED measures (highly protected vehicles, fancy electronic detection gadgets, or avoidance by using helicopters, etc). With economics like that, it’s easy to see why failure results.

      I admit, though, that I haven’t thought these through, so they are just ideas..

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t think money is the issue. The military + military-related budget is more or less $1 trillion. Which means, for all intents and purposes, unlimited. Not even counting Europe and Canada.

        It’s been 20 years. They could build tens of thousands of armed drones, and fly one over every Afghan village. Catalog every Afghan via face recognition. Catalog and analyze connections between them. Like in some dystopian sci-fi movie. It’s hard for me to believe that this thing would be so difficult to win. Or at least to pacify.


      2. Professor, you engage in dangerous wrong-think. That simply won’t do. You have to think about these particular issues in politically appropriate manner, and twist the words change the narrative appropriately.

        Here, let me show you:

        “1. Consistently poor choice of allies and proxies”

        “America only as strong as it’s Allies” (c). “Network of overseas alliances is what ensuring Liberal World Order” (c). “To abandon our allies is to damage the Cause of Democracy and our Global Moral Authority” (c). Any other neo-con/lib slogan.

        American think-tankers invented out of think cloth “Brezhnev’s doctrine”, which, according to them, consisted of “Once we get somewhere – we are not leaving”. Now, they were obviously projecting here, plus for them “somewhere” meant not just the “clay” (any territory), but the non-state actors as well (“assets”). It doesn’t matter how bad are these state or non-state assets. They exist, therefore they have lobbyists . They have lobbyists, therefore they continue existing.

        “2. Very non-cost effective way of waging war. All that high tech stuff costs a fortune, as do modern professional military personnel and their families.”

        No! A thousand times – no! American Sate wisely invests taxpayers money into high-tech industry, which won’t be outsourced anywhere anytime. This creates a large swathe of the people high and low, who are, yes, dependent on the budgetary largesse. Which excellent. Here you have a throng of monied consumers, keenly aware of which side of their bread is buttered and who makes sure they have bread, butter and everything else – which translates is very loyal outlook.

        Professor, have you ever thought about a “for a want of nail” interconnection of what it means for the US of A to have a Military Industrial Complex, and how it benefits a lot of the US citizenry? Think about all those propaganda specialists alone, who’d found a steady above the average income, acting as the modern two-bit Kiplings!

        Why cry over budgetary money? Your chief mistake, Professor, is that you try to approach this from the very abstract idea of “American National Interest”. But what is it? Or, more importantly, how can you pursue such national endeavor if, de facto, the country is run by ultra-capitalist enterprises keen on pursuing their own interests?


  2. I bet the weapons makers are happy though
    If the wars end so do the contracts and the money into the shareholders in these weapons companies.
    This is how the private sector wage war


  3. Professor, you have written extensively about the concept of honor.

    I have the following highly unconventional speculation about an underappreciated reason why liberal democracys dont win wars anymore, (while the Russians meanwhile do).

    To make peace (itself a precondition to being victorious), one needs to regard the adversary as somewhat honorable. To make war, a western liberal democracy engages in such an over the top propaganda campaign against an enemy that it is impossible for western decision makers to regard that enemy as possessing even a shred of honor, as such, no peace with these enemies can be made. This also means that there can be no victory.
    As the west is currently incapable of offering even remotely reasonable surrender (let alone peace) terms, its enemies simply fight one until the west will eventually pack up and leave. The Taleban/Pashtuns were willing to discuss surrender (Afghan style, meaning that they pay blood money, accept chastisement, and get reduced influence) in 2003 but the US insisted on treating them as criminals. Western demands against the Houthis, Alawites and Donbass rebels are essentially “surrender without an recourse to people who want to genocide/ethnically cleanse you”. These are utter non starters.

    The Russians meanwhile view war as a relatively normal tool of statecraft, and do not particularly hate their enemies or see them as completely devoid of honor (reasonable people can fight against Russian interests for fairly reasonable reasons, nothing to get particularly upset about). This allows them to talk with most of their enemies, all the time , which they can use to divide them, to gain information, or to figure out how and when to turn them.

    I find this propaganda campaigns to be actually dishonourable, especially since f.e. the Donbass rebels would rank more honorable on most objective “dishonorable scum to honorable warriors” rankings then the Anglo west (especially after the frankly perfidious Suleimanni assasination).


    1. A.I.S. – I concur with your analysis. Western states need to demonize their enemies in order to persuade the population to back their wars. But once the enemy is demonized, it’s really hard to talk to him without serious loss of face. Thus, we end up being good at starting wars, but very bad at ending them.


  4. Professor, again in light of this stunning evidence of Saudi defeat I once again am curious if you have read Kenneth Pollack’s books ARABS AT WAR or ARMIES OF SAND. I think the latter is a little problematic (the cultural explanation strikes me as interesting but far from sufficient), nevertheless I think both offer interesting insights.
    Seeing those destroyed armoured columns I am reminded of Pollack’s description of the Egyptians in Yemen. Namely the Egyptians would advance in slow moving armoured columns in excellent ambush country and have minimal or no flank protection and then when ambushed they would not attempt to deploy, or even have infantry dismount but would instead stand in place and scream for help, and often get butchered. And this is astonishing as the one thing the Saudi Armed Forces do not lack for is money, equipment and the means to sustain that equipment.
    ARMIES OF SAND though I imagine would more interesting for you as a Russia specialist as Pollack dismantles the idea that Soviet training and doctrine had anything to do with Arab military failure as the contrasting case of the Cuban Army shows and, although he does not say it, the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.


  5. A.I.S, you nailed it!!!
    Now, if all the erudite historians who read your analysis could use it to make some educated guesses re. the outcome, it would be most enlightening!
    How exactly did European Christians get tired of demonizing their heathen neighbors? Why did Soviets so quickly run out of steam badmouthing the capitalist pigs?
    During the late years of Soviet empire, one could literally feel the hot air rushing out of the official ideology balloon. Some say similar noises are now emanating from the gloriously exceptional USofA… or are they?


  6. Hi, off-top and sorry for the plug, but I thought History students might be interested in my latest 4-part blogpost which examines the “fact or myth” whether or not Stalin and Hitler met face to face in Lvov, in 1939.
    To my mind, the evidence trends to this being a myth.
    The show-stopper would be if somebody actually found that microfilm document allegedly in the U.S. Archives (allegedly a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to Adolf Berle), but Vasiliev says it doesn’t actually exist.
    I don’t know how to search the archives online, so I wouldn’t know.


  7. But even in the world where western/US demonization of opponents makes it hard to change course, to overcome US military might you have to have an incredibly strong sense of national belonging and, even more important, social cohesion. The family and communal relations of the Vietnamese, Pashtuns, and Houtis being obvious examples.


  8. More stuff that might be of interest to budding historians:

    Started an exciting new historical series today.

    Well, I think it’s exciting, because Russia is going whole hog declassifying WWII documents which show the Allies (especially the Brits) in a poor light!
    The writer is Krutikov, of course. He notes that today (February 10) is the “Day of the Diplomatic worker” in Russia.


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