Tag Archives: strategy

Reinforcing failure

So, now we know what Donald Trump intends to do about Afghanistan. He intends to reinforce failure, sending additional troops to that country (believed to amount to 1,000 soldiers and 3,000 military contractors, although Trump didn’t specify)  in an effort to defeat the Taleban. Quite how this miniscule increase in military power is meant to achieve that objective isn’t at all clear, especially given that the United States was unable to achieve it when it had 10 times as many troops in Afghanistan. With Steve Bannon out of the White House, we are led to believe that national security policy is now in the hands of the ‘grown-ups’, serious military men like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who understand strategy. But reading Trump’s speech on the subject it’s hard to see any sign of strategy. It is, quite frankly, a confusing mess.

On the one hand, Trump declared that he intends to ‘win’ the war in Afghanistan. ‘We will always win’, he said. But how will the US win? By avoiding all that touchy-feely nation building stuff, allowing more permissive rules of engagement, and permitting the US military to kill more bad guys, Trump seemed to say. ‘We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,’ he declared, adding that, ‘we will no longer use American might to construct democracies in faraway lands … Those days are now over.’ But how many more ‘terrorists’ is another 4,000 people going to manage to kill, and what’s to say that more of them won’t just pop up in their place? Trump doesn’t have an answer. Indeed, he contradicted himself by saying that, ‘Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country. But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace’.

Ah! So the aim isn’t after all to ‘win’, but to ‘create the conditions for a political process.’ But what is this process? Trump didn’t tell us, no doubt because he hasn’t got a clue what it might be. All he could say was:

Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.

So, the strategy is to use military power to create the conditions for a political settlement with the Taleban, even though it has so far utterly failed to achieve that, and even though ‘nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.’ And this is what constitutes ‘grown-up’ thinking? At the end of the day, Trump’s announcement amounts merely to a statement that withdrawing will bring untold disaster, and therefore we have to persist, because, well, you know, it will be bad if we don’t. There is nothing in this announcement which suggests how Trump or his advisors imagine that this war will end. They are as clueless as Obama and  Bush before them, and so are just carrying on doing the same thing over and over.

Why do they do this? The answer is that the financial costs of the war are dispersed over a vast number of people, so that nobody actually notices them, while the human costs are concentrated in a small segment of the population – the military – which the rest of the people can safely ignore (and at the current tempo of operations, the number of Americans dying in Afghanistan is quite low). Politically speaking, continuing the war is relatively cost-free. But should America withdraw, and something then goes wrong, Trump and those around him will be held to blame. It is better therefore to cover their backsides and keep things bubbling along as they are until the problem can be passed onto somebody else. This is a solution in terms of domestic politics, but it’s not a solution in terms of the actual problem.

By coincidence, today I got more news about Afghanistan, in the form of the latest missive from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This relates to a review of ‘USAID-funded initiatives to implement an electronic payment system for the collection of customs duties in Afghanistan.’ Like most Western-backed initiatives in Afghanistan, this one (managed by the company Chemonics) hasn’t gone according to plan. According to SIGAR, ‘Chemonics and USAID significantly revised the revenue generation targets downward for the first three quarters of program year four because the program failed to achieve any of the revenue generation targets established for year three.’ Beyond that, says SIGAR:

As of December 2016, there was little evidence to show that the project would come anywhere close to achieving the 75 percent target, however, USAID and Chemonics have not altered project targets to account for the reality of the situation, and instead continue to invest in an endeavor that appears to have no chance of achieving its intended outcome. [my underlining]

That pretty much sums it up.

Gotta give those weapons to someone

Back in 2013, the CIA carried out an internal study to examine the history of the agency’s covert support for foreign rebel movements. It determined that covert intervention in foreign conflicts rarely if ever produced positive results. In fact, it could produce only one example of ‘success’ – the support given to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, although even that didn’t look too good given what happened later.

Despite having this information at hand, the Obama administration went ahead and decided to support the rebels in Syria. The results are now in: total, abject failure. Remember the 70,000 ‘moderate rebels’, which British Prime Minister David Cameron said existed in Syria? Where are they now? Nowhere to be seen. Yesterday, the last outpost of the alleged ‘moderates’, Idlib, fell to the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is often described as an ‘affiliate’ of Al-Qaeda. As Gareth Porter reports in The American Conservative, the main consequence of the US decision to arm the Syrian ‘moderates’ has been to funnel thousands of weapons into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, far from being overthrown, the government of Bashar al-Assad is rapidly increasing its control over the central and eastern parts of Syria, pushing deep into ISIS-held territory. American policy is in tatters.

Donald Trump’s decision last week to stop arming the Syrian rebels is, therefore, a welcome recognition of reality. The question which now arises is how far reality has managed to intrude into the thinking of the American security community. Is this just an admission of defeat in this particular instance, or is a different view of the world now beginning to make itself felt on US policy more generally?

Many non-interventionists supported Trump in last year’s presidential election because they hoped that he might make the second option a possibility. So far they have been disappointed, and sadly the evidence suggests that the decision on Syria represents a tactical retreat not a strategic rethink. A large segment of the American foreign policy community continues to think that every internal conflict everywhere in the world is somehow its business, obliging it to pick one side or the other as its ally and to support it by sending it weapons.

So it was that less than a week after the US said it would no longer supply arms to the Syrians, the new US ‘special representative for Ukraine’, Kurt Volker, said that the American government was reviewing whether to send weapons to Ukraine. American foreign policy thinking is clearly in a state of confusion. On the one hand, a US official said that the decision on Syria was ‘a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.’ On the other hand, the same administration is considering a policy designed precisely to damage ties. It’s hard to make sense of it all.

Giving some details of what he had in mind, Volker said: ‘defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example.’ I’m guessing that would mean anti-tank weapons, like the TOW missiles which used to be supplied to the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. After all, you can’t just keep them sitting in storage boxes. If you’re not sending them to Syria, you gotta send them somewhere else. Right?

 

Strategy-free time

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.

Syrian_civil_war

Continue reading Strategy-free time

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

Sun Tzu in Syria

‘What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy’, wrote Sun Tzu. ‘Next best is to disrupt his alliances. The next best is to attack his army.’ Sun Tzu urged generals to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies as much as possible, as well as to avoid the obvious. ‘March by an indirect route’, Sun Tzu wrote, ‘War is based on deception … He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious’. Judging by a report it issued this week entitled ‘Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin’s War in Syria’, the Atlantic Council, a fiercely anti-Russian think tank, appears to be no big fan of Sun Tzu.

The Atlantic Council’s report was written with the support of the ‘citizen investigative journalists’ organization Bellingcat. It analyzes the targets struck by the Russian airforce during its six-month long bombing campaign in Syria. The Russian government has accused Bellingcat of fabricating data for the report. For simplicity’s sake, however, I will assume that the document is accurate in its claims concerning whom and what the Russians bombed and judge it purely on its own terms. The information in the report raises significant questions about the accuracy and competency of the Russians, and about the ethics and legality of their targeting decisions but although the Council hints at such matters it doesn’t seem desperately interested in them. Instead, its primary complaint is that Russia has been practising deception in Syria (Sun Tzu would approve!), and has not been attacking ISIS but rather the ‘moderate rebels’.  Consequently, the report says, ‘The Russian bombing had minimal effect on ISIS’ and ‘it weakened the US-backed opposition significantly more than it did ISIS’.

This does not appear to be true. In the past two weeks, the Syrian Army has won a couple of major victories against ISIS, recapturing the towns of Palmyra and al-Qaryatain. It seems possible that the army may now advance still further into ISIS territory. The Atlantic Council’s report seems to provide a clue as to why these recent victories were possible.

‘In the early summer of 2015’, the report says, ‘Assad’s forces suffered a series of major defeats at the hands of ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front and US-backed armed opposition groups. Many of these defeats were close to Assad’s heartland on the western coastline.’ This suggests that ISIS, the Nusra front and the ‘US-backed armed opposition groups’ were in effect allied against the Syrian government. The Syrian Army lost ground to ISIS because it was under threat close to its centre of gravity from the other groups. Only by first neutralizing those others could the army have any hope of striking back against ISIS. This is what Russia did by striking the Nusra front and US-supported ‘moderate opposition’. The result was that the Russians were able to force the ‘moderates’ to agree to a ceasefire. This then freed the Syrian Army to attack ISIS. In short, the Russians followed Sun Tzu, taking the indirect approach by attacking ISIS’s allies rather than ISIS itself. The result was a military success.

The authors of the Atlantic Council’s report think that the Russians should have gone directly after ISIS, and that they somehow behaved badly by failing to do so. It seems to me that all the authors actually prove is that the Russian general staff are better strategists than them.