Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lest Iraq Again Distract Us from Afghanistan

Recent international affairs calamities in the Middle East have caused me to reconsider some previously held assumptions about the stability of affairs in Afghanistan.  I had long thought of Afghanistan as being able to absorb any all sorts of damage caused by war.  Iraq’s example has opened my eyes that perhaps, we should reconsider the assumption that our impact on Afghanistan won’t be catastrophically bad.

On one of the bases I stayed at in Afghanistan, rain and snow turned a central portion of the base into a strange morass of mud.  It wasn’t that it was just a shitty place to walk or move, it was that it was more of a sinkhole than mud hole.  Some smart NCOs attempted to solve the problem of the mud with wooden pallets that were on the base.  We used them to walk above the mud, but with each soldier’s weight, they slowly sank in themselves.  One on top of another, they sank.  With enough water, the mud turned into a bottomless pit for our equipment and gear.  No drainage, no bed rock, just pure sinkhole.

For a long time, I viewed Afghanistan and our activities there as being similar to our failures with the sinkhole.  It was useless to do more because it would just get absorbed.  Still, it was only useless to send more money and weapons to a region of strife.  The outcome was unavoidable, to my old way of thinking, and essentially a null hypothesis.  We didn’t make a difference.  Pallets of money, guns, bullets, soldiers were all destined to sink into Afghanistan’s sinkhole forever and remain an absorbed piece of historical trivia until some archeologist of the future discovered this odd stash of military equipment.

I believed that partly due to my own experience in Afghanistan with locals who could take money and turn it into nothing and with a military that took our weapons and turned them into nothing and an earth that took our best and brightest and turned out nothing, I came to believe that all of our efforts would amount to nothing.  I also took this belief because it appeared as though our military and political leaders were waging this war so as not to lose it.  The strategic vision of the Pentagon and Washington appeared to be that given an input of X we could maintain the war in Afghanistan without loss forever.  Given that such a strategy would never actually prevail and only provided short term and feeble benefits, I naively assumed that such a strategy would at least have the benefit of having little long-term ramifications post-the end of the war.

This way of thinking, though, is flawed, and events in Iraq have helped clarify why that is. Afghanistan is not a sinkhole.  The actions of the US are not ultimately wasted effort.  They are inherently destructive.  We are not leaving Afghanistan just the same due its ability to absorb our wasted efforts; we’re leaving a bomb that will explode.

For those of you who missed Afghanistan’s brief moment of national security significance, it should be noted that the IG noted that the US has sent close to 750,000 weapons into Afghanistan in the past decade plus of war, with some 250,000 being totally unaccounted for.  Afghanistan’s presidential election has turned out worse than not holding one as the two candidates refuse to concede, have rejected US mediation efforts, and Afghanistan’s weak government is now in extended limbo, and although recent news suggest that US has finally managed to overcome this impasse, I think its worth mentioning that this is not the first time the news has carried this story.  Add to that, incredible amounts of waste and corruption in the form of cash and development work and you have the recipe for something terrible.

Afghanistan has been gifted the disposition and tools for tremendous violence.  The US has left a huge trove of weapons both intentionally and unintentionally.  This doesn’t even account for the trove that the Taliban has amassed and the arms industry that has thrived in this world during the war.  It is a mistake to think that when the war ends for the US that those millions of weapons will remain silent.  It’s nearly an impossibility to imagine such a scenario.

From my perspective, the best case scenario is that the Afghanistan war does continue in a way where both the Afghan government and Taliban collectively start to de-escalate the fighting while still continuing to battle one-another and over time reach a healthy settlement that avoids a one-side overwhelming and destroying the other side in a bloodbath sort of way.

What sort of historical precedent is there for such an outcome? None.  This doesn’t happen outside intervention or limitations on armaments from the outside world.  Pakistan and the Taliban aren’t interested in limitations and neither is the US.  Outside quarantining the two quarreling parties, the war will only escalate until one side or the other breaks.  Take a good guess at which side it’ll be?  The one with zero political leadership and nearly absolute corruption that just happens to be sitting on metric shit tons of weapons and cash but without the will to fight for it?  Sounds a lot like the force we assembled in Iraq.  Not that a slaughter of the Taliban wouldn’t happen if our team prevailed, it just seems so immensely unlikely.

Never mind what this means about how terribly we’ve failed to date because it’s simply too staggering a disaster to consider.  Consider what it will look like if the Taliban take over one of Afghanistan’s biggest cities in the years after the end of the war?  More importantly, consider how Afghanistan has generated a great deal of conflict-oriented industry in a region that features Islamist insurgencies in China, India, and Pakistan and what the departure of the great Satan and the fall of its puppet government will mean for the region?  Now add the $90 billion unaccounted over the past 13 years, and hundreds of thousands of weapons, and you have the makings for a pretty decent sized war in its own right.  Not to mention the billions being spent by those three countries alone and all the nuclear weapons in the area.

I think that the best case scenario is that both Kashmir and Xinjing both get significantly more violent in the short and medium term but don’t become extra-territorial conflicts.  Worst case involves some strange ISIS-like hoard occupying areas of central Asia from the –stans to Pakistan to China and causing a regional war that kills hundreds of thousands of people.  Probably won’t happen, even though, ISIS has found some friends in a part of Afghanistan that has ties to ever conflict in the area.

Doesn’t matter though, Afghanistan has not reached a violent equilibrium and our addition of huge amounts of resources has only made sure that when that equilibrium is reached, it will be gigantic, catastrophic and hugely violent.  America needs to reckon with this and take steps to ensure that the conflict gets shrunk in a controlled manner.  We won’t, or at least we have no history of doing so, so I guess I’m getting ready to see the Third World War fought in the next decade or the Islamic equivalent of the Khmer Rogue as a result of the craziness we let loose there.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The recent "so help me God" controversy in the Air Force brought to mind something that happened closer to home some 30 years ago.  We had just been stationed in NY, and my younger HS freshman daughter was able to earn a scholarship to a very fine Catholic High School, choosing this over the huge, but well rated public school serving our area.  About two weeks into the school year, I received a call from the principal to stop by when I had a chance.  I said I was able to do so that afternoon, and an appointment was made.

I arrived in Sister's office, wondering what might be amiss.  The secretary ushered me in, and after introductory pleasantries, Sister said, "We owe you and your daughter an apology, and even more so, I wish to complement you on the excellent religious conscience you have instilled in her."  Totally confused, I simply said, "Thank you", and waited for more.

Well, it seems that that morning, the students had a chapel service of some sort.  Since there were a fair number of non-Catholics in the school, "active participation" was purely voluntary.  The non-Catholic students did not have to sing, pray aloud, etc.  However, whilst filing into the chapel, it seems that my daughter was the only student in her class that didn't genuflect before entering their assigned pew, an act of "reverence" their home room nun had said was expected of all when she gave them their "conduct in chapel" lecture".  Rather, she made what we Orthodox call a "small reverence", bowing her head and making the Sign of the Cross.  Obviously, she stood out like a sore thumb, and her home room nun took exception and sent her to the principal, as she was still doing this after a couple of obtuse mentions of "proper reverence in chapel".

Sister Principal told me that she had asked my daughter if she had any religious or personal objections to genuflecting, and daughter said, "No, not an objection."  Sister Principal then asked why my daughter refused to genuflect.  My daughter said, "It isn't a refusal, but a choice.  Genuflection is a meaningless action to the Orthodox, Sister.  While not as noticeable, I make what we call a small reverence before the Altar of God in the Chapel.  It shows the same reverence, but just in a manner meaningful to the Orthodox.  I was raised to never do anything before the Altar of God for any reason other than showing Him reverence.  Genuflecting would simply be to show uniformity or to please Sister X, and I think that would make genuflection, in my case, irreverent."

Of course, the Principal was gobsmacked that a freshman had such a solid understanding of reverence, and wanted to offer her praise to such fine parenting.  I had to admit that I and her parish priests had instilled the general notion of reverence, and that my daughter deserved the credit for applying it so well to a real life situation.

So why the above in commenting on the Air Force controversy?  Well, there is the issue of religious freedom that is attacked by requiring non-believers to swear an oath to a deity in which they have no belief.  Myself, I also see the other side of the coin, and here's why: 

On Oct 12, 1960, the officer swearing in a group of us into the Corps began with a short explanation of how solemn the oath is.  Not in "so help me God" terms, but in terms of total subordination to the Constitution, to include, as generations of Marines had done, putting our lives subordinate to and in support of the Constitution.  In short, there is nothing trivial about taking the oath of office.  Not one word, not one concept is to be taken lightly nor with coercion or reservation.

However, it is what he said next that really stuck with me.  He said that we should note that there was no reciprocal oath by the Corps, the government nor the Constitution in return.  Rather, what binds us together is that all Marines swear a common, simple, yet profound oath to support and defend the same Constitution.  Thus, everything we do as Marines, individually and as a Corps, is bound the the individual oaths taken by every Marine since Tun Tavern.  A lawful order by a superior is in execution of that oath, and obeying is equally in execution of that oath.  We have all sworn to be Marines with equal commitment.

So, the other side of the coin, IMHO, is that to require a troop to swear a meaningless 4 words ("so help me God") only serves to trivialize the Oath and the deity.  It adds words and a concept that is effectively meaningless and irreverent, not just to any deity, but to the solemnity of the Oath, itself. It is an oath taken with coercion and/or reservation, and includes a phrase intended only to please those administering the oath, failing to understand that oaths are more than an administrative exercise.  And thus, it is not only an affront to the person making the Oath, but to the Constitution and the deity who's name is being invoked without meaning for the sake of uniformity.  If my use of the deity in my oath is not sincere, then what of the rest of the Oath?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Winning Without a Battle?

Can you win a war without stepping on a battlefield?  Can you ever be in a position to win a war before the hostilities start?   

Retired General Anthony Zinni, former Commander of U.S. Central Command, says yes in his new book ’Before the First Shots Are Fired’.   A thoughtful read, for me anyway.  Zinni clearly states that a military response to threats is not always the best option and certainly not the only option.  Two of Zinni's conclusions that I take away from this book are:

1] “Words and ideas are as important to victory in today’s conflicts as bullets.”


2] Our foreign aid budget is pitiful, our State Department, USAID, and the other government agencies that we critically need to be on a par with our military are underfunded, undermanned, and poorly structured for their current objectives.”

Conflict-of-interest-alert:  I liked Tony Zinni before I ever picked up this book.  His public scolding of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ten years ago for the blunder of invading Iraq was identical to my thinking. And his defamation by the neocons and smear attempts by the right wing press made him OK in my book.  On top of that he and I are of the same generation, both former Marines, and both served in Vietnam.  Some of you though may take offense at his later supporting calls for ‘The Surge’.  Or for also criticizing Obama's strategy.  And some press accounts have labeled him a warhawk and a shill for the military industrial complex.  So be forewarned.

PS - Regarding that #2 point above.  I recently served as a pallbearer for a 98-year-old WW2 vet who was also a veteran of the State Department.  He had served on the USS Astoria but was lucky enough to have been transferred to another ship just prior to its sinking at the Battle of Savo Island. He served throughout the war and saw much action but was prouder by far of his time in foreign service as part of the State Department after the war.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eradicate the brutes?

So apparently the armed might of the United States (sort of...well, the armed aerial might, anyway) is to be deployed to "eradicate the cancer" of the Islamic State. But that's okay because we're not going to send in the 1st Infantry Division and the Iraqi "government" is now a sweaty love-heap of nonsectarianism and the Saudis really, really promise not to send money to the Islamic theocrats in Fallujah and...well, because we're Good and they're Evil and Good always wins in the movies. And who doesn't love a good movie, right?

Well, okay then!

I know I was advocating using the USAF to act as the Iranian-Iraqi airforce a couple of months ago. I still think that the offer of CAS might have opened up a way for my country to slowly regain some sort of diplomatic re-entry into a region where it has done everything possible to help create geopolitical conditions as fucked up as a football bat but was largely convinced by my commentors here that it was a bad idea then and I don't see anything to suggest that this is any better an idea now that it's being proposed as some sort of regional U.S. aerial fun-fair.

The rabid Sunni theocrats and 8th Century wannabes that run the so-called "Islamic State" are some real sonsofbitches alright and like all theocrats of every variety the notion of their controlling anything more than the local soup kitchen gives me the giggy. But - and, admittedly, he writes purely for the comic effect - Gary Brecher has a damn good point:
"What the jihadis have accomplished is grim enough, but their showoff videos of beheadings and mass executions are minor surges in what is, like it or not, a rational process: The partition of Iraq into three, rather than the previous two, ethnic/sectarian enclaves. Before I.S.I.S made its big move, Iraq was an unstable, immiscible column divided into Kurdistan and “everything else,” with “everything else” ruled by a weak Shia army.

Now the natural three-term partition is in place again, with the Sunni of the center, Saddam’s tribe, back to doing what they do best. I don’t mean to minimize the brutality of the operation, but this is a fairly bloody part of the world, and we contributed rather significantly to that blood-mush ourselves."
Um. Oh, yeah, that. Oops.

I have never had much of an opinion of people in general. The Public IS an ass, by and large. But this is more than usually asinine. Something like 61% of the U.S. public thinks that more rubble = less trouble in the Sunni portions of Iraq and Syria. And that's because...John McCain says so?

What the fuck, people?

The bottom line is that in the zero-sum game of Middle Eastern politics it was always going to be difficult to resolve the issues inherent in the multi-sectarian post-Ottoman, post-colonial "states" like Iraq and Syria. There was the "old" way to play it - where the ruling faction (Tikritis in pre-2003 Iraq, Iranian-Shia clients in post-2008 Iraq, Alawite Shiites in pre-rebellion Syria) butchered the non-ruling factions if they ever got uppity. But we largely helped break that mold when we rampaged into the region killing people, breaking shit, proving that the old post-colonial secular governments were useless other than for being corrupt and weak, knocking groups around and throwing arms and anger all over the place. After that, and given that we ensured that the Sunnis in Iraq were dealt a bloody losing hand, it was nearly inevitable that if they didn't just roll over and die that they would choose to fight. And the more bloody and worse losing hand they were dealt ensured that the fighters they'd throw out would be the most ruthless they could find. The "Free Syrian Army" isn't a loser because they can't fight; they can't fight because they're the losers, the "moderates", who still see options other than red-handed war. The IS guys aren't that stupid. They know that the best in life is to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women.

And we think a couple of GBU-28's is gonna change that?

The Sunni in the region are going to be horribly, bloodily crushed. Or they will find leaders and fight and will, eventually, establish some sort of polity that will probably be led by someone and look like something the U.S. isn't going to "like". If the U.S. is going to get involved in this hot mess - which I'm not sure we need - we need to start from there. Anything else, any other "policy" is based on complete foolishness, as is this. IF we're going to spend blood and treasure, we should at least understand what we're spending it on and what it might buy. This nonsense tells me we haven't the slightest fucking clue other than to play some idiot game for the morons in the U.S. public and the courtier press.

Honestly, people. Can't anybody here play this goddamn game?