Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Other than asking if we are really winning in Afghanistan, this article about America at war in the 21st century is a load of stupid.

The author (tip to Eric at Learning Curve who emailed me about the article) starts with the time-honored story of a small unit of soldiers and uncovers the not astonishing fact that soldiers at the pointy end of the stick wonder about the wisdom and common sense of the senior officers who sent them on their missions. From that bit of banality that is apparently news to him, he jumps off to matters of strategy.

Let me see if I can summarize the author's views.

The war drags on with no "exit strategy." Indeed, the same charge is made for Iraq and Syria, where the author says we have not won despite past claims of victory. Indeed, he says, ISIL which we recently defeated (in its caliphate form) didn't even exist when the war against al Qaeda began in 2001.

Further, he bemoans our reliance on military means, saying we have failed to reorder nations and cultures, and have failed to achieve the objectives promised.

So what of the charges?

You know my view on the folly of "exit strategies." Long before I blogged I was frustrated with the idiocy of the concept:

Not wanting to repeat our experience in Vietnam, many speak of needing an "exit strategy" before committing troops. Such an approach seeks to minimize our losses under the assumption that we will at some point lose, so we had better know when to cut our losses and get out. It also assumes that the situation allows for an exit and that our enemy will allow it. [emphasis added]

Sadly, we face enemies with such a fanatical level of hatred and determination to kill that the war drags on. That's not our fault. If the jihadis stopped wanting to kill us, we'd go home the next day. Indeed, in Iraq we tried going home before that and found we had to go back to wage Iraq War 2.0. It's not our fault our enemies in Afghanistan are so evil and persistent. Really, they don't hate us because we fight them over there. Which is a reason to win and not walk away from Afghanistan.

As for not achieving objectives, of course we have.

In Afghanistan we defeated the Taliban government that hosted al Qaeda and wrecked the terror sanctuary that bred 9/11. And we built an imperfect ally that is out there every day killing jihadis so we don't have to. It is a success that our role is far more limited to supporting these allies on the ground than it was when we had 100,000 Americans on the ground in direct combat. Sadly, sanctuaries in Pakistan and (to a lesser extent) Iran limit how much we can win the war. Are we to abandon what we achieved and go home--only to find we have to go back and fight Afghanistan War 2.0 when we find things really can be much, much worse?

In Iraq we defeated Saddam who made Iraq a conventional threat to the region (remember the Persian Gulf War?), who supported terrorism, who abused and murdered his own people, who tried to kill a former American president, and who was a WMD threat. We created an imperfect democratic ally that struggles with rule of law; and which fights at our side to kill jihadis rather than recruiting and training terrorists. Indeed, like the author of the article fails to do, we can't seem to recognize the evidence of our victory when we are looking at the evidence!

And it doesn't matter that ISIL didn't exist when the war started. The war is against Islamist jihad where the name plates change but the mission statement remains--kill everyone who doesn't submit to the jihadi vision of what Islam should be. This is the culture war and no, we can't directly affect that very much.

Mind you, even on the specific fronts like Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts on the civilian side must follow the military victories. I have issues with Cordesman on a number of specific points, but he is right that we have to invest in stabilizing the civilian side of the government and economy to finish the battlefield victories with more durable victories. And that doesn't mean desert or mountain versions of New Hampshire governance. Even as we fought tooth and nail in the first Iraq War, I called for post-victory surges of law enforcement and judicial experts to help rule of law in Iraq. That's where we need advisers now in Iraq in addition to help keeping the pressure on the atomized ISIL terrorists there.

Yet even with full battlefield and stabilization victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Long War against jihadis would not end because those are campaigns in the war despite being called "wars" themselves. There will be other campaigns in the Long War on terror that are called "wars" until the bigger war is won.

The campaigns/wars drag on because at its heart, the war on terror is an Islamic civil war where the West is just collateral damage in that internal war over who defines what Islam is. Over what their culture will be.

Our military action is a holding action to prevent the jihadis from killing us while they wage that civil war and our military action must support those in the Islamic world who want to reject the jihadi vision of Islam and put in place a modernized and tolerant version of Islam. Such leaders are strengthened by our military action. Until that civil war is won, we have no "exit strategy" unless you want to retreat from the fight and accept a body count of civilians and increasing loss of civil liberties at home as we ratchet up defenses to plug the latest hole revealed by the latest terror attack.

I have no problem with what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of that war. I'll grant Syria is up in the air, and I've said we have to decide our role there before we have a Mogadishu moment in Syria that exposes that we are unwilling to shoulder the burden of what we are doing.

We've achieved victories in the war on terror on the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syrian fronts (among other fronts). But they did not end the war because the war is broader than those campaigns.

The failure to recognize victories is perhaps inevitable given the inability to look closely at a war and distinguish the brush strokes of combat from the picture of war. That's what the author does.

And please note that "hearts and minds" which the author mocks is not shorthand for making people love us in a counter-insurgency fight. It is shorthand for the fight for allegiance. Which encompasses--wait for it--hearts and minds.

You will have among those people allies; people who lean toward you; neutrals; people who lean toward the enemy; and enemies.

The process of hearts and minds is to move people along that continuum toward you. It may be because they love you (or hate the enemy)--which is the hearts part; or it may be because they conclude that it is safer to side with you than it is to side with the enemy--that's the mind part.

Anyway, there are always reasons to question conduct in a war and reshape how we fight. I don't demand unquestioning support for a war effort any more than I practice that. I suppose the difference is that I want to win and believe we deserve to win.

Was the Korengal outpost a mistake? That was the assessment. But the idea of outposts is not. It is the heart of counter-insurgency that seeks to deny the use of terrain--and more important the people--while allowing your forces to use them--by spreading out forces to hold the ground and influence the hearts and minds of the people away from the enemy and towards your side. Individual outposts can be a mistake. It is wrong to generalize from the particular Korengal issue at that point in time.

Still, the story is a good snapshot of the grinding duty of infantry in an alien battlefield (mind you, as a reservist signal soldier, I'm not judging that from first hand experience--perhaps combat veterans will dispute my judgment). I'll grant the author that. If the author had been content to write that story without trying to make it a symbol of the entire futile war effort as the author sees it, it would have been much better. I'm not asking for gung ho. Just tell the story of that platoon's part of the war and let it stand. And understand that rather than being the result of disillusionment about a long war, the unit cohesion that leads men to fight and die for each other rather than the grand cause is a feature of warfare and not a bug. Any war for any cause features that kind of motivation.

Robert Soto, of the 1-26 Infantry battalion, did his duty. With honor and skill, it seems. Why tarnish it with this effort to deny what he helped achieve?

Personally, I wonder why our press corps continues to lack a basic understanding of war after 17 years of covering war. It's an intellectual quagmire that our journalism schools can't seem to exit, I suppose.