Saturday, January 24, 2015

If the Tide of War Recedes Much More, We'll All Drown

There have been calls in the past to simply get out of Afghanistan completely and let our magical armed drones keep the jihadi problem at a dull roar by killing them off as needed. Iraq and now Yemen show us the limits of air power without ground-based intelligence to guide them.

As we continue to plan for a complete withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 (as a going away present to President Obama who claims the tide of war is receding under his wise foreign policy), our fall 2014 re-intervention in Iraq (with a Syria bonus theater) has demonstrated that while our air power is very good, there are limits without ground power both to exploit what air power inflicts on an enemy and to focus the air power on enemy ground forces that are in contact with friendly ground power.

In Yemen, we have another example of how a "drones only" policy is really a policy that relies on ground forces to make them effective:

The collapse of the U.S.-backed government of Yemen on Thursday has left America's counter-terrorism campaign "paralyzed", two U.S. security officials said, dealing a major setback to Washington's fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent wing of the militant network.

Three U.S. officials said the halt in operations included drone strikes, at least temporarily, following the abrupt resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet amid mounting fears the Arab world's poorest country was veering toward civil war.

The U.S. move underscores another setback for President Barack Obama's Middle East policy and raises doubts about a counter-terrorism strategy that has relied on drone warfare and often shaky foreign partners to avoid sending large U.S. ground forces to battle militant threats far from American shores.

Mind you, I'm not saying we should put American ground forces into Yemen. It is always better to support a local government's forces with our air power when we can.

Yemen has long been bad (good grief people, fifty years ago Egyptian forces were dousing Yemen rebels with poison gas there) so I tend to think of most Yemen unrest as a revolving door type thing that we can eventually work with--as long as jihadis or Iran-backed stooges don't take over. Then we'll need to get used to lots of collateral damage if we want to strike jihadis there.

And if we're prepared to endure the media coverage of real and pretend civilian deaths, we can certainly carry out such a campaign from Djibouti and elsewhere, plus from the sea by our Navy's planes and missiles. But that's hardly ideal.

But I do suspect that we'll work out something to go after al Qaeda, even if the pro-Iran Shia forces have a role in governing Yemen. It's not like working alongside Iran (as we do in Iraq to kill ISIL forces) is out of the ordinary now, eh?

The main point of the development in Yemen is that we see in Iraq what happens when our lack of attention (and presence) undermines the local ground forces that we should be able to rely on to focus and exploit our air power.

And in Yemen we now see what happens when the local ground power is totally unavailable.

In Afghanistan, President Obama seems determined to ignore his own experience by walking away from our longest war and hoping that the same notions that crippled our fight against jihadis in Yemen (for now) and led us to re-engage in Iraq will work out just fine in the pretend-nation of Afghanistan.

I didn't have high hopes for Afghanistan as we began to escalate our involvement there in 2009, but we aren't matching what I hoped:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.

Remember, like Iraq because of the rise of ISIL in Syria, Afghanistan faces Taliban enemies who have a sanctuary in Pakistan where they can grow and prepare to surge into Afghanistan after we're gone.

At this point, I think the only lesson President Obama has drawn from Iraq is that he didn't string out our withdrawal long enough to delay a crisis until after he leaves office. American troops won't be out of Afghanistan completely until just before our president leaves office.

So "mission accomplished" in Afghanistan, I suppose.