Archive for January, 2009

Jockeying over Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Foreign policy and 2008 election, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War on January 29, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama ventured into the lion’s den yesterday, visiting the Pentagon, over which he is now Commander-in-Chief. The highlight of his visit was a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Obama said a major purpose of his visit was to hear what the JCS thought about issues facing the United States. One of the issues discussed, unsurprisingly, was withdrawal from Iraq. Equally unsurprisingly, the military advisors cautioned against the 16-month deadline for total combat troop withdrawal on which the President ran in the election. The Army, in particular, thinks that is too fast and prefers (probably reluctantly) meeting the deadline of total troop withdrawal by the end of 2011 set in the Status of Force Agreement signed in Decebmer 200 that gives the military an extra 18 months or so in Iraq.

Why does the military feel this way? The answer is that they believe the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more likely it is that Iraq will be a stable place that won’t revert to chaotic civil war after we leave. General Ray Odierno, in an interview yesterday, summarized the case: “The longer we go [staying country], if we get rhough the elections, we get closer and closer to not being able to backslide.”

The key assumption behind this logic is that American continued presence aids stabilization by creating a physical shield behind which the Iraqis reach the kind of political accord that would lead to a durable peace. Thus, Odierno maintains, US troops are needed to counter the “drivers of instability” such as Kurd-Arab competition over places like Kirkuk. The evidence for the viability of this approach is the surge.

This approach (it is hardly a strategy) is questionable. It starts from the assumption that the surge has “worked” to aid stability in the country, as witnessed by reduced casualty rates. That may be true, but it also may be false or misleading. True, violence is down, but why? One possible reason is the surge, but there are alternatives. One is that the United States essentially bought off the Sunni resistance by paying them to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq and promised their integration into the Iraqi armed forces. The former occurred, the latter apparently is not, meaning continuing Sunni cooperation cannot be taken for granted. A second reason is that much of the violence between 2004 and the onset of the surge was really about ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds out of one another’s claimed territories, a process largely completed by the time of the surge except in places like Kirkuk, where violence remains. American presence–except as Sunni paymaster–had little to do with either of these phenomena. If they, rather than the surge, were responsible for the reduction in violence, then the argument for slowing Obama’s withdrawal intentions is weakened.

But there is more to it than that. Odierno says he can imagine, at some unspecified point in the future, a time when the U.S. would only need about one-third of its current 140,000 troops in Iraq, hardly the President’s position. It is one thing for Odierno to say this in private as a statement of his beliefs; to say it publicly in opposition to his commander-in-chief’s known preferences borders on insubordination; it certainly lacks tact.

Why? Here the jockeying becomes obvious. It is no surprise that George W. Bush’s hand-picked Middle Eastern military team supports policies unlike those of Obama. Indeed, the Army, or at least Central Command, may sincerely believe that staying longer will yield a superior outcome, although that presumption is itself suspect. I would bet neither Odierno or David Petraeus voted for the president. So what? Their candidate lost, and if they take their oaths seriously, they will present their positions in private, wait for the President’s determination, then salute smartly and either carry out his orders or resign in protest. It really is as simple as that.

So why the public jockeying and posturing? Could it be that America’s supposedly apolitical military knows they have President Obama in a bad spot right now? Obama is in the middle of an increasingly political, partisan battle over the economy, and needs all the political capital he has for that issue. Publicly taking on the military right now would reinforce his opponents on the economy (largely the same group as his military detractors) and create more friction he clearly does not need. Thus, it may be that the proponents of prolonging the Iraq involvement feel they can get away with what amounts to defiance of their commander-in-chief.

In 1993, new President Bill Clinton got in trouble with the military hierarchy over gays in the military: the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Like Clinton, new President Obama is not particularly popular among the military brass, and defying their wishes on Iraqi withdrawal could be, or appear, parallel to Clinton overriding the military on gays. Clinton never really recovered from his early confrontation with the military, and Odierno et. al. may be calculating that President Obama may be reluctant to stir up a parallel hornet’s nest.

Will their strategy work? In the short term, it may well, and then we will see how long Obama’s memory is and how sharp his elbows are. If I were Ray Odierno, I think Iwould start keeping my opinions and expert analysis contrary to my boss’s beliefs to myself or start looking for a post-retirement job.

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Running Start in the Middle East

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Diplomacy, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama is showing he clearly is a man full of surprises. His first week in office has proceeded with breath-taking speed across the board. Some of it–executive orders on stem-call research and new ethics standards, for instance–were fairly predictable, as has been his jawboning and arm twisting on the economic stimulus package.

Where he caught most of us off-guard was in his appearance at the State Department the second day of his tenure. Being there rather than the Pentagon as a first foreign affairs stop had obvious symbolic significance for a State Department that was widely ignored for the last eight years, and the staffers could hardly contain their ebullience at the sight of the Commander-in-Chief on their turf. The visit also sent very strong and positive vibes throughout the system about the elevated place of Secretary Clinton in the new order. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is on the record approving the reassertiveness of State in the foreign policy process; in all likelihood, a whole lot of “purple suit” colonels on the Joint Staff have been muttering their displeasure at this turn of events.

The real surprise, and source of hope, was the President’s announcement of a major initiative toward the Middle East with his appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to head the effort toward reaching an accord between Israel and the Palestinians and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to head up efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both of these appointees are men of impeccable credentials and high stature; the fact that the President made this very public announcement on the second day in office elevates their importance in the Obama administration order of priority. President Obama is clearly serious about trying to do what his predecessors have been unable to do in Palestine/Israel and what has yet to be tried in Afghanistan and Pakistan: produce peace agreements to stabilize both areas.

Will their efforts succeed? It is, of course, too soon to tell, and past experience counsels caution. If either of these situations was easy to solve, they probably already would have been solved (even by the Bush administration). A few tentative comments are, however, possible.

The appointment of Mitchell changes the American face toward Israel and Palestine. For the last eight years, the Bush administration was the virtual shill of the Israeli government of the moment, meaning the Palestinians and their allies could not trust American efforts to bring about a balanced peace. Mitchell’s resume is broad and includes negotiation of the peace in Northern Ireland, making him a force to be reckoned with; the fact that his mother is Lebanese is likely to be a plus in reestablishing some sense of respect among the Islamic states. Israel can no longer count on the United States mimicking and promoting the Likud line. That in itself is a positive step if the goal is a durable peace–and particularly a last, desperate attempt at a two-state solution.

Although I am not privy to their deliberations, I would assume that the Likud supporters of Bibi Netanyahou must be less than ecstatic at this turn of events. With elections in Israel next month in which Netanyahou has been the presumptive favorite, the Likud advocacy of a Greater Israel–which operationally means populating more and more of the West Bank that is supposed to be the Palestinian state–is now in some jeopardy. As I have argued previously, a reversal of the settlement policy (contracting, not expanding the number of settlements and settlers) is a sine qua non for a two-state solution. Without it, the prospects are dead. Obama says he favors the two-state outcome: something has to give.

The appointment of Holbrooke is similarly momentous. Holbrooke is a very smart, skilled, and determined negotiator. He is not someone with whom one trifles without likely paying the price. While it is not certain how or where he may lead negotiations, one thing is absolutely clear. The sheer ego of Richard Holbrooke will insure that this is not a negotiation that will be allowed to slip into obscurity. Holbrooke has a well earned freputation for erascibility that may serve him very well in his current job. Whether it can lead to a reconciliation with the Pashtuns and Taliban against Al Qaeda (the ideal outcome) is open to question. Whether it will be relegated to the back burner is not; Holbrooke will not allow that to happen.

This is all exciting and unexpected territory for us all. Keep tuned.

Gaza and Asymmetrical Warfare

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2009 by whatafteriraq

A ceasefire has been announced in Gaza. For the moment, it seems to be holding. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is leaving, and the Gazans are sifting through the ruins, predictably finding more bodies. Has anybody really won anything in all this. Probably not, if one projects the outcome very far into the future.

Gaza is a clear example of modern warfare in action: a powerful, frustrated, conventional power facing an unconventional, rules-defying, but much weaker opponent. It is the classic scenario of what is called, since Donald Rumsfeld popularized the term, asymmetrical warfare. The essence of this approach to the ancient problem that an inferior force faces when confronting an overwhelmingly more powerful opponent is how to avoid defeat. For the superior force, it is how to achieve victory. For the inferior force, the first rule is to avoid fighting the way the more powerful opponent wants you to, because the more powerful force is assured success if you do. On the other hand, if you can change the rules, you may prevail by simply outlasting the opponent. The United States first learned this in Vietnam, and arguably should have learned it in Iraq and may eventually learn it in Afghanistan. The Israelis seem intent on not learning this lesson at all.

Although the dynamics of asymmetrical warfare (which I discuss in some length in When America Fights and National Security for a New Era) are complex, two lessons stand out that bear directly on the fighting over Gaza. One is a variation of Mohammed Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy; the other is the dilemma of success.

Ali’s rope a dope strategy involved allowing the opponent to pummel his arms and torso until his foe either thought he had weakened Ali or had worn himself out, at which point Ali would attack and put him away. The “rope” part of the analogy derived from the fact that Ali bounced off the ropes while the pummeling occurred; the “dope” of course was the opponent’s belief he was accomplishing something.

The analogy with Hamas in Gaza is not perfect, of course. Hamas and the Gazans absiorbed a pounding not because they wanted to, but because they had no choice. The Israeli military machine was much too powerful for Hamas to confront, and doing so would have been suicidal. Instead, they melted into the general population (another characteristic of modern asymmetrical war) and let the Israelis pound away, as the world looked on with increasing horror at the toll in civilian dead. When the Israelis finally stopped punching, Hamas was still standing. Outside the United States, the Israelis end up looking like blood-thirsty, baby-killing barbarians and Hamas manages almost looks better. Who is the “dope” here?

Being lured into this kind of situation illustrates the frustration of being the strong power. Israel has been the victim of deadly harassment by Hamas for some time and had become very frustrated by it. According to a New York Times analysis today (1/19/09), Israelis had adopted the Hebrew phrase “baal habayit hishtageya,” whic translates as “the boss has lost it” to describe their frustration. As one official explained, “The phrase means that our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion but will use all means we have to cause you such damage that you will think twice in the future.”

The problem is that this punishment may cause the attacked state to think twice in different ways than the attacker intends. As one Palestinian Gazan, described as a member of Fatah, put it, “But a guy whose child has just been killed doesn’t want peace. He wants war.” In this case, he wants Hamas.

This leads to the second problem, which is measuring success. For the opponents in asymmetrical warfare, one of the asymmetries is that success–or victory–has different meanings for the two sides. For Israel, the only real sense of victory meant  destroying Hamas and thus its continued attacks on Israel. Nothing short of ending those attacks constitutes victory–the Israelis could only win by winning. Hamas, on the other hand, could not possibly defeat the Israelis, but it could survive their onslaught and return to fight another day–Hamas won by not losing.

So who won? In the very short run, Israel can probably argue success, because Hamas attacks will probably not resume in earnest for awhile. The Israelis expect a few token rocket attacks so Hamas can demonstrate its resilience, but not much more. At the same time, Hamas has survived, and the victims of the attacks will undoubtedly provide it with new recruits who hate Israel at least as much as their fallen comrades did. In the end, nothing will have changed much.

All this suggests the enormous frustrations of modern asymmetrical warfare. The Israelis reaction to Hamas was understandable, but in terms of accomplishing any meaningful long-term goals, it was arguably stupid as well. While I do not pretend to know the secret to creating a lasting peace between Hamas and the Israelis, I am pretty sure that beating Hamas to death will not work for the Israelis. Maybe they should try something else, like honest negotiations and reversing the Israeli populating ot the West Bank. Just a thought.

Is Afghanistan Obama’s Iraq?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , , on January 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

This is, of course, an unpleasant question whose timing may appear to be trying to rain on the inaugural parade, but it must be asked anyway. The immediate impetus for so doing is the interview that Admiral Michael Mullen, the current (and 17th) Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff had with the news magazine show “60 Minutes” last night, in which the prospect was broached.

Admiral Mullen was asked to summarize the situation in Afghanistan. He repeated his assertion that currently the United States is losing the conflict, a position he has previously taken publicly. When asked if the addition of 30,000 additional American troops would change the situation and help lead to “victory” (carefully undefined), his response was equivocal. On one hand, he said the additions would help, but he did not go so far as to say the added troops (60,000 Americans total added to about 30,000 from other NATO countries) would be decisive. He DID say, however, that they would not be decisive unless the pipeline that was producing additional enemy combatants in Pakistan was not cut off. If that flow is not stopped, he suggested additional forces could not succeed; if the flow is stopped, they might succeed. No guarantees.

This assessment should give pause to incoming President Obama and the advisors who are asking him to adopt the war. Obama himself has made a public record of support for the effort in arguing that Afghanistan is more important than Iraq (arguably true) and that the failure to be successful in Afghanistan is the result of diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. That assertion is no more than partially true. Making Afghanistan the second fiddle certainly has kept the United States from a maximum effort there. At the same time, that neglect may have kept the U.S. from overcommitting to an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan that added American forces may create anyway.

There are at least three reasons for a pessimistic assessment, two of which have already been raised in this space. One is the question of scale. After the new deployment, there will be about 90,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the Soviets had over 150,000 forces there, and they failed to pacify a defiant country. How many would it take? Presumably a very large number–more than the U.S. or its allies is likely to commit.

Second, it is not clear that the U.S. can prevail under any circumstances. The Afghans, after all, are very good at repelling foreign invaders. In fact, it may the one thing they are very excellent at, as the British and Russians have most recently learned from direct experience. One of the major purposes of education, it is said, is to learn vicariously rather than directly from the lessons and mistakes of others. Is the United States so ineducable that it must learn this painful lesson on its own? Will Obama be the victim of this process?

Third, Mullen’s assessment suggests the key to having a chance in Afghanistan is to shut off the flow of troops trained in Pakistan. Who is going to do the dual tasks–shutting down training facilities and rounding up the troops they produce–implied? The Pakistan military almost certainly cannot do so. If required to, they will fail, and the result will be political turmoil: rebellion in the FATA among the Pashtuns who live there, and discontent in the rest of Pakistan over the army’s failure. The Army, in addition, is unlikely to be very enthused about being forced into a mission for which it knows it is ill-suited. If the Paks can’t do the job, who will? Will the United States have to invade? Now there is a truly scary prospect.

What this says, if one takes Mullen at his word, is that the only way possibly–but just possibly–to materially improve the situation in Afghanistan is to make the situation measurably worse in Pakistan. Which country is more important to the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan? Clearly, the answer is not Afghanistan. Hasn’t someone who whispers to the new president not pointed this out? If not, President Obama is, to revive an old phrase, “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

The Obama ascendancy is being viewed by many (myself included) with great hope and enthusiasm. Afghanistan, however, represents a very large and dark cloud hanging over the parade. The last thing that the new president wants–or should want–is for Afghanistan to become “Mr. Obama’s War.” Instead of stoking the fires with more troops, the new Obama team should be looking for ways to disengage militarily from Afghanistan, not seeing how to deepen an unwinnable conflict. That effort should be accompanied by an increasingly furtive drive to negotiate withe the parties, which means the less radical elements of the Pashtuns and Taliban, to find a modus vivendi with which the United States can live: an Afghanistan that does not harbor Al Qaeda but which decides for itself who and how it will be ruled. That is the most that the United States can realistically hope for in this situation, and it is not an outcome that can be delivered by the American military. No matter how hard and well the military tries, all it can do is to produce in Afghanistan another Iraq with Obama’s name on it.

The Crisis beyond Gaza

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The Israeli assault against Gaza grinds on. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has put dusty boots on the ground (it doesn’t rain enough for them to be muddy), and the bombing and shelling by both sides continue. Civilians, as is usually the case in this part of the world, bear the brunt of the suffering. In the end, it will end, and nothing appreciable will have been accomplished. Hamas will not be destroyed, and the Palestinians will still not have their demands met. Some things seem never to change.

The crisis in Gaza is, however, linked to the broader crisis in the Middle East by its link to upcoming elections in Israel in February. The election, in essence, matches the Kadima party and its major candidate, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, against the Likud psrty led by superhawk Benjamin Netanyahou. The outcome could determine if there is any remaining likelihood of peace in the region for the foreseeable future.

According to a Newsweek analysis in this week’s edition, Likud is likely to prevail. The Likud program, with Natanyahou as its spokesperosn, is decidedly hard line. Among its most strident positions is its refusual to shut down, reverse, or even slow the process of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. As reported in the space previously, there are already 240,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank living on land that would be returned to the Palestinians under a territorial settlement in which Israeli returned to its 1967 borders (the figure does not include Israelis living in suburbs of Jerusalem that are also arguably part of Palestine). Netanyahou not only would not stop or reverse the process of settlement of the “greater Israel.” He would accelerate it. All hope for a peace settlement would disappear in the process. In the long run, Israel will lose if this occurs, because it precludes the possibility–growing dimmer by the day–of a two-state solution (an independent Israel and Palestine). The alternatives are continued Israeli occupation (which breeds insurrection and thus periodic Israeli actions like Gaza) or a single state of Israel/Palestine in which Israel would either have to operate an apartheid system of denying political rights to the Palestinians or be in the minority. This would not happen instantly, but it would occur in the long run. Neither is a happy outcome for the Israelis. If they elect Natanyahou, they will demonstrate that they either do not understand this or prefer their moment in the sun followed by apartheid rule in the longer haul.

These are not happy prospects. The new Obama administration inherits a policy that in essence says, “Whatever Israel wants is what we want.” The problem is that the Israelis may want something that is bad for them in the long run. About half of the Israelis understnad this, but they may not prevail in February. If they do not and Likud wins, the Obama team will face a nasty set of alternatives. Do we accede to an Israeli policy of continued settlements that undercuts the prospects of peace but assuages American and some Israeli public opinion, or do we administer a little “tough love” to the Israelis and tell them they are on their own if they continue down the road to more settlements and less peace? More in the next posting.

Gaza and the Face of Modern War

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace on January 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

According to the New York Times, the United Nations estimates between 320 and 390 people have been killed in ongoing Israeli air raids in Gaza, some percentage of whom are civilians. In the antiseptic language of military affairs, they are “collateral damage,” which means their deaths were unintended but just happened as part of the normal course of war.

Civilians innocent of anything other than being in the middle of a war zone at the wrong time have always been among the victims of warfare, of course. Conventions on warfare (e.g. the Geneva Accords) intone that purposely targeting and, in effect, executing civilians is a war crime, and when that targeting is egregiously obvious (e.g. the Holocaust, the Rwandan rampage, Darfur), charges of war crimes are brought and sometimes adjudicated and the guilty punished. When, however, the intent is not so obvious and those committing the acts that lead to civilian deaths can argue collateral damage witrh some plausibility, the matter becomes more ambiguous and the likelihood that wear crimes will be alleged decrease. This is, of course, of far greater confort to the perpetrators than it is to the victims, who are eqaully dead if their demises were on purpose or not.

The bombing of Gaza is the most recent vivid example of this aspect of modern war.  The degree to which non-combatants are killed in warfare has been steadily rising since the beginning of the twentieth century (at least): in World War I, for instance, less than one in five of those killed was a non-combatant; in contemporary internal (civil) wars, as many as nine in ten victims are civilians.

The airplane has made attacking and killing people without specifically intending to slaughter the innocent more plausible and impersonal. One of the virtues that the scions of airpower extolled when airpower theory was being developed is the ability of airplanes to bypass the battlefield by flying over it and attacking the enemy’s “vital centers” directly. In antiseptic terms, this was meant to emphasize attacking the ability of societies to make wars by destroying weapons and munitions plants or petrochemical plants, for instance. Unfortunately, many of these “military” targets are located  in urban areas where non-combatants live. When military targets are bombed from the air, some of them miss and kill civilians. Oops! Collateral damage!

Contemporary uses of airpower have been intended to reduce collateral damage by making bombing sorties much more accurate and thus limiting the amount of collateral damage. The term “surgical” is often used to suggest that enemy military targets in populated areas can be excised without damaging or detroying surrounding elements of the environment like innocent civilians. This is the argument made by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also the argument being made by the Israelis in Gaza.

The problem is that no matter how hard one tries, bombing will never be so “surgical” that it eliminates collateral damage altogether, and that when innocents are inadvertently murdered in the process, bad consequences follow for the bombers. One such bad consequence is that the victims are inflamed by the results, increasing their hatred of the bombers and thus their will to continue to resist. That dynamic is apparently occurring in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Iraq the United States is bombing, and it is happening in Gaza. Another adverse consequence is that international opinion is unfavorably affected by the killing of innocents (imagine that!). Israel, as usual, is being pummeled internationally for its efforts and is stoically defending itself by saying, in effect, “accidents happen.”  That defense does not play well around the world.

Those who are the intended targets of modern war understand these dynamics and take advantage of them. Hamas, for instance, imbeds itself in the highly dense urban areas of Gaza (one of the most densely populated places on the earth) because it knows the only way Israel can attack it is to risk–even guaranteee-collateral damage. The Israelis argue it is worth the cost; most outsiders are not so sure or disagree.

 Israel’s enemies have it over a barrel because of this dynamic. Israel may or may not be justified in attacking Hamas over ceasefire violations or terrorist rocket and mortar launchings, but its available means of retaliation–the bombings of Gaza–are almost guaranteed to defeat its purposes. International opinion has, predictably, turned against Israel as the collateral damage increases, and the the ever higher piles of body-strewn rubble will likely increase, rather than decrease, support for Hamas and opposition to Israel in Gaza. Relentless electronic coverage of the spectacle only amplifies the effect. This is truly a lose-lose situation for the Israelis.

Given the history of Israel as a “garrison society” besieged by its enemies and having fought multiple times for its existence over the past 60 years, you would think the Israelis would have thought through the consequences of what they are doing, but apparently they have not.  The Israelis continue to adhere to the conventional view that you can beat your enemies into submission, but that position is not so clearly true in modern warfare. It is especially true when the issue of collateral damage raises its head.