Saturday, October 04, 2014

The week in non-war war

Our infallible generals experience only victory after victory. That's been true since Vietnam, and it's no doubt going to remain true throughout President Obama latest war for humanitarian values and to stop The Terrorists.

How the many conflicts since the Vietnam War so often seem to end up in awful messes remains something of a mystery.

Michael Prothero reports in Islamic State reportedly on Baghdad’s outskirts after week of victories McClatchy Newspapers 09/03/2014 that the air war against ISIS isn't yet showing unambiguous glorious success for Our Side:

The Islamic State and its tribal allies have dominated Anbar since a surprise offensive last December, but this week’s push was particularly worrisome, because for the first time this year Islamist insurgents were reported to have become a major presence in Abu Ghraib, the last Anbar town on the outskirts of the capital. ...

A diplomat in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, said an Islamic State presence in Abu Ghraib would put Baghdad International Airport within artillery range of the militants.

“We know they have captured substantial numbers of 155 mm howitzers,” said the diplomat, whose country is participating in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. The diplomat spoke only on the condition of anonymity, lacking permission to brief the news media. “These have a range of about (20 miles) and if they are able to hold territory in Abu Ghraib then the concern they can shell and ultimately close BIAP becomes a grave concern.”

The airport is a key lifeline for Western embassies and holds a joint operations center staffed by U.S. military advisers.

Anbar is a predominantly Sunni Muslim province that remains deeply suspicious of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the Islamic State has pressed to expand its control there since last winter’s initial offensive. In the past week, the militants have scored a string of other victories in the province.
Cenk Uygur reports for The Young Turks lets us know that at least some people are benefiting from the new Non-War War, Profits From Syrian Airstrikes Will Churn Your Stomach 10/02/2014:

As was the case at the start of the Cheney-Bush chapter of the Iraq War, McClatchy and Patrick Cockburn of The Independent continue to be prime sources for decent news from the area. Cockburn's recent pieces have included:

As the UK prepares for another war in Iraq, is its strategy any more coherent than in 2003? 09/25/2014. Here he reminds us of the parallels of the current Non-War War to the non-war in Libya three years ago:

In Libya, what was sold to the public as a humanitarian bid by Nato forces to protect the people of Benghazi from Muammar Gaddafi, rapidly escalated into a successful effort to overthrow the Libyan leader. The result three years on is that Libya is in permanent chaos with predatory militias reducing their country to ruins as they fight each other for power.

Whatever the original intentions of Britain and the US, their armed intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 has been to produce devastating conflicts that have not ended.

And he also reports on the most recent pressure on Baghdad in Isis an hour away from Baghdad - with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack 09/30/2014:

Three and a half months since the Iraqi army was spectacularly routed in northern Iraq by a far inferior force of Isis fighters, it is still seeing bases overrun because it fails to supply them with ammunition, food and water. The selection of a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to replace Nouri al-Maliki last month was supposed to introduce a more conciliatory government that would appeal to Iraq’s Sunni minority from which Isis draws its support.

Mr Abadi promised to end the random bombardment of Sunni civilians, but Fallujah has been shelled for six out of seven days, with 28 killed and 117 injured. Despite the military crisis, the government has still not been able to gets its choice for the two top security jobs, theDefence Minister and Interior Minister, through parliament.
As he describes there, one major contributor to this sad situation is the massive corruption that was at least a much a by-product of the Cheney-Bush phase of the Iraq War as it was of the Vietnam War in South Vietnam.

There are some constants in America's "small wars."

Even one of the presumed bright spots for this intervention isn't looking so bright at the moment:

The military reputation of the Kurdish soldiers, the Peshmerga, has taken a battering since their defeat in Sinjar in August where its troops fled as fast as the Iraqi army had done earlier. The Peshmerga have not done much fighting since 1991, except with each other during the Kurdish civil wars, and even in the 1980s their speciality was rural guerrilla warfare, wearing the enemy down with pinprick attacks by 15 to 20 fighters.

Before the deployment of US air power, Isis in Iraq used motorised columns with 80 to 100 men which would launch surprise attacks.

With the possibility of US air strikes, this kind of highly mobile warfare is no longer feasible without taking heavy losses, But Isis has shown itself to be highly adaptable and is still able to operate effectively despite US intervention. [my emphasis]
The military mainstay of the Iraqi central government is not the official army, but sectarian militias: "The main military arm of the Baghdad government will remain Iranian-backed Shia militias, of which the Sunni population is terrified."

Hugo Chávez and Eva Perón weren't the only ones thinking that partisan militias might be needed to provide effective military support to an existing regime.

Digby has an interesting pair of posts focusing on two distinct features of Obama's Non-War War in Syria and Iraq.

In Who ya gonna call? (We ain't afraid 'o no terrorists) 09/29/2014:

Despite the authentic thrill of electing the first African American president, I was never a big believer in President Obama's liberalism. He always struck me as a slightly left of center, middle of the road guy whose paeans to "hope" and "change" in 2008 were meaningless slogans that did not add up to the progressive utopia so many assumed. I was hostile from the beginning to his persistence in believing he could transcend partisanship and his willingness to strike "grand bargains." I thought his unwillingness to pursue justice in the torture cases and his zeal to prosecute a covert war were indefensible.

But I always thought he was at least sensible in his rhetoric when it came to geo-politics and America's place in the world. He certainly didn't seem eager to throw his big, swinging, American hegemony all over the place. Unfortunately, that's changed. This administration is now employing the worst Hollywood dialog we've seen since Bush was babbling about "smokin' 'em outta their caves" and Cheney was droning on about torture being a "no-brainer."
But, as she illustrates with Obama quotes on the Non-War War Against ISIS, the Greatest Threat We've Ever Faced Ever, its felt the last couple of weeks like most of the remaining bottom falling out of hope for what's left of Obama's Presidency.

I'm also kind of gobsmacked by the full-on fear-mongering from the Administration over ISIS.

And yet, it's not the case that Obama is just continuing the Cheney-Bush Administration approach, either. In They won't be dissed, Mr President 09/30/2014, she writes:

I still believe that Obama was reluctant to get into this.(And yes, I know that makes me a naive Obamabot, blah, blah,blah.) Say what you will about him but he has not been one to get all excited about war plans. (He's more of a covert, clandestine kind of guy.) But, as with all presidents regardless of their party, once the war machine gears start moving there's only so much you can do. And then the playbook clearly requires that you start flagwaving and saying a bunch of jingoistic nonsense. It doesn't strike me as particularly natural for Obama so I suspect he said what he said about the intelligence underestimating the threat of ISIS simply because the crap he was spewing was so foreign to him.

Seriously, he's got many flaws as I've endlessly documented on this blog. But being a jigoistic fool isn't usually one of them.
I shared your feeling in your post from yesterday about how the ISIS intervention felt like most of the remaining bottom falling out of hope for what's left of Obama's Presidency. And I'm kind of gobsmacked by the full-on fear-mongerering from the Administration.

But I also think you're right that he's been cautious, certainly more cautious than our chronic warmongers and Chicken Littles. What Obama's doing now looks to me like an attempt to revive the Clinton Administration's approach to war: intervene a lot but rely on bombing (Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq) and keep American soldiers out of combat as much as feasible, on the theory that the public will accept wars where American casualties are minimal. They even tried to not call the Kosovo War a war, just like Obama's new non-war war.

But the successes were overblown. The Bosnia bombing also featured the Crotian army stopping Serbia's, while also indulging in the habitual ethnic-cleaning and general savagery of the Balkan Wars. The bombing in Kosovo didn't actually stop Serbia's ethnic cleansing against the Kosovar Albanians. Serbia didn't capitulate until the KLA Kosovar rebel group started getting seriously engaged and until Milosevic was convinced a NATO ground campaign was soon to come. And the fairly massive Iraq bombing Clinton did in 1998-99 normalized the idea of war with Iraq and Saddam as New Hitler.

But lots has happened over there since then. I'm not confident that Obama can find the equivalent of the Croatian Army or the KLA soon enough to keep this looking like another glorious Success for the next two years.

A lot about the initial stages of Obama's Non-War War reminds me of the Kosovo War of 1999 during the Clinton Administration.

The emphasis on the importance of a "coalition" to adorn what is an American-driven military effort. As Eliot Cohen writes:

Kosovo marked a departure ... in that here, to an even greater extent than in the Gulf War, the maintenance of a coalition became something of an object in itself. In Operation Allied Force, for the first time, coalitional concerns intruded upon the strategy and operational concepts of the war. ...

In fact, one might say that American strategy now has a coalitional habit. When General [Charles] Wald continued - "I will tell you that as we go down this campaign, the mission that's been given to General [Wesley] Clark has been given by 19 nations to execute. That's who we answer to. " - he spoke with an air of irritated but unquestioning acceptance. Politicians and military planners alike are uncomfortable with the prospect of going to war without allies. On occasion they provide some military support that the United States requires - basing, peacekeeping, a few military specialties like minesweeping, or a greater tolerance for risk and loss (particularly true of the British, and to some extent the French). By and large, however, the quest for coalition partners stems primarily from a desire for political legitimacy abroad and at home. This yearning stems as well from years of institutionalized coalition building and operations-NATO may have outlived its original purpose of sheltering Europe from a Soviet onslaught, but for half a century now it has taught American officers to work with foreign militaries. What is customary has become desirable; to this extent, the decades of mobilization during the Cold War had the effect on the American military mind that a hot war would. It created an instinct to work with allies, whether or not doing so was strictly necessary or even beneficial. The coalitional impulse received further reinforcement from the desire to legitimize the use of force. A multinational operation allows Americans and others to pretend that, say, keeping Iraq down is not a constabulary act of American imperial will, but a mere discharge of the mandate of the United Nations. Hypocrisy, perhaps, but humbug has its place in the conduct of foreign policy. [my emphasis] ("Kosovo and the New American Way of War" in War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age; Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen, eds.;2001; pp. 51-2)
The Kosovo War also featured an elaborate pretension that it wasn't really a war at all, much like Obama Administration presenting the new Iraq-Syria interventionas as a non-war. Cohen also writes of "the peculiar difficulty Americans now have in speaking frankly about war" from the perspective of 2001 pre-9/11:

The old way of war may have been brutal, but at least it was honest. It is symbolic, perhaps, of a larger change in how the countries of the West now think about conflict that Secretary General Javier Solana could declare, while announcing the bombing of Serbia: "Let me be clear: NATO is not waging war against Yugoslavia." Some amount of disingenuousness characterizes most war. But there is something more than usually disheartening in the quibbles, evasions, and semantic contortions that pervaded the Kosovo operation - in which war was not war, in which an absence of results signified progress, and in which an utterly implausible objective was declared a precise and achievable "end state." Perhaps Western leaders, including Americans, have concluded that waging war is a subject that no longer merits serious consideration. If so, they are making a grave mistake. [my emphasis] (p. 61)
Another aspect of the Kosovo War that is highly relevant to the present situation is the widely-held belief that it was "won" by air power alone. The immense faith in air power extend far beyond the Air Force to the Clinton and Obama Administrations who hoped that it would make war effective, quick and largely removed from public and Congressional criticism.

Two additional columns by Patrick Cockburn from The Independent explain the particulars of why that assumption is so problematic in Iraq and Syria: Air strikes will not beat Isis, but on the ground it’s hard to tell friend from foe 09/24/2014; Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis 09/28/2014.

This is a politically tricky point. Antiwar critics don't want to see an escalation to using US ground troops in direct combat. Because we would like to see the Obama Administration back off the direct participation, as unlikely as that may be in the terms that the Beltway Village recognizes as practical. For the Villagers and professional warmongers like Huckleberry Graham and the bold Maverick McCain, if air war is insufficient, then American ground troops are the only practical and "credible" answer. As he explains in the 09/28/2014 piece:

... Isis is a guerrilla army with long experience of being bombed by the American, Iraqi and Syrian air forces. It is worth recalling that the US had 150,000 soldiers in Iraq and an air armada overhead at the height of its intervention in Iraq in 2007 and still failed to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni resistance groups. There is no reason it should be any different this time round.
Also, as Cockburn reports, Turkey's conflict with the Kurds is a significant complicating factor in the US intervention.

Jeremy Scahill reminds us of the Sisyphian side of our foreign policy (Jeremy Scahill on Obama’s Orwellian War in Iraq: We Created the Very Threat We Claim to be Fighting Democracy Now 10/03/2014):

You know, the Obama administration, in engaging in this policy, is continuing a Bush administration outcome of the decision to invade Iraq. And that is, they’re empowering the very threat that they claim to be fighting. Who is ISIS? What is this group made up of? Is it just people that are radical Islamists that want to behead American journalists? No. One of the top—and this almost is never mentioned in corporate media coverage of this—one of the top military commanders of ISIS is a man named Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri al-Takriti. Who is Izzat Ibrahim? Izzat Ibrahim is the leading Baathist, who was on the deck of cards, that the United States has not captured. He was one of Saddam Hussein’s top military commanders. He was not just some ragamuffin Baathist. He actually was a hardcore general in the Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War, and he was a secular Baathist.

Why is he fighting with ISIS? Well, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, and then he put Paul Bremer, who was a radical neocon ideologue who had cut his teeth working for Henry Kissinger—when Paul Bremer was put in charge of the occupation of Iraq, one of the first things he did was to fire 250,000 Iraqi soldiers simply because they were members of the Baath Party. As one senior U.S. official at the time said, it was the day we made a quarter of a million enemies in Iraq. All of these Baathists have been jerked around by the United States, and the Sunnis in western Iraq, jerked around by the United States for a very long time. There was the period of the so-called surge, where the U.S. actually paid Sunnis not to kill the United States, you know, U.S. soldiers. And so, but then the U.S. turned around and put in power a Shiite-led government under Nouri al-Maliki that effectively operated a network of death squads that systematically attacked Sunnis. [my emphasis]
And that sectarian distrust is one of the main barriers now to achieving the aims the Obama Administration has set for the Non-War War.

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