Thursday, October 15, 2015

Prolonging the Afghanistan War and repeating old failures

The announcement that the Obama Administration is intervening militarily in Cameroon was bad. This is far worse: Michael Pizzi, Obama scraps Afghan troop withdrawal, passing war on to next president Aljazeera America 10/15/2015. Pizzi reports:

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced the U.S. will scrap its plan for a rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 and will instead maintain a force of thousands in the country to assist with an increasingly fragile security situation, indefinitely prolonging a military engagement he was once eager to end. ...

The new plan, which follows months of deliberations among Obama, military leaders and the Afghan government, will leave the current U.S. force of 9,800 in Afghanistan through 2016 and a residual force of 5,500 until he leaves office in 2017. Stationed at four bases across the country, the troops will carry on their dual missions in Afghanistan: counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and the country’s upstart ISIL franchise and training and advising the Afghan military in its fight against the Taliban.
What could possibly go wrong?

I wonder what the supposed presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan means. This was the first I've heard of it.

This is already a bad omen: "Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who accused Obama of pursuing a 'politically motivated withdrawal' in Afghanistan, said Thursday that he was 'pleased' the president was reconsidering the rapid drawdown."

John McCain approves. This is definitely a grim portent.

Corey Dickstein and Josh Smith reports the story for Stars and Stripes, Obama to keep 5,500 American troops in Afghanistan into 2017 10/15/2015:

The Afghan forces progress has been slower than the U.S. had hoped when it ended the American role in combat operations at the end of last year.

Obama said the Afghans, who now have sole responsibility for the security of their country, will benefit from the continued presence of U.S. advisers “this fighting season and into next fighting season.”
It's a good time to pay attention to Andrew Bacevich's reflections of the US record on training local forces in situations like Vietnam and Afghanistan, omgram: Andrew Bacevich, Vietnamization 2.0 TomDispatch 10/13/2015. Nick Turse observes in an introduction to Bacevich's article:

After the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in occupied Iraq, took a bold step. He dissolved Iraq’s military, deciding to replace Saddam’s 350,000-man army with a lightly-armed border protection force that would start with 12,000 troops and eventually peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by various police and civil defense forces.

Bremer’s best-laid plans imploded as an insurgency blossomed from the roiling mass of well-trained Iraqi military veterans he had ushered to the unemployment line and a civil war soon wracked the country. A bloodbath ensued and never ended, even as the U.S. surged in more troops and pumped in tens of billions of dollars to build what eventually became the 930,000-man strong Iraqi security forces. (That’s not much smaller than the South Vietnamese Army the U.S. built up in the late 1960s!) Along the way, there was plenty of progress. “Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2005. “You know, the one thing -- the one thing we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta six years later. “And I think that's a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country.”

And yet by 2014, the Iraqi military had (and was paying) more ghost soldiers -- troops who existed only on paper -- than the number of real soldiers Bremer had envisioned to secure the whole country back in 2003. As it happened, Iraq was anything but secure. Today, it’s a half-failed state, riven by sectarian strife, and has lost a significant portion of its territory to an extremist group incubated in U.S. prison camps. The country is now far worse off than the one the U.S. invaded in 2003.
Bacevich's article itself is titled, "On Building Armies (and Watching Them Fail): Why Washington Can’t “Stand Up” Foreign Militaries." Bacevich recalls the Vietnam War, which provided a model for the current stages of failure of the American interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq:

The United States had, of course, attempted this approach once before, with unhappy results. This was in Vietnam. There, efforts to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces intent on unifying their divided country had exhausted both the U.S. military and the patience of the American people. Responding to the logic of events, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a tacitly agreed upon fallback position. As the prospects of American forces successfully eliminating threats to South Vietnamese security faded, the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves became priority number one.

Dubbed “Vietnamization,” this enterprise ended in abject failure with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet that failure raised important questions to which members of the national security elite might have attended: Given a weak state with dubious legitimacy, how feasible is it to expect outsiders to invest indigenous forces with genuine fighting power? How do differences in culture or history or religion affect the prospects for doing so? Can skill ever make up for a deficit of will? Can hardware replace cohesion? Above all, if tasked with giving some version of Vietnamization another go, what did U.S. forces need to do differently to ensure a different result?

At the time, with general officers and civilian officials more inclined to forget Vietnam than contemplate its implications, these questions attracted little attention. Instead, military professionals devoted themselves to gearing up for the next fight, which they resolved would be different. No more Vietnams -- and therefore no more Vietnamization.

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