Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Middle Path part two: Afghanistan and Iraq

       In the last post, I discussed the U.S. military strategy in Vietnam. Now I will discuss U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  Since the U.S. was not engaged in any major wars for several decades(Persian Gulf War lasted for less than a year), the next example of this predicament is the post 9/11 Afghan War. After 9/11 President George W. Bush had two extremes he could have chosen: a massive full scale invasion to permanently removed the Taliban and then rebuild the country, or not get involved at all. The first would have helped secure Afghanistan, the later avoid a very costly war. Instead, Bush opted for a middle path: a not so full scale invasion of merely 2,500 troops in the first few months when it was removed. The Taliban was removed, but not enough troops were kept to keep the country stable, only 20,000 by 2006, in part because of the U.S.'s preoccupation of Iraq.  This allowed the Taliban to resurge, by 2006 threatening large parts of the southern portion of the country. The U.S. responded, but not with a large troop presence, as by 2009 there were only 34,400 troops in the country. Another key decision was made when Obama took office. He could have chosen a large and sustained troop presence in order to eliminate the Taliban, or he could have withdrawn all troops and saved 2415 lives(deaths from Jan 2009-present) and about 800 billion dollars. Instead, he opted for a middle path: a somewhat large and not very sustained troop presence. The President  responded with a surge in troop numbers, to similar to the one in Iraq. By mid-2010 there were about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and it stayed this way until mid-2011. The country was somewhat stabilized, with the Afghan government gaining control and the Taliban steadily loosing it. However, after this, troop levels began to decline. With the decline in troops, violence began to steadily rise. In September 2014, there was a sucessful transfer of power in the civilian government. In October 2014 the U.S. ended its combat role in the country. Long term, the U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in the country. However, its is unclear if such a small troop presence can keep together an area with such a long history of falling apart. Although progress has been made, this troop presence is less than half the size of that of the U.S. during the Taliban revival in 2006. I expect that the middle path will have failed again, and that American blood and Treasure will have been spent for a country that will not stay together, let alone have a semi-functional government.

     The Iraq war started on March 20, 2003 after President George W. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein, the Sunni dictator of the mostly Shia Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction(WMD). Years of sanctions against Saddam had seemingly failed to deter his nuclear program. The U.S. was unable to convince many countries to join, but formed a "collation of the willing." On March 20, 2003 a huge force was sent, up to 192,000 U.S. troops, was sent to defeat Saddam, along with tens of thousands of troops from the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, Britain, and help from Australia and Poland. On April 10th, less than one month after the initial invasion, Bagdad was taken and the regime fell. Saddam escaped and went into hiding for a few years, but his rule was over. WMDs were found, but not the kind America had in mind during the invasion. Instead of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons were found. While not necessary considered WMDS at the time, they would later by ruled so by the State Department. Never the less, the main reason the U.S. gave for the invasion proved misleading.

The President declared victory, but the job proved far from finished. Over the next two years, troop levels would hover around 150,000, and in 2005 elections occurred for most of the Iraqi government. The region of Kurdistan gained more independence, but the Sunnis were in large part left out of the newly formed government. Had the U.S. kept troop levels as high and kept a large influence in the Iraq government to include Sunnis, the disaster of the next few years could have been avoided. Had the U.S. left all together, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives could have been saved. Instead the President Bush choose a middle path, staying in Iraq, but with somewhat diminished troop levels and not much control over the Iraqi government. That same year saw an escalation in violence, which would turn to large scale sectarian violence in 2006. That same year, Shia leader Nouri al-Maliki was elected Prime Minister. In 2007, a new strategy was implemented, the surge, led by General David Petraeus, who replaced General George Casey to be in command of all American troops in Iraq. A strategy of including Sunni was implemented. The Sahwa, a U.S. employed Sunni militia, was expanded. Awakening council was formed in September 2006 to counter Al-Quida in Anabar province, a sparsely population Sunni dominated in Western Iraq. Their influence was expanded in 2007, and Al-Quida in Iraq was largely dismantled. The situation somewhat stabilized, enough for the U.S. to consider an exit. In April of 2008, Petraeus testified in congress not to withdraw troops. However, the U.S. government, war weary, went against his advice. This was another crucial mistake. An immediate withdrawal would have saved billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. In November 2008, a pact was signed to withdraw all U.S. troops by the the end of 2011. Staying longer may have extended the relative peace and helped build a better foundation for the new Iraq. President Obama campaigned on leaving Iraq, and by 2011 this was completed. No residual force was left because the U.S. failed to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government. The country quickly began to unravel, with Kurds being increasingly autonomous and the government losing control in parts of the North of the country. Its exclusion of the Sunnis in politics after the 2010 Iraq elections, the dismantling of the Sahwa and the exclusion of the Sunnis in the military, and closer ties with Iran, the major Shia power in the region, increased strains with the large Sunni minority in Iraq. Oil production rising slower than expected hurt the economy. Meanwhile, ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) was taking control of large parts of eastern Syria, and its power rapidly rising in land, money, and troops. The terrorists organization preached a radical version of Islam, one that proved attractive to many  disgruntled Sunnis in Syria fighting against a Alawite, a Shia offshoot, government. By June 2014, Iraq was weak and divided, and any significant military power could cause it to completely fall apart.

Overall, the Iraq war was a failure. Saddam was removed, but America's main reason for invading was true only on a technicality. The war cost over 2 trillion dollars, and the country quickly splintered. Ironically, while Bush thought Saddam was a disrupting force, he was actually keeping the country together. The middle path proved disastrous, failing in either keeping the country together or avoiding a long and expensive war. The latter part of the war shows that making military decisions against the advice of your generals and in spite of the conditions on the ground is a often a bad idea (see Vietnam post). The three wars I discussed, the three largest wars since the 1960, show that America has an unfortunate habit of entering wars without a plan for long term success, failing to provide enough resources in to ensure success, lingering in a half commitment to war, and then quitting the war years later at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.  There will unfortunately be many opportunities in the future for the U.S. to become entangled in military conflicts, particularly in the very unstable Middle East.  Hopefully, our leaders will be able to learn from past mistakes and only intervene when they are willing to make a full commitment to war.  If the conflict is not worth a full commitment of our military, then we should not put our military in harms way.  If the conflict is worth the full commitment of our military, then we should do so because  our military will have a much better chance of success.










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