So, Sunday afternoon it was a long chat with the Director of Theater Warfare Studies at the Army War College in Carlisle, not far from Gettysburg. He decides on all the courses – and teaches one or two of them – the guy who decides on all the seminars and guest speakers and whatnot. He knows a few things. After West Point, it was tank warfare in Kuwait when we threw Saddam out of there, then that posting to Istanbul, to liaise, as they say, then this command and that stateside, mixed with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – operational planning in the end, with our NATO partners in Kabul – and then a stint at the Pentagon. We do talk now and then, sometimes about Erdogan and Turkey – he’s fluent in Turkish and can explain how all the Kurdish subgroups are quite different and how the legacy of Ataturk is now in shambles – but more often we talk about hard power and soft power and national interests – and this was one of those times.
It’s complicated. The Kurds in the north are talking about splitting off from Iraq and forming their own country – after all we did to get a unified Iraq up and running again – and no one knows how that would work. No one knows how they’d ally with other regional Kurdish groups, some of which want to split from Turkey, some of which are full of bad folks – real, not imagined, terrorists. Turkey is pissed off. And how does this relate to the Sunni-Shiite civil war in the rest of Iraq? Some of the Kurds are Sunni, and some, if not most, are Shiites. Hell, some of them may be Buddhists, or Mormons. The Kurds are an ethnic group. Religion is secondary – and the Iraqi Kurds are our best fighters against ISIS – which could destroy the new Iraq – which they want to leave. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?
Meanwhile, we’re about to clear ISIS out of Mosel, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. Those Sunni assholes will soon be gone. The Kurdish peshmerga will take care of the guys in Syria and Iraq military will take care of the other guys in Iraq, with our help – but of course Iraq is a Shiite nation now. Saddam Hussein was Sunni – even if the original Sunni assholes, al-Qaeda, hated him, because he was too secular. We got rid of Saddam Hussein but we have asked the current Iraqi government to include some Sunnis in their government now – just a few, please, to create something like a unified Iraq. They’re not all Saddam Hussein.
The current Iraqi government shrugs, and they’ve invited other Shiites in to help clear out the Sunni menace. Iran’s elite Quds Force, a Special Forces branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has been fighting alongside the Iraqi military, in Iraq, fighting against the bad guys, kind of for us – kind of with us. Iran did help us after 9/11 – but we still decided they were part of the Axis of Evil. They are now our allies against ISIS – or not. It’s complicated. It also complicated because Iranians are Persian, not Arab at all – another ethnic distinction – even if they are Shiites. Farsi, modern Persian, is an Indo-European language, written in Arabic script. They are more like us than we’d like. What are we supposed to do with that?
And then there was President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and his speech that some called bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American – where he spoke out against Islamist extremism, even though Saudi Arabia has sponsored extremist Wahhabi mosques and imams all over the world. Osama bin Laden had been a Saudi citizen, as were fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. Go figure. As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. Trump aligned the United States with the Sunnis. They weren’t Shiites, like Iran – but also like our brand new Iraq. What? Oh well. Shiites sponsor terrorism – Hezbollah and Hamas. Sunnis sponsor terrorism – al-Qaeda and then ISIS – but perhaps they’ll scale that back. That seemed to be the calculation. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a graduate of the Army War College in Carlisle, by the way. It’s complicated.
And then it got stranger. Perhaps Donald Trump didn’t know we run our air operations in the region from our base in Qatar. There are eleven-thousand military folks at the base, our military, and there are fifteen thousand American civilian contractors in Qatar – and the regional headquarters of CENTCOM are there too – and the Saudis and Egypt and the rest of the Sunnis nations decided to punish Qatar. They cut them off – a full blockade. They’d starve them out, for being Sunnis too friendly with Iran and okay with Hezbollah and Hamas. Trump cheered the Saudis on. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to clean up that mess – and Turkey sent food and supplies to Qatar. After all, when Erdogan put down that coup and took full dictatorial control of Turkey, Qatar sent five hundred of their troops to help him out. And Turkey is our ally and a member of NATO too. It’s complicated.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has just swept the French parliamentary elections – a young and smart compassionate internationalist blew everyone away. Their Trump, Marine Le Pen, will have to get used to permanent obscurity. Macron joins Canada’s Justine Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel, and now the Chinese, with the retired Barack Obama lurking in the background, on the side of compassionate or at least sensible internationalism – and on the side of doing something about climate change and actual free trade. Theresa May had Britain opt out.
That polarizes the world and that’s one pole. The other pole seems to be the grand alliance of Putin and Trump and Erdogan and el-Sisi and the Saudis, and perhaps, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte – the group of strongmen who take no shit from anyone. Each country has its own version of “America First” of course.
How did it come to this? It’s complicated. We talked about Army Field Manual 6-22 Leader Development – and about “toxic leadership” too. The Army has been worried about that – but that was more than enough talk for a Sunday afternoon. The rest of the family was bored silly. Still, there was Afghanistan.
We’re still there. How does that end? Can it end? Can we win? How would we know if we did?
The issue there may be toxic leadership too. It was time to remind the Colonel of another Colonel, Andrew Bacevich, who latest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History – because Bacevich knows a thing or two too. The Los Angeles Times was sitting on the table. There was an op-ed there from Bacevich, who knows toxic leadership when he sees it:
Donald Trump cultivated an image of being unambiguously the guy in charge. Now as commander in chief, he is opting for a more detached approach. When it comes to war, he functions less as a full-time CEO than as a part-time board chairman.
This represents a sharp departure from established American practice. Ever since President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur butted heads over who should run the Korean War, presidents have played an assertive, at times even intrusive, role in managing military matters. Not Trump, however. Although nominally the boss, Trump appears content to let his generals run things.
This is not leadership:
For weeks, his administration has been mulling over a request from Gen. John Nicholson, current commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, to increase the number of U.S. troops committed to that war, which began back when today’s young recruits were still in diapers. To break what he optimistically described as a stalemate, Nicholson was asking for a “few thousand” reinforcements.
Rather than ruling on Nicholson’s request, pending since early February, Trump has passed the buck to the general he has put in charge of the Pentagon, James N. Mattis. Having himself served as senior Marine officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis today pretty much owns both of those wars along with lesser ongoing campaigns in Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
That Nicholson will get more troops appears certain – on Friday, the AP reported an addition of 4,000, although the Pentagon said no determination had been made. In any case, Trump is leaving it to Mattis to decide how many and, by extension, to explain why they are needed and how they are to be employed. Thus far, no such explanation has been forthcoming.
This is not leadership at all:
On Tuesday, when Mattis appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) needled him about the absence of a persuasive rationale. “We’re now six months into this administration,” McCain complained. “We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan.”
The Defense secretary’s response was both forthright and evasive. “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he conceded, while promising that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Mattis then unleashed a cloud of blather, promising “a change in our approach” so as “to do things differently” and devise “a more regional strategy” involving “across-the-board whole of government” collaboration. He offered no specifics.
That’s why we’re still there:
The fact is that every couple of years since 2001, policymakers in Washington and commanders in the field (including McChrystal) have trotted out plans “to do things differently” in Afghanistan. Those plans have come in a multitude of colors and a variety of sizes. None have come anywhere close to “winning.”
Trump surely knows this. We cannot say for certain why the president has chosen to distance himself from this war that he inherited. But one possibility is this: Having learned through painful experience to recognize a losing proposition, he has no intention of being left holding the bag for this one.
That’s what’s toxic here:
The savvy Mattis must suspect that he is the designated fall guy. If not, he will discover it next year or the year after when Trump relieves himself of responsibility for a still un-won war and looks to pin the blame on someone else.
And so this goes on and on, until it doesn’t:
For now we await the general with the courage to say: “Some wars can’t be won. Afghanistan falls in that category. To persist further is madness.”
Perhaps it is, and there is this:
Former defense officials say civilian oversight of the military is not just an important check in a healthy democracy, it ensures that larger strategic considerations are taken into account – while others question whether the Trump administration has a broader strategy at all. Former officials also stressed that even if a president delegates some decisions, there’s no avoiding the fact that ultimate responsibility rests with the commander-in-chief.
“I think it’s important that he give troop number responsibility to Secretary Mattis, but not the decision, because to put more troops in after a long period of decreasing is a policy change for America,” retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a commander of US troops and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, told CNN.
“It is deciding we’re going to push the clock further, we are going to stay involved longer, we are going to engage the American people and the Afghan people. That’s a presidential level decision that he has to own,” McChrystal said of Trump.
Some, like Stephen Miles, the director of Win Without War, a group focused on promoting a more progressive national security policy, have said they worry this is an attempt by Trump to wash his hands of responsibility for these wars.
“President Trump has delegated this decision to Secretary of Defense James Mattis in a seeming effort to absolve responsibility for sending US troops into harm’s way,” Miles said. “But make no mistake, President Trump is commander-in-chief, and he will be held accountable for once again escalating this endless war in Afghanistan.”
Derek Chollet, a former defense official in the Obama administration, noted that military decisions have costs, and that civilian leadership has the responsibility for assessing them. That means maintaining a broader view that takes in more than just the military aspects of a campaign, an assessment that is crucial to US national interests.
“If we decide to dramatically escalate our role in Afghanistan, well, that’s got to come from somewhere. Someone has to pay for that and we have to absorb that risk somewhere,” Chollet said.
And if the civilian leadership isn’t engaged, the danger is that the “military doesn’t have the perspective of the entire country in mind,” Chollet said. “If we end up escalating conflicts at the expense of other priorities in the federal budget, in our foreign policy, that’s a problem.”
Yeah, but all of that is so complicated. Trump likes to keep things simple.
Things are never simple:
The United States is becoming more perilously drawn into Syria’s fragmented war as it fights on increasingly congested battlefields surrounding Islamic State territory.
On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane for the first time in the conflict. By Monday, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, had suspended a pact used to prevent crashes with the U.S.-led coalition in the skies over Syria and was threatening to target American jets.
Separately, Iran said that it had launched a barrage of missiles into Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. That assault marked Tehran’s first official strike against the extremist group in Syria, and it signposted the reach of its military might against foes across the region.
There they go again – Iran helping us out – but this is serious:
As the major powers on the opposite sides of Syria’s war intensify operations against the Islamic State, the risks of an accidental conflagration appear to be growing by the day.
The United States intervened in Syria to roll back Islamic State forces from a self-declared caliphate that once stretched deep into Iraq. But the American role has unsettled Assad’s allies, threatening confrontation with Russia and thrusting Iranian-backed militiamen in a race with a U.S.-favored rebel force to reach the Islamic State’s eastern strongholds.
But it is what it is:
The U.S. military confirmed late Sunday night that a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber.
The confrontation took place near the onetime Islamic State stronghold of Tabqa, hours after Syrian government forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It was the first time that the American military has shot down a Syrian warplane during the six-year conflict.
On Monday, Russia condemned that strike as a “flagrant violation of international law” and said its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River while Russian aviation is on combat missions.
That messes things up:
In a statement Monday, the SDF warned that it would retaliate in the face of further aggression from pro-Assad forces, raising the possibility that the United States could be forced to deviate further from its stated policy in Syria, which involves targeting Islamic State militants only.
If it again comes under attack by pro-Assad forces, Washington may be forced to defend the coalition at the risk of sparking a tinderbox of tensions with Iranian and Syrian troops in the northern province.
“The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria – and there have been two specific incidents – have been in self-defense. And we’ve communicated that clearly,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was suspending the communication channel through which such messages had been shared in order to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operating over Syria.
And then it was time to bash Trump:
In Moscow, officials said that Sunday’s shoot-down was intended as a message aimed squarely at Russia.
Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security committee of the Russian upper house of parliament, called the incident “an aggression and a provocation.”
“It looks like Donald Trump’s United States is a source of a brand-new danger both in the Middle East and the world at large,” Klintsevich wrote on his Facebook page.
That’s the result of toxic leadership, or as Fred Kaplan argues, the result of no leadership at all:
Just because the military has the authority to take certain actions, that doesn’t mean it should take those actions, especially when doing so takes a tense conflict up a notch. Sunday’s exchange does, after all, mark the first time in this six-year civil war that a Syrian jet fired on this particular U.S.-backed militia and the first time that a U.S. unit shot down a Syrian jet – thus marking an escalation in the fighting and in America’s involvement. Most presidents would have wanted to think through the next few steps before setting a course of action in response to the Syrian attack. But not this president.
A former senior White House official told me “Obama would have had three NSC meetings on this by now” (we spoke around noon on Monday). Many military officers disparaged Obama for “micro-managing” conflicts. Sometimes they had a point; sometimes they just didn’t like it when a president took his role as commander in chief so seriously. This latest confrontation between American and Syrian air forces stands as a case in point of why presidents sometimes should – even must – step in to the decision-making process. The proper response to the Syrian strafing isn’t a tactical issue or a routine step spelled out in a military field manual. It’s a matter of strategy, of high policy, requiring the decision of the highest policymakers.
In fact, a real leader would have seen this coming:
The major powers in this baroquely complicated war have now set a course toward direct confrontation. This is when diplomats usually step in to calm things down. In a statement released shortly after the incident, a Pentagon spokesman said, “We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Beijing at the time of the incident, called on all the countries involved in the Syrian war to “coordinate their actions,” adding, “We urge everyone to avoid acting unilaterally, to respect the sovereignty of Syria.”
Beyond these gestures, it’s unclear what happens next. One uncertainty involves Trump himself. His advisers are divided on whether to beef up or wind down America’s involvement in Syria; and within the hawkish faction, there are divisions on whether to restrict the fight to ISIS, take more active steps to oust Assad, or do more to contain Iran.
During the 2016 election campaign, Trump derided those who wanted to oust Assad, arguing that ISIS was the enemy and that weakening the regime in Damascus could strengthen ISIS. Assad was also “a bad guy,” Trump often said, but it was silly to fight him and ISIS at once. And yet here we are, fighting ISIS and Assad at once – to what end, and in tandem with what broader political efforts or goals?
That’s a good question:
It’s a particularly delicate time for the United States to lack a basic strategy. As ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa – once its former strong points in Iraq and Syria, respectively – the next phase of the region’s civil war will likely focus on redrawing the boundaries between the two countries. This phase could be even bloodier than the last, as it will determine who controls the land and its economic resources – in short, who wins the political struggles that have undergirded not only the current civil war but myriad wars in the region for decades, arguably for centuries.
Those are big questions, but there are even bigger questions:
What are the United States’ interests in the region? Where we do we want to see this conflict pan out? Who should get what, who should determine who gets what, and how should any of these decisions be made? What should we do to facilitate this process? Or should we just leave and let the local powers work things out? These are issues of statecraft, which U.S. commanders on the ground or even retired four-star generals running the Pentagon are not trained to make and, under the Constitution, are not supposed to make. These are the kinds of looming crises that led many observers, of all political stripes, to warn many months ago that Donald Trump has no business being president.
Perhaps so, but he is president. And things are complicated. And he doesn’t want to believe they are complicated. And he lets others handle the messy details. And then he can blame them when things go terribly wrong. And things have already gone terribly wrong. In short, he’s toxic. But he is the Colonel’s commander-in-chief. That’s the challenge. Try to clean up the mess. At least someone knows what’s what. It was an interesting Sunday afternoon.