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Adjusting Strategy to Reality

Taliban Fighters

“The core goal of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country…” US Strategy in Afghanistan for 2011

“The aim of war should be the defeat of the enemy.  But what constitutes defeat?  The conquest of his whole territory is not always necessary, and total occupation of his territory may not be enough.” Carl Von Clausewitz

Strategic goals cannot remain fixed on geographic objectives which have lost their strategic importance because it is no longer the enemy’s center of gravity. On September 11th 2011 the Taliban ruled Afghanistan which harbored Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization became the central front in the new “War on Terrorism.”  For about a year Afghanistan remained the central focus of United States efforts against Al Qaeda until President Bush and his administration changed the primary effort to the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

The effect of switching the American strategic focus from Afghanistan where we were making headway despite the limited resources provided to Iraq was a mistake of epic proportions that only became evident when Iraq did not go the way that the Bush administration led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer the head of the Coalition Provision Authority planned.  Instead of a quick withdraw a series of mistakes and miscalculations turned the majority of the Iraqi people who had welcomed US Forces with open arms against us and an insurgency which claimed over 4000 American military personnel deaths and over 30,000 wounded became our primary focus.  We are still trying to figure out how to end our involvement in that country hoping that Iraq will not sink into another civil war.

Contrary to expectations Iraq became a front which consumed U.S. Forces and limited strategic flexibility in other regions of the world including Afghanistan.  In that country the indigenous Taliban which had been driven from power in 2001 began a gradual and deliberate return to political and military viability which was finally noticed by the United States in 2008 and 2009.  The Taliban were supported by the Pakistani Taliban, elements of the Bin Laden organization and in many cases duplicitous elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence services which were using the situation to support their own strategic goals of gaining influence in Afghanistan while strengthening their position against their perceived mortal enemy India.  Throughout the war the Pakistanis acted in their own interest while placating American demands to do more against the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan proper.

The Obama administration attempted to regain the initiative with a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops which raised the overall commitment of the United States to a force of over 100,000 troops assisted by NATO Allies and the corrupt, ill-trained and often Taliban Afghan Army and Police.  The surge was controversial and marked with controversy was the US Commander General Stanley McCrystal was relieved of command after an article in the Rolling Stone magazine which made it appear that he held the Obama administration in contempt. Since McCrystal recently returned to the Administration in a civilian capacity one wonders if the administration discovered that the article was meant to discredit McCrystal. McCrystal was relieved by his superior CENTCOM Commander General David Petreaus who had helped devise the strategy which in conjunction with the Anbar Awakening turned the tide against Al Qaeda and indigenous Iraqi insurgents in 2007-2008.  It achieved some success but even the United States recognizes that whatever success has been wrought is fragile and could easily be erased.

Unfortunately while the United States and its Allies continue to reinforce the campaign in Afghanistan their efforts are often undercut by the corrupt and duplicitous regime of Mohammed Karzai as well as our supposed Pakistani allies.  The Karzai regime hunkered down in Kabul has little influence outside the Presidential Palace except in its dealing in the Opium trade which helps finance the Taliban. The Pakistanis have over the 10 year duration of the war failed to maintain the security on their side of the border and often have clandestinely supported the Taliban and according to some may have given sanctuary to Al Qaeda.  The most recent setback came today when the Pakistani Chief of the General Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Chief of Intelligence Ahmed Shuja Pasha issued a demand for the US to stop Predator Drone strikes in the border regions, cut Special Forces and CIA Staff and give the Pakistani Intelligence Service, the ISI visibility on CIA operations.  This has been long in the works but came to a head with the arrest of a CIA contractor under the suspicion of murdering two Pakistanis.  The incident created quite a rift in US and Pakistani relations in part brought about by internal Pakistani politics.  Of course the ISI has long been a source of aid to the Taliban so the United States has good reason not to trust the ISI with information that could endanger American lives.

Protests in Bahrain: The Arabian Peninsula as the new Center of Gravity

The fact is without full Pakistani cooperation and substantial Afghani political reform to end corruption and provide real security to Afghani people there is no way to set conditions for a US withdraw that would leave Afghanistan a less dangerous place for its own people and for US and Western security interests. After all no one wants another 9-11 attack.  The US plans to begin withdrawing forces this year but the mission has been extended to at least 2014 at a cost of 119.4 billion dollars per year at the estimated 2011 rate and has increased exponentially since the US involvement began in 2001. The cost of the Afghanistan war in human, material and economic terms has imperiled other strategic priorities and limits the flexibility of the United States in other more vital regions.

Afghanistan is now an expensive sideshow in a larger war where the strategic center of gravity has shifted decisively to the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean where Al Qaeda seeks to use democratic revolts against autocratic despots to further its own ends. The key countries are Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boiling over.  While all of these crises grow on what seem to be a daily basis the United States and its Allies are mired in Afghanistan reinforcing failure.  Our troops on the ground have not lost a battle but like our brothers in Vietnam could “lose” the war.

This is the point where political and military leaders have to count the cost of the operation and weigh them against our actual strategic interests. The fact is if we withdrew the bulk of our ground combat forces and shifted to a lower footprint special operations and CIA campaign with a goal of ensuring that Al Qaeda cannot operate in Afghanistan with impunity as they did before 9-11 that we would likely be no worse off than we are now and have a greater amount of strategic flexibility to deal with other crises, political, military and humanitarian around the world.

The real crux of the issue is that Afghanistan is much like Stalingrad to the Germans in 1942. It has become a psychological more than a military campaign. We have invested so much in it that we do not believe that we can withdraw even though a scaled back presence would do much to improve our overall strategic situation.  Hitler denuded more important areas to attempt to capture Stalingrad and lost everything. Yes Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as its base to attack us in 2001 but they have moved on and Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula is a far greater strategic danger simply because of the oil supplies and strategic waterways in the area.

We simply need to look at all components of national strategy and decide where to concentrate.  Sometimes a strategic withdraw is necessary and actually vital to recover the initiative and set the stage for long term success. In Afghanistan this is not an admission of defeat but rather an acknowledgement that the central focus of the war and our strategic interests are elsewhere.  Our enemies would love to have us continue the campaign in Afghanistan in its current form, they know that our commitment drains our military, imperils our overall strategy and bleeds us dry economically all the while providing propaganda grist for them in their war against us.

However despite the cost the political situation in the United States keeps President Obama invested in Afghanistan. If he withdraws his opponents will say that he lost the war. Unfortunately the war in Afghanistan was ceded to the Taliban in 2003 when we decided that Iraq was more important. Now we reap the terrible consequences of that decision.  Now we have to decide how to make something positive out of this unenviable strategic position. But as Napoleon Bonaparte said “In order to govern, the question is not to follow out a more or less valid theory but to build with whatever materials are at hand. The inevitable must be accepted and turned to advantage.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Danger in the Arabian Gulf: The Fires of Protest Spread to Bahrain

Protesters attacked in Bahrain (AP Photo)

It is weird when you see a place that you have been many times explode into massive protests, violence and potential revolution. That I have been to Bahrain many times and it is strange to see what is going on there. My first couple of times I was assigned to a ship, the cruiser USS HUE CITY on port calls while deployed in the Arabian Gulf. Later I would make frequent trips there as chaplain for the Marine Security Forces.

In the days following the downfall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak the flames of revolution have spread across the Middle East. Protests have taken place in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain and the situations have become violent as security forces attempted to put down the protests. Even Iran is beginning to boil over as protestors who feel cheated by the results of the contested 2009 elections rise up against the Iranian regime. However, the situation in Bahrain is the most troubling if one looks at the potential impact on US strategy in the Arabian Gulf and always tense situation with Iran.

Bahraini Shia women with black flags. The Black flag is commonly flown in Shia neighborhoods and villages in Bahrain (AP Photo)

As I said before I have been to Bahrain many times. It is one of the most socially progressive countries in the Middle East and unlike most other Arab nation’s alcohol can be purchased in stores and not just upscale hotels that cater to foreigners, businessmen, military personnel and diplomats. It is a wealthy nation which though not prosperous as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has managed to diversify its economy with a per capita income of $25,420.  It is a frequent vacation destination of many well off Saudis and has over 230,000 expats from other countries who call Bahrain home. According to a United Nations report Bahrain has 807,000 residents including the expats.

One thing that I remember about Bahrain is that the wealth is not very evenly divided. For the most part the Shia population is incredibly poor and their villages stand in stark contrast to the wealth of the Sunni. This is one of the biggest causes of the tensions which have brought about the protest movement which was ignited by the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain Army units deployed in Manama (AP Photo)

The population of Bahrain is divided between the Sunni ruling class which comprises approximately 30% of the population and a less well off Shia population. The Khalifah family has ruled the country since driving out the Persians in 1783. It became a British protectorate in 1861 and the Kingdom attained its independence in 1971 and became a constitutional Monarchy in 2002 with some elected representatives.  The current King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah is a graduate of Cambridge University and the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. He has reigned since March of 1999 when his father died.

Iran considers Bahrain a rebel province and is viewed as a threat by Bahrain has sought over the years to foment dissent in Shia community which believes that it is discriminated against by the Sunni rulers.

NAVCENT Headquarters in Bahrain (Navy Times Photo)

Bahrain is a vital part of the U.S. strategic presence in the region as a counter to the Iranian threat. It hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT). It is a frequent port of call for U.S. and Allied Navy ships that operate in the Arabian Gulf.  As such the current instability and violence is a matter of grave concern for the United States and its Allies in the Gulf.

As I said I have been to Bahrain numerous times in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. I would stay in hotels with the best security which happened to be the 5 Star locations and dine at various Irish, British or Arab restaurants mostly with fellow Marine or Navy Officers or expats.  The difference between that world and the Shia villages and neighborhoods is amazing the contrast between the vast wealth of some and the absolute poverty of the other troubled me because I could see that it was a ticking time bomb. The Shia population also has limited political rights and is often targeted by the police.  They are certainly infiltrated by Iranian agents who I would guess are helping to stir things up.

The violence that has overtaken Bahrain does not surprise me. The Bahraini military is primarily composed of Sunnis from other Arab countries and has little love for the Shia. They are basically a mercenary force absolutely loyal to the government. There will be no Egyptian style coup in Bahrain. Since the population is small and the Army, police and other security forces wedded to the government I expect that the protests will be put down and that the regime will survive.  It will not be pretty and could well have an impact on U.S. Forces in Bahrain.

Back after 9/11 military dependents were sent home and force protection increased. A couple of years ago dependants were allowed back in but I think that we will see them extracted again. The security forces at the base are robust and work closely with the Bahraini security forces. I would expect that whatever Marine Expeditionary Unit is in theater will be on alert and that additional Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams could be flown in to reinforce the base.

The broader ramifications of a continued violent crackdown on the protestors will be felt throughout the region. With the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts people in many parts of the Arab World are now boiling over as protests and revolts against the old authoritarian regimes spread. As the situation continues to build I expect the probability of more regimes being overthrown with very unpredictable consequences. What may be true for Egypt may not be true anywhere else. What is for sure is that the Middle East that existed in December will look far different by the end of this year and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on just how it all shakes out and the possible impact on American and NATO operations in the region as well as impact on American overseas counter-terrorism operations especially in Yemen.

We can only wait and see and hopefully influence peaceful and democratic change in the area, but revolutions in countries that repress their populations tend not to be peaceful.  Egypt so far is an exception to that. If you believe in prayer I recommend that we pray hard my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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