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Padre Steve’s 2013 Down and Dirty Primer on the Muddle East

Free Syrian Army soldiers in Idlib

“When you are up to your arse in alligators it is hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” Old British Colonial Saying

Note: This is an update to my 2011 Primer on the Muddle East

During the dark days of World War Two when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was making fools of a series of British commanders in North Africa people including senior British military and government leaders sometimes referred to the theater of operations as “the Muddle East.” Some things never seem to change. The Muddle East today is quite frankly speaking in a real muddled state if there ever was one with world leaders and regional leaders muddling about as if they were the New York Mets.

A large part of the muddle goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War when the victorious Allied Powers redrew the map of the Middle East and made alliances with various local tribal sheiks who many times were crowned king over other tribes who didn’t necessarily want them as king. This along with heavy handed European military actions such as the British using poison gas dropped from aircraft in Iraq and a real lack of effort to better the lives of the newly “liberated” peoples of the region was just the start. Add to the cesspool a bunch of oil presided over by major oil companies, the anti-colonial movements that flourished in the years after World War Two when the French, British and Italians had to divest themselves of their Middle Eastern holdings. The French had to fight a real war in Algeria but finally withdrew leaving Algeria’s new rulers to goof up the country and oppress their people for decades to come.  In the coming years many of these newly independent nations found that life still sucked so in a number of countries military officers overthrew the despised monarchs promising reforms but oppressing their people while blaming all their problems on the Israelis.  They got their asses kicked by the Israelis in a series of wars which did a number of things that made the Middle East Muddle even worse.

First it ensured that Palestinian Arabs ended up under Israeli rule and were used with great aplomb by the Middle Eastern despots to prop up support for their regimes while doing nothing to help the Palestinians other than to put them in camps in Lebanon.  Even when the Egyptians made a peace deal with Israel most of the Arab World ostracized them.  Then in 1979 the Shah of Iran was sent packing by a bunch of Mullahs and in 1981 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in one of the bloodier wars of the late 20th Century which finally ended in 1988. Of course the United States was pissed at the Mullahs so Saddam became our favorite Arab despot for a while.  Add to the mix the Soviet Union and the United States arming their favorite Arab dictators who were given carte blanche to continue oppressing their people so long as it didn’t interfere with their support of either party or the oil supply. Finally the Soviets went Tango Uniform in 1989 not long after being forced out of Afghanistan by the U.S. supplied, Pakistani supported and Saudi Arabian fundamentalist financed Mujahideen.

With the Soviets “Tango Uniform” and the Warsaw Pact nations trying to get into NATO the United States was now the uncontested Numero Uno country in the world Saddam presumed upon his late supporters and invaded Kuwait, albeit after thinking that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said that we wouldn’t mind.

Well he was wrong we did mind and got a lot of countries from NATO and including a bunch of Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to get on board on a mission to get Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait. It was a kick ass mission and since the United Nations didn’t authorize removing Saddam and because President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to not to drive on Baghdad to kick him out preferring the despot we knew to a quagmire Saddam was left in power.

So we stationed ground and air forces around the Gulf to keep Saddam and Iran in check and even put them in Saudi Arabia which a large number of radicals such as Osama Bin Laden equated to letting the Devil play in Allah’s Holy Sandbox.  So Osama went and set up a base with the Medieval bunch of Pashtun known as the Taliban in Afghanistan stirred up a bunch of shit killing Americans and blowing up stuff including the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996, the USS Cole in 2000 and then 2001 another attack on the World Trade Center which took down the towers with hijacked aircraft and also struck the Pentagon triggered an American response against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.  The United States then invaded in Iraq in 2003 and succeeded in taking out Saddam but also succeeded in alienating a good many Iraqis who greeted us with open arms because we goofed up the occupation and pissed a lot of them off by dissolving the Army, Police and Civil Service and letting thugs and opportunists take over. Unfortunately since we didn’t go in with enough troops to secure all the Iraqi bases, their weapons depots and actually take control of surrendering Iraqi units these newly unemployed and dishonored people launched an insurgency bolstered by Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters even as Sunni and Shi’a Moslems began to settle scores with each other. Insurgency and civil war, two great tastes that go great together, but what the heck right?

Of course it took years to get control of the situation on the ground and thankfully the United States forces in Iraq were helped when the Sunni Moslems in Al Anbar Province realized that these foreign fighters were a worse enemy than the United States and switched sides. This turned the tables in Iraq and the insurgency was brought under control and an elected government managed to start to get their stuff together and allow us to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Of course the focus on Iraq gave the Taliban a chance to regroup as the Afghani Government proved itself corrupt, incompetent and not to give a shit about the Afghani people. So the Taliban who had been hated made a comeback and made our lives much harder so that now almost 10 years into the fight we are having a really hard time.  Well enough about us there was plenty more going on in the Muddle East besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Let’s see….there was the law of unintended consequences in that by taking Saddam Down and weakening Iraq we took away Iran’s natural enemy and the key to the balance of power in the region. Iran was strengthened and began a nuclear program that everyone with half a brain knows in intended for military use and expanded its influence in Lebanon where the Iranian backed Hezbollah took power.  Now Hezbollah which actually has an experienced military force and probably owns 40,000 or so rockets and missiles a good number of which can hit deep in Israel seems to be ready for war especially because they fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2008, the first time an Arab military ever did that. Not only did they take on the Israelis but they are also helping Syrian dictator Bashir Assad turn the tide against the polyglot Syrian rebel forces which are being assisted by Sunni foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and the ever present Al Qaida presence.

Then was the effect that the wars in those countries made things harder for us in many other friendly Arab nations.  Of course there is the problem of a nuclear armed Pakistan which is about as stable as a Japanese nuclear reactor after getting hit by a tsunami and plays both sides of the street in the war on terror.  The Palestinians and Israelis continued their love affair and since Fatah which ran Palestinian Authority was so corrupt and gooned up a more militant group, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip. Hamas is a pretty bloodthirsty lot too but not the same level of threat as Hezbollah to the Israelis.  Of course the Israelis have done little to help the situation by their often heavy handed treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The witches’ cauldron of the Muddle East is getting even more muddled on a daily basis as young Arabs throughout the Muddle East are rising up against their despotic rulers and it doesn’t seem that any are safe, those allied with the United States and the West as well as those that have been a thorn in the side of the United States and the West. It just seems that despots and tyrants are no longer in vogue. The uprisings began in Iran after a disputed election where reformers were cheated of power and the revolt crushed by the Revolutionary Guard and other thugs of the Iranian regime. However with the election of “moderate” whatever that means cleric Hasan Rowhani as President hopes are that Iran, despite the machinations of many other clerics and the Revolutionary Guard might be brought to the negotiating table. That being said Iran is reportedly sending about 4000 troops to go help Assad in Syria so go figure.

Elsewhere in the Middle East things continue to boil. In December 2010 the people of Tunisia rose up and overthrew their President for Life Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising followed shortly after by the Egyptians who tossed out long term President and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a “moderate Islamist” regime has been attempting to maintain control of radicals and keep some semblance of balance in that country while in Egypt the Islamic Brotherhood was able to get majorities elected in the Parliament and elect Mohammed Morsi as President. Needless to say both countries are still in turmoil.

In Iraq the Sunni Shi’a divide is as wide as ever and that country is threatening to become engulfed in yet another civil war as sectarian violence increases and the Kurds make more moves toward independence.

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Turkey, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire is now beginning to erupt as secularist elements in the society are protesting the policies of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to repeated clashes over the past two weeks between protestors and police.

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Afghanistan though technically not part of the Middle East continues to be a problem for US and NATO consuming intelligence, economic diplomatic and military resources that could be put to play with better effect elsewhere.  What T.E. Lawrence said of the British occupation of a restive Mesopotamia  in 1920:

“We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him.” ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

In Libya the Arab Spring claimed the long time pain in the ass Moammar Gaddafi. That conflict center of the action in 2011 until Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered. Since then Libya has remained in turmoil despite elections, militias run amok and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi on September 11th 2012.

Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria, and Jordan have or are experiencing demonstrations which look to be revolts in the making and even Saudi Arabia is trying to head off a potential popular uprising.

However the real problem now, the problem that threatens to send the region into a regional war is the revolt in Syria which began with peaceful protests by reformers against the Assad regime. However the hard line response of that regime to the protests spawned a civil war which now threatens to overflow the borders of Syria. France, Britain and the US have stated that they believe that there is evidence that the Syria government has used chemical weapons, in particular Sarin nerve agents against the rebels. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people with hundreds of thousands more now living as refugees.

The conflict in Syria epitomizes one of the greatest challenges in the Middle East that many in the West are just beginning to recognize, the Sunni Shi’a divide. That divide is becoming more serious with every passing day as Iran continues to lead and assist Shi’a elements in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, as well as in Iraq where the Arab Shi’a are in the majority. The conflict in Syria is predominantly Sunni versus Shi’a though in that patchwork nation of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite Shi’a tribe of the Assad clan, various Christian and Druse groups. Lebanon which borders Syria is as divided as its larger neighbor and Hezbollah holds tremendous power in that country.

Yes my friends this is a mess and almost everybody that is anybody in the military and economic power houses of the world doesn’t have their handprints all over at least some part of this mess. All of these own some of the blame for what is going on, both the rulers of the nations in the region as well as world powers who all try to influence the nations and peoples for their own diplomatic, intelligence, military or economic gain. Almost no one is unsoiled by their involvement in the Muddle East over the past 90 years or so and so in a way all of great world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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The region is more volatile than at any time in recent history and events there could easily ignite a regional war with worldwide implications.  That is why the region has been called the Muddle East for decades.  We all hope and pray for the best and that somehow all of this that the promise of a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” will become a reality, but there are better than even odds that things get way worse before they get better. There are just too many wild cards in this deck and the swamp is full of hungry alligators.

With the announcement this week that the US would provide military aid and training to the Syrian rebels and that US forces will remain in Jordan even as US and NATO Patriot missile batteries stand ready in Turkey there is a really good chance that the conflict in Syria will not stay in Syria.

Of course there is always the wild card if what Israel may do in what it perceives to be its security interests against outward foes such as Iran and Syria but also inside its borders and occupied territories, especially if it is attacked or provoked by Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

May God help us all and bring about peaceful change, or as my Iraqi friends simply say “Inshallah, God willing.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Afghanistan Quagmire and the Escalation of “Green on Blue” Attacks

US Army Advisors training Afghan Police

We have forgotten what it is to be wise when it comes to foreign policy and have over the past ten years failed to learn from history when it comes to fighting in Afghanistan. A survivor of the horrific disaster that befell the British in the First Anglo-Afghan War, Chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote after that war:

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” 

This week has been another particularly horrific week for American troops in Afghanistan with our Afghan “partners” killing more Americans and NATO troops than our Taliban enemies. This week the command element of a combat brigade was attacked by a suicide bomber while going to a meeting with tribal leaders in Kunar province killing the Brigade Command Sergeant Major and two Majors from the Brigade staff. In a separate incident in Helmand Province three Marines were killed by a man described by an unnamed source to Reuters News as a Afghan National Police commander in charge of local police in Sangin district. They were at dinner with the Afghan when attacked. In a third attack a Afghan worker on an American base in Helmand killed three more Marines.

So far this year there have been at least 22 attacks by Afghan soldiers or police on US or NATO troops killing 33. In 2011 there were just 11 such attacks and 20 deaths. Any student of history should know that a foreign occupation force will never be accepted by most Afghans, especially tribal chieftains or elders. For them alliances with occupiers are only temporary measures to advance their own standing and power in Afghanistan. The British and Soviets both learned this the hard way and we seem to have forgotten the maxim that it is better to learn from the mistakes of others than make them yourself.

If there ever was a purpose to the Afghanistan campaign we seem to have forgotten it. We are in the process of withdraw. There is a danger inherent in any withdraw, especially in a geographically isolated place like Afghanistan. As we decrease in number and have fewer forces available to conduct operations our “partners” will make new alliances and turn against the forces that remain.

However we do not have the strategic or operational flexibility to send the number of troops needed to succeed in completely pacifying the country so we are in a double bind. The war saps our military strength, degrades our ground forces and pours money into an operation that we neither have, but need in order to modernize and strengthen forces for the wars that will certainly follow Afghanistan.

Soviet Advisors and Afghan Officers

The British met with debacle in the First Anglo-Afghan War and the Soviets were saved from disaster by a smartly executed withdraw that did not leave many forces exposed to Afghan treachery. British leaders were especially deceived by their Afghan partners. Shortly before his murder at the hands of Afghan tribal elders who had supposedly agreed to protect withdrawing British forces and their camp followers, British envoy Sir William MacNaghten wrote: “We shall part with the Afghans as friends, and I feel satisfied that any government which may be established hereafter will always be disposed to cultivate a good understanding with us.” 

The Soviets had no such illusions after their advisers in Herat were attacked with great loss before the 1979 invasion. They had their “green on blue” incidents but exacted painful and brutal retaliation. They also kept Afghan security forces at arms distance neither trusting them or allowing them much access to their bases. Unlike Iraq where green on blue incidents were isolated the situation in Afghanistan is little changed from when the Soviets or the British occupied the country.

“The latter [Soviet military advisors] served in particularly daunting conditions. They faced difference of language and tradition as well as mujahadeen infiltration in the ranks of supposedly loyal Afghan troops….” (Kalinovsky, Artemy: The Blind Leading the Blind: Soviet Advisors, Counter-Insurgency and Nation-Building in Afghanistan, p.6)

American and NATO political leaders are deceiving themselves if they believe that whatever Afghan government that comes after we withdraw will be friendly. It will not be and when we leave the unfortunate thing is that the Afghans will return to doing what they always do best, fight with one another. Nothing good can now come from our involvement in Afghanistan. The often heroic and noble sacrifices of so many brave men and women will be wasted and for what gain?

Otto Von Bismarck warned to “Beware of sentimental alliances where the consciousness of good deeds is the only compensation for noble sacrifices.” The situation in Afghanistan grows more precarious with each passing day. Our “alliance” with Pakistan is problematic and all supplies going into the Afghanistan must pass through either it or Russia. Our Afghan “partners” do not deserve the title of “Allies” we have made a Faustian bargain with the notorious Karzai government that has not helped our interests or those of the Afghan people an iota.

The situation in Afghanistan grows more precarious with each passing day.With the situation in Syria deteriorating and threatening to spill over into neighboring countries, with Iran and Israel blustering as we build up forces in the Arabian Gulf we do not have the luxury of simply keeping the status quo. We have to seriously ask why we are in Afghanistan and what we hope to accomplish for the great amount of blood and treasure that we are spending there.

That question must be asked of an answered by current political leaders in this country as well as those seeking to lead the country.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Miscalculations of July

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” Barbara Tuchman

Sometimes I miss the Cold War and the ever constant threat of Nuclear annihilation.  Not that I looked forward to getting nuked and having the world blown out from under us, but back in those days it was pretty much for sure that the United States and Soviets would keep their missiles in their silos no matter how much they jibber-jabbered. Things did get awfully sporting during the Cuban Missile Crisis and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War but cooler heads prevailed. Yes there were incidents but we survived. We fought proxy wars and helped despots that we liked while the Soviets did the same. There was an air of predicability as both sides restrained their client states. Those were the days, we only really had to worry about two sides keeping things under control. Yes, those were the days… not really but compared to now I wonder.

Now, it seems that the shit is really starting to hit the fan all over the world, especially in the Middle East, Southwestern and Central Asia and even Europe. As day does into day it is hard to keep track of all the boiling cauldrons of hatred and misery and the vast numbers of political, religious, military, economic and ideological “leaders” that pour gasoline on the fires that stoke them. While I cannot definitively predict exactly where the disaster of war will begin or what the reasons that men will justify it; I do know that whenever, wherever and for whatever reasons it will be because of a failure of political, religious, military and economic leaders to prevent it. Abba Eban said “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

*Iran continues to threaten to close the Straits of Hormuz and unleash missiles on neighboring countries and Israel. 

*Israel is making plans for pre-emptive wars in Iran and Lebanon.

*The EU Oil Embargo on Iran has gone into effect.

*In Lebanon Hezbollah, the proxy army of Iran has made major strides in its ability to strike Israel and border skirmishes are now occurring between Israeli forces, Hezbollah fighters and even the Lebanese Army. 

*Syria’s Assad dictatorship is killing vast numbers of its own people and violence from its civil war is spreading to Lebanon. 

*Turkey has reinforced its borders with Syria after one of its aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces. 

*The United States sends additional naval and air forces to the Persian Gulf while maintaining a strong ground force in Kuwait. 

*Iraq, still beset by sectarian violence and undermined by Iranian agents is unable to maintain its traditional role as a balance to the Persians. 

*In Egypt a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood has taken power and threatens to end the peace with Israel even as they contend with the still powerful Egyptian military, and more secularist Egyptians for control of the country. 

*The United States and NATO are bogged down in a war in Afghanistan that cannot be won and works with a government that cannot be trusted and a military whose members are killing more NATO troops than actual “enemy” forces.

*Pakistan teeters on the brink and supports Taliban and Al Qaida forces even as the United States wages a clandestine war against those forces ensconced in their Pakistan bases. 

*The United States fights a drone war in Yemen as that country’s military fights Al Qaida Yemen forces, forces that are now more capable of harming the United States and its interests than those based in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. 

*Violence in the Horn of Africa spread by the Al Shabaab terrorist network threatens to spill over into neighboring countries. 

*In Nigeria Moslem extremists burn Christian churches and threaten that country’s oil production and economy. 

*European nations stand on the brink of disorder and anarchy should nations begin to default on their debts and abandon the Euro. 

*Simmering long term disputes in the Balkans continue to cause worry about more war and instability.

*Fascist political parties and movements are gaining momentum throughout Europe, especially in Eastern Europe.

*Leaders of all of nations make bellicose statements meant to stoke the passions of their most zealous political supporters often invoking apocalyptic visions of the future.

*Other leaders attempt to maintain a precarious balance in order to ride out the wave of change, hatred and discontent sweeping the Middle East and Europe.

*Religious and political leaders do their best to demonize anyone that does not agree with them or their version of “the truth.” 

*The war profiteers sell arms in abundance to every side to maximize their profits by legal and illegal sales and transfers.

I could keep going but the point is that eventually someone is going to miscalculate in one or more of these conflicts or situations and events will take on a life of their own. Leaders will commit themselves to wars that they think that they will be able to manage and like 1914 things will go horribly wrong. The hatreds of peoples, many which go back hundreds of years will spill out against their neighbors.  Martin Luther said “War is the greatest plague that can affect humanity; it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.”  Unfortunately it seems that we are heading down a path that will bring great suffering and misfortune all because of all types of leaders who are willing to take a chance on war rather than to do the hard work of peace. Confederate General Robert E Lee wrote about the American Civil War “The war…was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.” 

I wonder if any of the leaders now waging war or preparing for war will say the same when the coming wars are over, or if they will find words to justify the suffering that they have inflicted on millions of people. I imagine that it will be the latter.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Armed Forces Day 2012: The Disconnection of the Military and Society and the Terrible Result

Armed Forces Day was celebrated in some locales Saturday but I would dare say that the vast majority of Americans didn’t notice it. Meanwhile under 50 “Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans” from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War got lots of air time for throwing their “Global War on Terrorism Service Medals” away at the big anti-NATO Summit protest in Chicago. This is the Medal that those that served after September 11th 2001 received for being on active duty in the United States, not actually deployed.

Now there were a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a member of the military I appreciate those events and the people that put them together, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  There are others that honor the Armed Forces every day, I think especially about the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor Maine and the Pease Troop Greeters of New Hampshire. These men and women, many veterans themselves or related to veterans are amazing. They have been welcoming veterans back since early in the war and provide many services to the men and women of the Armed Forces that pass through Bangor Maine International Airport and the Portsmouth International Airport, the former Pease Air Force Base in Pease New Hampshire.  I have had the honor of passing through both locations, Bangor on more than one occasion. While I know that there are many others that do this they are in the minority in this country.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much like Pakistan. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war. It has been the effort of a tiny percentage of the population.  As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that have been going on for so long. The fact is that most Americans do not feel that they have a personal or vested interest in these wars because they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars. Every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam all were or are volunteers.

Many of these volunteers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war was popular, except in the very beginning when casualties were low and victory appeared to be easy and quick. We like short wars. We left Iraq last year and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for a while. In Afghanistan we followed the same path trod by the British and Soviets in trying to topple regimes and plant our respective versions of civilization in that land of brutal Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords who war on each other as much as any foreign infidel.  It is a path that leads to heartbreak which ties down vast amounts of manpower without any significant strategic gain for the United States or NATO.  This even as war drums beat across the Middle East and nuclear armed Pakistan slips into political and social chaos and keeps a major supply route for the US and NATO to Afghanistan shut down.

The fact is that American and for that matter other NATO and coalition military personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or at sea are in the minority in all of our countries. Thus when a few of the few of these veterans choose to make a public spectacle of themselves by tossing a medal away they get cheered and lots of media attention. Liberals applaud the medal throwers and conservatives vilify them without getting what is really going on. Both miss the tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society that is the result of public policy since the end of the Vietnam War. A relatively small professional military in comparison to the population is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved.

I heard one of the organizers of the medal throwing exhibition apologize for his service. If he wants to apologize to people that generally haven’t been touched by war and haven’t had to make a single sacrifice then fine. If he wants to apologize for acts that he may have committed against Iraqis or Afghani people that is another matter, that can’t be mitigated by tossing medals over a fence. However I think that the manner of by which he and his compatriots demonstrated at the NATO Summit did nothing for those that serve. Tossing a medal away, a medal not earned for combat service is cheap. The medal that they threw away symbolically shows that they served in the homeland on active duty after the 9-11 attacks. Some did serve overseas, some in combat but to throw this particular medal away seemed an odd choice.

The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important. It is a right which I will defend. However I think that what these veterans did was more disrespectful to their former comrades and those currently serving than it was to those that make policy. The army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President don’t care about this because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I may disagree with the manner of how and when these veterans protested. However, I am not going to question their motive or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.

But then when a society sends off its sons and daughters to fight in wars that no one understands, and the vast majority of people no longer support it is no wonder that some veterans make such displays. Likewise it is understandable why other veterans have major issues with such protestors, just as many Vietnam veterans still feel the hurt of how a nation turned its back on them.

For the protestors the display may make them feel better, but it misses the bigger point of why wars like these go on for so long.  That they do is because misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military and those that do not. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping”* as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated but I am grateful to those people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel in thought, word and deed like the Maine Greeters and Pease Greeters. The interesting thing about these groups is that they are made up of citizens from across the political spectrum, veterans and non-veterans who simply care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

I just hope and pray that the end in Afghanistan does not turn into an even worse historic debacle than suffered by the British or the Soviets during their ill fated campaigns. Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit from this no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Killing of Osama Bin Laden While Realistically Looking at Afghanistan and Pakistan

A year ago US Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six and other Special Operations Forces made a daring night raid into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden had orchestrated the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11th 2001 which killed over 3000 Americans, the near sinking of the US Navy Destroyer USS Cole, the Luxor Massacre of 1997 and the bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam Tanzania and Nairobi Kenya in 1998 and numerous other terror attacks throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden was the sworn enemy of the United States. The killing of Bin Laden was a victory, perhaps the biggest victory that we have achieved in over 10 years of war. In fact Bin Laden was the reason we went to war, the reason that we became embroiled in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden had been the “guest” of the Afghan Taliban government and used Afghanistan as his base of operations to train his fighters and plan his operations. After September 11th the United States attacked Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban and put Bin Laden on the run. Pakistan which had supported the Taliban government following the fall of the former Soviet supported Republic of Afghanistan and subsequent civil war which brought the Taliban to power. Pakistan’s President Musharraf quickly allied his country with the United States.  However over the course of the 10 year war in Afghanistan the government and certain elements of its security and intelligence services gave tacit support to the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda. The most damning was the fact that Bin Laden had resided in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad with a significant amount of his family for five years.

President Obama gave the order for the SEAL team to kill Bin Laden over the objections of his Vice President and Secretary of Defense. It was a ballsy move. If it had gone wrong which it easily could have many US troops could have been killed, captured and placed on display by the Pakistani government.  The credit to the planning and execution of the operation has to go to the SEALs and Special Operations Command, but credit for the order to do it needs to be given to the President.  If President Bush had succeeded in killing Bin Laden I would feel the same way.

The fact is that President Obama has been successfully waging war against Al Qaeda, not only killing Bin Laden but other top leaders. Even Bin Laden before his death was concerned about the toll being taken on his organization by the reinvigorated US campaign.  The Pakistanis enraged by the United States taking the war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies inside Afghanistan, something that it should have been doing but had not despite Jihadist terrorist attacks on it cut the supply lines to US and NATO forces running through it months ago and have not reopened them. Some ally.

But that is not surprising. As far back as November 1979, before the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan the US Embassy was ransacked and burned by Pakistani mobs, an attack which killed a US Marine. The Pakistanis only began to reluctantly cooperate with the United States in supporting some of the Afghan Pashtun Mujahideen fighters.  After the Soviets left Afghanistan it continued to support its Pashtuns against Uzbek and Tajik Afghans, support which eventually allowed the Taliban to take over the country. Despite US protests in the 1990s the Pakistanis did little to nothing to hinder Bin Laden, Al Qaeda or the Taliban regime. While it quickly and officially “supported” the US under former President Musharraf factions within its ISI intelligence service are believed to have continued to support Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and encouraged attacks on US, Afghan and  NATO troops.

Pakistan itself teeters on the edge of collapse. Its economy is in shambles, it cannot control its borders, its intelligence service is often at odds with the government while extremist groups gain more power every day. It is a rapidly failing state with nuclear weapons. Every day it grows more antagonistic towards the United States which under the Obama Administration had been persistent in using arial drones to attack suspected terrorists in Pakistan. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is as bad or worse as it was in 1979.

In the mean time our former nemesis the Russian Federation, the former Soviet Union has been stalwart in allowing our troops and supplies to flow through their country and the neighboring Central Asian Republics into Afghanistan. The Russians having experienced the agony of Afghanistan and the reality of Jihadist terrorism emanating from it as well as Chechnya do not want the US and NATO mission to stabilize Afghanistan to fail.  Currently without the support of the Russians we would be unable to supply our troops in Afghanistan.

Today President Obama travelled to Afghanistan and announced the signing of a long term security and cooperation agreement with the Afghan government. The agreement will take effect after the current plan to withdraw most US and NATO troops by 2014. We have no idea how well this will turn out and despite all the good intentions on our part I doubt that the agreement stands the test of time because of the nature of Afghanistan and its competing ethnic, religious, political and tribal divisions. It is my belief that we will be lucky to get out as well as the Soviets did in 1989 because I do not see a truly united Afghanistan coming out of this and it is more than likely that Pakistan will descend into chaos making our presence in Afghanistan even more problematic.

The mission started to get Bin Laden after 9-11. In the process it became something different as we attempted to transform Afghanistan. A year ago we finally succeeded in killing Bin Laden and have significantly degraded Al Qaeda.  That is why we went to war.  That is probably the best it will get.

At some point President Obama or his successor will likely have to decide to withdraw completely from Afghanistan and like former Soviet Premier Gorbachev admit that “We are not going to save the regime. We’ve already transformed it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The War that Cannot Be Won: Afghanistan 2012

“There is no single piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier . . . no single military problem that has arisen and not been solved, and yet there is still no result.”  Sergei Akhromeyev, Soviet General Staff Chief 1986

Sometimes one wonders if anyone actually reads history and if they do whether they actually want to learn from it. Back in 1979 the Soviet Union had advisors in Afghanistan. A lot of them. A local and indigenous Communist Party had some measure of political power and this was before the Soviets invaded.

However in March 1979 a major unit of the Afghan National Army in the city of Herat mutinied against the Soviets and the Afghan government. Before the mutiny was put down 50 Soviet advisors as well as 300 of their dependents were brutally murdered by Afghan Army personnel. A further 5000 Afghans died in the revolt.

Since 2009 the trend of Blue on Green killings, that is Afghan Soldiers or Security Force members killing US or NATO personnel has been increasing at a troubling rate. We should not be surprised, the one thing that the Afghan loathes above all is the foreign soldier on Afghan soil.  While some Afghans may desire a more modern society and something more akin to the Western democratic political model to include women’s suffrage they are in a distinct minority.  The fact is that as General Barry McCafferty recently noted regarding the murder of two US military advisors in the supposedly secure Afghan Interior Ministry “we may be seeing a watershed event after billions of dollars and 16,000 u.s. casualties. we see how shallow the impact we have on this primitive society is.” 

Approximately 130,000 US and NATO troops including a number of my friends are deployed in penny-packets across Afghanistan and are increasingly isolated and in danger.  The “inadvertent” burning of copies of the Koran in a garbage dump by US personnel has resulted in the deaths of at least 4 US military personnel and the wounding of 8 more and put our bases on lockdown as thousands of Afghans protest and attack them.  More than two dozen Afghans have died in the recent violence.

As deployed they are able to achieve local success but unable to secure the country. Dependent on supplies delivered by air or along tenuous supply lines hundreds of miles long these forces though numerous are dispersed and deployed in areas where their inherent technological and operational superiority is negated by weather, terrain and restrictive rules of engagement as well as a counterinsurgency strategy in which these advantages matter little and that they do not have enough troops to accomplish.

US and NATO forces are embedded with the Afghan Army, Police and Border forces, many of whom are either incompetent, corrupt or allied with Taliban or Al Qaeda. Most Afghans feel that any foreign occupier is a mortal enemy and mistakes such as the recent Koran burning only add fuel to the fire of hatred no matter how many times our leaders apologize. Formerly unclassified but now classified reports easily available on the internet including at US Government websites paint a picture of mutual distrust and animosity that can only be described as toxic between the Afghans and NATO personnel, especially Americans.

To make matters worse the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are surrounded to the west by an ever more bellicose Iran, to the south and east by an unstable and often adversarial “ally” Pakistan through which 30-40 percent of their supplies transit.  To the north the United States and NATO are dependent on agreements with the former Soviet Central Asian Republics Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with most having had to transit Russia.  In the 1980s the Soviets only had make a withdraw across the border into their own country.

Another potentially disastrous situation would be for a war to break out between Iran and Israel or with the United States and our allies. The way our troops are deployed means that they cannot be easily concentrated to parry any threats and their isolation prevents them from being used as an offensive asset should a war break out against Iran.

The fact is that US and NATO forces are now in a very similar position to the Soviets in the mid to late 1980s.  We are engaged in a war where military success is not going to win the war. No matter what any politician says there is nothing that can change that unless they would be willing to commit to greatly increasing the number of ground forces in Afghanistan with the costs and logistical problems that would entail.

President Obama is in a “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” position.  If he keeps the status quo the danger persists and maybe increases. If he were to begin a more precipitous withdraw there would be the same dangers and possibly more during the withdraw. But mitigating against a faster withdraw is the 2012 election in which his Republican challengers would accuse him of “losing the war and betraying our troops.” However the chance to end the Afghan War from a position of strength was lost in 2003 when we diverted our efforts to the invasion of Iraq. That action gave Al Qaeda and the Taliban the breathing space that they needed to make a comeback and that was not on President Obama’s watch.

Geopolitically the presence of 130,000 US and NATO forces does nothing for regional or US national security and prevents those forces and the attendant resources needed to support them unavailable for any other dangers in the region. The goal of “creating a stabile and secure Afghanistan” is a myth. Afghanistan is not Iraq and will for generations remain a backward, tribal and religiously intolerant society that will never embrace western ideals that conflict with their culture.

The question now is how do we get out of this place, seal it off to keep terrorist threats from emanating from it and endangering US, NATO and Allied interests in the region.  The reality is also that no matter what we do that any defeat or withdraw will be grist for Al Qaeda, Iran and other Islamist propaganda.  The inability of the Soviets to “win” in Afghanistan was of the factors that brought down the Soviet Empire and ended the myth that Soviet Communism was invincible. The same could happen to the United States.

When presented with a cataclysmic strategic situation on the Western Front in 1944 Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what should be done. His simple response was “End the war you fools.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch56NAL1C-I

We are not yet in a cataclysmic situation but the time to make decisions is now not later because there is nothing that can change the strategic or operational conditions in or outside of Afghanistan. Facts are facts and politicians from both the Republican and Democrat parties should stop trying to turn this into short term political advantage and look at the actual strategic interests of our country as well as our broader security and economic interests in the region.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Year in Review and Predictions for 2012: The Best Jibber-Jabber on the Web

Once again it is that time of the year when I look back at the events of the last 12 months and say “that was some year.” And what a year it was.  So many things happened at home and around the world that it makes one’s head do the Linda Blair 360.  Yes the year was crammed full of events too numerous to mention and full of the jibber-jabber of “expert” analysis of news commentators, pundits, politicians and preachers.

Every major news agency and many writers publish what they believe to be the major stories of the year about this time and sometimes prognosticate about the coming year. Mostly these articles are so much jibber jabber and I don’t claim this to be inclusive of everything that happened but these are what I think are some of the highlights of the events that occurred in 2011.  Call it my end of year jibber-jabber.

The Environment: Yes there is an environment and whether one wants to assign credit or blame to God, the Devil, Mother Nature or the theory that “shit happens” it has been a year full of natural disasters.  We begin with the 9.1 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan which triggered a nuclear disaster when the Fukishima nuclear plant melted down. There was Hurricane Irene which though only a category one storm was so big and slow moving that it that caused massive damage to the East Coast, especially North Carolina. I got to experience Irene.  Even more frightening was the massive F5 Tornado that pretty much wiped the city of Joplin Missouri off the map. There was a series of wildfires in Texas that burned nearly 4 million acres of land and one fire around Bastrop Texas that destroyed over 1600 homes.  Over in Asia there was flooding that put Bangkok underwater for an extended period of time.

Prediction for 2012: Cable News networks will continue to rake in the bucks covering human misery in all parts of the nation and the world as natural disasters occur.  I predict that there will be major earthquakes, fires, famine and flood, hurricanes  and that many will be really bad.  Sure that’s rather generic but I can be surge that I am not wrong in making this prediction.

World Events: Overseas there was the Arab Spring revolts that brought about the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and quite probably Yemen. Syria appears to be on the brink of civil war and Bahrain with the help of Saudi Arabia put down its own Arab Spring revolt.  Jordan and other Arab states are quite nervous and the situation in Egypt which began with so much hope has deteriorated as the military faces off against demonstrators as Islamic parties make headway in elections.

Who would have thought that in 2011 that Moammar Ghadaffi would be overthrow and killed by his own people, that Osama Bin Laden would meet his end at the hands of US Navy SEALS and that Kim Jong Il, the nutty leader of North Korea would die.  The European Union looks like its days could well be numbered as the contagion of economic crisis which began in Greece has spread to much of the EU.  The United States withdrew its forces from Iraq just in time for the Iraqis to start to undo everything that their soldiers and ours had fought to achieve since 2005, Iran continues to build nukes and attempt to provoke the United States, Western Europe and Israel while the Israelis prepare to whack Iran. The war in Afghanistan grinds on and Pakistan is more of a pain in the ass than it ever has been.

Padre Steve’s Prediction: You thought things were bad in 2011… they will really be sporty in 2012.

United States Domestic Politics: The United States has had its own political and economic problems as the government seems pretty much to have become a parody of itself.  The President has had an approval rating below 50% for almost the whole year and the Congress God bless them has an approval rating of just 11% a new record which will undoubtedly be broken in 2012.  President Obama is unchallenged in the Democratic primaries and the Republican candidates seem to be doing all that they can to ensure that whoever wins the nomination will lose the general election next year as each takes his or her turn to give their followers hope and then implode.  I mean really, despite all of our economic problems the United States would, if our politicians could get their collective shit together have a bright future compared to the EU and the “new” economies in China, India and Brazil which despite all their success are dependent on us to buy their stuff.

Meanwhile the Tea Party movement has become the kingmaker in conservative politics and the Occupy Wall Street movement gathered steam before going into winter hibernation.

Padre Steve’s Predictions: Expect that both the Tea Party and OWS movements despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum to continue to influence both major political parties. In 2012 the Congress will sink to even lower lows and for President, Congress and Presidential candidates to do even more stupid things to get just enough of the vote to be elected in November. You thought that 2011 was bad…well it was just the warm up for 2012.

Sports: The sporting world produced its share of excitement and agony as great team and individual accomplishments were overshadowed by scandals. Baseball had a most amazing end to its season in which the St Louis Cardinals defied all odds in winning the World Series after being written off as dead in late August. The Red Sox went from the sure thing to win the World Series to greatest regular season collapse ever seen which resulted in manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein leaving the team.  A potential scandal has come up with the alleged positive test for some kind of performance enhancing drug by National League MVP Ryan Braun. The Los Angeles Dodgers filed for Bankruptcy amid the McCourt family feud and Albert Pujols collected his halo as well as about 260 million dollars for the next 10 years from the Angels.

The NFL endured a strike and player lockout by the owners which threatened the beginning of the season but the NFL’s stupidity was totally blown away by the actions of NBA players and owners in their strike and lockout. There were scandals in college sports outside the SEC the most notable being the sexual abuse scandal that shook the nation at Penn State University which brought about the inglorious end to the career of the legendary coach Joe Paterno. The BCS Bowl system appears to have gone from controversial to nearly pathetic in the selection of teams for the BCS bowls.

Padre Steve’s Prediction: The Chicago Cubs will not win the World Series and thereby prove that those that believe that the world will end in 2012 wrong. So as bad as everything seems it could be worse.

So with all that said there was so much more that I could mention but I have to stop somewhere.  I won’t go into the lives and scandals of celebrities because frankly though sometimes titillating they really don’t matter a hill of beans, unless it is your hill and they are your beans.  Likewise the year isn’t over yet and who knows maybe something will happen that will cause me to have to revise this article.

Until then and until tomorrow…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Casing the Colors in Iraq

Today the colors were cased in a ceremony at the US Airbase co-located at the Baghdad International Airport.  It really is hard to believe that this excursion in Mesopotamia is over.  The ceremony marked the formal end to the US military operation in Iraq although a few thousand troops are finishing the retrograde of equipment from the country.

The fact that we might not end up in Iraq again if the Iranians push their Iraq Arab Shia friends too hard. They may share a common strain of Islam but there really is no love lost between the Arabs and the Persians as many Iraqis will derisively call them.  The Iraqis are a proud people and remember Persian rule like it was yesterday. The Persians treated Arabs like dirt and though it was centuries ago the Arabs have not forgotten.  My Iraqi friends both Sunni and Shia recognized that Iran was a threat and hope that if Iran ever attempted to take Iraq over that we would help defend Iraq.

The current US involvement is over after 4484 American service members were killed in action and 32000 wounded.  318 coalition Allied troops died.  The Iraqi Security Forces have lost 8825 soldiers killed with a further 1300 killed during the initial invasion of the country.  Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed and some agencies have estimated far higher totals.  Of course the Iraqis are still taking casualties as extremist groups both Shia and Sunni continue their blood feud and the Shia majority tries to solidify its power over the minority former ruling party Sunni.  Over a trillion dollars was spent on the war by the United States and long term costs are expected to reach 2-3 Trillion dollars.  Of course Iraq is still reeling from all of the damage and its involvement in wars with Iran from 1980-1988, the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and the United States response Operation Desert Storm, the post war sanctions and the enforcement of an oil embargo and a no-fly zone to keep Saddam contained even as he butchered thousands of Iraqis who rose up against him after he was driven from Kuwait and the the current war which began in 2003.

But the numbers are not just numbers, behind every one is a family, wives, husbands, parents, siblings and children as well as friends.  Every one has a name and a face and all meant something to somebody and left a void when they died or were irreversibly changed by the war.  That pain and cost will go on for a long time and there are no words that adequately compensate for these losses. Faith and trust in God’s grace help some but others struggle, even believers.  That I know for a fact because I still do.

I remember flying into Baghdad in 2007 it was the height of the “surge” and I was going to provide Chaplain support to US Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border, Police and other Security Forces in Al Anbar Province.  At the time the base was shelled and when we exited the aircraft it was no peacetime drill we left in our full gear and were brief on what to do should we encountered incoming fire.  It was in Baghdad that I first experienced a rocket attack when one flew over my head.  But now the bases are empty, it must be surreal to be one of the last Americans leaving the country.

For me the end of our involvement is a strange experience.  It was hard to believe in 2007 that we would ever leave. The great edifices that we erected around country some of which were going up even when I was there are mostly empty except for some taken over by the Iraqi military.  Former military bases even in this country are a surreal site.  I have been to a number that were closed following the end of the Cold War.  Fort Wolters Texas near Fort Worth is an example. When I would go to a small section of the base used by the National Guard I would go past many mostly unused buildings including what had been a brand new hospital which opened just before the base was closed following Vietnam. The last time I flew through the former George Air Force Base  when going to and returning from Twenty-Nine Palms it was a ghost town except a few businesses and hundreds of former commercial jets parked on the tarmac. I remember going through recently closed American bases in Germany in the 1990s and saw installations empty. I was also the final Federal Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when it was transferred to the National Guard.  Built during World War II it was a throwback to a different era. The base has been revitalized as a sizable ground and aviation training center by the Guard with much new construction but the sight of all the World War II “temporary” wooden buildings was amazing. Vast areas of the base we unused and some complete areas were demolished. I helped in getting the main Post Chapel Renovated in order that the existing congregation would be able to continue with a contract Chaplain paid by the Guard and activated or drilling Guard Chaplains.  We had to decommission or convert some to other uses and saved one which was donated to a church 40 miles away who paid to have it deconstructed and rebuilt on their own land. But I digress…

When I was in Iraq in many places there were the remains of Saddam Hussein’s military.  The base that I operated from had a number of abandoned or damaged Iraqi bombers and fighter aircraft parked at it.  Of course most of the existing buildings were converted to American use.  The biggest of these were the Al Faw Palace complex at Camp Victory but Camp Fallujah was the site of one of the Baath Party resorts used by Uday and Qusay Hussein.  I stayed there couple of days while traveling from Baghdad to Taqaddum which was my base of operations because of the capability to get around by air to where I needed to go and proximity to many advisor teams supporting the Iraqi First and Seventh Divisions.

Back then all were major bases with a large American presence which was inflated by many of the contractors, American and from other countries that supported base operations from the chow hall, to the laundry, the fire department and even the cleaning of the shower trailers and countless porta-johns.

People will debate for many years whether the war was worth it and I can only say that I hope that history will show that it was despite the huge loss of life, the destruction of a country and the vast expenditure of the national treasury.  It is probably too early to make that judgement, we tend to be pretty bad in making those decisions in the moment.  That is one of the problems in this age of information overload.  We have lots of data but no historical context and we make decisions that we think are correct but find out years later were tragically erroneous.

At the same time we cannot go back in time and change the past. For good or for bad we have to go forward from now and hopefully in time Iraq and its people will recover from the effects of over 30 years of war and economic sanctions.  We will find out over the next 10 to 50 years what the real effect is.  But for now we are left with a weak Iraq, a strong and threatening Iran and our own diminished military capacity and weak economy as well as a war that is not going well in Afghanistan.

I doubt that that can give comfort to the families of those that died in Iraq or came back wounded in mind body or spirit.  I know that I came back different, PTSD has a way of doing that.

But I am proud of the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Iraqi officers that I served alongside in the badlands of Al Anbar Province mostly far away from the immediate help of any big units if they got in trouble.  I know how valiant and skilled they were fighting Al Qaida Iraq and other insurgents and even foreign fighters from places like Chechnya aided by Iran and others.  It was a brutal fight at times but the men of the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and our advisors helped turn the tide during 2007 and 2008.  Without their diligence and toughness combined with the help of Iraqi civilians the war would have ended differently.

Tonight as I walked the dog to the beach I looked up at the sky. In our neighborhood there are not many street lights and most are clustered in one small area. Since many residents are not here in the winter many of the homes are dark as well and there are areas that have no houses but are lots covered in pine trees.  In the dark I was thinking about Iraq and I could hear the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.  I looked up at the sky and saw the most stars I have seen since being out on the Syrian border in December 2007.  I was reminded that I left part of me in Iraq and I pray for the Iraqis that I served with and those that provided us hospitality during our missions.

As I walked I thought of the words of Otto Von Bismarck one of the greatest statesmen that every lived.  Our war in Iraq was a preventive war.  Bismarck said that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”  I pray that in our case that he was not right and that we think long and hard before entering another preventive war with anyone.  Bismarck, who knew war commented that “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the vast majority of our elected leaders have ever done that.  Bismarck was certainly no pacifist but warned us that “I consider even a victorious war as an evil, from which statesmanship must endeavor to spare nations.”

The world is not a safe place and our near about 140,000 US and NATO troops are still engaged against a stubborn enemy in Afghanistan that has been aided by wavering allies such as Pakistan and sworn enemies like Iran.  War seems to threaten on many fronts.  I pray that we will be prudent before entering another.

I have rambled a bit tonight because I have so many thoughts and images of the war.  I trust your indulgence.  But for now the colors have been cased and our military involvement in Iraq is over.  We can only pray that Iraq will recover and become a free and prosperous country that treats its citizens well and that we too will recover from this war.  But then Bismarck is sometimes quoted saying that “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” I do hope that if he did say this that he was right.

Peace and and as my Iraqi friends would say Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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The War that No One wants to Fight: Pakistan 2011

Supply Lines in Peril

This weekend there was an altercation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which somewhere between 24 and 28 Pakistani soldiers were killed during a NATO airstrike.  Afghan military and regional government officials are saying that Afghan soldiers called in for air support after they were attacked from the Pakistani side of the border.  The Pakistanis are calling the the strike an “unproved attack.” NATO and Afghan officials note that the border is not very distinguishable and that Taliban forces often will shoot from positions near Pakistani outposts.  Unfortunately in Pakistan the only truth that matters is that NATO killed its soldiers and the fact that their country and some agencies specifically the intelligence service actively support the Taliban is irrelevant.  The truth is that the only reason that the Pakistani government and military has halfway cooperated with NATO is because of the vast amount of military and economic aid it receives from the United States.  The thin veneer of cooperation was broken this weekend and there may be little that anyone can do to reestablish any kind of real trust or cooperation despite the fact that the cooperation of the Pakistanis is a “necessary evil” as long as the US an NATO have over 100.000 troops deployed in “penny packets” around the vast  rugged expanse of Afghanistan.

The fact is that depending on whose statistics you look at some 40-50% of NATO’s supplies are transported overland from the Pakistani port of Karachi to Afghanistan. The bulk of these goods are things like fuel and heavy equipment without which the ability of NATO forces in Afghanistan cannot conduct effective operations.  The Pakistanis have already demanded that the US pull its CIA drone units from a key Pakistani air base and the Pakistanis are still smarting over the killing of Osama Bin Laden on their soil. The simple truth is that unless the Pakistani military can calm their country our supply lines will be cut off. Unfortunately this same military and government has used any excuse or provocation to stir up their population against the United States and NATO in order to preserve their hold on power.  Now it appears that the situation has reached a point that they will not be able to control the passions that they have stirred whenever the need suits them.

If the Pakistani military and government have put themselves and us in a bind. If they  appear to be “soft” on NATO in the eyes of their people they risk a popular revolt and more terrorism at home. If they harden their opposition to NATO and the US or use the latest incident to whip up more anti-NATO support they could find themselves in a war with the United States and NATO.  Any misstep could be disastrous to all concerned.

Unlike the Iranians the Pakistanis actually have deployable nuclear weapons in addition to a large conventional military force.  If they were to decide to stop US and NATO resupply convoys for more than a few days our operations in Afghanistan would be affected and if the impasse were to become long term it could cripple US and NATO operations in that country.

The sad truth is that the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are terribly exposed to dangers that neither they or their commanders control. It is what happens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that matters what happens between the United States-Israel and Iran can have a dramatic and even calamitous effect on our deployed forces.

The fact is that it is hard to replace 40-50% of your bulk supplies when they have to come by sea and the only port is in a hostile or at best semi-hostile country.  If the Pakistanis were to force the issue the mission in Afghanistan would be untenable.  A smaller force tailored to anti-terrorism operations could be sustained by air and via overland routes which pass through former Soviet republics but a heavy force of over 100,000 troops scattered across thousands of square miles of mountainous terrain cannot be sustained unless the supply lines for bulk fuel, water, food and heavy equipment are secure.

Logistics is not sexy but no modern military can do without it. You do not operate heavy mechanized forces in hostile territory without reliable supply lines. Simply ask the Germans in Stalingrad or the French at Dien Bien Phu how well they did when supplies were cut off.

It just doesn’t seem to me that most people especially politicians see the danger that US and NATO troops face in Afghanistan from forces that they cannot control in surrounding countries.  This is a dangerous situation and even if the current impasse is resolved the long-term outlook is bleak as long as the Pakistani regime plays both sides of the fence.

If the supply lines were severed for any length of time the mission in Afghanistan would have to be reevaluated and the possibility of military action to reopen them considered. At that point all bets are off and God help us.  It would not be good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Deep Thoughts and Musings on a Lazy Fall Saturday

I have been down with an ear and sinus infection most of the week which has added to my insomnia and made me pretty useless.  It is no fun to get up in the morning with vertigo.  When this happens I wonder where Verti went. Over the past few days with the vertigo, occasional fever, sinus headaches and some coughing and sneezing I have officially welcomed in the 2011-2012 cold and flu season.

The past few days have given me time to do a lot of thinking, some praying and a bunch of writing.  At least my PTSD-Mad Cow brain is functioning relatively well.  But not getting out much and only going to work to go to the doctor is a bit of a downer.  But it is now time to stop whining to you about this and simply be thankful for the blessings that I have.

I could have a job that had paid time off for sickness or that provided no medical coverage.  I could be wondering where the next meal or paycheck was coming from or where I will sleep.  One thing that I am thankful for is that we paid off a painful reminder of when where the next meal, tank of gas, medical care or pace to live was our reality.  I left the active duty Army in September 1988 to attend seminary and that as about the time of the big Texas oil bust and real estate collapse.  I was an Army Captain and couldn’t get a job because I was overqualified for most jobs or competing against people who could be paid less than me for others.  It was brutal.

Judy was sick and could not work and eventually despite eventually getting a job with a social service agency, things fell apart. We lost our home and even our cars.  It was the worst time of our lives.  We never declared bankruptcy and paid off everything that we owed and this week I paid off the balance of the home that we lost in 1989 to the Veterans Administration.  When the market crashed and the foreclosure came owed almost 40% of the selling price when the house sold at auction.

I am so grateful for what we have now and so being sick and laid up for a few days is really nothing to complain about.  There are far too many people in our country that even a couple of years ago had what they thought were stable well paying jobs with benefits that don’t have them now.  Many are veterans and their families.  It is most likely that things will get worse before they get better for most people as the effects of the sovereign debt and banking crisis in Europe hits our banks.

For me what people are going through is not abstract because we have been there. I really wonder when I see people in political and economic power doing nothing with one Presidential candidate blaming the unemployed if they didn’t have a job and were not rich.  I wonder what has happened to our country.  I wonder why so many churches side with the rich and powerful and seem to despise the poor.

It seems heartless to say the things that this Presidential candidate said with unemployment remaining over 9% for over a year and companies deciding when they do have a job opening to give preference to those that currently have jobs.  Even well qualified unemployed people are not even considered for job openings because they don’t have a job.  And this is happening when the supposed “job creators” on Wall Street who the taxpayers bailed out in 2008 and 2009 are giving themselves bonuses.  It just immoral and when I see many of my fellow Christians making the support of polices which are condemned by Jesus an article of faith in both theology and politics.

I have also had time to think about what is going on in the Middle East especially the Iraq withdraw and ongoing war in Afghanistan.  I am really concerned with Afghanistan because of the veiled threats that Pakistan is making about cutting our supply lines.  They have done this for short time periods before and there have been numerous attacks on supply convoys in that country by Pakistani Taliban.  To make matters even more uncertain Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that if there were a conflict between the United States and Pakistan that Afghanistan would help them.

Sometimes I hate being a military historian because I understand what happens to armies with tenuous supply lines that are under the control of unreliable allies.  Stalingrad comes to mind. Likewise the lesser known but very significant The Second Jassy-Kishinev Offensive between August 20 and August 29 1944 in which the Romanian allies of the Germans switched sides during the battle.  This allowed the Red Army to destroy the German 6th Army and maul the 8th Army. The offensive probably shortened the war by six months.  At Stalingrad the Germans and their allies suffered 841,000 casualties and at Jassy-Kishinev they lost 100,000 killed and 115,000 captured.  Currently there are about 90,000 American and another 40,000 NATO or coalition troops in Afghanistan deployed in penny packets throughout the country fighting an insurgency.  They are very vulnerable to any supply disruption especially during the winter months and if there was a conflict that shut down the supply lines we would have to rely on the good graces of the Russians to resupply or withdraw our troops. When I think about this I think about my friends and comrades serving in Afghanistan and I pray to God that this does not happen.

When I think that the burden of these wars has fallen on under half a percent of the American population and that politicians and their allies in the business sector are looking at ways to make substantial cutbacks in medical care and other benefits to those that have been sacrificing in ways that no one else has been doing the past ten years.  Talks of cutting VA care for veterans is obscene when because of their preexisting conditions they wouldn’t be able to afford medical insurance even if they could get it.  And the word that these politicians and their allies use is that these are “entitlements.”  That is a really nasty word and it is used pejoratively because everybody knows that “entitlement programs” are bad and those that receive “entitlements” haven’t earned them and are leaching off of society.  In fact a letter from the “Super Committee” in charge of finding ways to slash the budget has proposed cuts to veterans benefits including pension, disability compensation and education payments.

This is why I would rather be at work, I think too much.

But I am still grateful for all that I have and honored to serve with the fine men and women of the US Military in this time of war.  I do pray that things get better in our nation, which those suffering from the terrible economy will have their needs for employment and other physical needs met. I pray that somehow the deep division that has rent our people asunder will be healed and that our political and economic leaders will do what is right for the country and our people rather than the quarterly bottom line of select corporations.  And I pray for the safety and success of my friends and comrades in both Iraq and Afghanistan and that our political and business leaders will not sacrifice us and then abandon us after beating us to dust the past 10 years.

But at least the World Series is on and nothing bad accrues from Baseball.  For that I am very grateful as Sharon Olds said “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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