After calling for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Syria, President Trump is now in favor of keeping a “small…stabilizing force” there. What a shame. Trump is the ultimate flip-flopper, bowing to the neo-cons and the Washington establishment whenever it’s expedient for him to do so.
What, exactly, is America’s national security interest in Syria? Trump says these U.S. troops will help to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, but surely Syria, Turkey, Russia, and other countries in the region have more incentive — and far more capability — to keep the Islamic State down and out. But let’s say the Islamic State did make a comeback in Syria after all U.S. troops left. In that case, couldn’t U.S. troops just redeploy there? Why are “boots on the ground” needed in perpetuity in Syria to monitor the dead carcass of ISIS?
Once the U.S. commits troops to a region or country, they seem to linger — and linger. In rare cases when troops finally are withdrawn and something bad happens, you instantly hear how it’s the fault of those who called for troop withdrawals, as if U.S. troops bring stability wherever they go.
It’s a strange belief. The U.S. celebrates its troops as warriors, trains them in kinetic operations, outfits them with the most destructive technologies, and then deploys them to bring stability and peace to regions those troops barely understand. For a different vision of the “stability” American troops bring, one might ask the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to name only three recent examples.
It’s high time, America, that we bring the troops home. Our national defense is not advanced by worldwide troop deployments in the name of “stability.” Trump once seemed to recognize this, however fleetingly, as a candidate. As president, however, he’s become yet another pawn of U.S. military interventionists and neo-cons. As Trump would say, sad.
This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting. Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has. But North Korea isn’t stupid. They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya. For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.
Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program. Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?
If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii. But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification? Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? I’d say the answer to both questions is no.
Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea. Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea. Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War. Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.
Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace. Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un. Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love. And doesn’t love conquer all?
Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea. But who cares if lives are saved? Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid. Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.
At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos. I’d rather think of saving lives. Why not start in North Korea?
Most Americans would say we have a military for national defense and security. But our military is not a defensive force. Defense is not its ethos, nor is it how our military is structured. Our military is a power-projection force. It is an offensive force. It is designed to take the fight to the enemy. To strike first, usually justified as “preemptive” or “preventive” action. It’s a military that believes “the best defense is a good offense,” with leaders who believe in “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e. quick and overwhelming victories, enabled by superior technology and firepower, whether on the ground, on the seas, in the air, or even in space or cyberspace.
Thus the “global war on terror” wasn’t a misnomer, or at least the word “global” wasn’t. Consider the article below today at TomDispatch.com by Stephanie Savell. Our military is involved in at least 80 countries in this global war, with no downsizing of the mission evident in the immediate future (perhaps, perhaps, a slow withdrawal from Syria; perhaps, perhaps, a winding down of the Afghan War; meanwhile, we hear rumblings of possible military interventions in Venezuela and Iran).
Here’s a sad reality: U.S. military troops and military contractors/weapons dealers have become America’s chief missionaries, our ambassadors, our diplomats, our aid workers, even our “peace” corps, if by “peace” you mean more weaponry and combat training in the name of greater “stability.”
We’ve become a one-dimensional country. All military all the time. W.J. Astore
Mapping the American War on Terror Now in 80 Countries, It Couldn’t Be More Global
By Stephanie Savell
In September 2001, the Bush administration launched the “Global War on Terror.” Though “global” has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren’t kidding.
When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be. I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria — the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror — as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map U.S. counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).
As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I’m all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss — conservatively estimated — of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.
In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington’s counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it’s time to pay attention. Recently, the Trump administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places. That our counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the U.S. and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn’t there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?
Combat or “Training” and “Assisting”?
The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the U.S. government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering the citizens of this country, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet, in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.
This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some lesser known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled “train, advise, and assist” missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between “assistance” and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.
Some outstanding investigative journalists have documented the way this shadow war has been playing out, predominantly in Africa. In Niger in October 2017, as journalists subsequently revealed, what was officially a training mission proved to be a “kill or capture” operation directed at a suspected terrorist.
Such missions occur regularly. In Kenya, for instance, American service members are actively hunting the militants of al-Shabaab, a US-designated terrorist group. In Tunisia, there was at least one outright battle between joint U.S.-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. Indeed, two U.S. service members were later awarded medals of valor for their actions there, a clue that led journalists to discover that there had been a battle in the first place.
In yet other African countries, U.S. Special Operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” — but actually in charge of — their African counterparts. In creating our database, we erred on the side of caution, only documenting combat in countries where we had at least two credible sources of proof, and checking in with experts and journalists who could provide us with additional information. In other words, American troops have undoubtedly been engaged in combat in even more places than we’ve been able to document.
Another striking finding in our research was just how many countries there were — 65 in all — in which the U.S. “trains” and/or “assists” local security forces in counterterrorism. While the military does much of this training, the State Department is also surprisingly heavily involved, funding and training police, military, and border patrol agents in many countries. It also donates equipment, including vehicle X-ray detection machines and contraband inspection kits. In addition, it develops programs it labels “Countering Violent Extremism,” which represent a soft-power approach, focusing on public education and other tools to “counter terrorist safe havens and recruitment.”
Such training and assistance occurs across the Middle East and Africa, as well as in some places in Asia and Latin America. American “law enforcement entities” trained security forces in Brazil to monitor terrorist threats in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for example (and continued the partnership in 2017). Similarly, U.S. border patrol agents worked with their counterparts in Argentina to crack down on suspected money laundering by terrorist groups in the illicit marketplaces of the tri-border region that lies between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
To many Americans, all of this may sound relatively innocuous — like little more than generous, neighborly help with policing or a sensibly self-interested fighting-them-over-there-before-they-get-here set of policies. But shouldn’t we know better after all these years of hearing such claims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the results were anything but harmless or effective?
Such training has often fed into, or been used for, the grimmest of purposes in the many countries involved. In Nigeria, for instance, the U.S. military continues to work closely with local security forces which have used torture and committed extrajudicial killings, as well as engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. In the Philippines, it has conducted large-scale joint military exercises in cooperation with President Rodrigo Duterte’s military, even as the police at his command continue to inflict horrific violence on that country’s citizenry.
The government of Djibouti, which for years has hosted the largest U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also uses its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute internal dissidents. The State Department has not attempted to hide the way its own training programs have fed into a larger kind of repression in that country (and others). According to its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, a document that annually provides Congress with an overview of terrorism and anti-terror cooperation with the United States in a designated set of countries, in Djibouti, “the government continued to use counterterrorism legislation to suppress criticism by detaining and prosecuting opposition figures and other activists.”
In that country and many other allied nations, Washington’s terror-training programs feed into or reinforce human-rights abuses by local forces as authoritarian governments adopt “anti-terrorism” as the latest excuse for repressive practices of all sorts.
A Vast Military Footprint
As we were trying to document those 65 training-and-assistance locations of the U.S. military, the State Department reports proved an important source of information, even if they were often ambiguous about what was really going on. They regularly relied on loose terms like “security forces,” while failing to directly address the role played by our military in each of those countries.
Sometimes, as I read them and tried to figure out what was happening in distant lands, I had a nagging feeling that what the American military was doing, rather than coming into focus, was eternally receding from view. In the end, we felt certain in identifying those 14 countries in which American military personnel have seen combat in the war on terror in 2017-2018. We also found it relatively easy to document the seven countries in which, in the last two years, the U.S. has launched drone or other air strikes against what the government labels terrorist targets (but which regularly kill civilians as well): Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. These were the highest-intensity elements of that U.S. global war. However, this still represented a relatively small portion of the 80 countries we ended up including on our map.
In part, that was because I realized that the U.S. military tends to advertise — or at least not hide — many of the military exercises it directs or takes part in abroad. After all, these are intended to display the country’s global military might, deter enemies (in this case, terrorists), and bolster alliances with strategically chosen allies. Such exercises, which we documented as being explicitly focused on counterterrorism in 26 countries, along with lands which host American bases or smaller military outposts also involved in anti-terrorist activities, provide a sense of the armed forces’ behemoth footprint in the war on terror.
Although there are more than 800 American military bases around the world, we included in our map only those 40 countries in which such bases are directly involved in the counterterror war, including Germany and other European nations that are important staging areas for American operations in the Middle East and Africa.
To sum up: our completed map indicates that, in 2017 and 2018, seven countries were targeted by U.S. air strikes; double that number were sites where American military personnel engaged directly in ground combat; 26 countries were locations for joint military exercises; 40 hosted bases involved in the war on terror; and in 65, local military and security forces received counterterrorism-oriented “training and assistance.”
A Better Grand Plan
How often in the last 17 years has Congress or the American public debated the expansion of the war on terror to such a staggering range of places? The answer is: seldom indeed.
After so many years of silence and inactivity here at home, recent media and congressional attention to American wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen represents a new trend. Members of Congress have finally begun calling for discussion of parts of the war on terror. Last Wednesday, for instance, the House of Representatives voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the Senate has passed legislation requiring Congress to vote on the same issue sometime in the coming months.
On February 6th, the House Armed Services Committee finally held a hearing on the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism approach” — a subject Congress as a whole has notdebated since, several days after the 9/11 attacks, it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have all used to wage the ongoing global war. Congress has not debated or voted on the sprawling expansion of that effort in all the years since. And judging from the befuddled reactions of several members of Congress to the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger in 2017, most of them were (and many probably still are) largely ignorant of how far the global war they’ve seldom bothered to discuss now reaches.
With potential shifts afoot in Trump administration policy on Syria and Afghanistan, isn’t it finally time to assess in the broadest possible way the necessity and efficacy of extending the war on terror to so many different places? Research has shown that using war to address terror tactics is a fruitless approach. Quite the opposite of achieving this country’s goals, from Libya to Syria, Niger to Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence abroad has often only fueled intense resentment of America. It has helped to both spread terror movements and provide yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.
In the name of the war on terror in countries like Somalia, diplomatic activities, aid, and support for human rights have dwindled in favor of an ever more militarized American stance. Yet research shows that, in the long term, it is far more effective and sustainable to address the underlying grievances that fuel terrorist violence than to answer them on the battlefield.
All told, it should be clear that another kind of grand plan is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism both globally and to Americans — one that relies on a far smaller U.S. military footprint and costs far less blood and treasure. It’s also high time to put this threat in context and acknowledge that other developments, like climate change, may pose a far greater danger to our country.
The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed. Here’s the first:
NEWS ANALYSIS Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean By MARK LANDLER, HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.
Think about this. What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months? The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?
Here is the second headline:
To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction By MUJIB MASHAL A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.
So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation. Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?
No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement. That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.
Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles. And we should keep doing this?
From the SIGAR report (RS is Resolute Support, ostensibly a NATO mission to support the Afghan government, but of course commanded and driven by the U.S.):
— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.
— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.
— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.
— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.
— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.
— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.
Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.” On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.” In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.
Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed. This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO. One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO. Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.
With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998. Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:
The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning. But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated. That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers. The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests. However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.
General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership. Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities. General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.
On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations. Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.” He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples? General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.
The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members. Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion. If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite. Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia. In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations. But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia. Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council. Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require. It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another. Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary. He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.
One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states. Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them. It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West. The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state. How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship? Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions? Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion? If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history? If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union? Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.
Again, this was written 20 years ago. But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.
In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose. They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia. These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.
Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO. In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box. After all, how long should NATO last? Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end? Or is NATO to exist forever?
Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S. But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017. Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there. Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).
Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:
We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.
But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.
These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:
The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11. Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left. The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous. Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
“Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan. In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
“A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region. The results? The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished. How is this “very useful” to the United States?
A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades? Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
No “victory parade.” At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.
It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan. But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”
Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.
The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region. Victory or defeat doesn’t matter. What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment. Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”
The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA. We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system. To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education. To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.
When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.