Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Slippery Toe-hold in Syria

If 18-months ago if you told someone a US Army 4-star would be walking through downtown Raqqa w/o body armor and uncovered, they would have thought you mad.

Here we are.
The calm. When Gen. Joseph Votel emerged from the dank tunnels where ISIS tortured its victims before executing them in the soccer stadium above, he walked somberly back to his convoy of grimy pickup trucks. The leader of U.S. Central Command was struck, he said, by the calm and industriousness of people who have come back to Raqqa to rebuild “some semblance of a normal life.”
What an incredibly undertold story this chapter in the Syrian Civil War is.

I like the following bit from Votel a lot. A lot.
But hours later, after a driving, walking, and aerial tour of the city ISIS once called the capital of its caliphate, and meetings with U.S. and local troops in the surrounding region, Votel grew more passionate, pointed, and frustrated.

“I will point out to you [that] the people on the ground in Northern Syria is the United States. But there are others who should be doing some more here, and need to do more. This is a problem,” he said, firmly tapping his fingers into the desk.

Such as?

“Such as – everybody!”
We are in a strange place in Syria - very strange. No one wants to be here. You hear a lot of warbling in the West about Syria ... but who is doing anything of substance? A few ... but only if the USA is on point, so here we are.

My preference is that we get out as soon as we can, but how do we do that without creating undesirable effects? 
The biggest obstacle to that end concerns questions of international law. The U.S. is here through no invitation from the Assad regime. Military commanders punted all questions about the legality of their operations to administration lawyers. But they recognized it is one reason the Americans feel they’re out here alone. Votel knows it’s a problem.

“Part of the reason why we have difficulty in this part of Syria — in Syria — is that we do not have the support, we do not have a centralized government that can orchestrate this, or can give permission for this. It’s my understanding the United Nations and many of the organizations will not come in here unless they do have the permission of the centralized government, and they don’t have that,” he said. Nor did anyone address Assad’s backers: Russia.

In other words, Raqqa may not get the international aid Votel wants until Assad asks for it, or until Assad has left power via a Geneva peace process few see coming anytime soon, and one the White House has shown few signs of prioritizing.
Some day will come when the USA will not be the indispensable nation; but today is not that day.
USAID Administrator Mark Green accompanied Votel, making him the senior-most civilian in the Trump administration to visit the country. Green said the U.S. recognizes the importance of Syria and pointed to Tillerson’s speech about extending the U.S. presence, but said it should not be open-ended.

“We all recognize there has to be some kind of a political solution. We recognize that. What that all entails, what that looks like is not clear at this point.”

In Baghdad on Sunday, other senior U.S. military officials said they will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the SDF. “At a significant cost, they continue to rid the world of ISIS,” said Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, who leads Special Operations Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. “What did Secretary Tillerson say the other day? What has Sec. Mattis said? We are going to be with them until we get a political solution in Geneva.”

“We should look at what have they done,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. “They’re still focused on defeating Daesh. They still are. And they’re doing a tremendous job.”
There is so much more to play out in Syria, but I still feel that as a default, we should back out under favorable conditions. One thing we can't do is to stay so long that we are being forced out.

No good for anyone will come from that.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Once and Future Arab Spring

One of the most under-reported stories of 2017 - to our great collective shame - was the almost complete destruction of the Islamic State's caliphate (minus a few holdouts). This was done mostly through local forces enabled by newly invigorated USA-led Western capabilities in support. Russia deserves a best supporting actor mention as well - but that is a different topic for a different day.

There are many more chapters in the Long War to come, but as this one comes to and end, we need to remember how we got here.

Over at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain has an interesting take that deserves your consideration. Some of his writing comes from an angle you may not read all that often.
Among the revolutionaries there was a democratic trend that included liberal activists, nationalists, and Islamist groups willing to engage in the electoral process. Alongside the democrats was a violent, wildly utopian religious movement launched by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Muslim societies and recreate them as a “caliphate” — an imaginary community where all the world’s Muslims would ostensibly live happily-ever-after under the rule of jihadis.

The democratic movements were largely crushed by the brutal response of local dictators. The jihadis, meanwhile, briefly managed to achieve a version of their caliphate, only to see it destroyed in a final cataclysm. But while the core idea that animated the Arab democrats continues to be attractive despite its repression, the utopian project of the jihadis has been undermined in critical ways by its failure.
IS should never have existed - but there was an opening when the chaos of the Syrian civil war coincided with the disastrous early withdrawal of USA forces from Iraq. It took the opportunity and created a nightmare.

Its strategic Center of Gravity was always the religious justification for its existence. It had to be destroyed by Muslim forces, on local terms, in order to make sure that CoG was thoroughly undermined. The Trump administration annihilation policy in support of local forces made this more effective.
The defeat of the Islamic State might ironically be a letdown for some in the West. Western politicians, military officials, and their assorted hangers-on in the media and think tank world have already begun planning for a long war against “global jihadism,” an analogue to the Cold War that would justify their inflated budgets and provide a continued sense of purpose. Unlike communism or nationalism, however, there’s little indication that apocalyptic jihadism as an ideology is attractive or sustainable enough to meaningfully compete with Western democracies in the way that those ideologies did. Diehard Islamic State sympathizers may continue committing individual acts of terrorism for the foreseeable future and mini proto-states pledging allegiance to the group will still proliferate, but the rapid rise and fall of the caliphate demonstrates an important lesson about the fundamentally self-destructive nature of millenarian movements.
Exactly. Recognize what they are, ID their weakness, destroy it. Notsomuch a national or ethnic movement - but a movement based on a cult-like belief system - but here is a critical point that the author mentions but underplays; there is not an insignificant religious basis for their actions. Destroying such systems are not easy, but once defeated, the intrinsic fragility of its foundation can make its immediate defeat effective. We did it with Nazism, and mostly to State Communism. Both of those movements have something in common with Islamic terrorist movements;
Instead of a return to traditional values, Saleh describes Salafi jihadism as the latest iteration of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: nihilism. A philosophy with its roots in 19th century Europe, nihilism denies that the material world and life itself hold any intrinsic value or meaning. While nihilism does not inevitably lead to violence, its world-denying tenets helped inspire numerous campaigns of terrorism by its adherents. In Europe, where atheism had already become normative, local expressions of nihilism were atheistic. But in Muslim-majority societies like Syria, nihilism “looks for its pillars of support in the religion of Islam,” Saleh says.

The nihilism analogy goes deeper into the practices of groups like the Islamic State. Suicide and murder are normally considered to be grave sins by Muslims. But during periods of widespread crisis and trauma, radical groups like the Islamic State exploit a cognitive opening to try to portray these acts as acceptable, even positive. The religious concept of an afterlife is also twisted to support a nihilistic worldview, by devaluing acts committed in the material world in favor of a promised hereafter.

Yet this radical inversion of traditional values is not one that has shown itself to be appealing to large groups of people in Muslim countries. Rather than a mass movement with deep social and cultural roots, Saleh says that jihadism relies mainly on exploiting conditions of crisis to coerce the support of people who would normally find its tenets repellent.
Though I'm not in full alignment with Saleh quoted here, he is not wrong on all counts. Percentage matter - especially when the majority is powerless and supine - but this is a global war in the small details vice broad fronts;
“There is a lot of attention to jihadism because it feeds into the narrative of the U.S. global war against terrorism and because Western media and politicians are generally obsessed with Islam. But I don’t think we should be deceived by this — we are not talking about a civilizational conflict here,” says Saleh. “These are armed groups that combine religion with military training and fascist educational indoctrination. But they are mainly concerned with violence. They do not have any meaningful social, political, or cultural base, nor do they offer any real emancipatory potential for Muslim societies.”
There is one big difference between the IS's philosophical underpinnings and those of the Nazis and Communists the author references for comparison; they were secular philosophies - this is religious.

For all its faults, there are hooks in Islamic teachings to justify what the IS did. The IS is almost gone, but the hooks remain - just waiting for someone else using a different name and justification to hang their bag on.
While the movements were not morally equivalent, sometimes the intensity of the conversion experience for jihadi recruits and former communist revolutionaries were not dissimilar. Arthur Koestler described his initial belief that Soviet communism would liberate the oppressed masses of Europe as a feeling of “mental rapture,” in which “the new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull [and] the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw.” The euphoria of that conversion was equaled only by the pain of his eventual disillusionment.

“Though we wore blinkers, we were not blind,” Koestler reflected. “Even the most fanatical among us could not help noticing that all was not well in our movement.”

Surveying the destruction of ancient cities like Raqqa and Mosul, and the millions of shattered lives left in the wake of the Islamic State’s failed revolution, it’s hard not see the group, now stripped of its power, as anything other than the latest, most fanatic attempt to remedy the ills of long-tyrannized societies. Although jihadis may be killed and their ideology may even fall out of favor, until the people of the region experience genuine emancipation, there is unlikely to be an end to terrorist violence, nor to radical armed groups promising to bring heaven down to earth by any means necessary.
There is much unfinished business in the Arab world and the non-Arab Muslim outer belts.

History is not done here - and for the West, the Long War is not going away.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Surface Readiness; History, Causes, & Cures with Kevin Eyer - on Midrats

After the events of the last year in WESTPAC, there is general agreement that there is something wrong with our surface force. There have always been "incidents" involving warships - including tremendous loss of life. This time, things seem different - and we are still only in the beginning of a general reassessment of what needs to be done to make our surface navy better.

Our guest this week from 5-6pm Eastern Sunday to explore these and related issues will be Kevin Eyer, CAPT USN (Ret.). As a starting off point, we will review his JAN 2018 article in the US Naval Institute, Proceedings, What Happened To Our Surface Forces?

Kevin is a retired Surface Warfare Captain and the son of a Surface Warfare Captain. He graduated from Penn State, after which he served in seven cruisers, ultimately commanding three; Thomas S. Gates, Shiloh and Chancellorsville. He has served on the Navy Staff, the Joint Staff, and he attained his masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University. Captain Eyer is a frequent contributor to Proceedings Magazine, and a regular commentator on Navy issues.

Join us live if you can, but if you miss the show you can always listen to the archive at blogtalkradio or Stitcher

If you use iTunes, you can add Midrats to your podcast list simply by clicking the iTunes button at the main showpage - or you can just click here.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fullbore Friday

So, what did you do to serve your nation? When you finally are realeased from your mortal coil, what will be your benchmark?

Few would be able to match a Shipmate who had a long life well lived. Rest easy Admiral.
Stansfield Turner, a Navy admiral and Rhodes Scholar who was Director of Central Intelligence under President Jimmy Carter, died on Jan. 18 at home in Seattle, Washington. He was 94.
Put some of his politics to the side if you must, he was a player and a patriot - and the author of my favorite quote about Bulgaria.
The retired admiral became a strong advocate for nuclear arms control after his tenure at the CIA, arguing that the United States and Russia had more atomic warheads than they could possibly use and warning that arms control was in trouble.

Turner, who taught at the University of Maryland after leaving the CIA, published several books, including “Caging the Nuclear Genie: An American Challenge for Global Security,” where he first proposed his idea of “strategic escrow.”

The seeds of his hostility toward nuclear weapons were sown in 1970 when he commanded a U.S. carrier group in the eastern Mediterranean. He wanted to know the specific targets of his pilots in the event of war with the Soviet Union.

One young pilot told him that his target for nuclear attack was a rail bridge in Bulgaria. The bridge was so small it did not show up on photographs of targets taken by sophisticated air reconnaissance.

Turner was astonished.

“Nothing in Bulgaria was worth a nuclear weapon,” he told reporters in the 1990s.

In a statement, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, said: “Admiral Turner was a devoted patriot and public servant who led our Agency through a turbulent period of history, including both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. An analyst at heart, Admiral Turner championed analytic innovation and applied his extensive military knowledge and insight to the challenges of the day, even taking a direct role in preparing the annual estimates on Soviet offensive strategic nuclear forces.”
A little side-note about the picture I picked. When on active duty, he served during a period between a humble and modest Navy, and the "everyone gets a trophy" Navy where everyone and their mother gets a ribbon or medal. After Vietnam, we chased the Army in getting blinged up.

You can see later pictures when he was C6F where he gets the then new SWO pin and assorted additional flair.

You have to admit, there was something sound and secure where being a Surface Warfare Officer was just assumed for a line officer not a submarine or air type. You didn't need a bunch of NORK surplus bling.

You just were, and that was enough. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Note to a Rump Admiralty

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice.

Ye are a factious Admiralty, and enemies to all good fleet development.

Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your Navy for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your Sailors for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Ye have no more knowledge of history than my horse. A board of directors seat after retirement is your geedunk. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for good press? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the future Navy?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Nimitz’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?

Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole fleet. You were deputed here by the nation to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this fleet; and which by Neptune’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lineal number, to depart immediately out of this place.

Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of Neptune, go!

Apologies to the Lord Protector.

If you want to know what all this Tom-foolery is about - head on over to USNIBlog.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Putting the Long War on the Map

Over 16 years in to The Long War, it is time for a SITREP.

Let's give a nod to Tom Engelhardt over at WiB,
More than a decade and a half after an American president spoke of 60 or more countries as potential targets, thanks to the invaluable work of a single dedicated group, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, we finally have a visual representation of the true extent of the war on terror.

I never really liked the term "GWOT," as terrorism is a technique - but I understand why it was chosen. Simple really, as we couldn't say what it was really all about; a war on radical Sunni fundamentalist (Salafist in clunky shorthand) aggression.
A glance at the map tells you that the war on terror, an increasingly complex set of intertwined conflicts, is now a remarkably global phenomenon. It stretches from The Philippines through South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and deep into West Africa where, only recently, four Green Berets died in an ambush in Niger.

No less stunning is the number of countries Washington’s war on terror has touched in some fashion. Once, of course, there was only one. Now, the Costs of War Project identifies no less than 76 countries, 39 percent of those on the planet, as involved in that global conflict.
Tom points to the highlights from the Cost of War project.

The numbers are staggering;
In a separate study, released in November 2017, the Costs of War Project estimated that the price tag on the war on terror, with some future expenses included, had already reached an astronomical $5.6 trillion.

Only recently, however, Pres. Donald Trump, now escalating those conflicts, tweeted an even more staggering figure. “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!”

This figure, too, seems to have come in some fashion from the Costs of War estimate that “future interest payments on borrowing for the wars will likely add more than $7.9 trillion to the national debt” by mid-century.

It couldn’t have been a rarer comment from an American politician, as in these years assessments of both the monetary and human costs of war have largely been left to small groups of scholars and activists. The war on terror has, in fact, spread in the fashion today’s map lays out with almost no serious debate in this country about its costs or results.
Here is one bit of info I'd love to see - more metrics.

For a start;
- What is the % of GDP over the last 16 years the USA spent on the war? How about GBR, DEU, FRA, JPN, AUS, ESP & CAN?
- What is the ratio to citizens killed by terrorists to the amount of money spent on the war?
- What is the ratio of military members killed fighting the war to civilians killed by Salafist terrorists?

Is this really a global war, or just our war? Are we achieving our goals, just mowing the grass, or creating a larger problem? Perhaps all three?

Hat tip Anna Jackman.

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK Jr.; 1st Person Spoken Word

2/3 of what I have read and heard today has not been worthy of that great American patriot, Martin Luther King, Jr.

As with many historical characters, it is best to go with primary sources.

Arguably his most important speech is below, with the text.

Ignore how people are trying to shoehorn MLK Jr. in to their 2018 agenda. Just listen to the man.