A Middle East 'Complete Strategy'? To What End?

“Strategy” is the summer watchword in Washington -- strategy for handling ISIS, strategy for Syria, strategy for Middle East peace. The President says, “We don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” for ISIS, but presumably one will emerge. In this atmosphere, the debate over sending more American troops to Iraq, and in what capacity, flows in a vacuum -- not a vacuum of strategy, but the vacuum produced by the absence of articulated goals to which strategy can be applied. What is the American goal? What is our national interest? Is it:

  • To degrade and defeat ISIS?
  • To maintain a unitary country called Iraq?
  • To sustain the Shiite Assad government as a better alternative than Sunni groups? For whom?
  • To avoid alienating the government of Iran? Until the nuclear deal has been inked or as a gateway to improved relations on a wider scale?
  • To encourage Iranian expansion in primarily Shiite areas to “balance” Sunni majorities elsewhere in the hope of achieving “stability”?

The U.S. military will do what it is asked to do -- occupy Baghdad or Damascus, or bomb them both back to the Stone Age. Whatever the civilian authorities require. But without answers to policy questions, without the establishment of national goals and interests, sending more troops to Iraq -- whether as trainers, warfighters or hand-holders -- sends American soldiers to a war zone without a militarily achievable objective.

This, no Commander in Chief should ever do.

The Washington Post expressed some surprise this weekend that the American military is pushing back against President Obama and the State Department’s consideration of more troops on the ground in Iraq. It shouldn’t be a surprise that military officers expect a proper mission and are reluctant to be deployed without one. “After the past 12 years in the Middle East, there is a real focus by senior military leaders on understanding what the endgame is,” said a military official in the article, “and asking the question, ‘To what end are we doing this?’ ”

Taking the President at his word, the defeat of ISIS is paramount. This means reducing the territory in which ISIS can operate and forcing it out of population centers in which it has been hiding. Since this will not be done by American fighting forces, it is essential for the U.S. Air Force and American advisers to work with the best ground forces already in place. It argues for arming Kurdish forces directly. There are approximately 160,000 Kurdish fighters facing ISIS; they have little but experience, determination and proximity to the enemy. They are our allies.

The U.S., however, does not consider the Kurds a separate and allied partner, and provides aid to Kurdish forces only through Baghdad, thus ensuring that little equipment or money reaches their forces. The policy suggests a higher priority on maintaining a unitary Iraq than on defeating ISIS. An Iraq in which a weak Baghdad is beholden to Tehran serves Iran’s interest (and Turkey’s interest in limiting Kurdish autonomy or plans for independence). The U.S. acknowledges working with Iran -- in fact serving as the air arm of the IRGC -- but only because the ISIS threat is so grave (“We worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler,” has been heard from administration sources.). If Iran, why not the Kurds?

Instead, the U.S. is determined to build two separate armies from almost the bottom up -- the “moderate Syrian rebels” and a reconstituted Iraqi military.

In what appears to be another bow in the direction of Iran, the U.S. plans to train 5,000 “moderate Syrian rebels” annually, but not allow them to attack their preferred target, the Assad government. If all goes well, it will take approximately 32 years to field a force as large as the one the Kurds have now. And that force still has to be convinced to use its American training against its Sunni ISIS cousins rather than the government that is starving Syrian Sunnis and dropping chlorine bombs in civilian areas.

As for the Iraqi army, it is not the force we trained. Mostly Shiite led, it fights in conjunction with Shiite militias and Iranian “advisers,” meaning local Iraqi Sunnis are asked to accept Shiite military forces gaining control of their territory in order to kill other Sunnis. The new U.S. plan to create a series of American-run, behind the lines training bases called “lily pads,” evokes unbidden memories of the “hamlet” strategy of Vietnam.

Not all the action is actually in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is providing additional arms and direct intelligence to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is closely allied with Hezb’allah which is fighting for its Iranian sponsors in Syria. Couple this with the fact that the U.S. has terminated funding for Lebanese Shiite civil society groups that provide a non-Hezb’allah perspective in that weak and fragile country. The U.S. has by its actions accepted that Hezb’allah -- a group on the U.S. terror list -- is not only the true source of power in Lebanon, abandoning Sunnis, Christians and Druze, but a legitimate player in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran.

The net effect is the United States paving the way for Iran and Iraqi Shiites to control the territory of Iraq, protect the Shiite Assad government in Syria, and extend Iranian/Hezb’allah control of Lebanon. The “Shiite Crescent” from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea that was much discussed in the 1980s and 1990s is finding fruition in the second decade of the 21st Century with active American assistance.

There is no reason -- no excuse -- for expending American blood and treasure to that end.

Strategy emerges in response to objectives. Franklin Roosevelt’s objective in Europe was, “Total Surrender.” Winston Churchill, a product of the history of endless European wars that just preceded the next war, tried to convince Roosevelt that it was impossible and that Germany just had to be pushed back and punished. But Roosevelt was adamant. With goal in hand, Eisenhower had the hard, ugly, but doable job of marshalling resources to fight the war and bring home the victory his civilian Commander in Chief demanded.

Those who would send American troops abroad owe the troops, their families, and their country a clear definition of American national interest, an achievable military objective, and an answer to the question, “To what end?”

“Strategy” is the summer watchword in Washington -- strategy for handling ISIS, strategy for Syria, strategy for Middle East peace. The President says, “We don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” for ISIS, but presumably one will emerge. In this atmosphere, the debate over sending more American troops to Iraq, and in what capacity, flows in a vacuum -- not a vacuum of strategy, but the vacuum produced by the absence of articulated goals to which strategy can be applied. What is the American goal? What is our national interest? Is it:

  • To degrade and defeat ISIS?
  • To maintain a unitary country called Iraq?
  • To sustain the Shiite Assad government as a better alternative than Sunni groups? For whom?
  • To avoid alienating the government of Iran? Until the nuclear deal has been inked or as a gateway to improved relations on a wider scale?
  • To encourage Iranian expansion in primarily Shiite areas to “balance” Sunni majorities elsewhere in the hope of achieving “stability”?

The U.S. military will do what it is asked to do -- occupy Baghdad or Damascus, or bomb them both back to the Stone Age. Whatever the civilian authorities require. But without answers to policy questions, without the establishment of national goals and interests, sending more troops to Iraq -- whether as trainers, warfighters or hand-holders -- sends American soldiers to a war zone without a militarily achievable objective.

This, no Commander in Chief should ever do.

The Washington Post expressed some surprise this weekend that the American military is pushing back against President Obama and the State Department’s consideration of more troops on the ground in Iraq. It shouldn’t be a surprise that military officers expect a proper mission and are reluctant to be deployed without one. “After the past 12 years in the Middle East, there is a real focus by senior military leaders on understanding what the endgame is,” said a military official in the article, “and asking the question, ‘To what end are we doing this?’ ”

Taking the President at his word, the defeat of ISIS is paramount. This means reducing the territory in which ISIS can operate and forcing it out of population centers in which it has been hiding. Since this will not be done by American fighting forces, it is essential for the U.S. Air Force and American advisers to work with the best ground forces already in place. It argues for arming Kurdish forces directly. There are approximately 160,000 Kurdish fighters facing ISIS; they have little but experience, determination and proximity to the enemy. They are our allies.

The U.S., however, does not consider the Kurds a separate and allied partner, and provides aid to Kurdish forces only through Baghdad, thus ensuring that little equipment or money reaches their forces. The policy suggests a higher priority on maintaining a unitary Iraq than on defeating ISIS. An Iraq in which a weak Baghdad is beholden to Tehran serves Iran’s interest (and Turkey’s interest in limiting Kurdish autonomy or plans for independence). The U.S. acknowledges working with Iran -- in fact serving as the air arm of the IRGC -- but only because the ISIS threat is so grave (“We worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler,” has been heard from administration sources.). If Iran, why not the Kurds?

Instead, the U.S. is determined to build two separate armies from almost the bottom up -- the “moderate Syrian rebels” and a reconstituted Iraqi military.

In what appears to be another bow in the direction of Iran, the U.S. plans to train 5,000 “moderate Syrian rebels” annually, but not allow them to attack their preferred target, the Assad government. If all goes well, it will take approximately 32 years to field a force as large as the one the Kurds have now. And that force still has to be convinced to use its American training against its Sunni ISIS cousins rather than the government that is starving Syrian Sunnis and dropping chlorine bombs in civilian areas.

As for the Iraqi army, it is not the force we trained. Mostly Shiite led, it fights in conjunction with Shiite militias and Iranian “advisers,” meaning local Iraqi Sunnis are asked to accept Shiite military forces gaining control of their territory in order to kill other Sunnis. The new U.S. plan to create a series of American-run, behind the lines training bases called “lily pads,” evokes unbidden memories of the “hamlet” strategy of Vietnam.

Not all the action is actually in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is providing additional arms and direct intelligence to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is closely allied with Hezb’allah which is fighting for its Iranian sponsors in Syria. Couple this with the fact that the U.S. has terminated funding for Lebanese Shiite civil society groups that provide a non-Hezb’allah perspective in that weak and fragile country. The U.S. has by its actions accepted that Hezb’allah -- a group on the U.S. terror list -- is not only the true source of power in Lebanon, abandoning Sunnis, Christians and Druze, but a legitimate player in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran.

The net effect is the United States paving the way for Iran and Iraqi Shiites to control the territory of Iraq, protect the Shiite Assad government in Syria, and extend Iranian/Hezb’allah control of Lebanon. The “Shiite Crescent” from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea that was much discussed in the 1980s and 1990s is finding fruition in the second decade of the 21st Century with active American assistance.

There is no reason -- no excuse -- for expending American blood and treasure to that end.

Strategy emerges in response to objectives. Franklin Roosevelt’s objective in Europe was, “Total Surrender.” Winston Churchill, a product of the history of endless European wars that just preceded the next war, tried to convince Roosevelt that it was impossible and that Germany just had to be pushed back and punished. But Roosevelt was adamant. With goal in hand, Eisenhower had the hard, ugly, but doable job of marshalling resources to fight the war and bring home the victory his civilian Commander in Chief demanded.

Those who would send American troops abroad owe the troops, their families, and their country a clear definition of American national interest, an achievable military objective, and an answer to the question, “To what end?”