The War with Iran 10 January 2020.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created both opportunities and dangers for Iran.  On the one hand, it toppled an enemy leader (Saddam Hussein) and liberated the fellow Shi’ites of Iraq to dominate a “democratic” government.  On the other hand, it put the powerful military of Iran’s American enemy right on the country’s door-step.[1]

An important role in developing the opportunities and confronting the dangers fell to General Qassim Suleimani.  Suleimani occupied a powerful position in Iran’s government.  The New York Times has described him as “an American vice president, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and C.I.A. director rolled into one.”[2]  Suleimani worked to increase the power of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, extend Iranian influence over Iraq and into Syria, and push the Americans to pull out.  Some Americans and a good many Iraqis died in the ensuing violence.  Both the Bush II and Obama administrations had thought about killing him.  Both seem to have decided that killing Suleimani would not advance American strategic interests at those particular times.  Clearly, President Trump and his closest advisors made a different decision.  On 3 January 2020, an American drone fired two missiles that killed Suleimani and some of his myrmidons.

It is impossible at this early date to foresee the long-term consequences.  Still, it is possible to suggest some factors that will influence events.  First, the killing of Suleimani is unlikely to deepen the existing abyssal hostility between the two nations.[3]

Second, domestic factors will push Iran to retaliate for the assassination.  General Suleimani in the front rank of Iran’s leaders.  Trying to deter the United States from weeding-out other leaders could push Iran’s hardliners toward action.  The same is true of maintaining the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  You can’t get out big crowds every year to chant “Death to America!” in the streets and then go “Never mind” when you get slapped in public.

Third, there is a huge imbalance of power between the United States and Iran.  American superiority in conventional weapons would probably preclude a real Iranian conventional attack on American forces.  The recent missile strike in Iraq both hit a remote facility with few Americans present and was telegraphed hours in advance to allow the Americans to take cover.  At the same time, President Trump claims to want to end the “endless wars” launched by the Bush II Administration.  That desire should bar any attack on Iran by American ground forces.

This reality could shape the behavior of both sides.  Iran can pursue an “asymmetrical” response.  Iran could use allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Iraqi Shi’ites to attack American forces or American interests.  Those would not have to be limited to the Persian Gulf or even to the Middle East.  One key factor might be how robust are American defense and intelligence resources for dealing with such “asymmetrical” threats.

On the other hand, American air power is there and ready to be used.  For example, Iran firing missiles at American ships in or around the Persian Gulf would trigger air strikes.  Those strikes might not be very restricted.  They would inflict still greater public humiliation on the regime.

So, future headlines may be full of car bombs and “smart” bombs.

[1] At the same time, the Americans were occupying Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern border.  You can see how Iranian leaders might get a little skittish.

[2] Max Fisher, “Is There a Chance Of a Wider War?” New York Times, 4 January 2020; Amanda Taub, “Will Strike Deter Attacks, Or Lead to Even More?” NYT, 5 January 2020.

[3] It is now impossible to know if the policy pursued by the Obama administration would have led to an actual improvement of Iranian-American relations or merely postponed the current confrontation.

The Attack on Iran 9 January 2020.

“Trump did it, so it must be the wrong thing.”  Fair rule of thumb/heuristic device.  However, seen in a historical perspective, some further thought may be in order.

First, the military historian John Keegan dissected the liberal mindset with regard to international order on the eve of the Second Iraq War in 2003.  He called this mindset “Olympianism.”  According to Keegan, it “seeks to influence and eventually control the behavior of states not by the traditional means of resorting to force as a last resort but by supplanting force by rational procedures, exercised through a supranational bureaucracy and supranational legal systems and institutions.” Keegan regarded this view as delusional, but widespread.  He describes the “Olympian ethic” as “opposition to any form of international action lying outside the now commonly approved limits of legal disapproval and treaty condemnation.”[1]

European states weren’t the only ones touched by “Olympianism.”  The Report of the 9/11 Commission tells readers that the US Government struggled to respond to the early attacks by Al Qaeda.  These early attacks included the bombing of two embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the USS “Cole” during a port call in Yemen.  The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency doubted he had the authority to kill some foreign terrorist just because the terrorist was trying to kill Americans.  Much thought went into how to capture Osama bin Laden.  Many Republicans, but also Democrats, belabored President Bill Clinton over the missile attack on a suspected Al Qaeda site in Khartoum, Sudan.  The evidence in the 9/11 Report suggests that the Clinton administration then slow-walked the investigation of the “Cole” bombing so that it wouldn’t be forced to do something that would lead to a further tide of abuse.  Attempts to kill Bin Laden in Afghanistan with cruise missiles failed because the diplomatic proprieties required the US Government to inform the government of Pakistan that the US would be flying cruise missiles across its territory.  This in spite of the fact that Pakistani intelligence had close ties to the Taliban government that was sheltering Bin Laden.

The response to the killing of Qassim Soleimani suggests that “Olympianism” has taken hold elsewhere.

Second, the war correspondent-turned historian Thomas Ricks has sought to explain the poor performance of the US Army in recent wars.  In his explanation, during the Second World War, Chief of Staff George Marshall and ruthless subordinates like Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, transformed a sleepy, gerontocratic peacetime army into a devastatingly effective instrument of war.  They did so, in part, by getting rid of any commander who didn’t cut the mustard.  After George Marshall and his followers had passed on, the Army reverted to a cautious, self-protective rather than self-critical, bureaucracy.[2]  Generals don’t get fired, except for egregious personal misconduct—when it comes to public attention.

If Ricks is correct in his analysis, how should we understand the apparent lack of enthusiasm in the Pentagon for the strike at an Iranian leader who has been asserting his country’s influence throughout the Middle East at the expense of the United States?

Third, it seems unlikely that President Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani is going to have a worse outcome than the decision by the Bush II administration to invade Iraq or the decision by the Obama administration to overthrow the government of Libya.

[1] John Keegan, The Iraq War (2005), pp. 109, 115.

[2] Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today (2012).  See also: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/08/10/command-crisis/

I’m Running for President in 2020–3.

The Global War on Terror is approaching a new stage.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven out of Iraq and almost destroyed in Syria.  Recently, President Trump ordered a sudden withdrawal of American forces from Syria and announced a desire to do the same from Afghanistan.  Much expert and political opposition arise to slow him down.  Some people argued that the Islamic State had not yet been totally defeated or destroyed.  Parallels were drawn to President Obama’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  This had been followed by the rise of the Islamic State and its invasion of Iraq.

Peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban have been proceeding and may be approaching a settlement.   With regard to Afghanistan, two lines of criticism or concern arise.  First, a peace deal with the Taliban will be based up on some kind of compromise or power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and their indigenous Afghan opponents.  What assurance can be offered that the Taliban will honor their commitments?  The Taliban came to power in the first place through victory in a civil war.  Are they likely to pursue the same path again.  Second,  the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Who is to say that they will not again become patrons of anti-Western jihad?

In both cases, critics of President Trump argue for a continued American role in what Dexter Filkins called “The Forever War.”  While these critics are experts–and I am not–and they make important points, it seems to me that they fail to address a key question.  “How does this thing end?”  We are at war with an idea–Islamic radicalism–and with global social conditions–the failed states and the failed societies in much of the developing world.  It seems likely that the “defeat” of ISIS will soon be followed by a wild fire of Islamic radical rebellions running from Bangladesh through Indonesia to the southern Philippines.   Islamist movements are on their heels in much of Africa, but the conditions that gave rise to them have not been addressed.

I ask my fellow candidates the following questions.  Are we going to keep military forces in every place an Islamist wild fire has broken, been contained, and burned out in case the embers catch light once again?  Are we going to send military forces to every new place an Islamist wild fire breaks out?  Of course, it will be argued that American military technology and special forces are effective force multipliers.  America can “lead from behind” and on the cheap by assembling” coalitions of the willing” to do much of the fighting.

It might be answered that even these forces are not infinite.  America is not on a real war-footing and has not been since 2001.  A small share of Americans bear the cost of battle.  We develop plans for Operations in each Theater of Operations as it arises, but I see no Strategy for winning the global and forever War.

Afghanistan 30 July 2018.

After toppling the Taliban in 2001-2002, the Americans determined to hold Afghanistan against any return by the Taliban.[1]  To this end, they established a host of outposts in the countryside and began training-up a new Afghan national army.  This policy began under President George W. Bush and continued during the first term of President Barack Obama.

Thus, in 2006, the American created a network of posts in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  Offensive operations against the Taliban would launch from these bases.  By 2009 the Americans were re-thinking this plan.[2]  In 2010, their effort shifted toward protecting the major population centers.  Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south became major battlegrounds.

In 2014, the coalition of American, Afghan, and NATO troops fighting the Taliban declared an end to major combat operations.  The Western troops withdrew to a few major urban areas.  Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif have become heavily defended centers.  Everywhere else, on-going defense responsibilities fell to the Afghan army.  In 2015, the American began urging the Afghans to give up trying to garrison or control areas far from the major cities.

For its part, the Taliban has concentrated its efforts at capturing the little outposts in rural areas.  Frequent attacks on isolated posts have inflicted hundreds of casualties on Afghan soldiers every week in recent months.  Afghan government forces have been reduced by about 5 percent since Summer 2017.  Along the way, the Taliban picked up not only momentum, but also a good deal of arms and equipment.

Afghanistan is divided into 407 administrative districts.  By the most recent estimate, the government controls 229 of them, while the Taliban controls only 59.  That leaves 119 districts that are considered “contested.”  The thing is that almost three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas.  Little more than a quarter live in heavily fortified big cities.  Falling back on the cities abandons most Afghans to the Taliban.

Initially, President Trump followed the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis Recently, the United States has pressed the Afghan government to follow the Western lead.  Afghan army troops are falling back on the cities, leaving the country-side districts to the Taliban.  That suggests that the Taliban could soon control almost 180 districts.  This would give them near-parity with the government.

People offer the conventional excuses: we’re just regrouping in the cities in order to counter-attack into the rural districts at some point in the future.  More honestly stated, falling back on the cities “is a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.”  That seems to mean that the government has to hold the cities in order to have some valuable chips in negotiations for a “compromise peace.”  The Trump administration is trying to begin talks with the Taliban.  What can the Afghan government get in such negotiations?  What will they have to give?  Will the Taliban be content to negotiate on the emerging balance of forces or will they try to erode the security of the cities by attacks?  Who will be aboard the last helicopter out of Kabul?

[1] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “New U.S. Tactic in Afghanistan Urges Retreat,” NYT, 29 July 2018.

[2] For some sense of why this happened, see Sebastian Junger’s film “Restrepo” (2010) and book War (2010).

The Lafarge Affair.

If you read the papers, it is easy to get the idea that the post-WWII order is breaking down.[1]  However, elements of one era can live on, for a time at least, in a new era.[2]  One part of the post-war order took the form of multi-national corporations operating in the developing world.

What happens when civil war or terrorism breaks out in those countries?  Do companies abandon their often-substantial investments and call the insurance company?  Do they pull out their Western leadership staff and abandon their local employees to their fates?  Alternatively, should they stay and try to continue operating?  In many developing countries, both the regime in power and the opponents willing to take up arms against it are unsavory.  In peacetime, the government can hide a lot of its brutality and oppression.  Once war breaks out, both sides come out into the open with unchecked violence.  If the companies remain, what kind of adaptations might they have to make as war drags on?

As anyone who has read Nevil Shute’s Most Secret (1945) or just walked around Paris knows, the French have long been pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete for construction.  (They call it “beton.”)  Cement is a major component of concrete.[3]  Currently, Lafarge SA is a major force in the business.[4]   It made large investments in Syria before the civil war began in 2011.[5]

The initial stage of the war raised the troubling questions of “should I stay or should I go.”[6]  Lafarge decided to stay.  Then the initial war, the basis of the company’s calculations, went sideways.  In eastern Syria from 2013 to 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of territory and proclaimed a caliphate.  (They also videotaped and posted to the internet the burning to death of a captured Jordanian pilot, among other indications of their mind-set.)  ISIS exploited all the economic resources available within its domain.  This included extorting Western companies, as well as selling oil and trafficking in non-iconic antiquities.

Mired in this situation, Lafarge may have made some questionable choices.  Lafarge allegedly paid ISIS and other groups $5 million to insure the safe passage of employees and goods through territory controlled by the caliphate.  Local managers pressed local employees to keep working while the security situation deteriorated.  Critics also cite “lax security” at the Lafarge properties.[7]

Confusing the effect with the cause, a French court has “indicted” Lafarge SA.

[1] And not just because Donald Trump got elected president.  Doesn’t matter what the daily edition of the New Republic (i.e. the New York Times) thinks.

[2] See, for a highly readable example, R. F. Arragon, The Transition from the Ancient to the Medieval World (1936).

[3] On the deeply fascinating subject of Portland cement, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_cement

[4] Liz Alderman, “France Indicts Cement Giant on Charge of Aiding Terror Groups in Syria,” NYT, 29 June 2018.

[5] If you look at news photographs of Syrian cities during the war, you will see that a huge market existed for concrete and cement before the war.  Commonly, one sees that artillery fire and aerial bombing blow out the front walls of apartment buildings.  The poured-concrete floors then fall downward like the pages of a book, rather than disintegrating or collapsing straight down.  The back walls and staircases serve as the hinge or binding.  So, the concrete appears to be generally of high quality to the eye of a non-expert.

[6] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMaE6toi4mk

[7] Without seeking to exculpate the company, it is fair to ask just how Lafarge could have provided adequate security against ISIS when the governments of Syria and Iraq could not defend themselves without foreign military aid.

Indonesian Islam.

Back in the day, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963).  Like most of Lipset’s work, it was about several things at once.  For one thing, it was about the United States as the first colonial territory to gain its independence from a colonial overlord.  Therefore, American could serve as a model for all the Asian and African countries recently or about-to-be liberated from European empires.  For another thing, it was about the related issue of how to create a stable democracy.  (That’s what most of the leaders of new nations said that they wanted, although the historical record now suggests other ambitions.[1])  According to Lipset democracy is intimately connected with economic growth: “[t]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”  This idea lay behind both the Marshall Plan to aid Western European economic recovery after the Second World War and the First Gulf War (1990-1991).[2]

Time hasn’t fully born out Lipset’s ideas–so far.  China, for example, is an increasingly prosperous autocracy.  In many Muslim countries, oligarchies have gobbled up national wealth, while the vast majority of people have little opportunity.  More importantly, religious belief can outweigh political theory.  It isn’t clear that the beliefs of Islam are compatible with Western conceptions of democracy.  Traditional Islam rejects any separation of church and state, it rejects law derived from legislatures rather than the Word of Allah, and it rejects the very idea of nation-states in favor of the “umma” of all Believers.[3]  Moreover, Islam is socially conservative in ways that Western liberals find repugnant.  Women’s rights and gay rights antagonize social conservatives.

Indonesia provides an interesting case.  It is the most populous Muslim country in the world.[4]  Piled on top of religious conservatism are hostilities related to ethnic or religious minorities.[5]  The very small share of people with Chinese ancestry play an out-sized role in the economy and have long been the target of Muslim hostility.  Women’s rights and gay rights have a salience in Muslim concerns because of Indonesia’s popularity with Western tourists.

Like Turkey, Indonesia has a democratic system.  Can democratic politics can be used to impose an Islamist agenda?  In 2002, Jemaah Islamiya—an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda—killed 200 people in bomb attacks on the Indonesian island of Bali.  Repression followed.  Recently, however, there have been both a mass mobilization of Muslims against the Christian governor of Jakarta and renewed terrorist attacks.  There is also legislation pending to criminalize public display of affection by gay people.

Will Southeast Asia become the next front in the war against radical Islamism?

[1] A friend insists that there is a scene from one of Ionesco’s plays in which a character says “We will drink wine under the willow trees.  AND YOU WILL BE MY SLAVES!”  I haven’t been able to run it down.

[2] It was a war for oil prices and oil markets, not a war for oil companies.  The historically-minded men and women behind the war were aware that the 1970s “oil shocks” had pitched the world close to the edge of depression and that the Great Depression of the Thirties had been the principal cause of the Second World War.  They didn’t want that to happen again.

[3] We’ll probably hear complaints that the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a sign of creeping Islamization.

[4] Indonesia’s population is 270 million.   87.2 percent Muslim, 9.9 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Hindu, and 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Confucian.

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamist Shift Unsettles Indonesia’s Democracy,” WSJ, 29 June 2018.

My Weekly Reader 14 June 2018.

Well before the arrival of Europeans on the Eastern seaboard of North America, the Native Americans had advanced far beyond simple bands of wandering hunters-and-gatherers.  They had become settled hunters-and-farmers; their communities had grown from bands to confederations of tribes.  It would be easy to portray their situation as an Eden and the Europeans as the snake in the Garden.  This over-simplifies things.

First, the Native Americans were Stone Age people whose lives could be very hard.  Europeans were an Iron Age people whose axes, knives, cooking pots, and muskets could ease those hard lives.  Second, many tribes disputed with others.  Trading with Europeans gave them access to European technology, but alliances could give them the bulge on rivals.  Cooperation co-existed with conflict between .Europeans and Native Americans.

Yet conflict became endemic.  The two different peoples despised one another.  The Europeans—Spanish, French, Dutch, and English—were all monotheists, believing themselves to be in the left lane of the highway to Heaven and everyone else to be taking the off-ramp to Hell.  Endlessly busy in pursuit of gain, the Europeans found the Native Americans to be an idle lot.  The Native Americans were commonly animists, believing that each living thing possessed a spirit.  Lacking much material wealth, the Native Americans couldn’t comprehend the acquisitiveness of the Europeans.

The imbalance in real strength between the two sides doomed the Native Americans.  Certainly, the Europeans possessed an immense technological advantage over the Native Americans.  Sailing ships, firearms, and iron tools all surpassed anything Native Americans could produce.  More importantly, there were just a lot more Europeans who wanted to live in North America than there were Native Americans who might want to keep them out.  The spread of European diseases compounded, but did not cause, the imbalance.

The first American “way of war” rested on the English understanding of the Native Americans.  The Native Americans could not stand and fight against heavily armed and armored Europeans.  They faded away into the forest at the English approach.  So march to a stockaded village, burn it down along with stored food and crops in the field, then go home.  On occasion, the English could trap the enemy inside their stockade.  Then they applied fire and sword.

An early war in New England illustrates these realities.[1]  Before 1600, the Narragansett confederacy had dominated southern New England.  Then the Pequot tribe intruded itself into the Connecticut River valley.  In 1622, they had expanded their territory by defeating the Narragansett.  In 1630, the Puritan settlers began to arrive in Massachusetts Bay.   Conflicts arose between the Narragansett and the English from time to tie, but the Narragansett understood the danger to themselves.  In 1636, they palmed off the murder of a rough-around-the-edges merchant ship captain by some of their own allies as the handiwork of the Pequot.  Then they sent a bunch of warriors to fight with the English against the Pequot.  The war ended with a gory massacre of many Pequot trapped inside their own stockade at Mystic.  Some of the survivors became slaves of the Narragansett.  Forty years later it would be the turn of the Narragansett in King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

[1] James A. Warren, God, War, and Providence (2018).