Reviewing America's Wars [Part 2]

[ Posted Thursday, April 21st, 2011 – 00:37 UTC ]

[This article is a continuation of yesterday's "Part 1" installment, where we examined the war in Afghanistan / Pakistan, and began taking a look at our war in Iraq. Please read the first article for context, if you haven't already done so.]


Iraq (continued...)

One argument for keeping American troops in Iraq past the end of 2011 is just not credible, however. Here is Senator Lindsey Graham espousing this theory, on Face The Nation with CBS host Bob Schieffer, a few weeks ago:

BOB SCHIEFFER: I'm told that you're concerned about what's happening in -- in Iraq right now. Why so?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I'm deeply concerned. We're inside the ten-yard line in terms of finishing the job in Iraq. But in 2011, all troops are supposed to leave Iraq, American troops. I do not believe the State Department can carry on their mission of helping the Iraqi government and people reconstitute their society to help them build a civil society without American forces there to provide security, air -- air power, logistical support the Iraqi army. This idea of being pushed that we'll have State Department army, I will not vote for that. I will not support that. We need American troops in 2012 -- ten to fifteen thousand -- left behind in Iraq to provide to security to our people who are helping the Iraqi people maintain air superiority to have an edge against Iran. And to make sure that the Iraqi army...

SCHIEFFER (overlapping): What -- you -- you say a State Department army. What are -- you're going to have to explain that. What are you talking about?

GRAHAM: Well...

SCHIEFFER: What are they planning here?

GRAHAM: Well, here's the back-up plan. If all military forces have withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, the State Department has come to the Congress and said we're going to need over fifty MRAPs, mine resistant vehicles. We need a fleet of helicopters and thousands of private security guards to protect us as we go to the four consulates in Iraq to do our job to help the Iraqis build a civil society out of a dictatorship. I think that is a losing formula. I do not believe the State Department should have an army, that that that's not the way to provide security to our State Department. That if we're not smart enough to work with the Iraqis to have ten to fifteen thousand American troops in Iraq in 2012, Iraq could go to hell.

SCHIEFFER (overlapping): Are -- are you...

GRAHAM: There are fights now between Kurds and the Arabs.

SCHIEFFER: I -- I -- I'm sorry. But I find this a -- a hard to believe. Are you talking about we're going to arm our diplomats and put them in these kinds of vehicles that people are driving around in Iraq now?

GRAHAM: Yeah. You -- you -- you've got it, Bob. That we're going to have private security guards providing security. I think American soldiers and the Iraqi army should provide security. We're talking about helicopters, a fleet of helicopters so they can get around to the four consulates, spread throughout Iraq. We're talking about MRAPs, mine resistant vehicles bought by the State Department, a mini State Department army. We've never done that before. That will fail. I'm urging the Obama administration to work with the Maliki administration in Iraq, to make sure that we have enough troops ten to fifteen thousand beginning in 2012, to secure the gains we've achieved to make sure Iran doesn't interfere with the Iraqi sovereignty and -- and to develop this country. We can't do it with a State Department army and I will not support that. This is a defining moment in the future of Iraq. And the Obama administration has the wrong strategy in libity [sic] -- Libya and in my view they're -- they're going down the wrong road when it comes to Iraq.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I find all of it hard to believe.

I find it hard to believe, myself, that neither Schieffer nor Graham has ever heard of the concept of private security forces guarding the U.S. State Department. I mean, if this conversation had happened in the 1990s, maybe we'd all be duly shocked by such a concept -- but now? Have neither of these men ever heard the word "Blackwater" before? Farming out security has become so commonplace that we have to wonder whether a person reportedly spying for the United States in Pakistan is even an actual employee of the federal government, or a private contractor. This is the world we live in, folks, and it has been for quite a while now. I don't know why it's such a surprising concept to anyone, really.

President Obama is going to have to work out with Maliki exactly how many American troops are allowed in Iraq in 2012 -- whether that number is zero, in the thousands, or somewhere in between. Maliki is going to come down a lot closer to zero on that scale, though, than people like Senator Graham are going to like. Remember, Maliki's government is a coalition with Muqtada Al Sadr's party, who are going to argue fiercely for every single American soldier to exit precisely on schedule. Maliki cannot ignore Sadr, because if he does he may be forced out of office almost immediately. Politically, in Iraq, kicking the U.S. soldiers out is extremely popular. For Sadr, it is a bedrock belief that cannot be bargained away. Which means the important political fight over how many American troops stay will be happening in Baghdad, and not in Washington -- as it did in 2008, when Bush was forced to agree to the timetable in the first place.

Depending on the number of troops (whether zero or whether 15,000), the American public will likely largely approve of whatever is decided (out of sheer war fatigue, perhaps), as long as those troops aren't being killed on a regular basis. We still have plenty of troops in Japan and Germany, after all, and the public doesn't mind that too much. One way or another, President Obama will claim he has "ended the war in Iraq" -- right before the presidential primary season begins in earnest. He can (even if a few thousand troops are left) rightfully claim that he's reduced the American presence in Iraq down from the over 150,000 that were there when he was elected. Some anti-war folks may be annoyed if any residual force is left behind, but for most of the public, it'll likely be good enough.



President Obama is trying a new concept for America in Libya -- where we open a war, but then almost immediately bow out and turn it over to others to deal with. In Libya's case, this means N.A.T.O., led largely by Britain, France, and Italy. Libya is also another country with a few diplomatic fictions in place. We're not supposed to be on anyone's "side" in Libya, even though it is obvious we are aiding the rebel forces. We're not supposed to be explicitly for "regime change" (because the United Nations didn't approve it), even though we are quite obviously in favor of Ghaddafi leaving as soon as possible. And nobody's supposed to be "arming" the rebels, even though as time goes by it becomes obvious that they're getting their ammunition from somewhere (not to mention uniforms, communications equipment, and other "non-lethal" support).

It remains to be seen whether leading a war by committee is going to be judged as a good idea or not in the future. For America, it may have been the best idea, because it limits our involvement when we have two other costly wars going on. It may also serve to improve the ability of N.A.T.O. to take on such projects in the future. But it just as easily could devolve into squabbling matches over what to do and when to do it. These cracks are already appearing in media reports. For the Libyan rebels, it does allow them to claim their own victory, but such limited involvement from outside is going to make creating that victory a lot tougher, and it's going to take a lot longer than they had initially planned.

One of the key fictions which is hampering the rebels' ability to advance is that N.A.T.O. is not supposed to be in direct communications with the rebel forces. The rebels, in other words, are diplomatically not supposed to be able to call in airstrikes to aid them on the battlefield (after all, N.A.T.O. is theoretically only "protecting civilians"). This may be changing, though, whether anyone admits it or not. Rebels are indeed now calling in airstrikes, but it's up to N.A.T.O. whether to respond to the calls or not. According to the rebels, this is mostly "not."

The situation on the ground is playing out along the Mediterranean coastline. In the west, one city, Misrata, is holding out against the forces loyal to Ghaddafi. The rest of the western part of Libya is under control of Ghaddafi's loyalist forces. This siege has been going on for almost two months now. The rebels hold the port, where they are getting resupplied, and the loyalist forces have ringed the town and taken over parts of Misrata itself. The loyalists are indiscriminately shelling the city, using anti-personnel cluster bombs (from recent reports). Airstrikes have taken out a large number of the loyalists' heavy weapons (such as tanks), but there are reports that the loyalist forces have taken to using human shields and other methods of protecting their heavy weapons (like hiding them in buildings, so they are invisible from the air). The situation in Misrata is dire, but so far the rebels are making an extraordinary stand and have been holding out for weeks.

There hasn't been much news from the rebel forces in the east for the past week or so. This may be due to these forces getting a lot more professional of late. Perhaps somebody realized that allowing international journalists free reign to report on the frontlines was giving valuable tactical information to their opponents. This is just speculation on my part, though, I have to say. Al Jazeera was today reporting that rebel forces are digging in on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya, and also preparing for a push to Brega, although I haven't seen any other media reports on the eastern rebel/loyalist front for days.

The rebels in the east face a two-dimensional battlefield. Following the coast, from east to west, there are the cities/towns of: Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Brega, Ras Lanuf, Sirte, and then Misrata. This stretch of coastline covers hundreds of miles. The "front lines" of the struggle between the rebels and the loyalists has ebbed and flowed over this ground several times now. In the initial push by Ghaddafi's forces, they made it to the city outskirts of Benghazi itself, before being turned back by N.A.T.O. bombardment (at pretty much "the last minute" before the rebels were completely crushed). This was followed by a mad dash by the rebels, pursuing the loyalists all the way to the gates of Sirte (a stronghold for Ghaddafi, it should be noted). The loyalist forces regrouped here, reportedly under the command of one of Ghaddafi's sons, and then began their second march to the east. Once again, the towns along the way fell one by one to the loyalist forces, through Brega and Ajdabiya almost to the "rebel capital" of Benghazi. Since this time, the exact point of the front line has wavered back and forth, and is currently reported to be somewhere between Ajdabiya and Brega.

For much of this time, the rebel army has been repeatedly described by international journalists as "ragtag." Indeed, even calling it a "rebel army" is a stretch. But increasingly the rebel forces are replacing "anyone willing to grab a gun and jump on a pickup truck" with more realistic fighters, and a command structure is evolving. For the past week, the rebels have been hampered by a dispute between two men vying for control of the rebel forces, but the nascent governmental body in Benghazi has reportedly settled on one of them as the ultimate commander of the rebel forces, which should improve things somewhat.

It was reported today that a small number of military advisors will be joining the rebels from Italy, France, and Britain. They are not supposed to take part in combat, but rather lend technical advice to the rebel forces. The United States will not be sending in military advisors, but did commit to $25 million of "non-lethal" aid to the rebels. As mentioned, rebel forces seem to be much better provisioned these days, even sporting uniforms which seem to have come from Qatar. If the military advisors from N.A.T.O. countries allow the rebels to use sophisticated communications to call in immediate airstrikes (instead of waiting for hours for such, on a very fluid battlefield), this could change their operational situation for the better in a big way. So far, this hasn't happened, but bad weather has reduced the opportunities for such close support in the past few days. When the weather clears, perhaps the rebels will be able to push westward once again -- this time, with much better air support.

The key city on this coastal route, for now, will be Brega. Not only is Brega fairly large, but it is also an oil port. Capturing Brega (and being able to defend it) will not only give the rebels a much stronger foothold on the coastline (farther away from Benghazi), but will also allow them to ship oil supplies out to provide their new government with a source of income to pay for their military campaign.

Ghaddafi is becoming more and more isolated on the world stage as time goes by, but the crucial question is whether he will be able to resupply his own military forces. Rumors have it that he is shipping fighters and matériel in overland from other parts of Africa to the south, but rumors also have it that airstrikes are beginning to happen along these supply routes as well. Ghaddafi spokesmen have begun to publicly suggest that perhaps regime change might be in the cards, maybe six months or so from now -- but this is simply not going to be acceptable to the rebels, for whom the ultimate goal is Ghaddafi (and his sons) stepping down immediately.

In America, the public (and the media) have mostly stopped closely following developments in Libya, which is understandable due to America's now-limited involvement with the war. American planes are still flying support missions (electronic jamming, surveillance, and fuel tankers to refuel the fighters and bombers), but are no longer flying direct combat missions. We do have planes adapted to giving close air support (the AC-130 and the A-10 spring to mind), but flying such missions is risky, given that Ghaddafi is reported to have some 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles which are so far unaccounted for. Flying close air support means running a much bigger risk of being shot down, and having American pilots captured. America has put such aircraft on alert, subject to being requested by N.A.T.O. -- but so far they have not made any such requests (at least, according to the Pentagon). As for attack helicopters, nobody is even mentioning them (nobody wants another "Blackhawk Down" scenario, it seems), although video was shot recently by a journalist on the coastal road of what looked an awful lot like a N.A.T.O. transport helicopter being flown over Libya.

The American press has been quick to label the entire situation a "stalemate," which ignores changes on the ground and new developments. A stalemate may indeed be the end result, but it's premature to use such a term at this juncture. There has even been talk of dividing the country into two parts, but not much of this talk is coming from the rebels or Ghaddafi, more from outside analysts.

For the American public, whether they follow the Libyan war reports closely or not, they are reminded of the war's true cost every time they fill up their gas tanks. The price of oil remained fairly stable during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but spiked at the start of hostilities in Libya, and speculators have kept the price above $100 a barrel pretty much ever since. This pressure on oil prices will not fade much (if at all) until the Libyan situation gets a lot closer to being resolved, one way or another.

One sad benchmark of how different America's involvement in this war was the report that the first "American casualty" of the conflict was a journalist covering the situation in Misrata. This may be unprecedented in American history, although I have not actually researched it enough to definitively make such a statement. It certainly is notable, however, that America has minimized the military risks to our troops to this extent. This goes not only for America, but also for N.A.T.O., which has yet to suffer a single casualty as a result of the air campaign to date.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Reviewing America's Wars [Part 2]”

  1. [1] 
    oldbull56 wrote:

    A very well laid out, point by point summary of the state of America's wars. Your point on the lack of media coverage is well take and is a sad counterpoint to the death of a journalist in Libya. Why have journalists in harms way, in any theater of war, when you intend to bury their coverage in the back pages of the papers and in between sound bites on Trump or the Royal wedding? I for one, appreciate your efforts, here and on Huffpo although even they seem to give short shrift to the wars in their coverage too. Keep up the good work, someone has to.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    That's a helluva assessment, CW! :D

    You definitely did your homework.... Kudos..


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    oldbull56 -

    Thanks for the kind words, and welcome to the site!

    Your first comment was held for moderation, but from now on you should be able to post comments and have them appear immediately, as long as you only post one link per comment. Posting multiple links will cause comments to be moderated, just FYI.

    As you can see from the intro in Part 1, I got disgusted with the media (Brian Williams of NBC, in particular) this week, as they treated Trump's "campaign" with WAY more seriousness than it deserves. The only one who got it right this week was Doonesbury, actually.



  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    One really has to wonder why all these important stories are being buried...

    Afghanistan, Kill Teams, Drones In Libya, etc etc...

    Things that make ya go hmmmmmmmmm.....


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