Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gaza, Afghanistan & Iraq - The Same Old Story

What does Israel's failed war in Gaza have to do with the West's war in Afghanistan and the American misadventure in Iraq? All of these conflicts illustrate how readily overwhelming military superiority can be undermined by bad political leadership.

Not one of these wars had the critical political deliberation required before they were launched. That meant that only the simplest military objectives could be achieved - the immediate, tactical victories - while the meaningful objectives, the political and strategic purposes languished, obscure and ill-defined.

The old adage holds that war is simply an extension of politics when diplomacy fails. War is the application of state violence to achieve a political outcome. We can quibble over the fine points of these definitions but they're essentially true.

All other things being equal, good political leadership can win wars while bad political leadership can lose wars. We have more than two millenia of recorded history demonstrating that.

In Afghanistan, Washington's focus was on exacting revenge for the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to drive the Taliban out of power, to destroy al-Qaeda and to decapitate its leadership. The tactical part was easy. American air power was all that was needed to tip the scales in favour of the Northern Alliance warlords whose rout of the Taliban outpaced the Pentagon's ability to keep up. The strategic goals of destroying al-Qaeda and killing its leadership turned into a dismal and, by all accounts, needless failure.

The Afghan war ought to have been conclusively decided by 2003. Its Achilles' Heel was bad political leadership from the White House. Instead of winning the winnable victory in Afghanistan, the Bush administration decided to shift military resources out of the Afghan theatre in preparation for a needless invasion and conquest of Iraq. Five years later, that fateful neglect continues to play out in the quagmire of today's Afghanistan with its corrupt government, flourishing drug trade and resurgent Taliban insurgency

The same bad political leadership that dropped the ball in Afghanistan perpetrated the disastrous, even negligent decision-making that turned into the Iraq debacle. On last night's Daily Show, the New York Times' David Sanger appeared promoting his book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power. Sanger's book is a 490-page inventory of the enormous mess Obama inherits resulting from the Bush/Cheney war of whim in Iraq. It details all the threats that were allowed to grow while America was stuck in and focused on Iraq.

The Iraq war suffered from such an enormous vacuum of political leadership that not one of the key, domestic problems that beset the new Iraqi state has been resolved. You have the Sadr/Mahdi versus Maliki/Badr Shiite struggle, the Shiite versus Sunni struggle, the Arab versus Kurd struggle and they're not going away by themselves.

Bad political leadership failed to foresee that both Shiite and Sunni would resist occupation, that Iraq wasn't ready for secular democracy, that Iran would be the real winner, that the Kurds wouldn't be complacent to American dictates, that the occupation would play straight into the hand of Islamist extremists including al-Qaeda. The US military was readily able to deliver a stunning tactical victory but was completely unprepared and ill-led to achieve a strategic win.

Look at it this way. The invasion launched a war to topple Saddam. That was supposed to be it. Saddam gone, American stooge government in. But the war to topple Saddam rapidly turned into a war against the Sunni resistance (Rumsfeld's "dead-enders") that morphed into a war against the Shiite militias and a Sunni/Shia civil war that evolved into a war against terrorists when al-Qaeda and other Islamists beganto arrive for the party. Not one of these follow-on wars was foreseen by the political leadership and that's how what was to have been a 60-day conquest has turned into a 6-year disaster.

That war needed to be over by 2004 at the latest but that would have meant flooding Iraq with enough troops to stabilize the country for a handover to a viable central government.

Then we have the Gaza war led by that incompetent author of the Lebanon disaster, Ehud Olmert. Bad political leadership ensured that Israel had lost that war before the first tank rolled into the Gaza Strip.

The tactical victory was easy. Israeli troops, backed by artillery, tanks, attack helicopters and jet fighters, suffered extremely light casualties as they drove through Gaza pretty much at will. The problem was once they achieved the tactical objective, they had no strategic objective they could accomplish unless Hamas, its entire leadership and all of its fighters had been willing to make a suicide charge into the Israeli guns. And so, with the new guy showing up for work in Washington, the Israeli forces had no choice but to di di mau out of Gaza.

What did Israel accomplish from this folly? Sweet Fanny Adams, that's what. It undermined its Palestinian ally, Abbas and Fatah. It drew international sympathy to the suffering and hopeless plight of the Gazan Palestinians. It probably handed a dandy political victory to Hamas and certainly left it in control of Gaza.

If there is a lesson to this it's that we in the West can no longer afford this incompetence from our political leadership. No more unwinnable wars. No more wars on the cheap because quick & dirty doesn't work. We need to understand that even successful military campaigns can trigger blowback but when we wage unsuccessful wars that's a certainty.

6 comments:

Mentarch said...

"All of these conflicts illustrate how readily overwhelming military superiority can be undermined by bad political leadership."

That pretty much sums it all up.

Although, I would replace "bad" with (of course) "incompetence" ...

Anonymous said...

What does Israel's failed war in Gaza have to do with the West's war in Afghanistan and the American misadventure in Iraq?
Here are a couple common features of these wars in addition to the one you write about.

all three fit the common pattern of colonial warfare in which the rich and the powerful wage war to steal from the poor and the weak.

All three are marketed as wars on terror. Demonizing the native resistance as terrorists is a common theme running through similar conflicts from Algeria to South Africa.

In these three, as in all colonial wars, few things are more precious than the lives of the occupiers or more valueless than the lives of the natives.

Attempting to control the indigenous population through a puppet ruler is a feature of these and other colonial wars, as is posing as liberators, spreading freedom and democracy (not racist nationalism and aggressive militarism).

Hypocrisy is at least as obvious a common theme as incompetence.

Doz

The Mound of Sound said...

Cogent points, Doz. I think Mentarch would also agree with you.

janfromthebruce said...

I also agree with Doz. It is about occupation and extraction of resources, land, and so on - which is colonialism.
Afghanistan, for instance, was preplanned long before 9/11, and ditto for Iraq, and 9/11 was used as the main component of the propaganda campaign. So even using their political pretense for these wars provides legitimate cover, to one of poor leadership rather than questioning this pretense in the first place.
To put it differently, if in these 3 instances, the "wars" had been successful, would you still question the overall ethics of invasion, occupation, and oppression of sovereign people who live in these countries? It is something to ponder.

The Mound of Sound said...

As you asked, I never for a moment thought any of these would succeed. The fatal blunders in planning were easy to spot before the first round was chambered. Likewise, I can't begin to imagine what success in any of these conflicts could have looked like, can you? I'm not being either sanctimonious or facetious. I really can't conceive what success would be in any of these wars and particularly in Gaza.

Anonymous said...

Not that long ago, Youssef Aschkar published this paper online. For a while during the Bush era, it was no longer available. When I linked to it, I had to go to the cache version. Anyway, now it's back online. Extremely prescient. I think it does provide some guidelines for grasping what has been happening to us over the last few years.

As for the massacre perpetrated in Gaza, I would tend to go with Norman Finkelstein's take on this as when he writes: The fundamental motives behind the latest Israeli attack on Gaza lie elsewhere: (1) in the need to restore Israel's "deterrence capacity," and (2) in the threat posed by a new Palestinian "peace offensive." In that sense, the Gaza incursion may not have been without 'results' for the Israeli government. It did send the message to Gazans that as long as they don't toe the line according to Israeli diktat, they can only look forward to more and more destruction of their society. And the many videos that have been circulating online, while appropriate to run in order for the World to see the savagery and cruelty of the Israeli government, serve also, unfortunately, to drive home that point. On the second issue brought up by Finkelstein, one would have to wait and see how quickly Hamas can regroup and refocus its attention towards negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Israelis.