Blog No. 79. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan: The Obama Legacy aka The Fruits of the Tree of Leading From Behind.

If we had our way, the term legacy would be checked at the front door of the White House at the beginning of every administration and left unused until after completion of the inevitable presidential library. But this is a special time. We have not in our lifetime seen a president and a White House so explicitly driven by considerations of the incumbent’s legacy. (As one unscientific measure, a click of “Obama” and “legacy” on Google yielded 63,800,000 hits.)

President Obama’s “legacy” has been said at various times to be the Affordable Healthcare Act, his attempt to impose immigration reform by executive order, and his effort to deal with climate change by way of sweeping EPA regulations. In contrast with his highly pro-active take on domestic matters, Obama’s approach to foreign affairs has, with one notable exception, been noticeably passive. The notable exception is the nuclear agreement with Iran, a matter on which, for better or worse, the United States did exert leadership. On the whole, however, Obama’s legacy in foreign affairs is largely a record of seeking to reduce and limit America’s role in the world.

Has a preoccupation with Obama’s legacy contributed to that record? There is persuasive evidence that it has. The President and his administration have repeatedly made it clear that they believed that a central element of his legacy in foreign policy is the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Iraq and reduction of the troop level in Afghanistan to the 9,800 who are currently deployed and engaged almost exclusively in training. Moreover, we believe that the attempt to defend that legacy has made a major contribution to the circumstances with which we are faced today. Specifically, concern with legacy undergirds the President’s refusal to consider the introduction of combat troops in any number in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It is not an answer to say that we must not replay the Iraq war with a massive introduction of troops, a course that no one in either party has advocated. The question is whether the introduction of some number of combat troops might be effective and may not in fact be essential.

A lengthy, front-page article in The New York Times on Sunday, October 4, documented in detail what has been evident for some time: that the President’s determined attempt to outsource any participation in ground combat has been a dismal failure. The Times, having been a cheerleader for the President’s policy (or, in the modern argot, an enabler), put the matter as gently as possible: “Numerous U.S.-trained security forces have collapsed, stalled or defected, calling into question a central tenet of President Obama’s approach to combating insurgencies.” We suggest, and facts recited in the balance of the article confirm, that the President’s strategy has not merely been called into question but convincingly discredited.

One cannot be certain that the present crisis in Syria could have been avoided by a more robust policy in Iraq and Syria. It seems likely, however, that arming and training Syrian rebels at a much earlier stage would have been more successful. It is notable that such a plan was advocated not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham but, in the summer of 2012, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The plan was rejected by President Obama, who nevertheless felt sufficiently optimistic about the situation that in December 2012 the United States joined other nations in giving official recognition to the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

The Times article on Sunday noted the recently disclosed and stunning fact that a $500 million dollar program to train Syrian rebels had produced only four or five individuals doing any fighting. The President addressed the failure with rather striking and uncharacteristic candor:

“I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to,” he said. “A part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL, the response we get back is, ‘How can we focus on ISIL when, every single day, we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the regime?”

The legitimate question raised by the Syrian rebels should not have come as a surprise. Back on December 3, 2014, in Blog No. 54, discussing the confirmation hearing of Ashton Carter as Secretary of Defense, we suggested that Carter be asked, “Are you clear as to what our strategy is, taking into account both ISIS and Assad? Do you think it is feasible for the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS without any support in its war against Assad?” We did not see a news report indicating how Carter answered that or a similar question, but we are confident that someone in the Pentagon was worrying about whether we could persuade the Free Syrian Army to fill the role assigned to it by our script.

The bankruptcy of our strategy in Syria has been underscored by Vladimir Putin’s confrontational performance at the United Nations and the introduction of a Russian military force to support the Assad regime. According to Putin, the purpose of the force is to fight ISIS, but it is abundantly clear that it is there to support the Assad regime not only from ISIS but from all other hostile forces–including the Syrian rebels that we have been attempting to support, belatedly and ineffectually, with training and equipment.

Russia and the United States are reported to have begun military-to-military consultations seeking “deconfliction,” a clunky term for cooperation described by The Military Times:

Cooperation could include sharing tactical information about flight plans or troop movements to avoid in-air collisions or inadvertent strikes. The two militaries could coordinate strategic plans to defeat Islamic State militants. And they could discuss military aspects of a long-term political solution to the four-and-a-half-year-old civil war.

While deconfliction talks seem like a good idea, they are, by themselves, not much of an answer and the prospects of a “long-term political solution” seem very doubtful at present.

Meanwhile, deconfliction may be severely tested if we establish, or attempt to establish, a no-fly zone in Syria. This is a tactic that has been rejected by the Obama Administration, but has growing support. It is currently advocated by Hillary Clinton and, among others, Republican Presidential candidates John Kasich, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. The no-fly zone would be intended to provide protection from deadly “barrel bombs,” and if successful, would provide greatly needed humanitarian relief and might slow acceleration of the refugee crisis in Europe. At the same time, however, it would also provide cover for Syrian rebels engaged in combat activities, increasing the risk that Russia would refuse to recognize the zones and that a direct military conflict would ensue. Apart from risk of a conflict with Russia, the logistics of establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone are more difficult and more expensive than many may assume. (See, e.g., Defense One, “Everything You Need To Know About No-Fly Zones,” May, 2015.).

On the whole, we have reservations concerning the no-fly zone proposals, but in the absence of many other available options, we believe that they should be seriously explored by Congress. We are also open to the course, so vigorously urged by Senator Graham, of deploying a limited number of combat troops. As previously indicated, however, we would do so only on the basis of a convincing military analysis of what such a deployment would likely yield in results on the ground. In any case, the Administration should consider making greater use of the United Nations to expose the activities of both the Assad regime and Russia in Syria. Given Russia’s veto power, it is unlikely to result in action being taken, but presentations to the Security Council could serve the very constructive purpose of shining a spotlight on the situation.

For example, if the United States should proceed with no-fly zones, photographic evidence of the aerial atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on its population would be a useful predicate. So far as Russia is concerned, it should be held to its claim to be in Syria to fight ISIS. To the extent Russia’s actions do not follow her words, by staging assaults that have no connection with ISIS, Putin should be held accountable. One theory of Putin’s motivation for his initiative in Syria is that he saw it as a path to escape the diplomatic isolation that followed his adventurism in Ukraine. In our view, that isolation should not only be maintained but increased until Russian behavior warrants a change.

If Iraq has seemed to slip from the headlines, it is only because the situation there may appear less dramatic than that in Syria. Nevertheless, it is a situation that is both discouraging and dangerous. For the present, there appears to be a stalemate in which the fight against ISIS is in disarray, undermined by continuing distrust and hostility between Sunnis and Shiites. ISIS continues to hold most of Anbar province and a promised counteroffensive to retake Ramadi has never materialized. As in the case of Syria, we are open to the prospect of deploying a limited number of combat troops (Senator Graham has proposed 10,000), but would look for convincing evidence that the deployment would be effective. In the meantime, there have been disturbing indications from both Baghdad and Moscow that Russia may be invited by Iraq to conduct air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq. Even granting our refusal to commit ground troops, we should certainly be able to furnish sufficient air power to make any Russian contribution clearly unnecessary.

The present predicament in Iraq is a consequence of our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. As explained in the Times article:

The push to rebuild the Iraqi Army that the United States disbanded after the 2003 invasion had largely succeeded by the time American troops withdrew eight years later. But that $25 billion effort quickly crumbled after the Americans left, when the politicization of the army leadership under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki eroded the military’s effectiveness at all levels.

Ryan Crocker, who has served as ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has pointed to a need for a more intense diplomatic effort in Iraq:

We could engage diplomatically and politically. That’s the big absence right now. Send John Kerry to Baghdad and have him sit there working the political problems that underlie the weaknesses of the Iraqi military. Those are political problems, we can make a difference, but we have to engage to do it.

We think that acting as a midwife to solving Iraq’s political problems would be a tall order even for someone of Kerry’s stamina and determination, but under the circumstances, the attempt might well be worth the effort.

Turning to Afghanistan, the Administration was clearly surprised and shaken by the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz, a major city in the north of the country. While the specific event may have come as a surprise, it had long been foreshadowed. Over a year ago, in Blog No. 43, Part II, “Afghanistan: More Stupid Stuff On the Way,” we reviewed the situation in Afghanistan and quoted numerous warnings against the precipitous reduction in forces that President Obama had announced. In the succeeding year, there have been numerous red flags indicating that those warnings were well founded, but the taking of Kunduz provided dramatic evidence. As concisely summarized in The Economist:

The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban, however temporary, would almost certainly not have happened if American forces had not been pared down to such low levels (9,800) at the end of last year or been hamstrung by rules of engagement that only allow air support to protect Western forces, or Afghans in the direst circumstances.

While Kunduz has reportedly been recaptured by Afghan forces, the ability of the Taliban to seize it even briefly reveals an underlying weakness (perhaps as the much larger Tet offensive once did in Vietnam).

The effort to retake Kunduz then produced a major tragedy: the accidental bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital killing 22 people including 12 staff members.   This “collateral damage” (to use that repugnant term) was clear byproduct of our feckless policy of withdrawal and reduction. As The Economist further explained:

The Taliban may well have believed that they could take Kunduz without having to worry about NATO airpower. Air strikes, which seem to have been crucial in helping the Afghan security forces to regain control of the city, always run a greater risk of “collateral damage” when fighting is taking place within an urban space.

The precise cause or causes of the misdirected bombing are not yet clear, and may never be. Nevertheless, it may inevitable, and perhaps just, that in the eyes of much of the world the United States will be held responsible. The collateral damage to our reputation will not be easily or swiftly repaired.

What now in Afghanistan? That problem, for all its dangers and daunting frustrations, is neither as difficult nor as complex as those we face in Syria and Iraq. It seems clear to us that the Administration should abandon the artificial and legacy-driven deadline of removing all American troops by the end of 2016. In addition, it should augment the force presently in place by some modest amount and adopt more realistic rules of engagement. We should keep in mind the reason we went there to begin with and are still there at all. As David Petraeus put it in a July 7 op-ed in The Washington Post, “The U.S. needs to keep troops in Afghanistan”:

We went to Afghanistan for a compelling reason: to ensure that Afghanistan never again served as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda, as it did when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were planned there under the Taliban. The importance of that mission continues.

2 thoughts on “Blog No. 79. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan: The Obama Legacy aka The Fruits of the Tree of Leading From Behind.

  • The first George Bush probably did too little in Iraq, the second too much with definitely not enough planning, and now Obama has, without question in my eyes, done too little and what he has done, he has done fecklessly. We’d all like not to have to participate in the mess that is the middle east but unfortunately I do not believe we have a choice. Obama is beyond hope but we can still hope that our next president will take a more middle of the road a ” Not too hot nor too cold” approach to the middle east. As Winston Churchill once said “America always does the right thing….after trying everything else”

  • How many troops will be enough? How much money will be enough? How many body bags will be needed ? How many years will it take to achieve the goal ? What is the goal? We are dealing with historic religious divisions that in my opinion we are powerless to fix. Unless and until the local populations rise up to effect change we should let them alone to find or not find their own solutions.

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