Archive for August, 2009

Adm. Mullen Critiques US Communications Efforts

August 28, 2009

In an essay soon to be published by Joint Forces Quarterly, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized American communications efforts with the Muslim World.  He argued that what America does is more important than what it says.

Adm. Mullen wrote “We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.  I would argue that most communication problems are not communication problems at all.  They are policy and execution problems.  Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.  [US communications efforts] lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on our promises.”

Adm. Mullen cited the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War and humanitarian relief missions as examples of the type of actions that the US need to undertake to gain credibility in the Muslim World. 

Adm. Mullen’s observations are insightful.  When the US ignores Muslim concerns, fails to facilitate economic growth, inflicts civilian casualties or fails to protect the population from insurgents, it alienates Muslims and makes it more difficult for America to achieve its foreign policy goals. 

But it will be difficult for the US to change its behavior in some respects.  Although American airstrikes inevitably cause civilian casualties in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, such tactics have so far been the most effective way for the US to kill senior Al Qaeda and Taliban personnel, and it is unlike the Obama administration will abandon such efforts.  Protecting the Afghan population from insurgents is the centerpiece of the new American counterinsurgency strategy, but military commanders claim that they do not have enough troops to do the job, and it may be politically untenable for the US to significantly increase troop levels and maintain a large presence in Afghanistan for many years to come.  Foreign aid money for economic development projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq may also be tough to come by in the current economic climate as deficits soar and government spending is focused on domestic programs.

In essence, while Adm. Mullen emphasizes actions over words, effective action along certain lines may not be possible at this time.

Libya and the West

August 27, 2009

Many in the West were outraged by the boisterous welcome that convicted terrorist Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi received when he returned to his native Libya, an event that received wide media coverage.  Megrahi is considered a hero by many Libyans who believe his conviction and imprisonment in Scotland constituted a miscarriage of justice. 

Some may be surprised that Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who heads an authoritarian regime, would risk alienating the international community  by allowing such a celebration.  During the past decade, Libya has tried to reengage with the West after many years of being a pariah state.

Tensions between Libya and the West began shortly after Qaddafi came to power in 1969 following a military coup.  Qaddafi kicked Western oil workers out of his country, and he evoked further ire when he sponsored a terrorist attack on a Pan Am passenger jet in 1986.

But in recent years Qaddafi has apoligized for the Pan Am incident and financially compensated victims’ families.  He also abandoned Libya’s nuclear weapons program and opened up his country to Western businesses. 

Although Western officials criticized the public celebration of Megrahi’s release, it is unlikely that European governments will punish Libya by imposing significant economic sanctions because they want access to Libya’s oil and other sectors of its economy.  Some observers believe that Megrahi’s release was part of a financially-motivated deal between the British government and Qaddafi’s regime, and that belief is supported by Saif al Islam el-Qaddafi, the dictator’s son, who suggested that such a deal was made.

Qaddafi is therefore free to pander to a domestic audience and other African countries that have suffered from European colonialism.  He is a self-described revolutionary socialist who has tried to use his current position as head of the African Union to promote pan-Africanism as a means of increasing Africa’s influence in international affairs vis-a-vis the West.  In this light, it is understandable why Qaddafi allowed such an ostentatious celebreation of Megrahi’s release.

Russia Will Buy French Naval Vessels

August 26, 2009

Today, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of Russia’s general staff, announced that his country will buy a Mistral-class carrier from France and might enter into a joint venture with France to build several more.  The vessel can be used to launch amphibious assaults or transport weapons platforms like helicopters and tanks long distances.

It puzzling why Russia wants to purchase carriers.  Even with the new ships, Russia would have a very limited overseas force projection capability, and it is unclear which countries might be targets of a Russian amphibious assault.  Russia has recently been flexing its muscles in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in places like Georgia and Kyrgystan, areas which Russia considers part of its sphere of influence, but those places can easily be reached by land and air. 

The ships, which have an estimated cost of 300 million euros per vessel, seem like a waste of money for a country that is trying to modernize its army.  Perhaps Russia wants to use the carriers to transport weapons to overseas buyers like Venezuela, but that would likely be a bad business decision because any additional revenue resulting from the acquisitions would probably not yield a profit once the cost of the vessels is taken into account.

Mounting Fatalities in Afghanistan

August 25, 2009

Casualties are mounting in Afghanistan for US and NATO forces.  So far this year, 295 NATO soldiers have been killed, surpassing last year’s total of 294.  July and August have been the bloodiest months since the start of the war, with 76 and 63 fatalities, respectively.  In 2001, when coalition forces invaded Afghanistan, only 12 soldiers died in combat.  Over the next three years, the number of casualties hovered between 57 and 69 per year.  But since 2004, fatalities have increased rapidly.  They more than doubled in 2005 relative to the previous year (131 vs. 59), and the number of NATO soldiers killed in 2008 was more than twice the number killed in 2005 (294 vs. 131).  Since 2001, 1340 NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan, 802 of which were American and 206 were British. 

Military commanders attribute the rise in casualties to improvements in tactical skills by the Taliban and the new counterinsurgency strategy adopted by NATO forces, which requires soldiers to spend more time outside secure military bases in towns and villages in order to better protect the civilian population from militants.

It is unclear how much longer US and NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan.  There is increasing pressure on NATO governments to withdraw because there has been a major decline in popular support for the war effort.  But the US and some European governments, most notably the British, believe that preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda is vital for the national security of their countries.  If NATO remains committed to the mission, it is possible that the number of coalition fatalities in Afghanistan could eventually exceed those sustained in Iraq. 

Since the Iraq War began in 2003, 4,652 coalition soldiers have been killed, 4,334 of which were American and 179 were British.  During the Afghanistan War, 1340 NATO troops have been killed, 802 of which were American and 206 were British.  The number of British deaths in Afghanistan has already exceeded those suffered in Iraq.  If the number of monthly fatalities remains at the current level, NATO will lose approximately 800 troops per year, of which roughly 500 will be American.  At that rate, total coalition deaths in Afghanistan will exceed those in Iraq (assuming US troops are withdraw from Iraq by the scheduled date in 2011) by 2015, and the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan will pass the same milestone by 2017.

The scenario described above will obviously not develop if US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan in the next few years, but if they stay and the insurgency is not significantly weakened, there is a significant chance that the conflict in Afghanistan will turn out bloodier for the West than the one in Iraq, a turn of events which seemed unbelievable just two years ago.

Send More Troops to Afghanistan?

August 24, 2009

US military commanders have told Obama administration officials that they do not have enough troops in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban insurgency plaguing that country, although they have not yet formally requested additional forces.  There are currently 57,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, including the 17,000 additional troops that the Obama administration sent there earlier this year.

During an interview yesterday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and said that the Taliban have become more sophisticated and effective on a tactical level.   

The new counterinsurgency plan promoted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, focuses on protecting Afghan civilians from the insurgents, a strategy that requires a lot of manpower because many towns and villages need to be constantly defended from militants who can strike at anytime and then withdraw to sanctuaries in Pakistan. 

It is uncertain if the Obama administration will continue to increase troop levels.  President Obama is in a difficult position politically because the war effort is becoming increasingly unpopular at home and abroad (the majority of American now oppose it, and even larger majorities in other NATO countries are against it), and there will be increasing pressure on NATO leaders to withdraw their forces.  But failing to send more more troops, or withdrawing those that are already over there, is also problematic because Obama has repeatedly said that preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda, which would likely happen if the Taliban regain power, is critical for national security.

As American forces withdraw from Iraq, a process that is supposed to be completed by the end of 2011, the Obama administration will have more troops available for deployment to Afghanistan (there are now approximately 130,000 US soldiers in Iraq).  It is unclear how many would be needed to pacify the country.  The US and other members of NATO may not have enough to do the job, which is why the alliance is making greater efforts to train and increase the number of Afghan security personnel.  How quickly and effectively NATO can accomplish that task will almost certainly determine the outcome of the conflict.