Iraq and Afghanistan: the US Grand Strategy and Grand Failures

New Eastern Outlook
by Salman Rafi Sheikh

EBE6CD25-C10C-43F2-90E9-608DE180AC67_mw1024_s_nThe success of the ISIS or ISIL in Syria and Iraq against the Iraqi military forces and the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan against Afghan forces apparently look two different cases; however, they have something in common which glaringly shows grand failure of the US’ twenty-first century grand strategy. As a part of its grand strategy, the US aimed at first destroying the local forces (Saddam’s army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan) and replacing that army with the one directly recruited, trained and equipped by the US army.

This was supposed to be the linchpin of the US’ policy of dominating the energy rich Middle East and the Central Asia. However, certain developments during the past few months or so have clearly established that not only have the US failed in establishing ‘capable’ armies but also have lost the credibility of its slogan of bringing ‘democracy’ and ‘peace’ by overthrowing ‘autocratic’ regimes. The fact that chaos has followed and is going to follow the US’ withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan respectively proves the hollowness of the US’ grand claims.

Not only this; the miserable failure of the both Iraq and Afghan army also shows the corruption within the US army as well. The forces’ inability to effectively counter the attacking forces poses a direct question to the huge amount of money spent on their training to make them into such forces as capable enough to replace the coalition forces in both countries. As a matter of fact, the US spent around $30 billion dollars on training the Iraqi army alone; however, this US trained army turned out to be nothing more than a fleeing prey when it had to confront the ISIS. When the ISIS entered Iraq a few months, they numbered only 1000. But this group of a thousand, largely out-numbered and out-equipped as compared to the Iraqi army, was able to force them to flee for their lives, leaving behind a whole lot of foreign provided equipments and other valuable hardware.

This being the case-scenario, one has to question not only the Western media’s credibility because of its gross failure in probing or even highlighting this issue, but also the often-repeated assumption that the US must never have pulled out its troops from Iraq. Similarly, the Western claim that the ISIS does not have so much following and that it also does not have air support ironically puts a question on the ability of the Iraqi forces to fight such a force as the ISIS, having no “air power” or huge following. The ability of the US army, in this behalf, to establish such armies is thus a matter of huge concern for countries who expect their help in their quest to modernize their own national armies.

Issues like corruption in the US army have further spoiled the success of the US’ grand strategy. Some investigative reports have come up with stories of massive corruption. For instance, according to one of such reports quoted by Al-Jazeera English, electric plugs valued at $900 each for the US troops there when their real price was something like $5 and short piping costing $1.5 went for almost $80. It has also been reported that the Pentagon channeled contracts for the Iraqi army through companies which did not leave any paper work behind regarding these contracts, thus left an open space for themselves and the Pentagon to fill in gaps as per their designs.

The most significant question that we must raise here now is: what would be the future of the Afghan national force which has been trained and equipped, like the Iraqi army, by the US army? Now that the US and NATO forces are going to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, leaving Afghan national forces in charge of the “war on terror” against the Taliban, one must not be led to believe that “peace” is necessarily going to follow this withdrawal. The case and position of the Afghan national army is not qualitatively much different from the Iraqi army. Stories of desertion, corruption and killings of the US/NATO soldiers by the Afghan soldiers have already made headlines in the media. Not only this; stories of the failure of the Afghan national forces in containing the Taliban continue to make headlines, casting some serious doubts on their ability to handle the post-withdrawal scenario.

Despite the fact that the US has been training the Afghan army for years now, lack of progress in their capability makes us question the ability of the US army itself. The current number of the Afghan armed forces stands at an impressive 200,000, with another 60,000 planned to be added next year, and with nearly 4,000 US instructors involved in their training. Yet, all we hear about is the successes of the Taliban in controlling vast parts of the country and the possible eventual take-over of the country, once the bulk of NATO troops withdraw.

The US, like Iraq, has spent billions of dollars on the training of the Afghan forces. Now, by taking into consideration the case of Iraq, we can safely conclude that the fate of the Afghan forces as well of Afghanistan would not be so much different from that of Iraq. What is thus most likely to happen in Afghanistan, after the US and NATO force withdraw, is the Taliban moving in and virtually taking over without any much hustle. As a matter of fact, the Taliban are no more so backward in terms of access to modern weaponry and organization of the force. Not only have they been using bullet-proof helmets and camouflage caps as part of their combat uniform, but also high-tech tools in combat operations against the Afghan national army and NATO forces, often using Google Earth to pinpoint their targets. It seems that the Taliban are as advanced in terms of the kind of weapons they have as the Afghan National Army; however, the Taliban are more committed and even better trained than this army. This is quite evident from the number of deaths the ANA has suffered in clashes with the Taliban as well as from the videos, released by the Taliban, showing them engaged in extensive combat training programmes and working as a proper ‘unit of a standing army.’

The US’ policy of prolonging its stay in Afghanistan even after 2014 is, in a way, also a reflection of the actual position of the ANA, and the disbelief of the US in the ANA’s ability to fulfill its primary task: tackling the Taliban threat. According to the recently signed Bi-lateral Security Agreement, the US will leave behind not only trainers and instructors but also a reasonable chunk of Special Forces. Unlike Iraq where the US did not leave any mechanism behind, the US is treating the Afghan case differently. However, it has nothing to do with the ISIL phenomenon. The US has been trying to sign this agreement long before the world even knew the name of the ISIL/ISIS. However, this agreement is, in reality, a forceful continuation of the already failed project, that is, training of the Afghan National Army. Although the underlying purpose of this agreement is to keep the region militarized for at least one more decade, this would not pave the way for any major achievement against the Taliban.

The reality of all such agreements made between the US and other states is that these agreements directly pave the way for militarization and placement of US forces across the world. In fact, the US deliberately creates such conditions as necessitate the placement of its forces. For example, the US is considering sending its ‘instructors’ to Nigeria where the armed group Boko Haram has been securing serious success and has even announced to create its own mini-caliphate in the northern part of the country where this groups has established its authority by force. Following the failure of the Nigerian government in organizing a strong response to the group, the so-called “public opinion” is increasing its pressure on the US to increase the number of US advisers and instructors on the ground there.

This is precisely the situation in Iraq as well where the US first created the ISIS and now is using the ISIS threat as a justification for launching attacks, sensing troops and organizing an international coalition. And, such situation is also likely to follow in Afghanistan even though a ‘peaceful democratic transition’ has taken place there.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

New Eastern Outlook