Syrian invasions and power vacuums, waging a war against ourselves

U.S. government announced it was halting some material support to Jihadists elements of the Syrian Opposition in the northern part of that country. Photo: extremists/ AP

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2013 — Last week, the U.S. government announced it was halting some material support to Jihadists elements of the Syrian Opposition in the northern part of that country. Washington said it made the change because radical Islamists, the al-Nusra Front, had broken with the Free Syrian Army and made territorial gains in Northern Syria, prompting the US and other Western nations to rethink their material support strategy.

No word was given, however, what kind of aid that support entailed, and whether or not that turning off of the spigot would affect the rest of the Syrian Opposition.

The announcement suggests that before last week, the United States directly funded and supported an Islamist rebel group allied to al-Qaeda in its effort to seize territory in a sovereign nation.

That is just the latest conundrum in a long line of foreign policy conundrums that the United States and the West has found itself facing in the Middle-East and Africa since September 11, 2001. Over and over again, the United States has made foreign policy decisions affecting that particular region of the World which have done little to make the area more stable, or to bring “Democracy,” or to advance the cause of American style “Liberty” in one of the oldest parts of the Globe.

What have we done in terms of shaping the Middle East and Northern Africa?

Invasions and power vacuums.


President Bush prompted two separate invasions during his presidency. Iraq, which was instigated in response to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the accusation that he possessed, and intended to use, weapons of mass destruction. And Afghanistan, the immediate retaliation of the United States and the West against the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks, as well as the local organization responsible for harboring them.

The conventional war in Iraq was over soon enough, with the regular Iraqi armed forces surrendering to the United States fairly quickly, and Saddam Hussein capitulating via fleeing the capital. However, the war soon deteriorated into an asymmetrical nightmare as Jihadist militia groups including al-Qaeda began launching a full blown insurgency against the American and Allied forces. A prolonged anti-insurgency campaign was waged to some lasting effect, but ultimately the United States felt the brunt of IED’s and suicide bombers and began the transition from an occupying force to a security force as the reformed Iraqi military and police units began assuming greater and greater security roles.

In Afghanistan, the United States had great initial success in crippling al-Qaeda in the region as well as minimizing the influence and power of the Taliban. However the impact on the Taliban was only superficial, as evidenced by numerous instances of warlords simply buying off local Afghani commanders or moving back in once the American troop presence was diminished.

Afghanistan was never a conventional war, and was fought largely without the armored column drives on the capital or maneuvers that Iraq was initially known for while the US fought conventional troops. Afghanistan was always an insurgency war, and the United States was not ready for it. 

What these two conflicts have in common is that in both cases, the United States failed to adjust its strategy once the shock of having American and allied troops in the region wore off. The prevailing military strategy of  the march on the capital with overwhelming force, followed by the occupation and rebuilding continues to dominate. That is how it worked with Japan and that is how it worked with Germany. That technique is far less effective in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

In both cases, President Bush sent a hammer to swat flies and the result is an American military machine bogged down in two foreign nations fighting an enemy that has been killing empires since Alexander.

Large, foreign, invading armies are like magnets to Jihadist fighters. Troops come in, disrupt lives and businesses, cause collateral damage, and once they are finish off the regular forces of a nation, they settle in for the long haul. Civilians rankle against the invading force, and that anger is only fanned by radical sheiks and imams who take money from wealthy Saudis and Qataris to give young men guns to fight the evil invaders.

The longer an invading army remains the angrier sections of the populace gets. Insurgencies develop, groups such as al-Qaeda who have contacts with foreign Jihadist groups move in with an already established organization. Young men who have never held a rifle are given the chance for what amounts to on the job training in fighting the invading troops. As a result, after years of entrenched anti-occupation insurgency, Jihadist organizations have trained the newest crop of veteran guerrilla fighters.

Meanwhile, the impact that collateral damage has on a region cannot be minimized. Drone strikes, tanks shells, artillery barrages, all of the instruments of war which blanket a particular area have the potential to create new Jihadists. A man who sees his family killed by a drone strike when that family had nothing to do with terrorists will ask; who is responsible? And that man, having no affiliation prior to that strike will take up arms against the party responsible for his loss. It is simple. Large scale invasions accompanied by faceless drone strikes swell the ranks and the coffers of the enemy with displaced and angry men, and the dollars of radical clerics who profit from waging an almost unending Jihad against an occupying force defiling Muslim land.

And when those wars are over, and the fighters look to their next field of battle, where do they go?

To the vacuums.

Libya, Syria, Egypt, Post-War Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Cameroon, and Mali, all have suffered through the turmoil of civil war and political upheaval, only to come out on the other side with a more unstable and incapable government than before. In places like Libya and Egypt, the results of civil unrest and revolution leave gaping holes of power ready to be exploited by radical Islamist groups.

Power vacuums, which Jihadist organizations so willingly and ably exploit, develop when a nation has weak government, or in some cases no government, as the result of a revolution or civil war. It can occur when the people, tired of their government, press for change. The government cracks down hard and sparks armed resistance which turns into revolution or civil war. There is sporadic and somewhat cohesive resistance, but it is ultimately sporadic and unorganized.

A group such as al-Qaeda, with extensive organizational capabilities seizes the chance at influence, and offers support to the flailing revolutionaries. Over time, they gain more and more control over the opposition forces, and soon what was once a secular revolution has become a Jihadist insurgency.

It could also happen in the face of weak and corrupt governments that have deteriorated over time. Like smelling blood in the water, Jihadist groups could fan the flames of dissatisfaction with such governments into a full-fledged revolution. Islamist forces are present from the beginning, managing the revolution and bleeding the government dry during a prolonged insurgency.

How has the United States contributed to the exploitation of power vacuums through their foreign policy decision?

While President Bush as mentioned created problems through the creation of prolonged insurgency vs. occupying forces, President Obama has helped create instances in which ready, willing, and able Jihadist organizations hijack revolutions and take advantage of the aftermath of civil wars.

In Libya, the United States backed a NATO effort to launch an air campaign against Muammar Gadaffi and the Libyan Government in support of a popular revolution. Gadaffi was killed, and now Libya is in a state of almost constant warfare. Al-Qaeda and their allies have infiltrated militias and are now launching insurgency efforts against the Libyan government. The Libyan government then asked the US for help in training their troops, and until several months ago when high tech assault gear was stolen from one of the special training teams camps during a raid, that was what they were doing. However after the raid it was reported that the team was ordered out of country.

In Syria, the United States has opted to support the Syrian Opposition against President Bashar al-Assad despite the fact that much of the Opposition is now under the command of Jihadists. In addition, President Obama knew that to be the case when he waived the law banning material support to known terrorist organizations. As of now, seven of the largest Islamist groups have united under the Islamic Front and have broken away from the Free Syrian Army. The two groups have begun fighting over control of the direction of the war against Assad. The Islamic Front calls for the implantation of an Islamic state and Sharia law. Al-Qaeda, and their allies al-Nusra, are more than happy to hijack this particular revolution if it creates the possibility of gaining solid power in an established, globally significant nation.

That is the danger that groups such as Al-Qaeda pose. Algeria, Libya, and Syria are all currently vulnerable to groups hostile to the West and their allies. Radical Islam, and the groups that support its ideals, seeks to spread from Turkey and across North Africa to recreate the old Sultanates and establish Muslim law as the only law.

And the United States has done little as of late to counter this threat effectively. In fact, the United States has supported their efforts in Syria and paved the way for advances in Libya. This all ties into the idea that al-Qaeda and their allies have bounced back from the original shock of American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and have in turn profited from a prolonged presence, and used that knowledge and profit to increase their influence in other areas of the region and across Africa.

After the foreign policy decisions of these last two Presidents, the United States is not truly better off in terms of protecting out interests as we should be. We had to retaliate for the September 11 attacks. Failure to do so would have resulted only in repeated attacks. But sending in an invading force to counter guerillas fighting asymmetrical warfare is like trying to swat flies with a hammer. You will get a bunch, but they will re-form and keep buzzing.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, and a failure to learn from our mistakes. One of the lessons we should have learned from Vietnam was that not every problem can be solved with the broadsword, sometimes it takes the dagger. In his book “Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam” retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl suggests that the memory of large columns and formations flanking and maneuvering to victory in World War II had not left the American military mindset in the 1960’s, and as a result the United States entered Vietnam with the wrong strategy for countering Communist guerrillas and the NVA. The United States trained 5’2” 125lb Vietnamese men to march and move like 6’ 200lb American soldiers, that dog won’t hunt or carry a 60lb pack.

To this day it seems like we have not learned our lesson.

We have trained our security counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight like American GI’s, which does not work for the hit and run style of fighting prevalent in that part of the World.  We still invade nations guns blazing and tanks rolling, and while that may provide a resounding initial victory it quickly turns to quicksand as the occupying forces are bogged down running counter-insurgency operations while they attempt to rebuild the nation.

So what can we do?

Taking those two classifications, invasions and vacuums, the United States needs to recognize their enemy and adapt accordingly. They need to adapt their foreign policy, and they need to adapt the manner in which that foreign policy is carried out in terms of military strategy.

America also needs to counter threats, but the current policy here is backward. The United States needs to realize that a radical Islam is a direct threat, and immediately rid themselves of the pretense that arming al-Nusra and other radical groups in Syria is for some reason protecting America’s best interest. It is not. Seeing an increase in the rise of Muslim nations controlled by radical Islamists should be alarming and troubling to the United States and her allies. The fact that radical Islam keeps spreading and hijacking revolutions and civil wars to replace secular governments with Islamist ones should be enough evidence the United States needs in order to revamp the manner in which it counters these threats.

How do we counter these threats?

The United States needs to adapt militarily and politically to the manner in which wars are fought in the 21st century, of course without compromising our ability to deter other World powers through conventional means.

We can do this by creating a war making apparatus which leaves a smaller military footprint and the ability from a foreign policy standpoint to recognize global situations which are vulnerable to exploitation by radical Islamists.

This means not supporting Jihadist organizations in Syria that could come to power and seek to counter American interests in the area. This means directly seeking out and opposing al-Qaeda operatives from hijacking revolutions and civil wars. It also means recognizing the threat of prolonged occupation in terms of leading to a brutal and costly insurgency. When the initial drive is done, and the enemy has pulled back to regroup, the United States needs to scale back and to leave the job up to special operators who have the task of bringing the war to the enemy. They can be supported of course by a larger reserve of combat ready troops, but the site of tanks and warplanes flying overhead are not so much a deterrent to enemy as it is a call to resistance against the occupation. Imams and sheiks point to those assets as a sign of oppression and occupation.

The same way that villages in Vietnam sided with whatever faction was not killing them; the populace of nations the US operates in will most likely side with whoever is not kicking their door down to force compliance. We must rely upon the people of a nation to help us counter these threats; however we cannot rely upon a nation’s populace if the nation’s populace believes they are under martial law. There is no trust or compromise there, only resentment and hatred.

This is not hearts and minds; this is just an evolution in countering threats to US national interests that are threats to US national interests. Thus far, the US has failed to adapt to its newest threat. US military leadership, and most importantly the politicians in Washington, need to both recognize the danger of an emboldened and growing radical Islamic movement in the Middle-East and Northern Africa, and to develop the means by which to counter such threats, without compounding the very problem we seek to fix.  

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Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a B.A. from Catholic University in DC in American History, with a concentration on guerrilla warfare on American soil. He has an M.A. in US History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, with a concentration on Cold War insurgency. He believes that all news and all information should be taken with a grain of salt, and implores people everywhere to seek news stories everywhere. 

Higgins is also a fervent believer in the traditional role of media, in terms of acting as a balanced check on government policies and individuals regardless of party affiliation. But in the end, he believes that no matter how heated an issue is, there is nothing that can't be discussed over a smoke and some whiskey. 

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