Striking to Fail (Again) in Libya

In the midst of the furor about Donald Trump’s various remarks last week, you may have missed the fact that the United States launched air strikes against Libya starting on August 1. (One of the most unfortunate features of our presidential election cycle is the staggering amount of time and attention that it steals from governing, both in terms of actual policy making and media coverage of the governing that actually does take place in the midst of this electoral circus.) The air strikes will be part of a “sustained operation” to help forces loyal to the (current) Libyan government make a decisive advance on the coastal city of Sirte, which has been the site of fighting between IS and government forces for several weeks.

The United States has launched air strikes against Libya a few times since the 2011 intervention that eliminated Qaddafi and his regime. This is the first time, however, that the strikes are being touted as part of a “sustained operation” there. According to public reports, American special operations forces have been advising fighters on the ground in Libya since December. It is unclear whether they are still there and if so how many, but U.S. ground forces are not openly participating in the battle for Sirte. This also constitutes the first time that the United States has openly chosen to back a side (the Government of National Accord or GNA) in what is effectively a Libyan civil war. There are hundreds of rival militias currently fighting for control of Libya and for the opportunity to be the western-backed force that will defeat IS. Even if a temporary attack on IS in Sirte succeeds (a big “if”), it is not clear how this strategy will help to unify the rest of the country. If this operation succeeds, will the United States then help the GNA to wipe out the various factions that do not recognize its authority?

I have written about U.S. policy in Libya many times, both in my book and on this site. I wish I were surprised that the United States has chosen to go down this path again, given the fact that we created the chaos that we are now trying to contain. IS was able find refuge in Libya because the 2011 NATO intervention eliminated the government and showered munitions on the population without any plan for the aftermath. Obama has recently claimed that this failure to plan for the aftermath in Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.[1] Despite this admission, Obama continues to conduct his foreign policy in a way that makes little strategic sense: he has consistently stated that he wants the United States to withdraw from the Middle East, but he has also launched limited strikes against various targets that can at best temporarily quash one problem while generating three more, with 2011 Libya as the classic example.

This unwillingness to plan for a longer occupation is actually part of the plan, because Obama explicitly wants to avoid committing American ground troops to another endless occupation in the Middle East. And therein lies the fundamental flaw with the so-called “Obama Doctrine”: using force in this relatively cheap, limited manner will not generate stable political outcomes. It can (and most likely will) make the situation worse in ways we cannot foresee right now, but it will not make things better over the long run and it will commit American forces to another conflict at a time when we are incapable of terminating any of our rapidly multiplying international commitments.

Someone who is notably not admitting that the Libya intervention was a colossal mistake is the American perhaps most responsible for orchestrating it: Hillary Clinton. Will the next President have a more sensible strategy for American involvement in the Middle East in general and Libya in particular? I am sorry to say that all the evidence currently points to “no.”


[1] I can’t say I disagree, although I would also rank the fruitless troop surge in Afghanistan among the worst of his major policy decisions, and the combination of the dozens of bad decisions embodied in the drone campaign should also rank alongside these major errors.

Accountability in Kunduz

I’m back! I can’t promise that I will be posting regularly just yet but I am planning to ease back into the blog over the next couple of months. Now that my two major projects for 2016 (my book and my newborn daughter) have come to fruition, I’m also planning to focus on my new manuscript about British decision-making in the spring of 1940. Over the past twelve weeks I have, however, managed to sneak in some reading and some time to think about the current state of American foreign policy. One theme to which I have found myself drawn over the past couple of months is accountability. I will be exploring this idea over the next few weeks, and today’s post concerns accountability and responsibility in relation to the war in Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a great piece written by Matthieu Aikins and illustrated with haunting and sometimes gruesome photographs by Victor J. Blue about an American air strike in October 2015 that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The article does an excellent job of teasing out responsibility for the strike, which killed 42: was this a simple case of negligence on the part of American forces or was it something else? The article suggests—convincingly I think, although I am simplifying a bit here—that the Afghan security forces manipulated their American allies into destroying the hospital.[1]

Why would local forces want the United States to destroy a hospital? MSF touts itself as an impartial actor in local conflicts, and consequently its mission is to provide medical care to individuals regardless of affiliation. As a result, the hospital in Kunduz and its staff treated many Taliban fighters alongside civilians and those loyal to the Afghan government. Aikins’s reporting suggests that the local population and Afghan security forces had long suspected (probably erroneously) that the hospital was serving as a headquarters of sorts for the Taliban. On October 3, 2015, the Afghan security forces seized an opportunity during an American mission to dupe the Americans into firing on the hospital, incinerating the building and those unable to escape in time.

The destruction of the hospital and the confusion surrounding American actions in October 2015 illustrate some uncomfortable truths about America’s involvement in Afghanistan: after fifteen years on the ground, we still don’t have a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish there, we don’t understand the currents of local resentment and loyalties among the population, and we cannot be confident in the goals and capabilities of the Afghan forces. The American combat mission formally ended in 2014, and since then American forces on the ground have been restricted to two roles: training and advising the Afghan security forces, and attacking al Qaeda and IS. We saw in Kunduz in October 2015, however, that it is very difficult in practice for American forces to operate within these restrictive mandates and that a mission that is supposed to be purely defensive in nature may in fact be sliding down a slippery slope to offensive engagement with the Taliban.

Who bears responsibility for killing the Afghan civilians who died when American forces attacked that hospital in Kunduz? Is it the Afghan security forces, for tricking the Americans into firing on the wrong target? The Taliban, for making Kunduz a war zone? The United States, for sending its forces there in the first place? The Americans who made the decision to fire in the midst of shaky intelligence? Osama bin Laden, for launching 9/11 and drawing the United States into war there in the first place? I wish I had a good answer to this question. It seems that the New York Times can’t make up its mind, either. The print version of this story was titled “Reading the Wreckage: Did Afghan Forces Mislead the United States into Destroying the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz?” As you will see if you click through, the title for the online version of the same article is, “Doctors with Enemies: Did Afghan Forces Target the M.S.F. Hospital?” In other words, the online version omits the United States entirely from the title and places all the blame on our Afghan allies.


[1] This does not mean that the United States bears no responsibility for the attack. The Pentagon recently disciplined sixteen soldiers for their conduct during the strike. The Afghan forces may have prodded the Americans to strike the hospital, but the accident raises important questions about our intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan and the rules for conducting such strikes. As Aikins’s article details, these “rules” are often unclear because of the nature of the American mission in Afghanistan.

Evaluating Clinton’s Experience: The 2011 Libya Intervention

The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was dominated by a lengthy article (the first of two) about Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2011 decision to intervene in Libya. “As she once again seeks the White House, campaigning in part on her experience as the nation’s chief diplomat, an examination of the intervention she championed shows her at what was arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state. It is a working portrait rich with evidence of what kind of president she might be.” Indeed, there is no case more important if we want to understand how Clinton would conduct her foreign policy if elected President, aside from her decision to vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq War.

If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so. It paints a fairly accurate picture of how the United States decided to intervene in Libya: very hastily, without a clear understanding of the conflict on the ground, at the urging of European allies, and with Clinton’s support playing a pivotal role in pushing for the intervention. Robert Gates (then Secretary of Defense) claimed that Clinton’s support tipped the vote “51-49” in favor of the intervention and was a key factor in overcoming President Obama’s hesitation about the operation.

It just so happens that I wrote an entire chapter on the Libya intervention in my new book, Cheap Threats. The Times’ description of the run-up to the intervention is fairly accurate, but it makes some glaring omissions: there was no convincing evidence that the impending massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, which was used as the pretext for the UN resolution and the launch of the no-fly zone, would have occurred. Political scientist Alan Kuperman wrote an extremely important and convincing article[1] for Foreign Affairs making exactly this argument.  Leaving that issue aside, the intervention was initially sold to the US public as necessary to protect Libyan civilians. But in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, we did absolutely nothing to stop the rebel forces from liquidating entire villages of people that had been loyal to Qaddafi’s regime, or to stop the competing factions from seizing and destroying Libyan infrastructure.[2] (It’s not surprising that this gets little attention from the Times given that it and most American media outlets devoted very little coverage to the violence that unfolded on the ground in Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow—one had to look to European and Middle Eastern news outlets for this information after America’s attention went elsewhere. I await the second installment in the series to see whether these omissions will be rectified.) Even more ridiculous in the context of this “we must save Libyans” crusade is the fact that, around this time in early 2011, Bahrain was actually mowing down protesters in the street, not simply threatening to do so, but we never debated intervening in Bahrain because we have important military bases there. The point is not that we should have sent more force to pacify Libya (or Bahrain)—the point is that we could have and should have foreseen that our interference would destabilize both the country and the surrounding region.

It is clear from the article and from Clinton’s insistence that she wants to put boots on the ground to expand the campaign against IS in Syria, however, that the lesson she took away from the 2011 Libya intervention is not that we should have stayed out of it, but that we should have done more. In the summer of 2011, when rebel forces were gaining the upper hand against Qaddafi, she praised the intervention as a model of “smart power”[3]: “This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.”

Except that we didn’t really sacrifice anything to make that intervention happen (other than the stability of North Africa). This is exactly the point I make in my book: the 2011 Libya intervention is a prime example of how the United States has developed a model for the use of military force that relies on precise, standoff strike technologies to minimize the human and political costs of using force—with the result that we have actually undermined our ability to wield force effectively. The Libya intervention was conducted entirely from the air and involved the extensive use of drones. Furthermore, the Obama administration asserted that it did not need Congressional approval for the operation because it was so limited—the lack of boots on the ground meant that it did not “count” as a war and thus it did not need Congressional approval. This is very troubling: once the Executive has asserted a right to a particular power in foreign policy, it is unlikely to be taken away. The next President can point to the Obama administration’s assertions to justify all manner of international action without the need for Congressional oversight.

Reading between the lines of the article, Clinton comes across as anything but “experienced” in this case: she rushed to push intervention in the face of very limited and conflicting intelligence about the situation on the ground in Libya, she allowed herself to be swayed about the coherence of Libya’s opposition by a very small number of men claiming to represent this opposition (recalling how the George W. Bush administration allowed itself to be duped by a single human source who fabricated information about the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war in 2003), and she pushed (despite objections from military officials and members of the State Department) to funnel arms to the fractured Libyan opposition—arms that are now in the hands of al Qaeda and IS and helping to sustain insurgencies across North Africa. Make no mistake: this intervention was a disaster and one whose consequences we will continue to suffer in the coming years—if not the coming decades. It was a disaster not because we didn’t send enough forces to get the job done, but because we never should have gotten involved in the first place.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, then director of policy planning at the State Department, described exactly what type of president Clinton would be: “when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.”  How many Iraqs and Libyas are we going to “try” before we learn that regime change is a foolhardy endeavor that inflicts massive suffering on civilian populations (regardless of how precise our weapons are) and unleashes far-reaching consequences over which we have limited control?



[1] Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).

[2] Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was a major proponent of intervention in 2011, admits that “We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” but the article does not follow up on this reality.

[3] A term totally devoid of meaning, despite its buzzword status around the Beltway.

Intelligence and Truth about Syria

I promised myself at the start of 2016 that On Security would not devolve into On Syria, All the Time, but today I cannot resist the opportunity to discuss a piece by Seymour Hersh in the January 7 issue of the London Review of Books. If you are looking for a different perspective on the United States’ Syria policy, this is the article for you. If you think that Assad must go and that the United States cannot cooperate with Russia, then this is definitely the article for you, because it exposes why these and other assumptions are hindering our ability to combat IS in Syria.

The article is really about two related themes: efforts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to funnel intelligence to the Syrian Army via Germany, Israel, and Russia that would enhance its ability to fight IS and related groups in Syria; and the consequences of failing to pursue closer cooperation with both Russia and China to combat IS and related terrorist groups. The article highlights efforts by Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2012-2014, to warn the Obama administration about the consequences of its insistence that Assad must go. Hersh notes that, “his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border.” Flynn claims that these warnings “‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt they did not want to hear the truth,’” he said.

This “truth” was the fact that there was no effective “moderate” opposition on the ground in Syria and that toppling Assad would invite a takeover by extremists. It was in the wake of these assessments that the JCS decided to share intelligence about jihadist groups via other militaries that had direct contact with the Syrian forces. Hersh notes, “There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, ‘we provided the information…and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad…The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it—but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that.’”

In some ways, it is surprising to read that the US military was indirectly channeling intelligence to the Syrian Army, given that the public policy of the US government remains that Assad and his regime must go. It may surprise you to know, in the current climate of media coverage, that Syria actually cooperated with the United States quite a lot on anti-terror efforts after the September 11 attacks, even after George W. Bush decided to target Assad for some of his “axis of evil” rhetoric. The article does not paint a flattering picture of the CIA’s efforts to funnel arms and training to the illusory “moderate” opposition (discussed here), and it goes into too much detail to summarize succinctly here. Suffice it to say, Flynn’s tenure at DIA did not survive his truth-telling crusade. According to Patrick Lang, retired Army colonel who had served in DIA, “Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria…He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out.”

The rest of the article challenges the dominant narrative on Russia and the United States’ refusal to cooperate with it on Syria. To a lesser extent, it also explores the limits to US cooperation with China. All three countries, in Hersh’s view, share a similar interest in combating Islamic terrorism and extremism, and yet cooperation on these challenges remains remarkably limited—part of which he attributes to a persistent, Cold War-era “us vs. them” mentality. If transnational terrorism really is the greatest threat that the United States faces, then why are we allowing Russia’s actions in the Ukraine to stand in the way of cooperation that would likely prove greatly beneficial in the fight against IS? Is it because terrorism really isn’t that big of a deal? Or because we’re convinced that cooperating with other strong states threatens our own position atop the global hierarchy? The latter is an interesting question and one about which international relations theory has developed a variety of perspectives, but I will save those for another day.

“The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today: an insistence that Assad must go; that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible; that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support.” Hersh accurately sums up the state of US policy on Syria at the start of 2016, and his article provides persuasive evidence for why all four of those elements are either counterproductive to the effort to fight IS (Assad must go, no cooperation with Russia) or simply inaccurate (Turkey as ally, moderate opposition). I am inclined to agree with this assessment, as is much of the defense intelligence community, apparently.  But what chance does the “truth” have when the people in charge don’t want to hear it?

The State in the “Age of Terror”

In recent years, it has become fashionable in the field of international relations to argue that “the state” is in danger of falling into irrelevance as international organizations (IOs) like the United Nations and transnational groups like al Qaeda come to dominate international politics. I have always found these arguments unconvincing. The state is and is likely to remain the most important actor in international politics for the foreseeable future. (When scholars in international relations talk about “states” they are usually referring to what we would call “countries,” so, France, the United States, Syria, and Rwanda are all “states” in these terms. The term “the state” can also refer to the specific apparatuses of power that enable a state to exercise control—so, “the French state” could include the military, the bureaucracy, the legislature, etc., depending on the context.)

The recent terror attacks in Paris highlight not the growing power of transnational terrorist groups but the continued prominence of states. How can that be? You ask. Haven’t I been reading everywhere that these attacks signal an alarming and sophisticated shift in strategy by groups like IS? Isn’t life as we know it in western states more vulnerable than ever?

First: I don’t think that the attacks signal a major strategic shift for IS. For this to be true, there would have to be evidence that the group is reallocating a major amount of resources and personnel to attack western targets. IS still asserts and behaves as if its primary goal is to control territory and establish its own system of government (or state, if you will) in Iraq and Syria.

Second, and this is related to the first point: These attacks don’t strike me as particularly sophisticated or resource-intensive. From what we know, small groups of attackers conducted suicide bombings at the Stade de France, committed shootings at several locations around Paris, and trapped individuals inside the Bataclan theater while armed with automatic weapons and more bombs. The vast majority of the civilian casualties were sustained in the Bataclan theater, which is not surprising: the terrorists trapped a large number of people in a confined space and were armed with automatic weapons. The fact of the matter is that we now live in a world awash with relatively low-tech but effective automatic weapons (AK-47s), the result of decades of military aid that the United States and others have been funneling to so-called allies.

To me, what the attacks most closely resembled were the kind of mass shooting events that have sadly (ridiculously!) become relatively commonplace in the United States. (“But unlike IS terrorists, those people aren’t trying to destroy our way of life!” you say? Excuse me, but how are shootings at movie theaters and women’s health clinics and civil rights protests NOT attacks on the American way of life? And yet in the wake of those tragedies CNN does not go to DEFCON 1 and convince you that you are about to be assassinated by the angry bearded guy holed up down the block.) The point here is not to devolve into a complicated discussion about the terrorists’ tactics but to point out that these were not very sophisticated attacks. Yes, they were carried out in a short time frame, but that was not because a series of explosive devices was pre-set to detonate at the same time—luckily a much more difficult feat to pull off and one that would have signaled a higher level of planning and coordination.

What we have seen in the wake of the attacks, however, is the assertion of the state.  Within days, the French state had located multiple suspects, conducted more than a hundred raids, and tracked dozens of individuals into neighboring countries. That is the kind of sophisticated surveillance and coordinated application of violence that a state, and only a state, can manage at this time. (You may wonder why the state failed to pick up on the attacks in advance—an important question, but it may be a long time before we have a good answer to this.) The Belgian state told its people to stay in their homes for days as they hunted down additional suspects, and these people complied. Rightly or wrongly, the people of western Europe did not turn to the European Union (EU) but to their own states to demand protection. Suddenly, state borders began to matter a lot more than the doctrines of free trade and free transit that the EU has worked to implement. Even in the United States, there have been calls to ban immigration, and particularly to shut out Syrian refugees.

This does not imply that the state is the only actor in international politics, that states are infallible, or that the exercise of state power is always justifiable on moral or ethical grounds. But I do think it is important to recognize that the attacks on Paris did not threaten the survival of the French state, just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, did not bring down the United States. For most states, and particularly for states in the wealthy western world, terrorism simply does not threaten the survival of the state, period. After terror attacks, the most significant erosions to the American way of life that we have endured are the ones we have inflicted on ourselves, like the Patriot Act or the prison at Guantanamo Bay. For better or worse, the state is here to stay.

It’s Time to Get Angry with the Saudis

In the wake of the attack on Paris (and the attacks on Beirut and elsewhere that, not surprisingly, failed to prompt most people to change their Facebook photos or post on Twitter), there has been an outpouring of emotion in the western media. It is reasonable to feel a sense of sadness, fear, and shock in the face of terrorist attacks that kill innocent people. Terrorist attacks are, after all, intended to provoke feelings of fear and panic among their audience. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be: What should we do about the Islamic State and Syria?

Patrick Cockburn has written for the London Review of Books what I think is the most straightforward and accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. If you read nothing else about the fight against IS, please read this, even if it means you do not finish reading this post! The piece predates the Paris attacks, but its conclusions are still sound. Cockburn writes, quite correctly, that the current US strategy of air strikes and the insertion of special forces to advise friendly forces in Syria has already failed. Incremental increases to an already failed strategy do not translate into success, they translate into a more expensive failed strategy. “By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS.” Another thousand strikes will not do the job, nor would sending 5,000 or 10,000 ground troops.

Cockburn is also correct in pointing out that the United States and its allies have backed themselves into a corner by insisting that Assad must go. This leaves us with essentially no one to support other than the Kurds. (Never mind that by supporting the Kurds we are also angering Turkey, a longtime US ally in the region.) While they have had some success in defeating IS, the Kurds have no interest in taking over and ruling Syria—they want to carve out and maintain an autonomous region for themselves. Why does this matter, you say? It matters because this is a civil war that will only be resolved militarily when one side decisively defeats and disarms all the opposition. Otherwise, any gains will be temporary. Russia, however, is not bound by the same restrictions. Russian air strikes will not be a magical solution, either, but by aligning themselves with a functioning force on the ground—the Syrian military—Russia has a chance of using its air power to coordinate with those forces and possibly defeat IS and affiliated groups. Even then, the chances of success are not great. Cockburn writes: “It is a genuine civil war: a couple of years ago in Baghdad an Iraqi politician told me that ‘the problem in Iraq is that all parties are both too strong and too weak: too strong to be defeated, but too weak to win.’ The same applies today in Syria.”

[By the way, if you’re thinking about the 2011 intervention in Libya and wondering why we can’t simply apply the same strategy in Syria, an idea that sadly I think French President Hollande may have in the forefront of his mind, too: the air strikes succeeded in defeating Qaddafi and his forces only because they were working in conjunction with motivated rebel forces on the ground. As I noted above, given that we will not support the Syrian military, there is no similar partner with which the US and France could coordinate their air strikes in Syria. More importantly, the NATO campaign over Libya should not be held up as a model of anything other than the foolhardiness of blindly pursuing regime change in poorly understood societies. That campaign may have ousted Qaddafi, but it left a chaotic power vacuum in its wake. A discussion for another day, perhaps.]

In the wake of the attack of Paris, one of the dominant emotions we have been witnessing is anger: anger at the long-suffering refugee communities fleeing IS atrocities; anger at the intelligence lapses that might have facilitated the attack in Paris; anger at President Obama for failing to protect America (originating mainly in the ridiculous statements of Republican Presidential candidates). If you want to get angry, it’s time to start directing your anger at the Gulf States that are supporting IS, either by funneling money to the forces directly or by failing to stop their citizens from funding these groups. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to a 2009 cable from the State Department.  Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are also major sources of funding for IS and similar groups. As Charles Pierce argues in a great piece at Esquire, putting pressure on these American “allies” to stop aiding Sunni terrorist and insurgent groups in the region may be the only way to defeat IS.

Fortunately, Obama seems to agree with me about the perils of sending significant ground troops into Syria. (Although, worryingly, he does promise an “intensification” of the present strategy…so, more guns to the good guys and more advisors? He also asserts that the present strategy “is the one that is going to work,” so he and I do differ on that.) Refusing to send combat troops is prudent; nothing significant has changed about the risk that the United States faces from transnational terrorism. But see above: incremental increases to a failed strategy produce a more expensive failure, not strategic success.