WASHINGTON, March 10, 2014 — On February 25, 59 students were killed in a government school in northern Nigeria. The attack was allegedly perpetrated by Boko Haram, an affiliate and ally of Al-Qaeda on the Islamic Maghreb, as well as Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab was responsible for the deadly Kenyan mall attack in September, and is similarly rumored to be allied with al-Qaeda.
The attack was carried out in the midst of ongoing conflict and insurrection spread by radical Islamist groups trying to destabilize the region in an effort to gain territorial control of several African nations. Many fear that the attack on the school in Nigeria will be the first of many.
Boko Haram and their allies Al-Qaeda on the Islamic Maghreb seek to bring back the days of an Islamic caliphate in northern Africa, a dream they share with several Islamic groups in the Middle East. Using insurgent tactics, funded by wealthy sheiks and imams from the Middle East, Boko Haram and their allies destabilize regions and cause unrest among the populations of certain countries. They target weak and corrupt presidents, they spark unrest in territories that are low income, and they use this instability to attempt to seize power and establish themselves in the region, eventually bringing back one by one the old nations of the Caliphate.
Libya is currently a target of Islamic radical insurgents who are taking advantage of the fall of Qaddafi and the chaos of war to seize control. In Mali, al-Qaeda-linked forces have incited war and attempted to take territory. They were only pushed back due to African Union, French, and minimally, American resistance. It is the same in Cameroon, in the Central African Republic, in Kenya, in Somalia, and all across North Africa.
In Syria, the revolution has been hijacked by Islamic radicals. Across Africa and into the Middle East, radical Islamists are fomenting instability in order to seize control.
It isn’t just Islamic radicals who are attempting to profit from chaos.
As we watch Russia threaten Ukraine and wait to learn the results of the Crimean referendum, it is important to understand the nature of the threats posed to the United States and her allies in order to counter them. These threats are the result of simultaneous actions by Russia and radical Islamists, and the United States is failing to address any of them.
These threats demand a clear response. The United States cannot abide an entire region of Africa falling to radical Islam. The United States cannot abide such an abundance of resources being made readily available to potential terrorists networks. Yet the Obama Administration has done little to contain these threats, and has even contributed to the instability with its involvement in Libya. France is contributing to the instability by what can only be classified as re-colonization through the establishment of outposts and fortified ports in sub-Saharan Africa.
The United States has responded to these new threats by shifting our defense focus towards Special Forces the use of drone strikes. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced cutbacks to our conventional forces, with a proposed expansion of intelligence assets and Special Forces programs. According to the administration, these changes are the right response to deal with what they believe to be the greatest threat to national security. As the White House sees it, the greatest threat to national security comes from radical Islamists and their terror networks.
Russia has proven that wrong. Russia has Crimea and may annex it. Whether they can digest it is an open question, but what matters is how they took it. They did it with infantry and armor. They used conventional tactics which Secretary of State John Kerry famously characterized as “19th century.”
While the nature of warfare has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, there’s still a use for armies. It is difficult to believe that an insurgent group numbering in the hundreds could take a city within a developed nation. It is even more difficult to believe that such a group could hold it if they took it.
The Obama Administration’s shock and indignation over Russian tactics highlights a popular Progressive delusion concerning safety and security. They believe that this world is full of civilized people, led by developed nations who respect the rule of law and international boundaries. They believe the world is a law abiding place, America with quaint costumes and accents. This is the 21st century after all, and we are all civilized people. The major world powers would never attempt to redraw the lines of the globe.
This is naïve in the extreme.
The World may be filled with civilized people, but rarely in history do we find civilized nations without blood on their hands. Nations are civilized when it suits them, and are quick to shed civility when their interests are threatened. In Ukraine, Russia believes that her interests are threatened, and that is justification for their occupation of Crimea. The Obama Administration has denounced this behavior as “19th Century.” It is not; it’s as old as nations and as modern as the internet.
We cannot expand our counterinsurgency capabilities and then cry foul when we cannot counter a conventional military campaign. This is exactly what has happened here. The Obama Administration sees the world as an established, settled place. The powerful have claimed their piece of the world, and our job now is to preserve the status quo and avoid instability and chaos.
It may take insurgents and terrorists years to achieve their ends. They can be countered, not easily, but with a greater degree of flexibility than much larger threats from formal militaries. Special Forces teams and advisers can be dispatched to assist governments train counterinsurgency troops, money can be funneled in through back channels, contacts can be established, and relationships strengthened.
However, those standing armies fielded by major powers cannot be countered by Special Forces and counterinsurgency measures. They call for a show of force and immediate action. It took rebels, militias, and insurgents years of civil war to redraw Sudan’s borders and divide the country; it took just days for Russian infantry to install a new Crimean parliament and force a referendum for annexation.
The Obama Administration does not understand that cutting troop numbers down to focus on insurgencies and unconventional warfare does not maintain American power. Once those numbers are cut, we can’t just conjure an army out of the air when we have to face a conventional army, and Special Forces aren’t enough. The military needs to be able to respond to all threats, not just the terrorist threat.
Countries always fight their last war. WW 1 was fought in trenches, not with the great battles of the Civil War. WW 2 introduced America to blitzkrieg while we were still using bolt action rifles. We spent the bulk of Vietnam fighting the communist guerrillas as if they were conventional European divisions. Iraq and Afghanistan saw us fall into the trap of initial repeated success, followed by occupation and long protracted counterinsurgent operations with no end in sight. We have the habit of fighting the last war.
But it is not so much fighting the last war, as it is fighting the last style of war, and we again find ourselves in danger of falling into the same trap as we have done time and time again. We look to the problems of fighting insurgent groups and guerrillas in mountains and in desert cities and we think, we have to focus on smarter more surgical warfare, so let’s do away with highly destructive assets which only swell the ranks of our enemy. But then the leader of a very powerful, developed, foreign power begins to make moves which upset the balance in the World and violate international law. He is using armor and infantry, the very threats that the assets we just began to get rid of address. Focusing on one leaves us vulnerable to the other. Fighting the last war will only lead us to defeat during the current one.
If the Obama Administration wishes to adequately protect American interests it has to be prepared to counter and adjust to threats posed from both unconventional and conventional enemies. Thus far he has been unable to do that. The multitude of unstable regions around the Middle East and Africa inviting in the radical Jihadist element poses a threat to American interests. The development of counterinsurgency capabilities as well as our ability to prop up weak and endangered governments is crucial to addressing our foreign policy concerns in the 21st century.
President Obama realizes this, and has made motions as mentioned above to counter these threats. But what he does not realize is that conventional forces are still relevant, and they still pose a threat to national security and international stability. We are focused on insurgency warfare and the expansion of Special Forces programs, but to do so at the expense of our conventional forces is a mistake.
The Obama Administrations assertion that the strategies employed by Russian forces in Crimea are draconian, and that the lines of the World cannot be redrawn in the 21st century, shows a naiveté and lack of understanding of the World stage, the likes of which continue to urge our enemies to undermine American strength, while diminishing our ability to project strength abroad.
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