Small Wars Journal

Winning Indefinite Conflicts: Achieving Strategic Success Against Ideologically-Motivated Violent Non-State Actors

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 1:45am

Winning Indefinite Conflicts: Achieving Strategic Success Against Ideologically-Motivated Violent Non-State Actors

Mark E. Vinson

“This broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas...”

-- President Barak Obama, July 6, 2015

Elusive Success

If, as President Obama asserted, “ideologies are not defeated by guns,” but by “better ideas,” then how should the U.S. military be used to help achieve strategic success in the growing number of protracted, irregular conflicts with ideologically-motivated violent non-state actors (VNSAs)? In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the Philippines, and many more countries around the globe, VNSAs, motivated by religious, political, ethnic and other status-quo-challenging ideas, have been remarkably resilient, perseverant, and influential. By surviving and rapidly recovering from punishing attacks by the United States and its partners—while continuing to carry out violent agendas against local, regional, and even global adversaries—these VNSAs can credibly claim that they are succeeding strategically. With broad, ambiguous long-term strategic objectives, and an open-ended, evolving path to strategic success, the United States has generally conducted limited military operations intended to disrupt and degrade such VNSAs, followed by the hopeful but indefinite objective of “ultimately defeating” them. In view of the VNSAs’ resilience, persistence, and ideological basis for conflict, the path to strategic success for the United States has remained elusive. Although its military has achieved tactical and operational successes against such adversaries, the U.S. government has struggled to define, much less achieve, strategic success. If military success is not sufficient against ideologically-motivated VNSAs, then how can the United States achieve strategic success and what is the military’s role?

Based on the results of a cooperative examination by the U.S. and Israeli militaries, this article examines key challenges associated with achieving strategic success in protracted conflicts with VNSAs. It then offers ideas on how to address the challenges and suggests some key conditions required to achieve strategic success. The article concludes with thoughts on how the U.S. military might implement the ideas.

An Accelerating Treadmill

U.S. intelligence capabilities are ill-suited for irregular conflicts with VNSAs, which tend to take place in complex, uncertain foreign operational environments. These operational environments are dynamic ecosystems containing a multitude of actors, each with unique tribal, religious, national, and ethnic identities that produce complex relationships based on myriad factors, all of which combine to make it impossible to predict system-wide effects of an action against any part of the system. In such unfamiliar environments, threat actors are conducting protracted, ideological conflicts, blending into populations, urban areas, and complex terrain. The U.S. military inevitably enters conflicts with a lack of local knowledge, language abilities, and cultural experience. Planners struggle to accurately understand and frame the operational problem, leading to flawed campaign design and planning.

The U.S. military generally lacks the essential support, both among the local population in a conflict zone and at home, to sustain its direct involvement in a protracted conflict with VNSAs. Local populations will naturally distrust the motives and long-term commitment of external forces, especially extra-regional forces with no tie to the local land or its people. As a foreign force, the U.S. military will naturally struggle to gain and maintain the local legitimacy required for successful direct involvement in a protracted campaign. Likewise, the sustained support of the U.S. public for direct involvement in such conflicts is unlikely unless political leaders can communicate a clear and compelling argument for U.S. interests. The protracted nature of conflicts with VNSAs, the huge cost of military operations, and the public’s reluctance to accept casualties, make the substantial and long-term commitment of ground combat forces problematic for the United States and other western democracies. The current U.S. strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) clearly reflects the lack of public and political support for ground force commitment after the extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving rise to the oft-heard expression of official non-commitment “no boots on the ground.”

In the face of complex and uncertain conflicts, U.S. leaders are challenged to describe specific long-term strategic objectives that align with those of its partners. As a result, leaders initially provide broad, ambiguous objectives that may be insufficient to enable national or coalition unity of effort. Without specific strategic objectives, and in light of VNSA threats that persist, adapt, and even expand in the form of dramatic terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States, it is unclear whether U.S. operations are making progress toward strategic success.

Besides ambiguous strategic objectives, military operations against VNSAs generally suffer from a lack of effective strategic and operational orchestration. As a result, a series of tactically or operationally successful operations may not be integrated with interagency or other partners’ lines of effort, and may not contribute to strategic success. However, without clear strategic objectives that find common ground with partners’ various and competing objectives, U.S. operational planning will be unable to establish the integrating framework necessary to unify effort among all contributing actors.

In 2005, while the United States was responding to the 9-11 attacks with a global counter-terrorism effort, struggling to design and execute successful campaigns against VNSAs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Douglas Feith, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, warned that if the nation’s efforts were limited to “protecting the homeland and attacking and disrupting terrorist networks, you’re on a treadmill that is likely to get faster and faster.…” Twelve years later, the United States is arguably still on the accelerating treadmill, asking what strategic success looks like against such adversaries, what its role should be, and how its military should be used.

A Comprehensive and Indirect Approach

Fundamentally, political leaders should not conflate military success with strategic success, particularly in complex conflicts with VNSAs. Although military and police operations play a critical security and stability role in a comprehensive approach, their contributions cannot be strategically decisive. As James Dorsey pointed out in his International Policy Digest article,

… even such a hypothetical defeat [of the Islamic State (IS)] would not solve the problem. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, it produced ever more virulent forms which are embodied in IS.…it is a fair assumption that defeat of the group without tackling root causes would only lead to something that is even more violent and vicious.

Addressing the foundations of a conflict with VNSAs requires a tailored, integrated, strategic approach, comprehensively applying all elements of national and coalition partner power. This approach was reflected in President Obama’s 6 July 2015 statement on U.S. strategy against ISIS, when he said “[o]ur comprehensive strategy against ISIL [ISIS] is harnessing all elements of American power across our government—military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic development, and perhaps most importantly the power of our values.” But how can the strategy succeed without the sustained public support at home and in the conflict area?

To enable a sustainable, long-term campaign that gains and maintains public support, the U.S. military must employ an indirect approach. This approach requires a sustainable patron–regional partner–local partner relationship that will enable a long-term campaign to succeed against a VNSA adversary (Figure 1). To enable such a partnership, trust and cooperation based on an alignment of strategic objectives regarding the VNSA adversary must be sustained. The key ideas behind the indirect approach result from two complementary concepts: a top-down go local concept and a bottom-up grassroots concept. An external patron, such as the United States, goes local by encouraging and supporting regional partner states with a direct stake in the conflict and historical ties to the vulnerable territory and its local populations, who in turn encourage and enable local actors to be committed partners that holistically address their populations’ needs. This means that vetted local partners—who are intrinsically committed to and inherently knowledgeable of the local population’s needs—must be identified and enabled with sustainable support during a protracted conflict. In turn, the empowered local actors use a bottom-up grassroots approach to establish local security, legitimate governance, economic opportunity, and sustainable services, tailored to their constituent populations.

Figure 1: Indirect Approach Model to Enable Sustained Support to Regional and Local Partners

The primary conditions for strategic and operational success are security, legitimacy, and sustainability. Trained by regional partners, and equipped, supported, and coordinated by external patrons, local police and militia forces establish and maintain security. Likewise, local leaders are best suited to establish legitimate governance of local population groups. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine describes legitimacy as “the acceptance of an authority by a society….” Further, it states that “[t]he population of a particular society determines who has legitimacy to establish the rules and the government for that society.” Local leaders have the obvious and essential advantage of intrinsically understanding the governance and other basic needs—security, economic, social, services—of their constituents. If legitimacy is a result of their success in addressing the population’s needs, then local leaders have the best opportunity to gain and maintain the population’s legitimacy and support. Local leaders are directly enabled by regional partners, who leverage their historical relationships with the local populations to gain trust and legitimate influence, while external patrons with international legitimacy and influence indirectly support them through their regional partners. Finally and critically, a campaign is sustainable when each actor (local, regional, external), in consideration of its interests and likely long-term levels of public and political support, commits time, manpower, and resources to achieve its objectives. For example, committing large U.S. ground forces to provide security against ISIS at the local level in Syria or Iraq is not likely to receive long-term U.S. public and political support. Likewise, the local populations in these states will not count on (and may resist) the long-term commitment of external forces. Legitimate, capable local actors are much more likely to garner long-term support with their local populations. Likewise, regional state partners—host nation or other regional states—with a national security interest in supporting local actors, are more likely to receive long-term domestic and local support.

Comprehensive Containment and a Better Idea

Harleen Gambhir summarized ISIS’s strategy, writing that “ISIS intends to expand its Caliphate and eventually incite a global apocalyptic war. In order to do so, ISIS is framing a strategy to remain and expand across three geographic rings: the Interior Ring, the Near Abroad, and the Far Abroad.” How would a comprehensive and indirect approach be applied to contain such a threat?

Containment operations include complementary military and civilian lines of effort to build and manage a coalition, to halt VNSA territorial expansion, to prevent VNSA recruits from entering a regional partner’s territory, to support local governance and economic opportunity, and to deny VNSA access to weapons, funds, and resources. A containment operation is a defensive approach unlikely to be decisive on its own, but it could provide a stable basis for follow-on offensive operations. Thus, containment should be considered as an intermediate objective in a broader campaign designed to ultimately succeed operationally against a VNSA. Such an operation might be employed early in a campaign to prevent expansion and to stabilize and protect vulnerable regional and local partners.

While territorially containing a threat is essential, the idea must be extended beyond the physical to comprehensively contain the influence of VNSAs that embody and promote violent ideologies. As James Dorsey observed, “[c]ontainment addresses the immediate problem but ignores factors that fuel radicalization far from the warring state’s borders and make jihadism attractive to the disaffected across the globe.” Addressing the spread of violent ideas and associated violent acts requires a different approach. This challenge returns us to President Obama’s statement that “[i]deologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas.” However, this begs the practical question of how can a better idea be applied to defeat a violent, ideologically-motivated VNSA? Or more specifically, how can a better idea produce the key conditions of security, legitimacy, and sustainability?

More than information operations or a persuasive philosophy, better ideas require a fusion of compelling messages and congruent actions. To counter or defeat an ideology-driven VNSA, better ideas must be formed and legitimized by tangible actions and measured by concrete results. These ideas and actions must address the fundamental issues that produced and supported the VNSA, and they must be tailored to achieve the key aforementioned conditions of security, legitimacy, and sustainability for each relevant local population. Only by successfully achieving these conditions, will the United States and its regional and local partners demonstrate the idea’s credibility, the integrity of which can then be used to influence other relevant populations and to proliferate the idea. As the idea is successfully implemented, using the indirect approach described earlier, it could then be spread incrementally via a cellular approach that first establishes an outer defensive containment ring of local security forces that consolidates their gains by establishing legitimate governance and sustainable services. As the containment ring succeeds, the idea and supporting actions could be extended to contract the VNSA territory, counter the credibility of its ideology, and ultimately to achieve the critical security, legitimacy, and sustainability conditions described earlier.

Implications for the U.S. Military

While the U.S. military needs to be able to fight and win major wars, it also needs the ready capabilities and capacity to sustain and eventually achieve strategic success in long-term campaigns against VNSAs.

To improve its ability to achieve strategic success in such conflicts, the military first needs improved intelligence capabilities to better understand local and regional populations, to assess root-cause issues, and to enable effective campaign design, planning, execution, and assessment. The U.S. military should consider developing more tailorable command and control capabilities to better enable a unified planning and execution effort with U.S. government agencies, and across a broad coalition of patron states, regional partners, and myriad local partners.

To sustain its support to partners, the U.S. military requires sufficient regionally-focused and trained personnel—with language and cultural training—to rotate forces and sustain trusting relationships for the duration of a long-term campaign. Given the specialized nature of U.S. enabling operations, the military needs special operations forces and other high-demand forces that can directly engage with partners. They must have the language skills and cultural knowledge to adequately understand the situation, and to gain and maintain influence. While special operations forces are best suited for these roles, many of the traditional intelligence, communications, joint fires, and logistics support functions reside in the conventional forces. Likewise, in view of persistent, region-wide conflicts, the military requires the capability to rapidly and effectively organize, train, and deploy conventional forces to expand its special operations forces’ capabilities and capacity without breaking the conventional force.

About the Author(s)

Mark E. Vinson retired as a U.S. Army colonel after 27-years of service in various command and staff positions. Since 2005, he has worked for the Institute for Defense Analyses, conducting joint studies and analysis, and providing joint concept and capability development support to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the United States Joint Forces Command, and the Joint Staff on a number of joint and multi-national projects (including work with NATO, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Colombian General Staff).


Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/26/2017 - 12:20pm

This is a huge story. If true, it's likely the largest massacre of civilians by the U.S. military since Vietnam. And Iraq is blaming Trump.

After airstrikes killing as many as 200 civilians, Iraqi officer says rules of engagement relaxed under Trump.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 5:35am

In the Trump stated..."I will eradicate the earth of IS and AQ and do it in 30 days"...we all remember those words....

Trump needs urgently allies....

BUT it seems he is more determined to knife in the back those same allies he needs....both verbally and via his tweets....

We tried, almost daily for 15 months to tell people that Trump didn't understand how NATO is funded.
They didn't care.
So here we are.


Seems he's not too sure how US/EU trade terms are negotiated either. When trying to implement a mandate these are some serious overall problems/limitations as he is trying to fulfill his voter promises that he always talks about.... ...

Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 6:43am

In reply to by Bill M.

This is the type of open debate that is currently missing in both SOF...CENTCOM...CIA and Trump.....concerning Kurdish YPG/Raqqa.

Otherwise we will be getting literally sucked into a true mini ME version of VN for the next several decades if Turkish interests are not fully understood and we finally accept that one cannot claim to be killing and driving out IS terrorists at the same actively supporting THREE US named terror groups....Hezbollah....the communist PKK and Iraqi Hezbollah (KH)....

Dancing with the devil in this case Russia..Iran and the communist Kurdish PKK terror group will in the end have the ME perception of the US flipped to be actually the "devil" which is what Russian really wants as a ME perception of the that has been there propaganda "narrative" for the last 30 years of US ME involvement.

This particular US so called ME analyst has been largely wrong in a number of his articles...this one supports the Trump take over of Raqqa not the Turkish plan....

Why the U.S. Should Team Up w Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State
via @joshua_landis

Following is a critique by Charles Lister...

Has #Turkey talked about going to “eastern Syria” proper, i.e. Deir ez Zour? No.
- Nobody talks of partition
- 3 is v simplistic

Para 2:

- Hang on a minute, if #Assad has already achieved this ‘cutting into two,’ then why does #Turkey need to achieve it a second time?

Para 3:

- “No Kurdish allies to attack #Raqqa” ? In the immediate term, it’d divert yes, but never at all?
- #YPG ≠ all of #Syria's Kurds

Para 4:

- Sorry, #YPG has no territorial interests around #Raqqa? Really?
- I suspect YPG is looking at more than just good U.S relations

By The Way...this was the Landis response to Lister's para 4 question...he actually confirmed what Lister was asking...
Joshua Landis‏
Verified account
#@joshua_landis 5h
5 hours ago
Joshua Landis Retweeted Charles Lister
Do you believe that the Kurds will take Raqqa for Rojava whether US urges them to or not?

Para 5:

- Ahrar is no way near ES's “dominant” force
- Ahrar lost 8-10% of its men to #HTS, not 50%
- #Turkey wld not allow AQ to its areas

Para 5:

- #Turkey sees AQ/#HTS as a hostile adversary & vice-versa.
- 2013 was 4yrs ago, how about using current dynamics to assess today?

Para 6:

- #Aleppo-based groups (who dominate ES) have many former #Raqqa-based fighters
- #Turkey has been training Raqqan tribes & groups

Para 6:

- I’m pretty confident that most Raqqans would rather Sunni Arabs than the Marxist-Leninist #YPG & some pro-#Assad Sunni militias.

Para 6:

- Handing #Raqqa to #SDF, knowing they’re likely to eventually hand it to #Assad & #Russia will *definitely* invite AQ recruitment!

Para 7:

- Actually, the main reason is that #Turkey has no workable plan that can be implemented *now.* The #Trump admin wants acceleration

Para 8:

- Turkish plan => escalation, yes, but is #Raqqa & the Euphrates a “#Iran-#Russia-#Assad-#Iraq” sphere of influence right now? No.

Para 9:

- Handing Euphrates area to “Kurds & #Assad” = fastest way to bring stability.” - You surely cannot honestly believe that, really?

Para 10:

- Restraining #Iraq’s Kurds from aggression is *extremely* different to restraining a group (#YPG) inherently hostile to #Turkey.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 6:03am

In reply to by Bill M.

It is not only with supporting the wrong "Kurds"...we cannot even honestly admit an air strike mistake which has created the impression among Syrian Sunni's fighting against Assad...IS and Russia that we the US also are fighting against them...

Again CENTCOM has failed badly on this particular air strike....they were exceptionally quick to admit that they bombed Assad troops but striking praying Sunni's and killing well over 50 and injuring well over 120 they literally run from.....

Good detail from @Bellingcat on how CentCom mixed up targets… 

How could CENTCOM have totally mixed up the targets?????

Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 5:31am

In reply to by Bill M.

It should be noted that both the UN and HRW have released a number of reports on the ethnic cleansing of Arab areas and the destruction of Arab villages and towns... when taken over by the PKK....

But naturally US SOF and CENTCOM which should be reporting this type of abuse/war crimes since Abu Ghraib seem to not notice...

We tend to look at the Kurds as a holistic ethnic and political body that will do the U.S.'s bidding in the Middle East. DoD, and especially SOF has pushed this narrative, so we can't blame the politicians on this one. We want an easy button tactical solution, dann the long term implications. As you point out we're supporting a declared communist terrorist organization in Syria. Of course they'll fight, it is in their interest to do so. The situation in Iraq is better, but let's not forget the civil war between the Kurds, one side supported by Saddam, the other Iran. None of this is as simple as good and bad guys.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 1:27pm

Deleted.. double

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 8:56am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

AND who has been working also with the PKK...Assad and also being supported by US CAS and US SOF....Hezbollah...IRGC units and the Iraqi Shia militia Iraqi Hezbollah (KH)....

Iran sees its role in Syria as an "existential" fight for the "heart" of its anti-Western Resistance Axis.…

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 8:34am

Reference "winning the hearts and minds" in an ideological war.....

First the Obama WH and NOW the Trump WH and CENTCOM have signed on to support and protect a US named Kurdish communist terror group which has been fighting Turkey a NATO partner for over 40 years.....

There has been a serious escalation of repression in Syria's PYD/PKK-run Kurdish areas in the last fortnight.…

Well worth the long read.....

Analysis: ‘Repression Increases in the Syrian Kurdish Areas’

by Kyle Orton

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian front of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is the leading group in the administration of the Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have become the preferred instrument of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) and as a by-product have been assisted in conquering some Arab-majority zones of northern Syria—and perhaps soon of eastern Syria. The PYD/PKK has always treated all dissent harshly and the Kurdish opposition in recent days has reported an escalation in repression by the PYD, which the West—as has become a habit in cases of PYD misbehaviour—has made no public protest about.
The PYD regime promulgated a law on 13 March, based on a previous order, “Decree Number Five” of 15 April 2014, demanding that all “unlicensed” political parties register with the authorities within twenty-four hours or “we will be forced to close the office and duly transfer the official to the judiciary.”
The Kurdish opposition, including the Kurdish National Council (KNC), also known by its Kurdish acronym ENKS, objected to this ruling on three grounds:
First, as the KNC office in Berlin put it to me, nobody has elected the PYD. The PYD announced its interim administration in November 2013 after the areas were handed to them in July 2012 by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the hopes of keeping the Kurds out of the then-widening revolution.
Secondly, this vetting procedure is not objective. Though PYD claimed at the foundation of its government to be ruling in alliance with fifty other organizations, these groups “either have close ties to the PYD or are unknown,” KNC Berlin says. This law, for example, says that “no political parties can have any ties to foreign parties,” KNC Berlin went on, which could be used to ban the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Syria#(PDK‑S), the sister party of Masud Barzani’s Iraqi-Kurdish KDP. “It can be safely assumed, however, that the PYD will not employ the law to ban itself, even though it is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party#(PKK), which is based in Turkey.” (Indeed, while the nature of the power centres in the PYD-run areas remains secret, there is little mystery: it is widely suspected that “real power is wielded by shadowy military commanders who have fought with the PKK in Turkey”.)
Which means, third, this was a clear attempt to criminalize all political actors except the PYD and in effect formalize the one-party regime.
The next day, 14 March, according to a statement released by the KNC/ENKS today, a series of attacks against them by the PYD began. By now, the PYD “have abducted and arbitrarily detained” at least forty KNC members in more than nine cities across the area controlled by the PYD, which is often called “Rojava”. “In addition to the detentions, attacks against offices of the KNC and its member parties have taken place,” the statement added. “More than twenty offices have been torched or demolished, and subsequently were sealed up by PYD security forces.” Shortly before these attacks, the PYD had closed down the office of a Christian group, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) in Hasaka.
On 4 March, the PYD arbitrarily detained thirty-six politicians, most of them PDK-S members. Around the same time, the headquarters of three opposition parties in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Qamishli were sacked by the PYD.
On International Women’s Day (8 March)—heavily exploited by the PYD, which uses its female fighters as a central point of its propaganda, framing its state-building project as a fight against IS and using the language of universalist liberal values—the PYD’s (male) police forces, the Asayish, stormed IWD meetings and arrested numerous people.
During one of the IWD events, Dr. Khaled Issa, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (PDPKS), was stabbed by a mob of PYD youth. A number of women were arrested the next day as they tried to organise an IWD event independent of the PYD and the offices of the PDPKS were put to the torch.
This morning, in conformity with its promise, the PYD burned to the ground the office of the Kurdish Women’s Union or HJKS in Derik (Al-Malikiya) because it did not have a license that only the PYD can issue.
The persecution of dissent by the PYD is hardly new. In 2011 and 2012, the PYD was accused of murdering Kurdish politicians Mishal Tammo, Nasruddin Birhik, and Mahmud Wali (Abu Jandi). The current vivacity in oppression can probably be dated to August 2016, when the PYD arrested a dozen Kurdish opponents, kidnapped several more over a series of days, and beat and imprisoned those who protested about it. Ibrahim Biro, the overall head of the KNC, was expelled from the PYD-ruled areas into Iraq and told he would be murdered if he returned.
In its long war with the Turkish state, the PKK has always striven for total control of the Kurdish political scene, murdering its own dissidents, even when they escape to Europe, and ruthlessly suppressing all independent Kurdish factions. The PKK began as a movement that blended Kurdish nationalism with Marxist-Leninism and acted as a proxy for the Soviet Union in destabilizing a frontline NATO state (Turkey). In recent years, the PKK has claimed a reformation, proclaiming a new ideology, “Democratic Confederalism,” an eco-anarchistic, stateless, direct democracy, but it has not been able to break itself from its deeply authoritarian origins.
The PKK’s misbehaviour goes beyond human rights abuses, and it remains baffling in simple strategic terms that the PKK has not come up against at least rhetorical protests from the West.
This month, the PKK—which has strong historical links with Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran—has been, through its Yazidi proxy militia, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), forging stronger links with Tehran in Iraq via its proxy, the Shi’i militia, Kataib Hizballah (KH), which happens to be a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that killed tens of American soldiers in the last decade. KH’s anti-American animus was clear at the meeting, where it insisted that one of its roles was to resist the American conspiracy to partition Iraq. The YBS praised KH and Iran’s other “Islamic Resistance” groups for defending Iraq from takfirism. Given that Iran has flooded these and other Shi’a jihadists tied into its global terrorist network into Syria to rescue Assad under the cover of the anti-IS war, and might well move more of them into the country after the fall of Mosul, the PKK’s assistance in Tehran’s access to the Iraq-Syria border might have been imagined to be objectionable.
The PKK has long been accused of being aligned with the pro-Assad coalition, and events in Minbij earlier this month, where the PKK handed over areas to the regime coalition in order to block Turkey’s advance on the city, hardly helped. The U.S. and Russia both moving ground forces into Minbij to deter the Turkish-backed rebels and the U.S.’s assistance in the Assadists’ recapture of Palmyra increased the optical sense of a global coalition—the U.S., Russia, Iran, its Shi’i militias, Assad, and the PKK—against the largely-Sunni opposition in Syria, a sectarian narrative the jihadi-salafists thrive on.
The PKK seconded the Russian air force for assaults on CIA-backed rebel assets in Syria multiple times in the last eighteen months, it helped the pro-Assad coalition close the siege of Aleppo City, and the PKK helped the regime coalition during the closing stages of its unmerciful conquest of that city. None of this brought a public rebuke from the United States—or any other member of the Coalition. I have been told by people well-placed to know that the PYD’s more unsavoury behaviour has come up in discussions with U.S. officials. But the appearance of uncritical support from the U.S. to the PYD is its own reality and a very worrying one in terms of the impending Raqqa operation that it now seems inevitable the PYD will lead.
In Raqqa, the PYD will enter a city in the aftermath of IS where there are sleeper cells left behind, where there are people who committed horrific crimes for the jihadists, and where there are also clerks at government offices, oil workers, and farmers who just got on with their jobs so they could feed their families but who incidentally contributed to the functioning of IS’s statelet. The requirements—of justice and ensuring IS as little political space as possible to revive—is that the PYD be discriminating in its identification of collaborators. The PYD will be essentially free of U.S. leverage by this time, and that hardly restrained them before. The PYD’s abusive behaviour toward Arabs under its rule in previous instances, especially in Tel Abyad—and its wild accusations that even a group like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which has paid such a high price for its resistance to IS, is pro-IS just because RBSS also opposes the imposition of PYD rule over Raqqa—has already made other Arab populations fearful that the PYD displacing IS will lead to a vengeful occupation, rather than liberation.


Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 8:37am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

From former US ambassador to Syria....

Robert Ford‏ 
US Govt denials wont carry weight in Syrian + other Arab communities that will believe we intentionally hit a mosque. Do we now feel safer?

It's almost as if this administration wants a terror attack. Bannon certainly would love nothing more. It vindicate his world view

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 8:11am

CENTCOM failing to truly step up and admit a massive air strike mistake definitely does not win the hearts and minds in an ideological war.....

CENTCOM needs to urgently explain WHY they cannot seem to figure out who belongs to what sect/tribe..and who is or is not AQ and or IS....

THIS is extremely bad if intelligence failure at the highest targeting levels and that goes all the way back to Trump WH.....

Looks like @CENTCOM killed dozens of peaceful Tablighi Jamaat members in the #Jinah attack.

REMEMBER CENTCOM still claims they attacked AQ in their air strike against a mosque....

MAYBE they need some serious reviews of available open source media ....

SINCE when is a small child....AQ BUT HEY a Muslim is a Muslim thus AQ and or IS terrorist .......based on the new WH definition......

Rescue workers save a child from under the rubble after the #US attack on peaceful praying people in #Jinah

Bill C.

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 4:15pm

In reply to by Azor

Azor asked:

"What "status quo" has the United States aimed to overturn since World War II?

The answer, of course, is the status quo in which a large number of states and societies of the world are organized, ordered and oriented along political, economic, social and/or value lines OTHER THAN that of the U.S./the West.

Thus, the new status quo -- that the U.S./the West seeks to achieve -- is a world (led by U.S./the West) in which ALL of the states and societies of the world are organized, ordered and oriented ONLY along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.


Over the past quarter-century, a large number of nations have made a successful transition to democracy. Many more are at various stages of the transition. When historians write about U.S. foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, they will identify the growth of democracy -- from 30 countries in 1974 to 117 today -- as one of the United States' greatest legacies. The United States remains committed to expanding upon this legacy until ALL the citizens of the world have the fundamental right to choose those who govern them through an ongoing civil process that includes free, fair, and transparent elections.



After World War II, the United States formed a network of partners, supported by military alliances and international institutions, and sought to expand it. ... “The West was not just a geographical region with fixed borders,” the scholar G. John Ikenberry has written. “Rather, it was an idea -- a universal organizational form that could expand outward, driven by the spread of liberal democratic government and principles of conduct.”

The strategy, to be sure, had elements of self-interest: Washington sought to create a liberal order that it itself led. But it also had a more revolutionary goal: the transformation of anarchy into order.

The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world. In Europe, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and its allies did not preserve the status quo. Instead, they pushed eastward, enlarging NATO to absorb all of the Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact allies and some former Soviet territories, such as the Baltic states. At the same time, the European Union expanded into eastern Europe. In Ukraine, U.S. and European policymakers encouraged the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in 2014 and helped install a Western-leaning one.

In the Middle East, U.S. policymakers saw the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to advance democracy in the region. During the Arab Spring, they viewed the uprising in Libya as another chance to replace an anti-American dictator, and they encouraged the spread of democracy elsewhere as well. Underlying the United States’ recent engagement with Iran is a desire to promote liberalization there, too.

The United States can encourage liberalism while acknowledging that its grand strategy appears deeply threatening to outsiders.

In East Asia, the United States has not only maintained and strengthened its longtime alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Philippines but also courted new partners, such as Malaysia and Singapore. And with its policy toward Vietnam, the United States may encourage a dramatic change in the regional status quo. Historically, Vietnam, which borders China, has fallen within its larger neighbor’s sphere of influence, and since the Vietnam War, its relations with the United States have been bitter. In the past few years, however, Vietnam and the United States have deepened their economic ties, resolved previous disputes, and even explored greater security cooperation. Vietnam is also expanding its military ties with U.S. allies—namely, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines.

In each of these regions, U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo. “A country is one of three colors: blue, red, or gray,” the Japanese journalist Hiroyuki Akita said in 2014 at a talk at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, in Tokyo. “China wants to turn the gray countries red. The Americans and Japanese want to turn the gray countries blue.” No one, in other words, is trying to preserve the status quo. U.S. foreign policy elites might object to Akita’s blunt assessment and often dismiss the notion of “spheres of influence” as outdated, Cold War–era thinking. But the U.S. goal is to replace the old-fashioned competition for spheres of influence with a single liberal sphere led by the United States.



Does this not look like a New/Reverse Cold War to you?

One in which "winning indefinite conflicts" (such as the Old Cold War of yesterday and also the New/Reverse Cold War of today) obviously cannot be understood -- and obviously cannot be viewed -- through the VNSA (Salafi-Takfiri-Jihadi, etc., today) lens alone?


Wed, 03/22/2017 - 7:27pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,

I disagree that there is a “New” or “Reverse” Cold War; nor did Non-State Actors did not play an important role during the Cold War.

The original article deals with American conflicts against Salafi-Takfiri-Jihadi groups throughout the MENA region, and these groups also threaten Iran, Russia and China in various ways.

Jennifer Lind’s full article is behind a Foreign Policy paywall, but based upon her quote, she lacks an understanding of history. What “status quo” has the United States aimed to overturn since World War II? Colonialism? The world went from having nine great powers before World War I, to seven before World War II to two-to-three (if Great Britain and her Empire count) by the end of World War II, and not because of American designs. The United States did not have to restore French power or ensure that they and China received permanent seats at the UNSC. I have come across no other great power that has given as much financial, political and military support to keep other great powers (including rivals and future adversaries) in the game, as the United States has. Whether Lind likes it or not, it was a clique of illiberal, anti-democratic and anti-free market powers that upset the apple cart and destroyed what status quo there was. On the contrary, it was the Soviet Union that wanted to transform the world…

Both Russia and China have attempted to export “authoritarian capitalism” around the world, wherein countries can participate in the global markets but maintain dictatorial or one-party rule, and these countries include Sudan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Belarus and others.

Your Afghan analogy is also completely off, especially given American support for the Northern Alliance after the Soviet withdrawal. During the war against Soviets, it was the ISI who supplied the Mujaheddin, and the Americans were one sponsor of several, which included Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. There is evidence that Iran is supplying the Taliban with small arms, however, you would have to factor in the questions of the Balochis, Pakistani Shias and Sunni Iranians…

I’m afraid I’m simply not convinced here.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 4:05pm

In reply to by Azor


I believe that we must come to understand today's conflicts more in New/Reverse Cold War terms.

Term, thus, which allow us, much as they did in the Old Cold War, to understand how -- indeed -- both great nations and small, and both state and non-state actors, might -- working together or separately -- come to stand against an "expansionist" and "universalist" great nation; one whose clear goal was/is to transform the Rest of the World more along this "expansionist"/"universalist" great nation's individual and unique -- and thus often alien and profane -- political, economic, social and value lines.


Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the globe. ...

But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation. ...

The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world. ...

China, unlike the Soviet Union, does not have a revolutionary ideology. Beijing has not tried to export an ideology around the world. Washington (however) has. In attempting to transform anarchy into liberal order, the United States has pursued an idealistic, visionary, and in many way laudable goal. Yet its audacity terrifies those on the outside. The United States and its partners need not necessarily defer to that fear -- but they must understand it. (The item in parenthesis above is mine.)


Thus, to understand in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- much as was the case in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- how (a) "great power rivalries," indeed, might go hand-in-hand with (b) efforts being made, for example, by non-state actors; in both instances (in both the Old and New/Reverse Cold Wars) the "common cause" of such diverse and otherwise unrelated actors being to prevent the unwanted "transformation" of their states and societies more along the "expansionist"/ "universalist" great nations' -- alien and profane -- political, economic, social and value lines.


"If Russia is cozying up to the Taliban — and that's a kind word — if they are giving equipment that we have some evidence that the Taliban is getting ... and other things that we can't mention in this unclassified setting? And the Taliban is also associated with al-Qaida? Therefore Russia indirectly is helping al-Qaida in Afghanistan," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

"Your logic is absolutely sound, sir," GEN John Nicholson (the top American commander in Afghanistan) said. ...

The upshot of it all, however, is that Russia and the United States have effectively switched roles in Afghanistan: In the 1980s, American CIA officers supplied weapons to anti-government rebels who were fighting the then-Soviet backed government and the Soviet troops supporting it. Today, 15 years after the American invasion, Russia has begun helping the Taliban against a weak American-backed government still supported by NATO troops and air power.


Thus, to counter your argument above:

a. I clearly am not "looking at the problem through the very narrow lens of American democracy promotion efforts in Western Asia and Northern Africa during the Bush presidency (2001-2008)." And

b. "Great power rivalries" -- as I have carefully explained in my comments here -- clearly are not "an entirely different matter."


Tue, 03/21/2017 - 1:01am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,

You have a grasp of the problem, but you are looking at it through the very narrow lens of the American democracy promotion efforts in Western Asia and Northern Africa during the Bush presidency (2001-2008).

The promotion of democracy as well as state-building efforts were conducted primarily in Iraq, so you are focusing on a period under five years in one country.

Historically, the United States as been an outstanding builder of other nation's states and both promoter and defender of liberal democracy throughout the world. I don't know of any country with a similar track record.

American interventions are historically unsuccessful when the United States is neither satisfied with a pro-American dictator nor making the commitments it made to those countries who now count among its closest allies e.g. EU/NATO, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

The problem of Iraq was a combination of too much effort (disbanding the government and military, de-Ba'athification, 2005 Constitution and Election) and not enough (not enough occupying soldiers, no integration of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds).

Great power rivalries are an entirely different matter...

Bill C.

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 12:31pm

The most serious flaw in COL Vinson's presentation above is that he fails to identify what "strategic success" looks like.

Once we do this for him, and suggest that "strategic success" -- for the U.S./the West -- means:

a. Successfully transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along our, alien and profane, modern western political, economic, social and value lines and

b. Successfully incorporating these outlying states and societies more into the U.S./Western sphere of power, influence and control.

Once we do this, only then, I suggest, can we properly move forward, consider and understand the rest of COL Vinson's presentation.

For example, let us -- from the "strategic success" perspective I have offered above -- look at this quote from a critical section of COL Vinson's paper:


… even such a hypothetical defeat [of the Islamic State (IS)] would not solve the problem. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, it produced ever more virulent forms which are embodied in IS.…it is a fair assumption that defeat of the group without tackling root causes would only lead to something that is even more violent and vicious."

Addressing the foundations of a conflict with VNSAs requires a tailored, integrated, strategic approach, comprehensively applying all elements of national and coalition partner power. This approach was reflected in President Obama’s 6 July 2015 statement on U.S. strategy against ISIS, when he said “[o]ur comprehensive strategy against ISIL [ISIS] is harnessing all elements of American power across our government—military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic development, and perhaps most importantly the power of our values.” But how can the strategy succeed without the sustained public support at home and in the conflict area?



a. We know that the "root cause"/the "foundation" of this (actually worldwide and not limited to VNSA) conflict is the U.S./the West's dogged pursuit of its "strategic success" objective outlined above.

b. Also we know (by looking at this near-universally objectionable U.S./Western "strategic success" objective) why it is so extremely difficult for the U.S./the West to sustain public support for this project here at home.

(Herein, the U.S./Western public seeming to understand -- even if their governments do not -- that this "transform and incorporate the Rest of the World" mission tends to, logically it would seem, threaten, alienate, offend, motivate and generally "piss off" the entire Rest of the World. And, thus, tends to [a] generate many more enemies than friends and [b] enemies not only of the VNSA type but also of the "great nation" variety. In this latter regard think, for example, of such great nations as Russia, China, and Iran.)

Bottom Line:

Thus, only by looking our definition of "strategic success" squarely in the face can we, actually it would seem, see and understand just what a terrible spot we are in today. With:

a. The entire Rest of the World -- thus threatened by the U.S./the West "strategic success" objective -- turning against us and becoming more militant? And

b. The populations of the U.S./the West themselves -- seeing and understanding this exceedingly dangerous trend -- suggesting that we might wish to reconsider our such "strategic success" definition and approach?

(Last thought/question: Can the so-called "limited approach" -- and/or a better understanding by our troops of the native's culture, etc. -- actually help with any of this? This, given that neither of these, it would seem, tends to address the U.S./Western "strategic success" problem outlined above; which appears to be the "root cause"/the "foundation" of [a] these conflicts and [b] our corresponding dilemmas.)

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 6:00am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

First daylight video confirms again: northern side of mosque collapsed;

CENTCOM says it was not directly targeted.

OK then just how did it collapse....a local earthquake?

Oh...maybe FSA blew up their own people and SCD helped them do it in a false flag attack all in a matter of minutes?

This was the first video footage and report from yesterday's mosque air strike...

62 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a suspected #Russian air strike on mosque in Al Jeineh.

Initial social media reporting indicated Assad/Russian due to a distinct "double tap" on the air strike....common for them BUT not CENTCOM

It took this social media reporting to even get CENTCOM's attention....

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 5:32am is the core US problem that bites them every time...a total lack of creditability on virtually anything right now in the ME...

U.S. Military Denies Reports It Bombed Mosque in Syria
The military said that it had carried out an airstrike against Qaeda militants, killing a number of them, and that a nearby mosque was still standing.

NYTs might believe the DoD but they should have checked in with SCD on the ground first...

SCD initially reported the mosque air strike as a Assad/Russian attack as they could not fathom a possible US strike....during those report flows nothing was mentioned by SCD of any other strikes other than the mosque being hit...

This morning missile debris dug out of the mosque is indicating at least one possible Hellfire (missile debris photos) and other additional munitions hit the mosque....

Alleged piece of missile from Aleppo mosque bombing bears similarities with Hellfire (+3kg) N.B - level of damage indicates other munitions

So if one is going to lie just do it in an "honorable way" and instead of being caught with bomb debris by an organization that is use to digging about in bomb struck buildings....


Mon, 03/20/2017 - 12:29pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

To TC:

I'm not too familiar with Roman persecutions of the Christians, but my understanding is that force was used on an ad hoc and sporadic basis.

In addition, the Empire didn't have much of an ideology, other than loyalty to the Emperor and the primacy of Rome. Had the Christians not set themselves apart from and seemingly in opposition to Roman civilization, they would have been treated no differently than the Jews or various mystery religions and cults...

One could say that Rome neither used adequate force nor did it have better ideas.


Sat, 03/18/2017 - 10:54am

In reply to by Azor

Ideas are not defeated by force. If that were true, Christianity would have been wiped out by the Romans, who certainly had no issue with using force. There was a time when you could destroy an ideology if it had a relatively small following by simply killing every adherent to it and destroying all of its writings, art, and other propaganda. That is much harder to do in today's society. I am not saying force does not have its place, but force alone cannot win in modern society.

Beyond that observation, you are largely correct, especially when it comes to what America is willing to do overtly and how much we are willing to pay to do it.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 2:00am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Azor...which tough guy leader has in fact "handled" AQ and or IS....yes IS is physically losing areas under their control BUT on the ideological front they are far wider spread today than 10 years ago when they were stuck inside Iraq...

Secondly, just how many of the so called hard guys have actually been working with and supporting..first IS and then AQ or vice versa...Russia...Iran...Assad etc.

And that includes Erdogan as well....


Mon, 03/20/2017 - 1:27pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

I would characterize the rebellions in Hungary and Poland in 1956 as a backlash against Soviet occupation and a Soviet-installed government, not unlike those in East Berlin in 1953. Why did it take 8-12 years for these rebellions to occur? Because these countries had all been subject to the "30% Solution" during the war. While the Romanians, western Ukrainians and Balts put up a fuss until as late as 1956, they had been active from the end of the war, and were not the type of spontaneous eruptions that occurred in Berlin, Budapest and Poznan.

I would also say that the people of the Soviet Union and its protectorates gave de-Stalinization and Khrushchev a chance (after 1956), and for a time it probably seemed as though Socialism would be victorious through scientific and technological advances as well as economic development. Yet the complete failure of Khrushchev's policies and his ouster in 1964 demonstrated the Soviet ideology had no "good ideas", let alone "better ideas".

What happened in 1968 in Prague was different than the previous rebellions, and marked an attempt to revitalize Socialism and end Soviet imperialism. Trucks were seized from farms, conscripts were called up and the Warsaw Pact machinery swung into action in a major show of force. Yet anecdotal evidence of suicides among soldiers participating in the operation and the disdain of many intelligence officers (prompting scores of defections to the West), as well as the poor planning of the operation (e.g. tanks crashing, commanders using outdated maps) tells me that had the Czechs held out, Prague would have ended up being Moscow in 1991 rather than Beijing in 1989 or Budapest in 1956...

As for force, it ensures that the North Korean people endure privations far worse than the 1980s Eastern Bloc. Force also resolved Russia's "Constitutional Crisis" in 1993, where more people died than at Poznan in 1956 or Prague in 1968. How was it that the "liberal democrats" led by Yeltsin were more willing to use force in 1993 than the Gang of Eight in 1991?


Sat, 03/18/2017 - 11:19am

In reply to by Azor

I would disagree that the "Soviet" ideology was defeated in 1968. As early as 1956 the ideology was suffering from attacks from a "better idea," and the citizens of Hungary had to be kept in line by force. The Soviets were having a hard time enforcing one ideology over another in parts of their empire.

I would argue that what failed in the Soviet Union was not the ideology, but the economic system. Ideologies are built on faith and not subject to factual arguments where economic systems either work or they do not. Communism, as an economic system, failed. Communism, as an ideological system, is still around.


Fri, 03/17/2017 - 3:15pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

To Outlaw 09 RE: “Winning Indefinite Conflicts”

The Soviet ideology was actually defeated in 1968. Marxism-Leninism had not prevailed in Europe by superiority of arms over 1945-1953, nor by superiority of development from 1953-1964. Carter’s and Reagan’s foreign and defense policies only hastened the inevitable. Despite the show of force on the streets of Prague, they were less and less able or willing to use force. Whereas once Stalin could fill mass graves on a whim, Brezhnev couldn’t unleash truncheons, water cannons or “Soviet psychiatry” without causing a stir. Due to a combination of tactics, luck and a lingering fear of the mass murder machine that Stalin had built, the Soviets were able to delay the defeat of their ideology for almost twenty more years. As Sun Tzu was wont to say, it was the "noise before defeat". If that makes you think less of the contribution of those on the frontlines on the Cold War, such as the Berlin Brigade, it shouldn't. The last half of all major wars is always the bloodiest and comes after the turning point: defeat is often harder to accept than death. Gorbachev’s appointment, and his “glasnost” and “perestroika” were attempts to prevent a retreat from turning into a rout, even if he had other ideas.

Russia today doesn’t have a particular ideology other than authoritarian nationalism, a diluted variant of Fascism. Russia can certainly criticize Progressivism in the West, but it is in no position to either offer “better ideas” or to use force against the West.

With respect to the United States, you claim a definition of a “true” superpower as though “superpower” is a concept rather than an attempt to describe what the world witnessed in 1944-1952. Arguably, Great Britain was the first superpower and yet because the British Empire was run on a shoestring, it couldn’t simply project sustained power globally without first marshaling all of its resources e.g. against the French, Boers, Central Powers and Axis Powers. You claim that the United States no longer possesses the “necessary economic power for sustained long term power projection”, and yet American military spending as a percentage of GDP (including the DOD, DVA and OCOs) is well below that of the Cold War; foreign aid is now 9X lower as a percentage of GDP than it was from 1946-1955. Consider what would happen if American defense spending was doubled to late 1980s/early 1990s levels (+7%), and foreign aid was quintupled to 1% of GDP…

Lastly, why would we “talk” to Al Qaeda or Daesh, when we can talk to local strongmen to handle them?

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 4:43am

In reply to by Azor

Just a side comment on a good reply....the ideological game is largely one of so called "values"....we supposedly have "ours" which are viewed differently by other State actors and NSAs in this large world of ours.....

The Soviet Union "lost" their values race when the Wall came down and they had been confronted with a massive US arms race that they could not keep up with...which in the end was a question of guns and or butter but not both....

We are starting to see this "values" game again with Putin and Russia...Russia has come out strong with a new set of so called "Russian values"..raced to a quick military buildup with a new reformed and rebuilt military and was off to the races on a new expansion program.....

UNTIL Crimea...eastern Ukraine and Syria now Libya...and sanctions coupled with a strong fall in oil prices is now seriously hurting them....

So again 25 or so odd years later Russia is confronted again with the core question guns and or butter but not both....they have been signaling the West that they will not get into another serious arms race as they remember the 1990s....

Russia announces deepest defence budget cuts since 1990s… 

I would argue that actually the US is now in a similar positon as is Russia...a true superpower needs three things to be a superpower....economic power that can project status and importance....a military that can project sustained power globally and the political will to use that said power projection to protect the interests of it and it's allies....

Right now we see a US that really does not have the necessary economic power for sustained long term power projection and YES while we see bluster coming out of the Trump WH...there really is no true US defined clearly and concisely strategic FP...

So both the US and Russia continue a tap dance of sorts because neither one really understands what it the rest of the so called non state actors can figure both out and act accordingly....

In some aspects a simple question points out the extent of this dance for the US...we have been at war with IS and other NSA's adhering to either of them since what...the mid 60s if we include radicalized Palestinians ?

Has the US ever attempted to actually get into a true dialogue with any of them?

In reply to Col. Vinson RE: "Indefinite Conflicts"

Firstly, Obama’s assertion about ideologies being “defeated”, “by better ideas”, simply isn’t true. On the contrary, ideologies are defeated by force. Either one ideology uses force to defeat another, or an ideology’s leaders are no longer willing or able to use force in defense of their ideology. Every idea must compete with every other idea and prove itself better, otherwise people won’t accept it as such.

Secondly, NSAs are powerful when states are weak. Both NSAs and states can be intensely ideological and enter into conflicts. Of the seven countries referred to early in the piece by Col. Vinson, three have seen relatively strong states decay into weak ones, in which NSAs now run amok. In Iraq, Libya and Syria, Daesh and to a lesser extent other NSAs, are engaged in unconventional warfare against the United States and its allies. Yet the threat posed by Daesh and Al Qaeda from these three weak states is a mere fraction of the threat posed by these states when they were strong and NSAs had no power in them: all three pursued chemical and nuclear weapons programs to intimidate and deter the US and its allies; all three launched wars of aggression against the US and/or its allies; all three launched terrorist attacks against the US and/or its allies, with far greater effect than Al Qaeda and Daesh combined. For instance, despite the threat from Iran, Israel is far safer now that Iraq, Libya and Syria have failed.

Thirdly, what is “our” endgame, and what are “we” prepared to do to achieve it?

Col. Vinson refers to victory as establishing “critical security, legitimacy, and sustainability conditions” in the territories where these NSAs operate: the trappings of a strong state. This is in contrast to the Obama Administration’s focus on containment and attrition, which was a strategy of minimization rather than Col. Vinson’s focus on rollback and strategy of elimination. Yet I don’t find Col. Vinson’s approach more compelling than Obama’s. At the height of the Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian states’ powers, when they were in direct or indirect conflict with the United States, these states enjoyed the security, legitimacy and sustainability that Col. Vinson refers to. Following this logic, a truer victory would be one in which strong states are re-established in all three of these countries, which are friendly toward the West if not allies of the West, and whole-of-government relationships are established to ensure that these states neither fail again, nor turn into adversaries.

In the case of Somalia and Yemen, strong states need to be built from scratch, which is no mean feat. It would be impossible for Afghanistan to develop a strong state without either ceding its southern Pashtun areas to Pakistan or as an ungoverned space, or creating a Pashtun state from Afghan and Pakistani territory. Yet this would bring Afghanistan and its midwives into direct conflict with a nuclear-armed state that relies upon a combination of Islamism and state terrorism in order to hold its constituent parts together. The Philippines is a relatively strong state, given the company Col. Vinson places it in, yet its new leader is anything but a friend of the West. If Duterte boots US forces out, hosts the Chinese and decides to “share” the South China Sea, the US may well find that its COIN/FID activities there were counterproductive…

So how far are we willing to go to ensure strong and friendly states in these countries? I would remind Col. Vinson of the monumental efforts that the United States undertook after World War II along these lines in Western Europe and East Asia, which despite all the blood, treasure and attention, still took 10 to 30 years to achieve. As for America’s “better ideas”? Almost a quarter of a million people throughout these states had to be convinced with a bullet in the nape of the neck.

In conclusion, given that Westerners won’t pony up for a decade or three of a Marshall Plan, won’t countenance mass graves on the road to success, don’t think the project is worth a single dead soldier, and don’t want to impose themselves on other societies, we’ll have to settle for minimizing the problem: bottling these countries up and playing whack-a-mole.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 1:05am

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

- Sun Tzu

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 1:09am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Aleppo: US must apologize and compensate the Syrian families. US apologized and compensated after US airstrikes on Assad fighters.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 1:00am

As long as things like this continue to represent the aims of the US in say the ME......this is the second such air strike on civilians WHICH CENTCOM claimed was killed in both strikes well over 200 men..women and children.....

Aleppo: Horrible massacre committed by #Assad/#Russia tonight. Airstrikes have killed 75+ civilians in a mosque.

Aleppo: That would be the worst single massacre by #Assad/#Russia since many months. 1 day after they slaughtered 17 children in #Idlib.

Western media and politicians ignored the children slaughtered by #Russia yesterday and they will ignore this massacre too.

Appears that Airwars is claiming agreed to by US this strike on the mosque was committed by the US not Assad or Russia...if so a major blunder...

Horrible: US admits to airstrike in #Syria , hit a mosque, killed 42 mostly Civilians.

This is the second MAJOR blunder by US led forces...there was a strike on a school in Manbij CALLED in by the PKK on a school building that had allegedly IS fighters inside....127 men..women and children were killed in that strike and CENTCOM sworn to the world they would investigate it....

Yep they sure did....absolutely nothing of the kind and let the news cycle move on and got away with it.....

Again -- and as per my thoughts below (but hopefully here put in more succinct terms) -- one must come to understand the U.S./the West's mission (to wit: "winning indefinite conflicts"):

a. Less in such extremely limited terms as overcoming (a) ideologically-motivated (b) violent (c) non-state actors and

b. More in terms of overcoming the "resistance to unwanted transformation" (more along modern western lines) efforts of the entire Rest of the World.

Why this such, much broader, understanding of "winning indefinite conflicts?"

Because, only my item "b" definition above allows us to understand that:

a. It is not only (a) "ideologically-motivated (b) violent, (c) non-state actors" that tend to stand in the U.S./the West's way re: our mission to transform the outlying states and societies of the world more along our (often alien and profane) modern western political, economic, social and value lines. But, indeed,

b. The entire Rest of the World -- made up of both "resisting" great nations (think China, Russia, Iran) and small -- and both "resisting" state and non-state actors (think AQ, ISIS, etc.); some of whom are "violent" -- and some of whom are not -- some of whom are "ideologically-motivated' -- and some of whom are not.

Q: Thus, as seen in this light, how to see "ideologically-motivated," "violent," "non-state actors?"

A: As simply (a) one means (ideology), used by (b) one entity (i.e., certain non-state actors) who (c) use violence to (d) achieve their "resistance to unwanted transformation" ends.

(As to other entities use of other means to resist unwanted transformation of their states and societies think, for example, of such state actors/great nations as China, Russia, Iran, etc. and their use of such things as "political warfare," "unconventional warfare," "hybrid warfare," etc.)

Bottom Line:

Re: the U.S./the West's grand strategic mission of transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along our, often alien and profane, modern western political, economic, social and value lines, (a) "ideologically-motivated, (b) violent, (c) non-state actors;" these are but one -- of many -- challenges that the U.S./the West faces and must overcome. Thus:

a. To properly understand such things as "Winning Indefinite Conflicts" today,

b. This must be done more as per the broad, and all-encompassing, "transforming the entire Rest of the World more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines" conflict environment that I have attempted to outline, and explain, above. One which finds:

1. No only "violent," "ideologically-motivated," "non-state actors" standing in the U.S./the West's way. But, indeed,

2. Numerous -- differently characterized, differently defined and/or differently motivated -- other "resisting unwanted transformation" entities (for example: great nations) as well?


Wed, 11/03/2021 - 12:40pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 7:47pm

In reply to by mVinson

To your last point, military planners overall do not know how to work hand in hand developing mutually supporting objectives that enable us to achieve political goals. Then again our political leaders do a poor job of defining viable ends.


Thu, 03/16/2017 - 4:34pm

In reply to by Bill M.

The "better idea" is not one that the US dictates, but one that we indirectly support or enable through credible regional and local partners with whom we have some overlapping interests (e.g., peace, stability, legitimate governance). I did not propose or imply a Christian versus Muslim war of ideas. To the contrary, I promoted an approach where legitimate actors could successfully (with our indirect help) contain and eventually prevail over non-state actors who use violence to coerce and subjugate populations.

I stand on my observation that the US doesn't have the public and political will to sustain a direct fight on the ground against VNSAs. Our sustained involvement is only possible with a "right sized approach" and "politically acceptable goals" (we thoughts on "right-sized" are briefly outlined). Nor do I believe it would be an effective approach (the other half of the challenge is the lack of sustained public support in the area of operations).

Yes, the indirect approach is not a new idea...but it is the right approach and provides an operational framework to explain how we should operate through legitimate regional partners to support legitimate local actors with a comprehensive approach that addresses foundational issues. So far, I've seen a lot of military operations focused on military objectives. That is not enough. The military can only create the conditions...the opportunity for strategic success. What is being done to take advantage of the opportunity?

Why do we continue to promote stale ideas tied to winning the war by pushing better ideas? It is a fool's errand in most cases. Throughout history both Muslims and Christians have pushed their "better" ideas upon others, just as certain groups have pushed their political ideologies upon others via the sword. We have no right or credibility to imply or dictate what it means to be a good moderate Muslim. At best we can support credible voices to convince those who seek change through violence, to use other means. Challenging their identity simply puts more energy in the system resulting in greater resistance.

To the author's other points, I see little indication the USA doesn't have the political will to sustain a protracted fight against extremists. The original fight in Iraq wasn't part of GWOT, so the conflict was unpopular, while the current fight is very much about fighting extremists,and as long as it is right sized with politically acceptable goals Americans will demonstrate sustained political will. As for the indirect approach, I wonder where the author has been, that has been 80 percent of our effort for years. We really need some fresh thinking on feasible aporoaches, the limits of legitimacy, assumptions on american's will, the limits of our ability to sway people's beliefs, and or desire to cling to the cuurent order, where the establishment of new states are required to undo the damage Western Europe imposed on much of the world via creating unsustainable political borders.

One can get a better handle on these matters by understanding what the term "Achieving Strategic Success" means to the U.S./the West.

"Achieving Strategic Success" -- for the U.S./the West -- this means (a) transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along our (often alien and profane) modern western political, economic, social and value lines and (b) incorporating these outlying states and societies more into the western sphere of power, influence and control.

Thus, "Achieving Strategic Success" for the U.S./the West, as defined immediately above, this applies to:

a. Those cases where there is no outlying state and/or societal resistance to this such U.S./Western-desired transition/transformation. To:

b. Those cases where (a) there IS such state and/or societal resistance to this such U.S./Western-desired transition/transformation but (b) this such resistance HAS NOT, as yet, reached the point where these such states and/or societies have decided to resort to political warfare, "violence," etc.; this, so as to achieve their "resistance to unwanted transformation" ends. And to:

c. Those cases where (a) there IS state and/or societal resistance to this such U.S./Western-desired transition/transformation and (b) this such resistance HAS, in fact, reached the point where certain states and/or societies have decided to resort to the use of political warfare, "violence," etc.; this, so as to achieve their "resistance to unwanted transformation" ends.

Thus, as can easily seen by my thoughts above, the "status-quo-challenging ideas" -- that give rise to "resistance" (violent or no) to unwanted transformation (in this case, more along our alien and profane modern western political, economic, social and/or value lines) -- these such "status-quo-challenging ideas" are, in fact:

a. Those of the U.S./the West. And not as it were:

b. Those of the "threatened" states and societies themselves, to wit: those states and societies that the U.S./the West has targeted for "alien and profane" transition/transformation. (In truth, this includes the entire non-western-oriented world.)

Thus, as seen in this light, to understand former President Obama's thought that local/native ideologies per se (to wit: those relating more to the traditional ways of life, the traditional ways of governance and the traditional values, attitudes and beliefs of outlying states and societies); these such local/native ideologies:

a. Are not best defeated by "guns." But, rather,

b. By different (and from our former President's perspective "better") ideas/ideologies; for example, those of the U.S./the West.

This suggesting that -- for the the U.S./the West to "Achieve Strategic Success" (again: transformation of the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western political, economic, social and lines; incorporation of these states and societies more into the Western sphere of power, influence and control) -- this must be done:

a. Less by way of our "guns." And

b. More by way of our successful promotion of our unusual and unique ideas, our unusual and unique ideology and our unusual and unique way of life/way of governance/values, attitudes and beliefs, etc.?

Bottom Line: Such things as "Winning Indefinite Conflicts," thus, to be understood in this exact light?