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Syria: Outrage is Not a Strategy


02 September 2013

Never Go to War without the Support of Your People

In 2006, the talking points from London and Washington insisted we had won the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq was not in civil war.  To say otherwise was apostasy.

In 2006, British Defense Secretary John Reid was famously quoted on Afghanistan:

“We are in the south to help and protect the Afghan people construct their own democracy.

“We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.”

Adversaries made Mr. Reid’s comment more infamous by misquoting him that British forces would leave “without a single shot being fired.”

By 2008, the British alone had fired 4 million shots.  They were just getting warmed up.  Nor was this the first British intervention in Afghanistan. Coalition Casualties from 2009-2012 eclipsed those from the first eight years by more than two-fold.  Today the casualties continue.  For what?

Reading the 2006 archives from Afghanistan, remembering that I was there in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, and recalling how the war grew, unveils a vast web of lies, fantasy, magical thinking, and political sorcery that is crazier than the most imaginative fiction.

Were so many politicians and military advisors lying?  Or were they just ignorant?

They get their information from briefings.  The people briefing the politicians get their information from other briefings, and those briefers get their information from reports, often written by people who never leave any base.

Is it any wonder that commanders go ape when a PowerPoint slide is not perfect?  They may need to cannibalize those slides for another briefing. Bad news is often attenuated: a messenger that delivers too much bad news will inevitably suffer for it.  Take that from a war correspondent. If you want to be loved, write about popular wars that we win, not unpopular wars that we fumble.  Write only about heroes, never about disgraces or war criminals.  The truth will not save you when it is bad news.  Commanders know this.  And so the typical message is, “We were winning when I was there.”

img002-1000State of Confusion: PowerPoint Slide on Afghanistan, 2009.

Swooping into Afghanistan for a briefing enables the decision-maker to claim the credibility of “I was there, talking with our commanders,” yet those briefings might as well have been teleconferences between the Pentagon and the White House, or from Earth to Mars.

A small number go the distance to verify ground truth.  One of them is Adam Holloway, former British Army officer turned investigative journalist, who then was elected to Parliament.

Mr. Holloway, without consulting his government, slipped into Afghanistan using his own funds, and he searched for the seeds of truth using his own hands.  I met Adam there by chance one day on a gravel airstrip at Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006.  Shortly before the war really began.

The giant British base of Camp Bastion was under construction deep in the desert of Helmand. I photographed the first aircraft to land on the runway, which was built by my friend, Steve Shaulis.  The RAF C-130 landed with no complications.  There was not even a fence around the runway.

This was still 2006, when there were practically no defenses around Bastion.

Six years later, during the moonless night of 14 September 2012, Taliban fighters infiltrated the now heavily fortified Camp Bastion and wiped out most of a squadron of US Marine Harrier jets.  Marine Sgt. Bradley Atwell was killed defending the squadron, as was the Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible.

img003-1000Sgt. Bradley Atwell and Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, Rest in Peace.

Despite thousands of Coalition casualties by 2012, commanders still so underestimated the enemy that they left guard towers unmanned. It was a costly mistake.

For more on that 2012 attack: Afghanistan: When the Moon sets, Watch out

In 2006, Mr. Holloway returned to the UK and asserted that it was a mistake to deploy troops.  War was on the winds.  Mr. Holloway and I were not magical meteorologists foretelling next year’s hurricane season; we were saying clearly that Hurricane Afghanistan was formed.  The only reason you do not see it, is because you are not here, nor are most of those folks making the PowerPoints.

While Mr. Holloway raised the alarm in London, I flew back to America and I wrote twelve major dispatches warning that we were losing the war in Afghanistan.  We became unpopular men for delivering bad news.

Adam stood his ground.  And over the last seven years, he earned my respect and we became friends. I sometimes ask Adam for his views.

With Syria reaching full pitch in 2013, allegations that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on 21 August against his own people roiled the airwaves.

A year after the Benghazi attack that claimed our Ambassador and other Americans, we still have few answers.  Speculation and conspiracy theories run rampant, while our government dodges the matter.

Yet mere days after the alleged chemical attacks in Syria, President Obama claimed that he had proof that Assad committed this crime against humanity, despite the fact that conditions for investigation in Syria are far more challenging than they are in Benghazi.

In the Middle Eastern environment of perpetual exaggeration, the highest death estimate by the rebels was 1,300 men, women and children killed.  The US administration raised the rebel estimate to 1,429.  Can we get a blood sample?

The bodies were buried within 24 hours in accordance with Islamic custom.  Hardly enough time get an exact count of 1,429.  From where did this number derive?  Every serious combat trooper, cop, correspondent, anyone who sees action first hand and then sees reports, knows that first reports are always wrong, and often very wrong.

Nobody doubts that chemicals were used, but who did it?  A rogue general?  And where is the primary source for the count of 1,429?

Are these body reports cobbled together from second or third hand sources that might include double and triple counts, rumors, or complete fabrications?  Syria is, after all, the navel of the Middle East, a wellspring for rumors, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, and the most obvious lies created by man.

The casualty count of 1,429 is important.  If President Obama plays fast and furious with casualties, it is fair to wonder whether he is playing sloppy with alleged communications intercepts.

In our current nightmare, we find it easier to believe that the NSA is reading our emails than effectively eavesdropping on Syria. The White House should lay its casualty counts on the table, face-up. Its credibility is on the line.

Importantly, by saying we have “proof” of war crimes committed by Assad, we are saying we have proof that Assad is a war criminal.  Assad knows the likely scenarios from here:

1) Fight to stay in power and prevail.
2) Fight and lose, and be killed on the streets like Gaddafi, hanged like Saddam, or life in prison.

President Obama has ipso facto called President Assad a war criminal.  Assad does not need a powerful calculator to figure his odds if he fails to maintain power.

Last week, while UK and US leaders were rallying to smash Syria in the mouth, I contacted Member of Parliament Adam Holloway for his thoughts.  Adam responded within the hour:

“Outrage is not a strategy.  I thought military action always had to have a purpose behind it – so what is the endstate here?  Hit, and then hope?

“I am not sure in what way even limited strikes help the people living in my constituency: how does this further Britain’s or America’s national security?
“There cannot be a sane person in Britain who would not think it a good thing for us to get involved in the war in Syria if by doing so it would ease the horrors faced by the Syrian people – and dire risks to people in neighbouring countries.

“We must be guided not by our alliance to America, but by our duty to understand that military force should only be used in support of a clear purpose and with a clear objective in mind – in support of our national interest. I am yet to be convinced that there is a strong and clear-cut case that military action will deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons – nor am I convinced that in 20 years time some other tyrant thinking of using chemical weapons will turn around and say to his or herself “Whoops, better not do that:  remember what Obama, Cameron and Hollande did back in the summer of 2013”.

“The use of chemical weapons was indeed a crime against all of humanity.  But by firing one missile we are involving ourselves in a civil war on the side of a fractured opposition which includes people with proud links to Al Qaeda. By striking now, without clear cause and purpose, we risk consequences that we have not even thought of: this is a case of hit – and then hope.”

MP Adam Holloway’s erudite words are published with permission.

Adam then emailed that he was going to vote, and of course the rest is history.  Adam voted NO, and indeed the British Parliament voted against action in Syria, leaving President Obama absent our most steadfast ally.

Now, on the verge of a nearly unilateral attack, President Obama claims that he is war weary.  The French and the Turks still push us to launch, and of course the Saudis and other Gulf states would like to see our missiles fly, though no approval from the UN Security Council is possible with Russia and China blocking.

Realizing that most Americans and our most trusted allies reject Syrian intervention, President Obama now puts it to the Congress to decide.  This provides Obama a backdoor to save face, though it would have been more honest to ask Congress up front, had he truly cared about their opinions.

President Obama backed down and, oddly, is taking refuge behind Congress, when he could have said, “I do not have sufficient support from our allies or from other Americans, and as much as it is right to do this, the UN Security Council, many of our foreign allies, and the people who elected me, have spoken.  I am, ultimately, a servant to American citizens.  You have spoken.  I have listened.  There will be no attack at this time.”

Those words would reek of authenticity. Credibility would be bolstered. They are not words of weakness. They would be words of humility, spoken by a President who properly consulted Congress, and who listened to the will of the Republic. They would be the words of a leader.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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