A STRATEGIC QUAGMIRE AND A BLACK HOLE
We met with Lt. Col Ralph Peters, USA (Ret.), Fox news strategic analyst and New York Post columnist in Washington, D.C. for a face to face since some of his columns have been reprinted in Soldier of Fortune. Peters, considered an expert on the War on Terror, is a realist who has shifted his way of thinking on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as the conflicts took unexpected turns and minor victories were declared and failures recognized.
SOF: What do you project will happen in Afghanistan?
RP: Afghanistan is similar to the Arab world in terms of what they fight for. In Afghanistan, we have to face some truths. The Taliban has no shortage of people willing to die for their cause. People don’t come out and fight the most powerful military force for what is the equivalent of minimum wage. The Taliban fighters have a commitment that the Afghan Army doesn’t show. In a tribal society, it is very hard to excite national loyalty. The Kabul government was always the enemy. They took everything and gave nothing back. Add in Karzai’s government, which is incredibly corrupt. So, what are we doing in Afghanistan? We went for a simple reason—to shatter al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaeda.
By the summer of 2002, we had accomplished that, but from sheer inertia, we did what Americans always do—we decided to rebuild the country. Well, Afghanistan had somewhere between 36–42 million people. Nobody knows, they never had a good census. It’s a huge country, mountainous, pre-medieval in many respects. We’re not going to build a new Afghanistan. So, we’re supporting a corrupt government despised by the people, there is – except for a few units, like commando brigades, no national sensibility. The police are corrupt. We have brave Marine and
Army officers trying to persuade Afghans to have faith in their government, but our officers have no faith in the Afghan government. So what does that tell you?
The bottom line is this: We have the power to stay forever, to make the Afghans nod their heads until we leave. We don’t have the power to make them want what we want. So, can we succeed? If we insist on pursuing this macro-mission of turning Afghanistan into a modern rule-of-law-state, we have zero chance of success. If we get back to the mission of continuing to kill our enemies in eastern Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan, we can do that with 16–20 thousand troops. The number might be fuzzy; the rule for how many we have in Afghanistan is simple: Not one more Soldier, Marine or vehicle than cannot be fully resupplied and evacuated if need be by air. We currently have a 1500-mile supply line through Pakistan, which can go many different ways. The Pakistanis choke the route when they are in the mood to do so and get our attention.
I don’t think we should leave. We can’t do it all from offshore. We should leave a small, lethal force of special ops, enough conventional troops to do what has to be done for protection, UAVs, combat planes, some trainers to work with the tribes who want what we want. But the idea of saving Afghanistan is nuts. I think right now, this is a terrible situation, because we do not have a strategy. We have a disconnected series of programs and policies, and I think that your readers know I’m no peacenik. Soldiers die in war, I get that. But there is no reason for any US service member to die because Washington can’t make up its mind.
SOF: Afghanistan is a failed state. One might argue that the key might be to deal with these failed states now, before they become a big problem later.
RP: In Afghanistan, we’ve allowed the Taliban to set the terms, including ROE, because their propaganda machine got our Soldiers to restrict air and artillery. The Taliban’s goal has simply been to prevent us from achieving peaceful governance. That’s easy to do. Instead of us trying to fix Afghanistan, let’s just keep the Taliban from taking over. The problem the Taliban has if they come back to power in any region, then they become a target. Look what happened to al-Qaeda in Iraq. They made the mistake of trying to hold turf – many other mistakes, too – but when terrorists try to hold turf, you can find them and kill them. I just think we need a fundamental relook at what we’re trying to do and how we are trying to do it. We need to focus relentlessly on killing our enemies.
SOF: Could you explain the differences in the situation between Iraq and Afghanistan?
RP: Yes. There are a few significant differences. One: At the strategic level, Iraq matters, Afghanistan does not. Baghdad is the emotional heart of the Arab world. Cairo is the brain, Mecca is the soul. If you can effect change in Iraq, get a half-baked success – not a perfect one, just a halfway success in Iraq – it would be a democratic government that took reasonably good care of most of its people part of the time. That would be a huge success in the Arab world. If you got that, it would set a marker for the rest of the Arab world.
SOF: Do you think there’s much of a chance of it occurring?
RP: I think there was a much better chance if the Bush–Cheney administration had done it right in 2003. I think there is still a chance today, but we’re not going to get the result we could have gotten had we sent in a serious force with a serious occupation strategy. I always tell people never underestimate the Arab genius for failure. So that’s one difference. Iraq matters. Afghanistan is history’s black hole. Nobody looks to Afghanistan for a role model.
Afghanistan isn’t even a country – it’s an accident of where other people’s borders ended. Nobody admires Afghanis.
SOF: All the invaders in history have never taken them over.
RP: The point is, Iraq could drive change in the Arab world. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, nobody cares, except for a bunch of Pashtuns on the other side of the border, in Pakistan. Pakistan matters, Iran matters, Afghanistan just doesn’t.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda was a foreign invader, as we were, but al-Qaeda turned out to be a lot less appealing as an occupier than we were. Al-Qaeda, through its monstrous behavior, defeated itself and the Sunnis flipped and we turned. So al-Qaeda was a foreign principal. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are the home team. That doesn’t mean everybody’s waving pro-Taliban pennants and cheering for them to score a goal, but there will always be the Taliban – or something like it – in the Pashtun area of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, of course, are the largest of the tribal groups. So here, we’re talking about providing security to Afghan villagers, but against whom– their sons, their cousins, their nephews, their uncles.
SOF: With all the opium money…
RP: But even without the opium money. The Taliban, with all the opium money that goes through there – so much goes into private pockets and offshore – why are the Taliban without a lot of money, without sophisticated weapons, without US Army Special Forces training them, how can they turn out committed fighters? We can pour in all our money, weapons, and skilled trainers, and we can’t get the Afghan Army to show up for formation. So I think we need to do a fundamental reassessment.
And by the way, one thing that the Bush administration does not get credit for is that they did defeat al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda set itself up for defeat by doing something stupid—they declared Iraq the central front. So when people say there was no al-Qaeda there before we invaded, that’s true, but al-Qaeda was stupid, and came to Iraq where they suffered a catastrophic strategic defeat. Remember, after 9/11, they were popular in the Arab world – people were wearing Osama bin Laden T-shirts, jumping up and down. Because of the monstrous behavior of al-Qaeda in Iraq, millions of Sunni Arabs turned against them, and today, al-Qaeda is not welcome in a single Arab country. That’s huge, and doesn’t get covered by the establishment media.
SOF: You called on Rumsfeld to resign.
RP: In 2001.
SOF: Comment as to why.
RP: Because he was clear that his holy grail was technology. And while I’m not against technology, it is well clear to me that beyond our lifetimes, the skilled Soldier or Marine is going to be the core of warfare. Rumsfeld – and this was 2001 – wanted to cut two or three Army divisions to pay for more stuff. When we got to Iraq, we weren’t doing very well with eight divisions; we’re still trying to grow the force and he wanted to cut the Army and Marines to pay for junk. Now again, I want our soldiers to be well-equipped, but I have a rule when I talk to defense audiences. I tell them money’s going to be tighter, there’s not going to be more, and all these systems we’re going to buy – they have to be what I call the ARA rule: Our equipment has to be appropriate, robust, and affordable. We can’t just buy stuff because it’s neat any more. Rumsfeld looked like he was going to do tremendous damage to our national defense by throwing our armed forces out of balance by overweighting technology at the expense of people.
It’s always a question of getting the balance right. You want the key technologies, but you need to have enough people, as I think we’ve learned over the last several years. I just saw him as a man who didn’t realize that warfare was going to be about urban combat, it was going to be tribal fighting, and many of the systems he supported would have no role, if indeed, they worked at all. So I just think he was the wrong man. I supported going to Iraq because I thought it would make a strategic difference and because Saddam was a Hitler, but we botched it.
SOF: You haven’t addressed the Iran factor in Iraq.
RP: In the long term, I don’t worry about Iranian influence in Iraq. In the short-to-medium term, I do. Persians, who form the core of the Iranian population, are arrogant racists. They look down on Arabs, and Arabs know it. So, in the long term, they’re not going to get along. They’re fractious.
But in the short-term, I’d worry about a Shia-Arab/Persian mischief-making alliance of sorts. Of course Iran matters – Iran matters enormously, and that is another issue entirely. We cannot allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, for two reasons: First, every time a rogue state gets nuclear weapons, it doesn’t increase the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons arithmetically, it increases it geometrically. Second, the Iranians, of all people who have had or will have nuclear weapons, are the most likely to use them because the hard core of supporters around President Ahmadinejad are longing for the Apocalypse. It inspires the return of the 12th Imam – these people around Ahmadinejad are absolute religious fanatics.
Now, there are a lot of cynical people in Iraq; the average Iranian doesn’t want a nuclear war with anybody. But wars aren’t made by average people – wars, especially in Iran, are made by a small clique of people. That’s why I worry.
SOF: Did the Iraq War strengthen them by giving them a Shia neighbor?
RP: It’s really too early to tell. It will depend on actions in Iran – and they have serious domestic problems right now. It will depend on what alliances are formed in Iraq. You see, the Iraqis obviously have to reach an accommodation with Iran – it’s their neighbor. It’s a big neighbor, and there’s a lot of bad blood there. So, it will be interesting to see the results of the next Iraqi elections, which coalitions fall apart, which new coalitions come together, but I can tell you that Iraqi Arabs do not want to be dominated by Iranian Persians.
SOF: Even if they’re Shias?
RP: Even if they are Shias.
SOF: Even against a common enemy?
RP: That’s different – if there is a common enemy, maybe. But we’re so centered on our own actions, that if you go to southern Iraq, and this is what my friends who have served there tell me, if you go to the villages or into Basra, and you talk to a family about what the formative event of the last generation, it’s not the US invasion, it’s the Iran–Iraq War, with approximately a million dead if you put both sides together. It killed far more people than the US invasion did – it devastated the Shia south. We tend to oversimplify the emotional reactions of people. I understand why the Iraqis are acting out with us, pushing our troops out, saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that. The Iraqi military – the Iraqis in general – have been crapped on for generations. Everything’s been rotten, everything’s sucked. They’ve been humiliated, and we just rolled Baghdad in three weeks. What a humiliation – Baghdad, the heart of the Arab world. And so, I think they are acting out, showing they have some national pride. I don’t think you can judge what’s happening in Iraq by the day-to-day incidents with some Iraqi captain trying to show he’s macho and tough and that the Americans aren’t in charge any more. But again, there are a lot of moving parts; we don’t know what is going to happen. The only thing I can say with any certainty is that we had a great chance in Iraq and we threw it away through the incompetence of Rumsfeld and company, their insistence on minimal troops, not resourcing, and no occupation plan.
SOF: Do you agree that we should never have gone into Iraq and instead have solved the problem in Afghanistan?
RP: No, I disagree. The idea that more troops would have fixed Afghanistan is a myth. Afghanistan is unfixable. That was just a “get Bush” litany. We were done with Afghanistan in 2002. We should have left a hunter-killer force there and got out instead of trying to turn it into Minnesota with mountains. I would do Iraq again if we could do it right. The problem wasn’t what we did, the problem was the incompetence – the military incompetence – of Rumsfeld and company. The neocons – in fact, the most insulted I get – where I really want to whack people – is when the press will call me a neocon or lump me in with those guys. I’m not a neocon, I’m disqualified on at least five counts: 1. I served in the military, so that disqualifies me; 2. I don’t have a trust fund; 3. I didn’t go to prep school; 4. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school; 5. I’ll leave the other one out.
The Neocons gave the Republican Party a foreign policy, but they were too important, too dignified, too powerful to serve in the military themselves. So they had clowns like Paul Wolfowitz, a brilliant man, who had no idea of the military or warfare, and he thought he knew better than the generals. And he didn’t.
SOF: You wrote at one point that we should have given Kurdistan a state. How would you have dealt with Turkey?
RP:Well, Turkey – this is back in 2003. We had supported Turkey in everything, from their aspirations for joining the EU, to supplying weapons over the years. We’d been a good ally. The one time we needed their help, to let the 4th ID go into northern Iraq – they turned us down. That was when we could have recognized an independent Kurdistan. We had the psychological leverage and the rationale. I don’t think we can do it now – it’s six years on, the process has moved further.
SOF: The Turks were committed to attack; the Turks would never have allowed a Kurdish state.
RP: The Turks wouldn’t have had any choice. They would not have attacked US troops. In the first year, we could have created an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Whether that would have been wise, I don’t know, but it would have been morally correct. The Kurds are the only friends we have in the regions. The Turks convinced themselves that by blocking the 4th ID, they would keep us from taking down Saddam Hussein. The Turks were way off base. And I was pro-Turkey for decades. I made excuses for them – that’s over. The Turks now have a problem; they have a creeping Islamization of Turkey and the destruction of Ataturk’s legacy. Ataturk was a brilliant soldier and statesman – we forget that. Ataturk wanted to secularize and modernize Turkey. It lasted for a while, but now the veil is back. The headscarf is back, and so, I don’t feel we owe the Turks anything.
I do think we owe the Kurds, because they have done every single thing we’ve asked them to, and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Sally told me when I was with them in 2004 that if Iraq fails, they will make sure it is not the fault of the Kurds. Even though they wanted an independent country, they know they need the US. We screw our allies and try to make friends with our enemies.
SOF: How significant are the Kurds?
RP: The Kurds? Well, there are somewhere between 32 and 36 million Kurds in the region. When you have 32–36 million on your side it’s better than having them on the other side. Are they as significant as Iran or Russia? No, but I think the Kurds – if you actually go to Kurdistan, it’s civilized. The garbage gets picked up. I cannot tell you how important that is. You don’t have to bribe your way into college – people there have a sense of national identity. There is corruption, not as bad as elsewhere in the Mideast, but there is corruption. People are proud, they have a strong sense of identity. There is civic spirit. Not all politicians are corrupt – some are very good, like Barham Sally. So, I tend to be pro-Kurdish.
SOF: But there’s an internal power play right now between Talibani and Barzani.
RP: Talibani and Barzani learned a lesson in the 1990s. They will do OK. What they have now are policy differences. There are some definite problems with Barzani and the regional government. Talibani has a wider field of vision of world affairs; Barzani’s approach is much narrower. In the Middle East, anything can go wrong. In Kurdish classrooms, young men and women sit together; if a girl wants to wear a headscarf, she can – there’s no coercion, she’s not forced to wear one.
SOF: How about their wiping out of the Christians?
RP: In 1933?
SOF: No, more recently.
RP: Recently, the Christians are torn – they’re caught in the middle. And when you choose the wrong side in an area like Kirkuk, bad things are going to happen. Look, I don’t condone that – I’m not condoning persecution of any kind. But sometimes people pick the wrong side – sometimes Jews pick the wrong side, sometimes Christians pick the wrong side, more often than not, Moslems pick the wrong side. When you pick the wrong side, you don’t always get a pass. I’m not excusing what’s happening, I’m trying to explain.
SOF: But the United States could have anticipated the whipping out of the Christians and put a curb on it.
RP: Well, we’re out of the picture now. We have controlled things. We’ve worked very, very hard. But by the choice of the Iraqis and US government, we have signed a SOFA and a treaty governing our withdrawal and actions until withdrawal that don’t let us intervene. I think we were forced to do that.
SOF: OK, but that’s no excuse for allowing persecution.
RP: I think it was foolish to do that. We’re stupid. I mean, of course we shouldn’t have gone as far as we did in limiting our troops. There is no way this administration is ever going to allow rules of engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. This administration is committed to hugs and kisses for terrorists and their supporters under the illusion that if we’re nice to our enemies, we’ll win them over.
SOF: What is your evaluation of the Kurds’ military capability?
RP: The Kurds could smack the hell out of the Iraqi Army until numbers began to tell. They could not defeat the Turkish Army, but the Turks would have a very bloody fight of it, because Kurdistan is very channelized terrain. It’s very difficult, and you could fight a semi-guerilla war and cause a lot of casualties. The Kurds could not stand up against the Turkish or Iranian military in the long run.
SOF: Do they have any kind of heavy weaponry?
RP: Yeah. I don’t know how much, but when Saddam’s regime collapsed, they grabbed everything they could. I know they’ve got artillery, I’ve heard they got a bunch of tanks stored away. But once you get northwest of Salamania, the tanks aren’t going to do much for you. Artillery will. Problem is, they don’t have a lot of aircraft. Aircraft matter, certainly. But Saddam never fully subdued that area, and he had a lot more resources than the current government does. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, because it will be another bloody mess.
SOF: What are your plans for your next literary endeavor.
RP: My next book will be out in March, it is called Endless War. It starts off with very long pieces on jihadi victories over the West, and then how the West finally achieved victory over jihadis. The point is to try to put history into this raging non-debate the jihad started in the seventh century and it never ended. It was obscured somewhat by the power and rise of the West and the Cold War, but it never ended. Now, there were intervals when it was less violent, but all three monotheistic religions are fighting faiths. There’s one God, one path to the truth, and
you’d better do it my way – they go to war. This book is trying to lay a foundation by studying key battles that Americans don’t study, such as Mansicer, Thentopolis, Mohach, or Mers-el-Kabir, or some great Jihadi defeats like Zenza, or obviously Vienna. I’m trying to describe religious war over the centuries – what the scale was, how dramatic it was, the battles make great narratives. I want to put some historical reality into the BS.
Ralph Peters’ latest book is The War After Armageddon.