National Security

Levant Lessons Learned (Or Not)

“The lesson we should be paying attention to is that a few highly skilled people used in the right place and at the right time can be far more effective than numbers with a lot of zeroes behind them.”

By Wayne McLaughlin; OpsLens:

“I now have responsibility”, said President Trump on April 5th, referring to the war in Syria. Really?  In the first decade of the nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean to put the Barbary Coast pirates out of the business of extorting money from commercial shipping.

That was the last U.S. military initiative in the region which did not end in a muddle.  Three years ago, T. Boone Pickens observed, “Over the last decade alone we spent more than $4 trillion and lost thousands of American men and women on military missions to protect Middle East oil.

Granted, for most of the post-Jefferson time, we left the desert bungling to the British and the French. This included WWI era Sykes-Picot and Gallipoli up to the 1950’s Suez crisis, but we jumped right in after WWII.

In 1953, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles. He was driven by an anti-communist crusade which led to a CIA engineered overthrow of a democratically elected Mossadeq government in Iran, in favor of the West-friendly Shah.  His overthrow in 1979, by Muslim clerics, led to a hostage crisis by a virulently anti-western government which still threatens violence toward the west today.

The Iran venture concluded with an ill-advised 2016 agreement with the Ayatollahs that included a $150 billion gift, which appears to have funded continued nuclear and rocket development by their buddies in North Korea.

Ten years later, in 1963, a U.S. backed coup by the Ba’ath party overthrew the communist friendly Qassim regime in Iraq, leading to the ascendancy of Saddam Hussein.

It went downhill from there:

  1. 1979 – 1989 Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
  2. “Charlie Wilson’s War”, a book and a movie about a Texas congressman who surreptitiously funneled hundreds of millions of taxpayer-dollars to train and equip poor Afghan and Pakistani young peasants to fight the Russians.
  3. An American ambassador to Iraq who gave a clear signal to Saddam Hussein that we didn’t give a hoot about what he did with Kuwait.
  4. A Saudi King who rejected Osama Bin Laden’s offer of protection from Saddam in preference to the U.S. Army.
  5. Sykes-Picot — a French/English treaty that drew arbitrary lines on a map and named countries.
  6. Balfour Doctrine — created Israel holding America hostage to a Middle East presence to perpetuity.
  7. Oil we couldn’t do without because of environmental “know-nothings” who had the political clout to prevent development of our own abundant resources.

The Story Begins

Through surreptitious funding by Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, as told in the book and movie “Charlie Wilsons War”, thousands of young peasant men formed the Taliban and Mujahedeen which finally convinced the Soviets that holding onto Afghanistan wasn’t worth the effort.  When they left, and with no more battles to fight, these young men faced a future of returning to bleak lives of primitive poverty.

Following the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein set about to rebuild his economy. He started by repairing the damage and paying off a mountain of debt. The New York Times reported that on July 25, 1990, Saddam met with U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to sound out U.S. opinion on Kuwait. Several accounts carry the following quote by our ambassador: “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary of State (James Baker) has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”

*Saddam smiles*

One week later, on August 2nd, he invaded Kuwait.

Saudi Reaction

Having no way of knowing Saddam Hussein’s ultimate intent, Saudi Arabia reacted with alarm at their neighbor’s invasion. In a meeting with King Fahd, Osama Bin Laden of the wealthy Saudi Bin Ladens, offered protection using the ‘unemployed’ Afghan fighters — he was rejected. The King then invited U.S. forces to deploy on Saudi soil, leading to Bin Laden’s estrangement and relocation to al-Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan, which he had formed two years prior.


Funds had not been made available for the training of a peasant army in Afghanistan, the Russians might still be there.  So-what?  This primitive pile of rocks has not been a boon to any intruder and our meddling only created a reservoir of unemployed fighting talent available later to supply conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.  Conventional warfare of any era has never been a match for Afghan tribes fighting on their own turf. Alexander the Great, on his way to India, was stopped cold in Afghanistan.  His answer?  He married the daughter of a tribal chief and went home designating his new father-in-law as King.


Ambassador Glaspie had given a firm hands-off signal to Saddam instead of driving directions to Kuwait, there would have been no need for U.S. armed forces to be in Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, any place East of Suez.  Events that caused Bin Laden’s outrage at foreign military on sacred soil would never have happened, and 9/11 might never have occurred. The follow-on is that there would have been no provocation for U.S. troops to be engaged in Afghanistan, or even a second Iraq War, which has produced ISIS and Syrian Jihad.


To be sure, U.S. diplomacy, however inept, had European help in creating the hodge-podge of the post Ottoman Middle East.  Sykes-Picot, an agreement kept secret from the Arabs while England and France used their help in World War I to defeat the Ottomans, created arbitrary countries with built in conflicts. Out of the current turmoil, it can be hoped for a realignment that promotes Sunni/Shia peace.

The 1917 Balfour Declaration led to the formation of a Jewish state 31 years later, which the U.S. is morally and politically committed to protect to perpetuity.

And then there is oil. The sooner we can eliminate any dependence on this source, the better. The U.S. has the largest storehouse of fossil fuels in the world, which are there for the taking.

Where Does That Leave Us.

U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy has all the constancy available in four and eight year chunks. Political campaign promises are soon squashed by the reality that every new administration bumps up against. A new president is secure in the knowledge that voters will never know or understand what has happened in these arcane endeavors.  When the cheese gets too binding, it will be time for another election and a new guy gets to clean up your mess.

The Bush administration decided that the world should have democracy and proceeded to get rid of the dictators who insured domestic stability in that region of the world.  Before he had completed the task, along came Obama who said, ‘we’re done here’. It has taken four different administrations, Democrat and Republican to set the table for this president.

Less Is Better

‘Because we aren’t winning’, we will augment troop levels numbering in thousands, so says the current administration referring to Afghanistan. Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton is the story of an entirely different approach.

On September 12, 2001, we declared war on al-Qaeda.  Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief of Central Command was responsible for military operations in the Middle East.  He proposed sending 60,000 troops to Afghanistan, from which the 9/11 attack originated. He claimed it would take six months to put the operation together.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he want troops there immediately, and initiated an alternate scheme employing 350 horse mounted Special Forces, plus 100 CIA operatives.  Never before have Special Forces been given the lead assignment in a theater of war.

Unlike any other military component, they are trained in guerrilla warfare broken down into three phases; combat, diplomacy, and nation building. Once the combat phase is over, they provide humanitarian aid and help rebuild infrastructure damaged by war.

In early October, the CIA hit the ground in Afghanistan and succeeded in putting together a coalition of three northern tribes who were eager for U.S. assistance in their seven-year war with the Taliban.  Instrumental to the receptivity of U.S. help was the Taliban’s unspeakable cruelty. From Horse Soldiers:

“They had dragged the men – old men, young men and boys, any Hazara male unfortunate enough to be caught cowering beneath these rickety, dry eaves and dragged them into the street, slit their throats and castrated them, and left them to rot in the road.”

In less than two months from hitting the ground on October 19, 2001, 350 special forces, 100 CIA and 15,000 Afghan troops defeated 50 to 60 thousand Taliban at a cost of $70 million, chump-change for military programs.

Using Leverage in War and Finance

The lesson we should be paying attention to is that a few highly skilled people used in the right place and at the right time can be far more effective than numbers with a lot of zeroes behind them. A similar story from World War I is about a junior officer, T.E. Lawrence, who led Bedouins effectively in British efforts to defeat the Ottoman empire.  Lawrence gained the trust of tribal chiefs because he showed them respect and, from his civilian experience, understood people of the Middle East.

In “Horse Soldiers”, Stanton notes the contrast between Afghanistan and Iraq, where Paul Bremer led the post-Iraqi-conflict forces into the post-Saddam peace.  He began by firing the Iraq Army, causing a deep resentment that led to their sympathy and cooperation with al-Qaeda in Iraq.  We still have troops there in numbers with a few zeros.

And Then There is Syria

It’s complicated. We learn just how complicated from Charles R. Lister’s “Syrian Jihad”, as he describes clashes between players that include Sunni, Shia, Wahabi and Alawite Muslims plus Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda and the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army.  There are 1500 separate Jihadi groups who alternately collaborate to achieve a specific objective and then seek to annihilate each other once it is accomplished.

To date, U.S. participation has been tepid and uncertain, as Lister illustrates,

“If US policy in Syria was not experiencing enough of a credibility challenge in early August, its targeted air strike on a weapons depot in Atmeh in Idlib governorate dealt a near-mortal blow to America’s reputation. Late on 11 August six missiles struck several buildings belonging to a group known as Jaish al-Ummah, which had been used to manufacture and store home-made mortars and artillery shells for use in Jaish al-Fateh operations in Idlib……perceived by Syrians as having targeted an entirely legitimate and moderate revolutionary actor. Moreover, the strikes killed eighteen people, including five young sisters aged between four and ten, and a three-person family of internally displaced persons.”


Why would any U.S. President want to claim responsibility for any direction this snake pit of violence takes in Syria?  It has pushed the ‘fog of war’ to a whole new density.  Some say that we must be involved to prevent the Russians from gaining a foothold in the region.  After Britain’s, France’s, and America’s Middle Eastern futility over the last century, it’s time to let the Russians shove a trillion or two rubles down this rat hole.

Outta Here!

With the limited cease fire in Syria negotiated between Trump and Putin, what better time could there be to let everyone know that we are finished spending blood and treasure in the Middle East with three caveats:

  1. Hands off Israel.
  2. Don’t mess with the world’s oil supply.
  3. No new terrorist training bases.

That notification would be accompanied by a promise of a visit hell-on-earth pin pointed on anyone who intrudes on those off-limits caveats.

Such a move would include an abrupt pull out of Afghanistan, ceding the government to the Taliban and offering asylum to anyone against whom the Taliban might punish for cooperating with the U.S.  With safe havens in Pakistan, any lasting military effort there is futile, and this is not the time to enlarge our theater of operations.

What About ISIS?

As of mid-2017, they have been pushed out of Mosul in Iraq and are about to lose their capital, Raqqa, in Syria.  Unfortunately, we chose to ignore a nascent ISIS and they have become metastatic with a presence from Africa to the Philippines. Caliphates are not defined by geography and eradication goes way beyond Middle Eastern policy tweaking.


Every nation in history, Britain, Spain, France, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, to name a few, who have projected military power substantially beyond their borders, have ultimately paid a huge price at home. The results is damaged economies drained of assets to support those ventures and reduced international influence as their boundaries shrink in the aftermath.

Is the U.S. close to a tipping point with our assumed obligations in the Middle East and elsewhere?  That is a question which can only be answered in hindsight – when it is too late to do anything about it. Why push that envelope?

Some will say that we are needed to save people from the atrocities of war.  How has that worked so far?  The most unfortunate fact is that depraved cruelty toward the weak and helpless goes on every day and has forever. Only God can stop it.

We need a coherent immigration policy which assures admission of only those people with goals consistent with our way of life and who are devoid of any security threat. Security is not the only reason to be concerned.

In 2008, USA Today carried the following story, “What do we do now to start preparing for that?” asks Arthur Nelson, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, whose analysis projects that the USA will hit the 1 billion population mark sometime between 2100 and 2120. ‘It’s a realistic long-term challenge’…..  Nelson’s projection assumes that current fertility rates remain constant but that longevity and immigration will continue to rise.”

Some will call this position neo-isolationism.  Fine.   Sticks and stones will break my bones but……

Wayne McLaughlin is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran.

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