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Now that the Neocons have hamstrung Trump, and with Trump’s planned impeachment and removal from office still in the future, the world must deal with the dangerous decline of the USA-led power bloc, because the Neocons are back in power and will do anything to reverse this trend. It is obvious that the only “solution” that the Neocons see is to trigger another war. So the question is: “Whom will they strike?”
If the Neocons are out of touch with reality, then everything is possible, even nuking Russia and China. While not dismissing the Neocons’ capacity for violence, it is equally pointless to analyze clearly irrational scenarios, given that modern deterrence theories assume “rational actors” and not madmen running amok.
Assuming a modicum of rational thinking remains in Washington, DC, if the Neocons launch some extreme operation, somebody in the corridors of power will find the courage to prevent it, as Admiral Fallon did with his “Not on my watch!” comment which possibly prevented an attack on Iran in 2007. But the question remains: where could the USA-led power bloc strike next?
The Usual Scenario
The habitual modus operandi is: subvert a weak country, accuse it of human rights violations, impose economic sanctions, trigger riots and militarily intervene to defend “democracy”, “freedom” and “self-determination.” That’s the political recipe. Then there is “the American way of war,” i.e., the way US commanders fight.
During the Cold War, the Pentagon focused on fighting a large conventional war against the Soviet Union that could escalate into nuclear war. Nuclear aspects aside, such a war’s conventional dimension is “heavy”: large formations, lots of armor and artillery. Immense logistical efforts on both sides are required, which would consequently engender deep-strikes on second echelon forces, supply dumps and strategic infrastructure, and a defense in depth in key sectors. The battlefield would be hundreds of kilometers deep on both sides of the front line. Military defenses would be prepared in two, possibly three, echelons. In the Cold War, the Soviet 2nd strategic echelon in Europe was in the Ukraine! — which inherited huge ammo dumps from Soviet times, so there has been no shortage of weapons on either side to wage the Ukrainian civil war. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, this threat rapidly disappeared. Ultimately, the Gulf War provided the US military and NATO one last, big, conventional war, but it soon became clear to US strategists that the “heavy war” era was over and that armored brigades weren’t the Pentagon’s most useful tool.
So US strategists, mostly from Special Operation Forces, developed “war on the cheap.” First, the CIA funds, arms and trains local insurgents; next, US Special Forces embed with the insurgents as front line soldiers who direct close support aircraft to strike enemy forces; finally, enough aircraft are deployed in and around the combat zone to support 24 hour combat operations. The objective is to provide overwhelming firepower advantage to friendly insurgents.
US and “coalition” forces then advance until they come under fire and, unless they rapidly prevail, they call in airstrikes which result in a huge BOOM!!! – followed by the enemy’s annihilation. The process repeats as necessary for easy, cheap victories over outgunned enemies. The strategy is enhanced by providing the insurgents with better gear (anti-tank weapons, night vision, communications, etc.) and bringing in Pentagon or allied forces, or mercenaries, to defeat really tough targets.
While many in the US military were deeply skeptical, Special Forces dominance and the temporary success of “war on the cheap” in Afghanistan made it immensely popular with US politicians and policy advocates. Moreover, this “cheap” warfare resulted in very few American casualties, with a high degree of “plausible deniability” should something go wrong. The alphabet soup agencies loved it.
But the early euphoria about US invincibility overlooked three very risky assumptions about “war on the cheap”:
First, it required a deeply demoralized enemy who felt that resistance to the USA was futile, because even if the US forces were initially limited in size and capabilities, the Americans could always bring in more forces.
Second, it assumed total battlefield air superiority by the US, since Americans prefer not to provide close air support when they can be shot down by enemy forces.
Third, it required local insurgents who physically occupy and control territory.
But none of these assumptions are necessarily true, and even better said, the USA-led power bloc has run out of countries in which these assumptions still apply.
Let’s take a closer look.
Hezbollah, Lebanon 2006
This war involved Israel, not the USA, but it nicely illustrates the principle. While superior Hezbollah tactics and battlefield preparation played important roles, and Russian anti-tank weapons permitted Hezbollah to destroy the most advanced Israeli tanks, the most important result was that a small, weak Arab force showed no fear whatsoever against the supposedly invincible Israeli military.
British reporter, Robert Fisk, was the first person to detect the implications of this change. Fisk observed that in the past Arabs were intimidated by Israeli military power, that if the IDF crossed the Lebanese border, for instance, that Palestinians fled to Beirut. However, beginning with the 2006 Israeli assault on southern Lebanon all of that changed. A small, “outgunned” Arab force was not afraid to stand its ground and fight back against the IDF.
It was a huge change. What Hezbollah achieved in 2006 is now repeated in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. The fear of the “sole superpower” is gone, replaced by a burning desire to settle the score with the USA-led power bloc and its occupation forces.
Hezbollah also proved another very important thing: the winning strategy against a superior enemy is not to protect yourself against his attacks, but to deny him a lucrative target. Put simply: “a cammo tent is better than a bunker.” The more academic way to put it is: “don’t contest your enemy’s superiority – make it irrelevant.”
In retrospect, the most formidable weapon of the USA-led power bloc was not the nuclear bomb or the aircraft carrier, but a huge public relations machine which for decades convinced the world of US invincibility, superior weapons, better trained soldiers, more advanced tactics, etc. But this is total nonsense – the US military is nothing like the glorified image projected to the world! When did the US last win a war against a capable adversary? The Japanese in WWII?
Russian Operation, Syria 2015
The Russian operation in Syria was neither a case of “the Russians are coming” nor “the war is over.” The Russians sent a very small force, This force did not so much defeat Daesh as change the war’s political context. The Russians made American intervention much harder politically, and also kept them from waging “war on the cheap” in Syria.
The Russians deployed to Syria without the capabilities which could deny American use of Syrian air space. Even after the Turks shot down the Russian SU-24, the Russians only deployed enough air-defenses and air superiority fighters to protect themselves from a similar Turkish attack. Even today, if the Pentagon decided to take control of Syrian airspace, the Russians don’t have enough air defenses or combat aircraft to deny Syrian airspace to the Americans. Such an attack would come with very real American political and military costs, true enough, but the realities of modern warfare are such that the tiny Russian air contingent of 33 combat aircraft (of which only 19 can actually contest the Syrian airspace: 4 SU-30s, 6 SU-34s, 9 Su-27s) and an unknown number of S-300/S-400/S-1 Pantsir batteries cannot defeat the combined air power of CENTCOM and NATO.
The problem for the Americans is a matrix of risks, including Russian military capabilities, but also the political risks of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Not only would that further escalate the totally illegal US intervention, it would require a sustained effort to suppress Syrian, and potentially Russian, air defenses; that is something the White House will not do right now, especially when the results of such a risky operation remain unclear. Consequently, the Americans only struck sporadically, with minimal results.
Even worse, the Russians are turning the tables on the Americans and providing the Syrians with close air support, artillery controllers and heavy artillery systems, including multiple-rocket launchers and heavy flamethrowers, all of which are giving the firepower advantage to the Syrians. Paradoxically, the Russians are now fighting a “war on the cheap” while denying this option to the Americans and their allies.
Good Terrorists, aka “FSA”, Syria 2017
The Free Syrian Army’s main weakness is that it doesn’t physically exist! Sure, there are plenty of FSA Syrian exiles in Turkey and elsewhere; there are also many Daesh/al-Qaeda types who try hard to look like FSA; and there are scattered armed groups in Syria who would like to be “the FSA.” But the FSA was always a purely political abstraction. This virtual FSA provided many useful things to the Americans: a propaganda narrative, a pious pretext to send in the CIA, a fig leaf to conceal that Uncle Sam was militarily allied with al-Qaeda and Daesh, and a political ideal to try to unify the world against Assad’s government. But the FSA never provided “boots on the ground” like everybody else: Daesh and al-Qaeda, the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, the Turks and the Kurds. But since the Takfiris were “officially” the USA’s enemy, the US was limited in the support given to these Wahabi forces. The Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah were demonized, so it was impossible to work with them. That left the Turks, who had terrible relations with the USA after the US-backed coup against Erdogan, and the Kurds, who were not eager to fight and die deep inside Syria and who were regarded with great hostility by Ankara. As the war progressed the terrible reality hit the Americans: they had no “boots on the ground” with which to embed their Special Ops or to support.
A case in point is the American failure in the al-Tanf region near the Jordanian border. The Americans and Jordanians invaded this desert region hoping to sever the lines of communications between the Syrians and Iraqis. Instead, the Syrians cut the Americans off and reached the border first, rendering the American presence useless. It appears that the Americans have given up on al-Tanf, and will withdraw and redeploy elsewhere in Syria.
So Who Is Next – Venezuela?
History shows that the Americans have always had problem with their local “allies”. Some were pretty good (South Koreans), others less so (Contras), but US use of local forces always has a risk: the locals often have their own agenda and soon realize that if they depend on the Americans, the Americans also depend on them. Additionally, Americans are not well known for having good “multi-cultural sensitivity and expertise.” They are typically not very knowledgeable about their operating environment, meaning that US intelligence usually becomes aware of problems way too late to fix them (fancy technology can’t substitute for solid, expert human intelligence). The US failure in Syria is an excellent example of this.
Having identified some of the weaknesses of the US “war on the cheap” approach, let’s examine a vulnerability matrix for potential target countries:
Notes: “demoralized enemy” and “air superiority” are guesstimates; “boots on the ground” means an indigenous, combat force in-country (not foreign troops) capable of seizing and holding ground, and not just small insurgent groups or political opposition.
By these criteria, the only candidate for US intervention is Venezuela, where successful US intervention would require a realistic exit strategy. But the US is already overextended and cannot afford to bog down in an unwinnable war. While the Venezuelan opposition could provide “boots on the ground,” the Venezuelan pro-American forces lack the capabilities of the regular armed forces or the Leftist guerrilla groups who tolerated the Chavez-Maduro rule, but who retained their weapons “just in case.” As for terrain, while Caracas might appear relatively “easy” to seize, the rest of the country is more difficult and dangerous. As regards staying power, while Americans like quick victories, Latin American guerrillas have repeatedly proven that they can fight for decades. Therefore, while the USA is probably capable of invading and ravaging Venezuela, it is likely incapable of imposing a new regime and controlling the country.
Conclusion – Afghanistan 2001-2017
Afghanistan is often called the “graveyard of empires,” and Afghanistan may well become the graveyard of the “war on the cheap” doctrine, which is paradoxical since this doctrine was initially applied in Afghanistan with apparent success. Remember the US Special Forces on horseback, directing B-52 airstrikes against retreating Afghan forces? Sixteen years later, the Afghan war has dramatically changed and 90% of US casualties come from IEDs, all the efforts at a political settlement have failed, and victory and withdrawal appear completely impossible. The fact that the USA has now accused Russia of “arming the Taliban” is a powerful indicator of the USA-led power bloc’s desperation. Eventually, the Americans will leave, totally defeated, but for the time being all they will admit to is: “not winning.”
Here’s the dilemma: with the end of the Cold War and Post Cold War, complete US military reform is long overdue, but also politically impossible. The present US armed forces are the bizarre result of the Cold War, the “war on the cheap” years and failed military interventions. In theory, the US should adopt a new national security strategy and a military strategy that supports the national security strategy, and then develop a military doctrine which would produce a force modernization plan incorporating all aspects of military reform, from training to force planning to deployment. It took the Russians over a decade to do this. It will take the Americans at least as long. Right now, such far reaching reform seems years away. Garden variety jingoism (“We’re number one!!”) and deep denial rule the day. As in Russia, it will probably take a truly catastrophic embarrassment (like the first Russian war in Chechnya) to force the Pentagon to face reality. Until then, the ability of US forces to impose their domination on countries which refuse to surrender to threats and sanctions will continue to degrade.
So is Venezuela next? Hopefully not. But if so, it will be one very big mess with much destroyed and little achieved. The USA-led power bloc has long been punching above its weight. Prevailing against Iran or North Korea is clearly beyond current US military capabilities. Attacking Russia or China would be suicidal. Which leaves the Ukraine. The US might possibly send some weapons to the junta in Kiev and organize training camps in the western Ukraine. But that’s about it. None of that will make any real difference anyway, except further aggravate the Russians.
The Russians have succeeded in turning the course of the civil war in Syria with what was an extremely small, if highly skilled, task force. Now, for the 2nd time, President Putin has announced a major withdrawal of Russian forces. In contrast, the thoroughly defeated US has not only claimed the credit for defeating ISIS for itself, but has ostentatiously failed to make any announcement about a withdrawal of its own, completely illegal and mostly useless, forces from Syria. Will they ever learn from their own mistakes?
The era of “wars on the cheap” is over. The world is a different place than it was. The USA has to adapt to this reality, if it wants to retain some level of credibility; but right now it does not appear anybody in Washington, DC is willing to admit this. As a result, the era of major US military interventions might well be coming to an end, even if there will always be some small country to “triumphantly” beat up.