Friday, April 22, 2016



This month’s blog entry comes from my younger brother, John L. Tillman, whose travels have ranged from Athena, Oregon to Stanford University, to Oxford, Afghanistan, and Chile where he presently resides.  As a Rhodes Scholar he takes a broad view of history and here offers some thoughts on our current 15-year engagement in The Long War.  (It’s instructive to note that in recent years, very few American politicians have uttered the knee-jerk phrase, “Winning the war against terrorism.”)

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It has become clear that "moderate" Muslims are the heretics.  Islam spread from its earliest centuries by the sword, in conquests of Jews, Christians, and pagan infidels sanctioned by the Koran.  Christianity by contrast attracted adherents with its message during its first 300 years.  Later, after becoming a state religion, it too advanced in part by military means.

Support for militants world-wide is much higher than the Western media admit.  Pro-jihadi sentiment varies by country, confession and commitment, but globally probably is not a majority.  

Still, given the practical impossibility of adequately vetting allegedly Syrian immigrants, wisdom seems to dictate that any refugees the U.S. welcomes should be the most persecuted, ie Christians and Yazidis.  Among the Sunni Muslims, Kurds would presumably be less likely to engage in terrorism against Americans.  Suffering Sunni Arab women and children deserve our aid, but immigration is risky.  Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev came here with his parents as asylum seekers.

Better in my opinion to provide humanitarian aid to Muslim refugees in Turkey and Jordan than to allow into the US large numbers without proper vetting.  The Gulf States should also be encouraged to help alleviate the suffering to which they have contributed in Syria and Iraq.

Yet, while it's prudent to restrict immigration to America from Islamic states where strife is rife, we do need the backing of pro-Western regimes in Muslim-majority countries effectively to wage the war on jihadi terror.  Indeed, if we intend to win that struggle in some meaningful way, we can't do it without such support.  Replacing the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has helped. 

The American and allied troops I covered in Afghanistan in 2005 couldn't operate well without their interpreters.  One friendly terp compared Americans favorably with the Russians, but also said that some of our actions still alienated the tribal elders without whose cooperation the US Army couldn't beat the Taliban.  In my opinion however our whole strategy, in so far as we had one, in Afghanistan was flawed from the start.  Same at operational and tactical levels.

We should have recognized the hyper-decentralized nature of that buffer state from the outset.  Instead of trying to build a centralized national authority, we ought to have found local and regional war lords to back, as we ended up doing in many areas anyway.  The Taliban was already at war with tribal power structure anyway, not just against its northern enemies, but even in its Pashtun homeland. 

We went in with too small an initial force, then stayed too long in insufficient numbers.  In late 2001, I hoped, and naively expected, that all four light divisions of XVIII Airborne Corps, plus an armored brigade from its lone heavy division, the entire Ranger Regiment and a Marine division would have been deployed there as soon as possible after 9/11.  Then, I hoped further, most pulled out after killing Mullah Omar, bin Laden and their minions, so as to avoid the curses of mission creep and "nation-building", especially where there never has been a united state. 

At the time, the Army chief of staff correctly estimated that defeating the Taliban and occupying Afghanistan would require his whole service.  Rumsfeld, preaching the doctrine of "transformation", tried to do it on the cheap mainly with Special Forces, which were of course necessary, but insufficient.  Getting an army corps-worth of troops, equipment and supplies halfway around the world to state without rail connections to the outside would have taxed our logistical capabilities to the max, but it was feasible.  Only will was lacking, since the administration apparently was looking ahead to Iraq.

When the 173rd Airborne Brigade troops vaccinated goats in Zabul Province, the Taliban sneaked in from Pakistan, killed the goats and elders of the villages in which this animal health action had taken place.

Our "friends" were a problem, as noted with the local boy-raping National Police.  A provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Helmand, set up a girls' school.  Before I got there in 2005, the students, faculty and many locals protested violently for more money.

Rather than construct forward operating bases (FOBs) everywhere at great expense in order to support a long-term occupation, the thing to do was to keep just enough force in Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad, and maybe Kandahar to support such war lords and keep the Taliban from being able to reconquer the non-Pashtun north, if need be.

The construction of FOBs, using Chinook helicopters to haul rock around the country, was outrageously costly, with questionable benefit, but still the contractors wished they could have just a few million more to improve the water system.  Stretches of the new but vulnerable ring road around the country are usually unusable due to Taliban actions.  Thus we're still reliant on helicopters despite the great cost of building and maintaining the highway.  In my opinion one reason the proposed pipeline was never laid across the country (which the Left said was why we intervened) is that the Taliban would keep blowing it up.

This is a long way of saying that if we intend to win, we have to work with traditional local Muslims, opposed to the brand of militant international Islamism advocated by Qaeda, ISIS and to a lesser but growing extent the Taliban.  I remember flying over villages in the Helmand, seeing girls playing in their family courtyards in brightly colored clothes, with their heads uncovered.  Boys flew kites and listened to radios.  The locals didn't like Taliban rule (especially not the elders so often bumped off), and were glad to be liberated at first, but the national police force and Afghan National Army we set up often alienated them, as did some of our own actions, as I mentioned.

Traditional society in both Afghanistan and Iraq is tribal, with customs of which the Taliban and Salafists such as ISIS disapprove.  This is true both in Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq and Zabul Province, Afghanistan, for instance.  Islam isn't monolithic, obviously, or Sunni, Sh'ia and Alawite Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Druze and other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq wouldn't have been locked into a battle of each against all intermittently for going on 1400 years.

The Anbar Awakening and American troop surge in Iraq, relying on traditional Sunni tribal leaders, succeeded, but then we left precipitously without a Status of Forces agreement with the Iranian-puppet Shi'a regime in Baghdad.  The worst strategy is a lawyer-driven, muddling, middle way between washing our hands of the world from Morocco to Mindanao, just leaving the theater to its own devices, on the one hand and waging real, relentless war on the other.

It's unclear if the Turkish and Saudi-backed rebels in Iraq are substantially more "moderate" than ISIS.  The least bad solution there might be to divide up the state whose boundaries were drawn by the imperial powers Turkey, Britain and France, and which would already have blown apart without Soviet and Russian support of the minority (around 11%) Alawite regime.  While acknowledging that the aid of such moderates as may exist is essential to winning the Global War on Terror, the questions remain if we're still seriously fighting it and what would it mean to win it?