Tag Archives: US Military

No SOFA: US Troops In Post 2014 Afghanistan

The discussions surrounding US troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all.




On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Mattis stated that he believed the proper number of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 would be 20,000, 13,600 being American. This number is significantly higher than what was discussed at a recent NATO summit, where preliminary estimates were 9,500 US troops and 6000 troops from other NATO nations. The White House has yet to come out with an official number.

These discussions, while important to have for the Administration, Congress, and military leaders to get on the same page, in many ways put the cart before the horse. Before any US troops can be committed to post 2014 Afghanistan, the question of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has to be resolved. While there are many things covered in a SOFA, the most important and most controversial points are those which grant immunity to US troops from criminal prosecution under Afghan law.

President Karzai has said that he will not make the decision but will make the case for a SOFA to the Afghan people and leave the choice to a Loya Jirga, a meeting of elders. However President Karzai is also the same leader who demanded security contractors leave the country and that US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan’s villages. It seems then that Karzai wants, or understands the necessity of, continued US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but does not want to be the one held responsible for its potential consequences. By leaving the decision to a Loya Jirga, President Karzai can say “this is what you wanted”, deflecting blame from potentially unsavory US action.

While it would be purely speculative to asses whether a SOFA will be approved by Afghan elders, it is worth highlighting that acknowledging that US troops are needed and agreeing that they should have legal immunity is not the same thing. Local leaders may see the utility in a continued US presence for preventing al Qaeda to regain a foothold, however selling legal immunity to their “constituents” is a horse of a different color. Indeed this is the same problem Prime Minister Maliki faced in the failure to build sufficient support for a SOFA in Iraq. Both alleged criminal actions from US service members, such as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, and civilian casualties from NATO operations, most recently the accidental killing of two young boys gathering firewood who were thought to be Taliban, are likely to be sticking points for the approval of a SOFA by Afghans.

A SOFA is far from settled and without this agreement there will be no US presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As President Obama said in January:

 “It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are (not) in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country,”

With this line being drawn and a SOFA still unresolved, the discussions surrounding troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are still valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all. Without legal immunity under a SOFA, the debate over 20,000 or 13,000 troops is a moot point.


Photo Credit:  isafmedia

The Trial Of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

The trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness among troops and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of the Staff Sergeant.



In the early morning hours of March 11, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left Camp Belambay base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, visited two villages and killed 16 Afghans, 9 of whom were children. SSG. Bales’s defense team is arguing that a mix of “alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids” in the defendant’s system should raise questions about what his state of mind was during the killings. These substances along with the “kinetic and high-pressure” environment appear to be the major points of their defense.

These statements were made as Army prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they will pursue the case as a capital crime, meaning that SSG. Bales potentially faces the death penalty if convicted. The last US military execution was a hanging carried out in April of 1961 and while there have been military capital convictions since then (15) almost all of them have either been overturned, commuted, are in the appeals process, or a stay of execution has been issued (in the case of Ronald Gray).

SSG. Bales’s case is also unique because of those on the military’s death row, he would be the only one charged with killing civilians in a combat zone.  The others awaiting execution have all either committed capital crimes against civilians in the United States or have killed (or attempted to kill) fellow members of the armed services.

While a capital conviction, in a court martial, can be secured by a unanimous vote of the jury, the signature of the President is required to approve the execution. Speaking about capital punishment generally in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama wrote

 “While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”

Does the murder of 16 people, including 9 children meet the threshold described above? Does the President’s perspective differ in the case of the military? In recent years capital punishment has been a non-starter in American politics. Some states have pushed bans forward through their legislatures, but the discussion on the Federal level has been non-existent. Where there is advocacy it tends to focus on the racial and socioeconomic inequalities presented in the execution of the death penalty (and the judicial system at large) and on its uselessness as a deterrent to crime rather than a moral critique of the state’s right to end life.

Back to the context in which this will play out, the military justice system, this case will likely bring forward some important questions about how mental illness is recognized and confronted in the armed services. If the defense is able to successfully make it about this then it seems unlikely that a conviction will come back from the jury comprised of fellow service members who may know a colleague suffering from (or experienced themselves) a service related mental illness. The fact that SSG. Bales committed the attacks while wearing a cape, and reports of his intoxication earlier in the night, have lead some to question his mental state.

The prosecution will have to prove that mental illness and mind altering substances were not to blame and that SSG. Bales was fully aware of what he was doing.  SSG. Bales made several statements shortly after the attack which suggest that this was the case, that he was lucid, coherent, and knew what he did was wrong or at the very least illegal.

There are also soft-power implications for how this case translates for Afghans or indeed the Muslim world at large. If SSG. Bales is found guilty and President Obama does not sign off on the execution it would indeed send a mixed message to the those living in countries where there has been civilian collateral damage as a result of US operations, “We won’t hold our own accountable”. If the President does sign off on the order it could have a serious impact on morale in the armed forces and could communicate that the administration does not take mental illness in the military seriously (even if it is determined that SSG. Bales was of sound mind the risk of that interpretation is still there).

I would not expect to see many comments from politicians, the President included, during the trial. There is a tendency, and rightfully so, to let the military’s judicial system sort out its own issues removed from political influence. However once a verdict is reached the ball is back in the President’s court and to some extent becomes a political issue. In many ways this case takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of SSG Bales.


Photo Credit: Eric Dietrich

What Mitt Romney Can Learn From Ike

Mitt Romney can still formulate a strong and assertive foreign policy, but should build on the prudent success of the Eisenhower administration rather than the hubris of the Bush Jr. administration.


mitt romney caricature


We do not know much about the specifics of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy. All we know is that it is going to be tough. Really tough. Tougher than Obama’s. Romney has criticised the president for being soft on Iran, not standing up for Israel, hesitating in Syria, leaving Russia unchecked, not prioritising Chavez in Venezuela, and failing to show global American leadership and strength. It is clear that for Romney, carrying a big stick is not enough if you speak softly.

Strong rhetoric is common for opposition candidates, whether Democrat or Republican, and while Romney has yet to substantiate his specific policies and goals, his hawkish statements have led to a setback abroad with criticism from various government, including his conservative colleagues in Britain. Even if his tour was mainly concerned with the election at home, Romney’s first steps on the international scene have not helped his campaign. He would do well to look to one of his party’s most popular and well-respected former presidents for guidance on how to formulate a strong foreign policy successfully.

Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency on the back of an impressive military career as a five-star general in the US army, and as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Having spent his entire career in the army, Ike had a keen understanding of the use of force, and drivers of foreign policy. While often mistakenly being criticised for being passive while in office, Ike demonstrated excellent foreign policy skills. He stood strong on his priorities and preserved US influence, while reducing defence spending significantly. In fact, he was the last president since Bill Clinton to leave the US budget in black figures. His presidency stands as an excellent example of how an assertive and strong foreign policy can succeed without grandiose speeches and belligerent rhetoric.

If Romney wins the presidency in November, he will have to look at cuts to reduce the US deficit. The bloated defence budget, which is already facing significant reductions, will probably have to be reduced further. With the mission in Afghanistan scheduled to end during the next presidency, there will be plenty of opportunities to save money on defence. Importantly, as Ike’s presidency demonstrated, reducing the defence budget does not necessarily result in a loss of influence. After winning armistice in Korea in 1953, Ike cut defence spending from 13 per cent to 9 per cent by the end of his office term. In his final address, he famously warned against the “military industrial complex”, by which he referred to the alliance between the military, the government, and its suppliers. He understood that vested interests close to the inner circles of government depended on exaggerating threats. Despite his military background, his very modest childhood in Kansas shaped his view of budgets and deficits. “One modern heavy bomber is this”, he said, “a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric plants, each serving a town of 60,000. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals”. During the last decade we saw clearly what Ike was warning against, with increased reliance on private contractors, uncontrollable defence budgets, and a soaring deficit. He did his best to counter this influence, and take every opportunity to reduce spending without jeopardising American security.

The end of the mission in Afghanistan will provide similar opportunities for a potential new Romney administration, which could use the opportunity to cut swollen budgets in other areas of defence. Even significant cuts in defence do not necessarily signal a loss of influence or leadership. Ike’s biggest strength was his personal confidence and understanding of the importance of restraint. In the uncertain and volatile environment of the early Cold War, defence reports often recommended aggressive and offensive foreign policies. Several advisors and bureaucracies repeatedly urged Ike to “do things the hard way” by launching a nuclear attack on China, to which he replied that “the hard way is to have the courage to be patient”. While Ike used the bomb to exert influence, he steadfastly refused to use it, because he understood the absurd consequences of such an action.

Similarly, when the famous Gaither Report painted a worrying picture of Soviets catching up, and exceeding US nuclear capabilities, he refused to be dragged into unnecessary escalation. The report suggested vast defence budget increases, including a real consideration of how to fight a limited nuclear war. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the report was presented just after the Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite, signalling a technological advantage. However, Ike rejected the conclusions of the report. It underestimated the ability of the US forces that he knew so well. Besides, he saw little point in using tactical nuclear weapons to fight a war, and even less of a point in preparing for a world afterwards. Despite facing sternly worded criticism from the military and his key advisors, time was to prove Ike right, and his restrained approach to defence spending and force deployment served the US well, as it left him with resources to stand fast on priorities like protecting Berlin, thereby bolstering American credibility.

Romney’s focus on resolve and credibility shares this priority, but his rhetoric is very different. Underlying his criticism of the Obama Administration is an assumption that should have been disproved by the last decade of conflict, namely that the US military power can shape and manage the world as it wishes. Concerning the situation in Syria, he told CNBC: “America should’ve come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go”, before noting that America must “have the kind of resolve behind our application of soft and hard power [because] the world looks for American leadership and American strength”. Ike was a firm believer in using overwhelming force in battle, but would have cringed at the tone of Romney’s address. His entire presidency was devoted to a measured approach, which relied on steering clear of grandiose promises and proclamations. He understood the dangers of hubris, and the strategic and political setback caused by overstretching even the strong US military. He was notoriously tough and uncompromising on the foreign policy goals that he saw as important, and believed firmly in aggressive containment, but refused to let offensive temptations get the better of him. He wanted to avoid war at all cost, believing that the Cold War would best be settled in times of peace rather than on the battlefield. Times has once again proven him right. America did not win the Cold War on the battlefield, but by outperforming communism in factories, shops and plants.

Romney would do well to remember these lessons. A strong and assertive foreign policy may be best served by having realistic ambitions, picking your fights, and avoiding grandiose declarations and promises. American tax-payers and families have been paying the price for extravagant foreign policy adventures the last decade, without giving any administration much to show for it. Romney can still formulate a strong and assertive foreign policy, but should build on the prudent success of the Eisenhower administration rather than the hubris of the Bush Jr. administration, which his belligerent rhetoric is bound to prompt memories of.


Photo credit: DonkeyHotey