CPT Jake Miraldi: This is the podcast of Modern War Institute at West Point, an integrative look at war, policy and leadership. I’m Captain Jake Miraldi of the Modern War Institute. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on the War Council blog at modernwarinstitute.org. This week in the podcast we’re talking Eric Schmitt, New York Times reporter and author of Counterstrike. If you enjoy the Modern War Institute podcast please rate us on iTunes and comment at the War Council blog at modernwarinstitute.org.
Eric Schmitt, welcome to the podcast. We’re talking about articles that you’ve written recently about Libya and Boko Haram. In both of those cases the U.S. response is sort of in the process of evolving and both Libya and Boko Haram as case studies seem to be evolving in similar ways where we’re moving into a more aggressive stance as far as deploying special operations troops and supporting local forces with air support whether it’s manned or unmanned, armed or unarmed. Can you comment based on talking to the people you have in writing these articles about how that evolution is going and why it’s happening that way?
Eric Schmitt: Sure. Sure and I think it really dates back to the President’s West Point speech where he talks about this shift away from large land wars, places like Iraq and Afghanistan where you have well over 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground and how can we help protect American interest, guarantee our interest without having to commit large ground forces (a) that are now politically unpopular here at home, (b) quite costly, and (c) in some cases are actually counter-productive in that they just kinda feed into the jihadist or terrorist narrative that these are occupying or invading forces and just provide grist for their recruitment platforms. And so I think you have two examples here starting with Libya going back to the campaign the U.S. helped support back in 2011 that ended up ousting Muammar Gaddafi. This was an example where the U.S. did not want to have a frontline role in terms of the lease the fighter aircraft that you had in this case France and Britain, two frontline European states that were ready and eager to kinda take that role on. Obviously, it was kinda more in their geographic area and that – but they still needed the support of the United States in very significant ways, whether it be in terms of intelligence support, refueling support, just transport in general, moving troops around, things like that and then when it came to providing munitions even in that case. And Libya you know the whole idea was the U.S. would support this and of course the famous, anonymous quote, “leading from behind,” it gets the situation where the President and his top advisors in Washington believe that they would support this effort and support the _____ [Break in audio] forces on the ground that ultimately ousted Gaddafi, but then really the follow on would be up to the Europeans and there’s been quite a bit written about that since then.
Now that Isis has gained a significant foothold and Libya now poses once again a new threat to kinda have an American interest in the region, U.S. is having to examine how can they try and go after that threat to seek that threat but without having to put again large forces on the ground. And so what they’ve been doing is on the one side being along with your – you’re penalized very aggressive in trying to support the political process of forming a unity government that basically brings together the various factions, the two principle political factions, and then many of the warring militias on the ground that are fighting each other kinda unify them politically and kinda unify these and rally the militias so that they’re instead of fighting each other will fight against these foreigners who come in particularly around Sirte and some other places and go after them. And so the tricky thing in Libya for the United States is not wanting to kinda repeat the mistake that they made arguably with Isis as it developed in Syria and then swept into first into Western Iraq and then down to Mosul.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: You know just kinda basically leaving it up to the Iraqis to kinda deal with this with unfairly peripheral assistance and they really just kinda took their eye off the ball there. Now there’s plenty of warning that the Isis affiliated in Libya is expanding by some Pentagon estimates between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters with not a lot of resistance frankly on the ground, since there really isn’t an effective government in which to dock and that’s part of the problem here is that the U.S. and its European allies do not want to get too deeply into this militarily without some type of government or at least local forces that they can support. You know and there – in an ideal world you’d have a unity government stand up, they would request Western assistance, including from the U.S., and then you would probably have small numbers of Special Forces from U.S., Britain, France, Italy that would help train and advise several of these militia groups and carry out attacks against Isis following I reported this week would be kind of an opening barrage of air strikes against a number of Isis targets in Libya.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: So you would have coalition air support, militia ground forces working together and all kind of knitted in this operation with U.S. and other European advisors who’d been in and out of the country over the past year trying to identify groups they could work with, do a little bit of vetting, maybe anticipate what kind of equipment [Break in audio] they might need to have. But on the flip side of this is you know as this threat grows and if they don’t get a government in place that they can go in behind, you know there is the option of having to go in unilaterally or at least a Western response because the threats _____ [Break in audio] West is too gray to _____ [Break in audio] That’s not certainly not the desired course of action because then you run the risk of having the Libyan people on the ground. The militias view the coalition as the enemy. They’re the ones who are bombing us and certainly that would be a narrative that you can imagine Isis would try to promote.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: Here we go once again you know yet another Western _____ [Break in audio] campaign and you would feed into what’s kind of a unique Libyan narrative that Gaddafi reinforced over 40 years in power is that a very strong sense of nationalism that you know you’re Libyan people. You may be small in numbers but your great history and protect everything you can against these foreigners who want to ultimately have you know may have ulterior motives, wanting to come and help us might want to take away our oil, other assets. So there’s a real strong desire to kind of avoid handing that kinda narrative to Isis and other extremist groups in Libya but at the same time not letting this threat grow to a point where it’s gonna be really tough to talk to the grade if and when you have to do that. So that’s kind of the Libyan model.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Well – I mean I’m curious because it seems to me that the Libya model, the model you just described is being applied in very similar ways to very different context depending on where you’re talking about, whether it’s Libya or Nigeria or Syria or even in some cases Pakistan. Those are obviously very different contexts.
Eric Schmitt: Sure.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Nigeria has a fairly functioning government. Pakistan has a functioning government. Libya and Syria less so, but it seems from reporting I’ve seen recently that a lot of the same operational template is being used to combat each of those threats. Is that kinda what you’re seeing, as well?
Eric Schmitt: Yeah, I think that’s right. You’ve just you kinda laid out a nice spectrum on which you can apply that template. You’ve got countries like Pakistan, as you’ve said, or Nigeria that are more or less functioning governments, in some case quite prosperous ones in oil-rich Nigeria, for instance, but they still may need help in certain parts of their country in dealing with terrorist networks or insurgencies of some sort. And then you run down the spectrum to the other end of it where we are today in places like Syria or Somalia or Libya where you have little or no function government and what do you do there, ‘cause it really is you know this model hinges on having some type of partner you can work with on the ground and you can take this all the way back to 2001 when U.S. – you know in Afghanistan in Northern Afghanistan as we went in there. So each situation is gonna be a little bit different and you know what you have to work with on the ground, the more fully functioning government you have to work with and their capabilities you know the better it typically is.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: You can work with those forces. Each one of ‘em brings its own issues and problems. I mean Nigeria, for instance, it’s only with this change of government last fall with President Buhari coming in who was frankly much more receptive to American military assistance. Previous administration under Goodluck Jonathan kind of mouthed the words but really was not very interested in that kind of aid. Whether you call it pride or arrogance or whatever it was it really wasn’t until the kinda final throws at this presidential campaign when he realized he’s probably gonna lose in large part because of what’s going on with Boca Haram in the Northeastern part of his country that he starts to make noises about accepting – be more receptive to U.S. assistance. But even there even in a Nigerian case you have the largest army in that part of West Africa but it’s really hasn’t been over the last few years has not been well resourced. Morale is quite poor, particularly for the troops up in that part of Nigeria cycling through. There have been essentially mutinies in many cases because they felt they weren’t getting resourced well enough. They’d be attacked. They didn’t have enough ammunition, food, water, those kind of things, and so there have been some changes that have been fully supported by the U.S. by this new administration Nigeria to put more resources, you know basically a whole set of changes in the command structure up there, moving the command for the operation right up into Maiduguri, which is the main city up there in the Northeast. So both politically, you know diplomatically rather, from the United States and from Britain you know a lot of support for this – for the new Buhari administration I’m trying to deal with some of the root causes that created Boca Haram up there. It’s obviously not a new movement. It’s been around for over a dozen years, 15 years. So even if you are more effective in dealing with problem militarily you still need to think about how are you gonna address some of the problem, the economic problems, education, you know other opportunities that you have on the ground that haven’t really been addressed. And so now you have the U.S. trying to kind of put together as they try and do in these – in all these instances in all these countries. It’s not just kind of a military solution but thinking more holistically of what kind of aid program we have, what kind of diplomatic initiatives can we help this government with, ‘cause otherwise it’s just gonna be very short-term. You can go in and bomb an enemy or help them conduct raids but if that doesn’t deal with the underlying problems, these threats are just gonna return and they’ll morph or they’ll turn and they’ll align with some other outside force like we’re in seeing in Boca Haram aligning itself with Isis more closely. And so these are all kind of things that the U.S. and its allies who are working in that part of Africa, for instance, have to deal with.
CPT Jake Miraldi: From what you’re seeing using this template, have we sort of learned our lesson about the importance of a coherent, civil military strategy where both are important to influencing the outcome in these countries?
Eric Schmitt: Yes and no, I think, and certainly intellectually I think that’s the case. There’d been plenty of books written about it. You’ve got governmental officials now who have grown up for the last 15 years kinda. This is you know whether it’s been in foreign policy or national security circles in this part and you kinda notice inherently and yet it’s still – you still have problems, for instance, in the finance end of these two different things. It’s much easier, for instance, to get Congress to approve forces for Special Operations Forces, for more munitions basically for the military in general than it is for USAID or other diplomatic initiatives. Things that take much longer, sometimes they’re much harder to see, sometimes harder to measure and so even though they cost a lot less it’s very frustrating, I think, even for people increasingly on the DoD side. You know former Secretary of State, Bob Gates, was famous for saying you know he wanted to share as much of his wealth as he could with the State Department because he recognized that if you could help promote some of their programs it would perhaps head off the need to use military force in some of these kind of countries. I think it’s getting better and I think over time you just you can’t help is more and more officials have had experience in this and they kind of learned but still you kinda get frustrated, ‘cause you look at some of this and it appears it’s like with it’s kinda like we’re having to relearn these lessons through ever – each contingency and just kinda –
CPT Jake Miraldi: Well that – that was gonna be my next question was you talked – you mentioned that in theory we seem to understand conceptually that this is important. I was just curious what if in practice we’re seeing that actually used as part of this operational template or if it’s something that’s still being neglected in the practical sphere.
Eric Schmitt: Well and the problem is sometimes it looks like you’ve gotten off to a good start in a touch place and then something falls apart. If you look at Libya, for instance, even you know post-Gaddafi the initial signs were pretty good, you know. It’s the – they had elections, you know they were – we were starting to have an aid program again there, you had an embassy running, and then you know the security situation starts to go south where it didn’t manage the militias right and pretty soon the security problem starts overwhelming the aid and development programs and you’re just you’re not gonna get aid workers going out in places where it’s dangerous. And then when the security finally just collapses and kinda Benghazi becomes the symbol of the U.S. and the Western –
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: [Crosstalk] Province in Libya you know the whole thing kind of devolves and same thing and embassies pull out and you basically have this civil conflict. Same thing in Yemen – you had a, the Arab Spring result of removing a dictator there of Saleh you know with a guy, Hadi, who seemed to be much more in tune with working with the West in a pragmatic way. You had both it seemed to be a balanced approach of military training going on, helping the Yemeni security forces train at the same time. You had not just U.S. but other western assistance organizations coming in and helping this incredibly impoverished country and yet and then but it’s so fragile. All the institutions are so fragile. It doesn’t take much so that when you have the, you know the things kick off with Houthi and you have – and they kinda run south, the government collapses, and pretty soon Yemen is where we are today and we’ve got a big story that’s gonna run probably early next week about what’s happened in the last year in Yemen.
So part of the problem is many of these countries they just don’t have the kind of enduring and durable institutions that are able to survive these jolts that come as we’ve seen the security downturn or something else. It doesn’t work. They don’t have democratic and I say that you know small-deed democratic traditions. Even representative traditions or representative government what we’re learning you may have read in my colleague’s two-part series on Libya that they did just last week you know where Gaddafi essentially robbed two generations of Libyans of any kind of alternative form of governance. I mean they’re just – so he’s gone and then what? It’s like nobody had any experience. What do – you know how are we gonna run this country other than just kinda reverting back to these kinda tribal militia-type arrangements and people banning together just to survive in these countries? But it’s a very sobering, I think, time for policymakers to just go through this, thinking you know it’s we’ve tried to impose an American solution in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That hasn’t helped. That’s when you pull out. You try a light footprint as we did in Yemen and Libya and that didn’t really work out.
So I think where we are now in this kind of arc, if you will, is trying to find some kind of hybrid, at least this is the Obama Doctrine, if you will. We’ll see what the next president brings in of really trying to identify what is the no kidding American interest, national interest? You know what are we willing to take a fair amount of blood and treasure for and then what’s the next ring out? What will we do to help support indigenous security forces? How can we help support regional partners as we’re seeing more or allies who have more at stake in the regions we see with the French in West Africa or in the case of Yemen backing this kind of ill-fated war that the Saudis launched without really thinking it through? These are all kind of the birthing [Break in audio] pains of this new type of policy as we’re kind of going forward and having to kind of like learn along the way and how this thing – how these kind of arrangements will work in the future.
CPT Jake Miraldi: That’s a nice segue back into the broader-focused question I had next. It seems like what you just talked about and called the Obama Doctrine, the combination of a more robust civil engagement, proxy support as well as aerial support, that model is being applied like we talked about earlier in a lot of different context. So does that mean it’s considered effective or are we still trying to determine how effective this method is?
Eric Schmitt: You know I think rather than experimental I would say evolutionary. I mean I think you’ve gone from kinda one kinda premise that you have to go in big and that was the idea of going in big to destroy Al-Qaeda or to destroy what you thought were a threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to something much more limited that’s both dictated by you know from the financial pressures or just not having the money to pay for these things anymore as well as the political exhaustion of just not – you know Donald Trump notwithstanding of putting – willing to put 20,000 or 30,000 more troops on the ground –
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: and why these conflicts it’s just you know the political support just isn’t there for these kinda things. And so I think people are looking and trying to kinda take measure of okay we certainly don’t want to go back to that high-end model, but on the low end it looks like maybe we should – you know maybe we need to do a little bit more of that. But you know there is – I think there is probably a little more of way of trying to anticipate some of these issues through intelligence. I mean you know you just can’t – I mean the Obama Administration on Iraq, for instance, just they – you know in 2011 we didn’t get the SOF Agreement so they just basically said okay, we’re out of there. We’re gonna pull out. We’ll have an embassy there but we’re just not gonna have any kind residual military force despite the strong recommendations in part of senior military leaders that that would be a good idea just to kinda if nothing else to have more eyes and ears on the ground. So maybe there’s this sense of okay, you have to have in some of these enduring conflicts you’re gonna have to have a more robust, enduring force – small but still enduring. I think we’re seeing that evolution right now in Afghanistan. The president initially was just gonna go down to just an embassy force of about 1,000 people. Now we’re looking at a situation where we’re at just under 10,000 with a glide pass to maybe 5,500 but I bet you a lot of money that that number is not gonna happen and I think in the end they’re gonna recognize they don’t want to repeat the mistakes they made in Iraq and they’ll probably stay, if not at right around where they are now, maybe just a few, maybe a few thousand less than that. But you know the idea that you still need – and this is with a government that wants you there. The Ghani government is very supportive, unlike the Maliki government in Iraq which wanted us out anyways so that kinda made it easier politically. So I think you’re gonna look at that, and then the whole Isis equation right now I think is what’s dictating our levels of assistance in a lot of other – in these other places. This is Isis has replaced Al-Qaeda as the most serious terrorist threat you know outside – external threat to the United States, and so it’s kinda how do we combat that? It has to be done in a coalition form. It has to be done much more smartly than it has been to now and not just militarily but thinking through the social media aspects and how they – they’re so much more sophisticated than Al-Qaeda ever was, using social media to propagate their vision to recruit to do all sorts of other things. And so I think those are the kind of things, and then you just have to kinda recognize you know despite all the best planning you have, a lot of it –
CPT Jake Miraldi: Right.
Eric Schmitt: is just you know kind of out of our hands frankly. You know looking at Arab Spring where we can’t be so arrogant just to think you know the U.S. can come in and kind of sort out what are ultimately the destinies of these Arab countries. You know it’s ultimately up to them how they sort it out but we can be smarter in thinking how we support that. And so that’s – and that’s hard, I think. It’s just ‘cause it’s just a different vision, I think, of kinda foreign policy. It’s a different vision kinda national security and how you kind of both pursue American national interest but understanding what’s gonna play effectively on the ground in these countries, in these regions, and you would you know even if as we developed a much broader array of expertise in our state department and military and others, you know it’s still we’re still outsiders in these regions and it’s kind of hard to expect that we’re gonna be able to come in and define their futures for them. So that’s the other kind of stark lesson of the Arab Spring is that you just don’t have a whole lot of control over this stuff. You’re having to force to manage these things that are happening very quick. Things are – events are very fluid and we just don’t have much experience in how we deal with this. So it is gonna be – I think moving forward it’s gonna be ragged in how you approach this and it’ll be you know they’ll fits and starts in how things look and so.
CPT Jake Miraldi: So I know it’s difficult to speculate but given the evolutionary nature of this sort of framework that we’re talking about, what is sort of the next logical step in that evolution?
Eric Schmitt: Well I think on the one hand, I think it’s probably much less likely that you and your classmates are gonna be deployed to these kind of contingencies just ‘cause the numbers are so much smaller than they were. I mean you know ten years ago you just were guaranteed you were gonna spend one or two tours in Afghanistan or Iraq just by the sheer demand. Now I think you’re obviously at least this administration has put such a premium on Special Operations Forces that that community has really been worn thin, and so we’ll kinda see what happens if, for instance, if the military leadership decides in order to give those guys a break they expand out some of those responsibilities and duties more to the conventional courses and we’ll kinda see how that works. I mean I think it underscores more than ever there’s still the need to have very flexible, fluid and nimble thinkers when it comes to the next generation of military officers and diplomats and you can’t really be rooted in any one kind of orthodoxy. You’ve got to be ready to pivot and respond to changes and so much of what we’re seeing now particularly on the terrorism part is being dictated by these impulses on social media. It’s just it’s really tough to kind of anticipate kinda what the next step is, and so you have to kinda be I think really supple in your thinking and be prepared to kind of go in many different directions. But coming back to some fairly core principles and we talked about this in a book that my colleague, Thom Shanker, and I wrote you know four or five years ago now, Counterstrike, at least in attacking terrorism I think is – dealing with many of the problems it has to be a holistic approach using all functions of not just U.S. national power but International Coalitions. And I think in this campaign against Isis the International Coalition is a little bit slow to kinda get the band back together again. I mean they were humming along pretty well in driving Al Qaeda into the ground and in Pakistan I think people got a little bit complacent a couple years ago late 20 – early – late 2013, early 2014 that maybe we could put that problem to rest and things were looking pretty good at least on the Al Qaeda front. Yes, there were still challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan but maybe there were optimistic signs and out of those kind of ashes bursts Isis which is a much more formidable threat that’s got the ability to encourage actors outside of its core areas to take actions on their own and/or to inspire affiliates to kinda rebrand themselves under the Isis name. So there is you know whether it’s the military community or intelligence community I think we have to just be much more prepared to deal with these kind of ever-shifting type of threats.
And then the, you know as we see with Russia kinda resurgence of the classic kinda nation state threat and how do you kind of on the one hand allocate resources and intellectual capital toward addressing that and obviously still an existential threat that Russia poses with its nuclear arsenal but still having to deal with the terrorist type of threat that we’ve been dealing with now for 15 years and thought we’d been pretty good at it and getting after. So that’s kinda the other challenge is kinda toggling between those two very kinda different problem sets.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Okay. I think that’s a good place to stop. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and look forward to reading the Yemen article coming up.
Eric Schmitt: Okay great. Good luck with your podcast.
Recording: If you’d like to find additional research, op ads and other original ideas from the Modern War Institute, please visit the War Council blog at modernwarinstitute.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find new episodes of the Modern War Institute podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the respected participants and do not reflect the official position of the United States government. For the Modern War Institute I’m Captain Jake Miraldi and I hope you’ll join us next time for more in-depth conversations on war, policy and leadership.