US Involvement in Foreign Civil War Should Be Curtailed
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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration, American Military University
The United States has about 800 military bases around the world – more than any nation in history. According to the PEW Research Center, around 200,000 U.S. armed forces are stationed overseas, mostly in Japan, Germany, South Korea, Italy and Afghanistan.
With such a worldwide military presence, it is imperative that President Trump and his national security advisors be judicious when they contemplate using American military force overseas. The RAND Corporation reported that maintaining U.S. forces overseas costs American taxpayers as much as $200 million every year (based on the estimate of $40,000 per service member and accounting for host national support and offsets). These costs increase significantly when the forces are employed in combat.
Powell Doctrine Offers Guidance for Decision Makers Prior to Using US Troops in Combat
In the run-up to the 1990-91 Gulf War, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, in what became known as the Powell Doctrine, put forth a number of key questions to consider before committing U.S. troops to combat. Powell’s questions included:
- Is a vital U.S. security interest threatened?
- Is the action supported by the American people?
- Does the action have genuine international support (particularly from U.S. allies)?
Throughout its history, the United States has been involved in numerous conflicts around the world. These battles have mostly been either civil wars or independence movements, also known as wars of liberation. The difference between the two is that civil wars aim to replace an existing government, while independence movements seek to create a new country from an existing one.
Syria: A Classic Example of a Civil War
Syria is a classic example of a civil war. Rebel forces seek to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. A current example of an independence movement is the Kurds’ attempt to create an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Of these two common types of conflict, wars of liberation are more easily justified and prosecuted than civil wars. Often, the party seeking independence is being oppressed by a dictator or a different ethnic group, so U.S. involvement can be justified.
On the other hand, civil wars are fought among people of the same nation. In this type of war, it is more difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. Outside interference is often discouraged.
Vietnam: The US Failed to Recognize a Civil War
The best case of the U.S. misunderstanding a civil war was the Vietnam War (1955-1975). During the Cold War, U.S. leaders explained our involvement in Vietnam to the American people by insisting that we were preventing the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China from overrunning Vietnam and turning it into a communist country.
The fear was that the fall of Vietnam would have a domino effect in the region. U.S. leaders thought that Cambodia, Laos and Thailand would also fall in quick order, turning all of Southeast Asia into a Communist-controlled region.
However, the U.S. did not appreciate that Vietnam was actually in the midst of a civil war. Both sides were plagued by corruption and leaders intent on maintaining control of the population.
If the goal was to prevent Vietnam from becoming a communist country, then the U.S. lost the war. Unfortunately, the U.S. could lose again if American military forces get involved in new civil wars.
US Existing Involvement in Four Civil Wars
Currently, the U.S. is involved in four major civil wars: Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and Yemen. In Afghanistan, the Taliban (a faction of the Mujahideen that opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s) want to overthrow the current parliamentary government of President Ashraf Ghani. The United States has supported the Afghan government against the Taliban since 2001. It is now the longest war in U.S. history.
With regard to Ukraine, Russia felt threatened by Ukraine’s moves to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 2014, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and annexed it into the Russian Federation.
Russia also supported the ethnic Russians living in far eastern Ukraine with an ongoing military ground invasion. The United States is providing military training and weapons to the Ukraine military.
Arab Spring Movement Causes Syria’s Disintegration
As for Syria, it started falling apart with the 2010 Arab Spring movement that began in Tunisia. The dissolution of the Syrian nation eventually led to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) within Syria and Iraq in 2014. Many anti-government rebel groups arose to resist President Bashar al-Assad and his government as well as ISIS.
With the recent defeat of ISIS, the U.S. now supports the rebel groups trying to overthrow the Assad regime. However, Russia supports Assad with its own military forces and provides Assad with weapons and financing.
In addition, Turkey is now militarily engaged in the northwest corner of Syria. Turkish forces are fighting Kurdish separatists that Ankara views as an existential threat.
Finally, there is the civil war in Yemen, which also had its genesis in the Arab Spring movement. This uprising in Yemen toppled the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh struggled to maintain his grip on the presidency, but he eventually relinquished control to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
However, Houthi rebels, along with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, were quick to exploit a power vacuum in 2011 and ousted Hadi and his government. With the Houthis in charge, Saudi Arabia wanted stability returned in bordering Yemen.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia supported a return of Hadi and his government to power. As a long-time ally, the U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia in Yemen with intelligence, weapons, and ammunition.
Civil Wars Are Constant Drain on US Economy
All of these civil wars are messy and have no end in sight. As such, they could easily disrupt the U.S. economy, which is already more than $20 trillion in debt.
President Trump and his national security advisers need to ask themselves the three questions posed in the Powell Doctrine regarding each of the four civil wars. For each question, the answer is no – except for American support for our involvement in both Afghanistan and Ukraine. Given the results so far, however, it would be prudent for the United States to minimize our involvement in all these civil wars.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen retired from the U.S. Air Force after 30 years working primarily in military intelligence.