Another Military Comedy of Errors

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

On July 24th, highlighting the first Turkish air strikes against the Islamic State and news of an agreement to let the U.S. Air Force use two Turkish air bases against that movement, the New York Times reported that unnamed "American officials welcomed the [Turkish] decision... calling it a 'game changer.'" And they weren't wrong. Almost immediately, the game changed. Turkish President Recep Erdogan promptly sent planes hurtling off not against Islamic State militants but the PKK, that country's Kurdish rebels with whom his government had previously had a tenuous ceasefire. In the process, he created a whole new set of problems for Washington, including making life more difficult for Kurdish rebel troops in Syria connected to the PKK that the Obama administration was backing in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan's acts also ensured that chaos and conflict would spread to new areas of the Middle East. So game-changer indeed!

The question is: Why does Washington do it time after time? Why has just about every militarized move made in the region been quite so hapless and clueless since the initial invasion of Iraq? If such actions didn't involve lives (and deaths) and one of the grimmer Islamic extremist movements on the planet, much of this would qualify as theater of the absurd or a comedy of errors. Take the so-called New Syrian Forces. That's the moniker the Obama administration gave the thousands of "moderate" Syrian fighters it wanted to train and equip to take on the Islamic State (but not the Assad regime) at a cost of $500 million. In other words, Washington was determined to have its own fighting force of non-extreme Syrians with their distinctly Syrian boots on the ground in that chaotic war zone, even if they were American-supplied. What could possibly go wrong?

So the vetting and training commenced. Many months later, in the fashion of an elephant delivering a mouse, having thoroughly investigated thousands of applicants for their moderateness, the Pentagon finally produced "Division 30," a fully vetted, fully trained first unit of, depending on what account you read, 54 or possibly 60 Syrian fighters. The cost of those few men has been estimated, per fighter, in the millions of dollars (and another 100 are now in the process of being trained). The U.S. military then deposited that tiny unit in Syria where its two leaders were promptly kidnapped by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which then attacked the group killing at least one of its members, capturing others, wounding a number, and sending the rest into flight. (Some of them, it seems, have never shown up again.) And here's the truly bizarre part: according to the New York Times, that attack by an al-Qaeda-linked group the U.S. has denounced and bombed in the past took American officials -- who seem to have expected the Front to embrace its force -- "by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure." The real question, of course, is why anyone in the Pentagon or elsewhere in official Washington should have expected any other response from a hostile force which had already taken on CIA-trained Syrians.

The U.S. remains the greatest military power on the planet, but what does that even mean, given the last nearly 14 years of woeful performance, mishaps, defeats, disappointments, and endless war? Honestly, does the U.S. high command really have a thing to teach the rest of us, based on this sorry record? It's a question raised by former Air Force Academy instructor William Astore in "70 Years of Military Mediocrity." He considers just what America's future commanders are being taught in the country's three elite military academies and wonders what a crew that has taken no responsibility for years of disaster in conflict after conflict has to offer anyone and why they are generally held in such high regard in this country.