During my time as a cadet at U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1996 to 2000, conventional ground wars seemed to be a thing of the past. The two large scale conflicts I can think of during that time frame was the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War, the scene of the most epic tank battles since the Iran-Iraq War or maybe even the Battle of Kursk in World War II, and the Second Congo War. In addition, there was the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the occasional American airstrikes within Iraq’s no fly zone areas. These were mainly air campaigns. Back then, it was hard to even fathom the thought of American ground troops in action. In 1999, we agonized over whether to deploy Apache helicopters to aid in our bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, dithering to the point of paralysis. When we finally decided to go with the plan, one of our Apaches crashed at night and the plans were scrapped.
Of course, September 11th changed all that, eliminating overnight our collective reluctance to sustain casualties that had pervaded American political-military psyche since our humiliating withdrawal from Mogadishu in 1993. The following picture beamed across newswires in November 2001 signified a new era in American military interventions.
By the way, if I’m correct, this Air Force Special Forces operator was one of the first Americans ground troops in a combat zone since our 1994 intervention in Haiti. Later on, Special Forces operatives such as this Sergeant were joined in Afghanistan by conventional Army and Marine units, who were soon engaged in pitted battles with Al Qaeda and Taliban units. Our invasion of Iraq brought more conventional war involving light infantry, artillery, tanks, and helicopter gunships. The floodgates of American might were opened, and it was soon learned that our forces—largely designed for conventional battles with the Soviet Army, were not ideally set up to defeat an insurgent rebel force with little incentive to fight in the open.
As we draw down our troop levels in Afghanistan, let’s take a look at the state of other conventional armed conflicts around the world:
Syria: The Syrian Civil War has been flaring since mid-2011, and has resulted in the deaths of about 60,000 people. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, appears desperate to cling onto power even though all signs point to his inevitable violent end. Assad and his inner circle are part of the Alawite sect, an ethnic minority who practice Shia Islam and comprises about 10 percent of Syria’s population (the majority being Sunni Muslim). Assad has the full might of a conventional modern army and air force at his disposal, including jet fighters, heavy artillery, tanks, and surface to surface missiles. The rebels, largely under the direction of the Free Syrian Army, lack comparable firepower and generally only have lighter weapons and insufficient amounts of ammunition. For this reason, it is difficult for the FSA to overrun heavily armed Syrian forces or to hold any ground that they manage to take. NATO and the Arab League have yet to establish a no-fly zone over the country, and Syrian bombers can therefore fly freely over rebel-held land. With Russia and Iran aiding the Assad government, and just about every other country in the world supporting the rebels, the conflict is now not only a full scale war but also a proxy war for certain countries to assert their power and influence in the region. My prediction is that Assad’s inner circle of military men will slowly desert him, leaving him vulnerable to attack. He’ll die violently during 2013, similar to the way Qadaffi went out last year. I don’t understand why he doesn’t just head to the south of France and just chill on the beach for the rest of his days.
Mali: This dusty West African country in the Sahel is the site of a conflict between the government of Mali, centered in Bamako in the south, and Islamist fighters, who control much of the northern part of the country. According to news reports, the Islamists had instituted Sharia law in northern Mali, carrying out amputations for minor infractions. The conflict between two groups rose to prominence last week with the surprising intervention of French air and ground forces to stop the Islamists from advancing further south towards Bamako, at the request of the Malian government. It remains to be seen whether France will continue its participation in this conflict until the Islamists are defeated or if they will just conduct some more airstrikes and ground combat operations and seek an early exit. My prediction is that the French and Malian government forces will beat back the insurgents to the north, where the Islamists will disperse and regroup for terrorist attacks in the years to come, causing instability in the country and in the region