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Afghanistan

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Patriotism and the Press in Times of War

Speaking of Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article, Bing West discusses some of the ethical and legal issues it raises over at Small Wars Journal. West manages to present some very thorny and potentially explosive issues passionately but not stridently (quite a feat these days), keeping the piece both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Mostly light, with just enough heat (and in the right places) to make it resonate.

West addresses two aspects of Rosen's "embed" that had occurred to me when I read the piece. Namely, the fact that he was basically agreeing to at the very least the possibility of accompanying hostile forces on operations against American troops. And he also accepted the terms of the embed, which depended on his guides being subject to a family-wide death threat to secure his safety. The latter is, to my mind, a clearcut ethical lapse. The former lies in what even West concedes is a ethical-legal gray area.

I held off making those criticisms in my remarks at the time, because I wasn't quite sure about what was driving the negative reaction I had to the piece. As an armchair analyst, I felt reluctant to engage in kneejerk criticism of what, despite the ethical gray areas, remains an incredibly courageous field assignment. There's also the question of what role the press plays, and whether it is, in fact, above and beyond the ethical and legal issues that proscribe other citizens in times of war.

I don't have any definitive answers. If you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to weigh in via email.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Media Coverage   

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Friday, October 10, 2008

COIN as Transfer of Wealth

I've mentioned the impact the financial crisis is likely to have on European resolve with regards to the Afghanistan mission. Here's Charlie from Abu Muqawama on the potential impact Stateside:

But if you think the American public is fickle and short-sighted in the best of times, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's going to be increasingly hard to justifying long-term occupations overseas...not to mention Army and Marine plus-ups (that budget money is going to go to big ticket hardware items like ships and planes, the kinds of things that create jobs in congressional districts).

That touches on something that's been buzzing around in my head for the past week or so. There's a current of thought that argues that industrial production for World War II, more than any of Roosevelt's fiscal policies, pulled America out of the Great Depression. So I'd been considering whether, counterintuitively, the financial crisis might actually lend support to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars under the logic of economic stimulus. For the moment, I'd wondered whether the structural changes in the American economy from industrial production to information processing undermined that argument.

But Charlie's point, namely that the kind of spending the financial crisis is likely to provoke is diametrically opposed to the needs of COIN operations, leads to another aspect of the current focus on stability and reconstruction operations in America's defense posture that deserves mention. COIN and stability ops are boot heavy and, outside of drones and communications networks, tech-lite. Unlike the largescale industrial mobilizations required for past wars, they require, more than anything else, manpower and money. Quite a bit of the actual productive work (the building of infrastructure, for instance) takes place in the actual theater of operations, not on the homefront. Add to that the fact that COIN removes a disproportionate amount of young men and women from the productive workforce (some of them permanently), and returns a disproportionate amount of them disabled (due to improvements in force protection), and it becomes clear that COIN amounts to an enormous outflow of American wealth, with little in the way of productive stimulus to counterbalance it.

Joseph Steiglitz has already talked about the $3 trillion war. But I'd like to see some economists weigh in on this.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

French Desertion Rumors Unfounded

To follow up on an earlier post on rumors of desertion among French troops deploying to Afghanistan, Jean-Dominique Merchet at Secret Dťfense has done some digging and decided that the evidence doesn't back them up. Going through the numbers for the 8th RPIMa, he found only two cases of confirmed AWOL:

The 8th is an elite regiment with highly motivated personnel, so it's likely those numbers are higher in other units. But for now, it would not be honest to talk of a troubling phenomenon. (Translated from the French.)

There are still a lot of troubling phenomena about the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, mind you. But French desertion is not one of them.

There's always a danger in discussing rumors. Implicit in my post was that sometimes the simple fact that a rumor has been floated tells us something about the underlying reality, especially taking the broader context into account. In this case, that broader context is that not only is there little popular support for the Afghanistan War here in Europe, there is little enthusiasm for the Afghanistan mission among the major NATO coalition militaries. And at some point, a mission that the people don't consider to be necessary and the military doesn't consider to be promising is a mission that won't last very long.

The fact that there's no reference to this in the emerging Stateside discussion of how to overhaul America's Afghanistan strategy strikes me as an enormous pink elephant wandering around the room unmentioned. Now it could be that the strategic overhaul, once articulated and supported by an obvious American commitment to the mission, could generate European enthusiasm. And presumably the folks currently formulating that overhaul are taking this into account. But the political debate isn't.

American strategy in Afghanistan is currently dependent on the NATO coalition, and it will be until we can redeploy enough troops from Iraq to pick up the slack. If we're essentially asking our European allies to conduct a holding operation until we can do so, I'm not sure that will fly. And even if it does, the political costs in terms of future missions could end up being severe.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Putting Afghanistan Back in Afghanistan Strategy

With the security situation in Iraq improved to the point where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates referred to entering the "endgame" in Congressional testimony yesterday, the question of what to do in Afghanistan is getting more and more attention every day. In the same testimony Gates, when pressed, conceded the possibility of adding three more brigades to our troop presence there next spring. That's in addition to the additional brigade announced by President Bush for February, and would roughly meet the repeated requests of theater commanders. Meanwhile, the White House has announced an interdepartemental strategic review of Afghanistan policy to be carried out before the administration leaves office, and Gen. David Petraeus has also commissioned a strategic review from his CentCom braintrust.

Now if you've been following this debate recently, you'll know that the emerging conventional wisdom is that the insurgent threat in Afghanistan has essentially been displaced to safe haven bases of operations across the Pakistani border. The Pakistani government is reluctant to go after the militants for a variety of reasons, creating the operational need for American cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory. The danger that these attacks could further destabilize the Pakistani civilian government, and by some accounts the Pakistani state itself, has in turn led to calls for a broader regional approach that addresses the principal motor driving Pakistan's security posture, namely its historic rivalry with India.

So far, so good. But now that everyone's thinking big picture, it helps to dial back in to the little picture, specifically just what we're trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. That was the subject of a press briefing by Nathaniel Fick and Vikram Singh (.pdf) at the Center for a New American Security last week. (Scroll down this page to download the audio file.) And according to both, who just toured the country talking to civil, military and non-governmental types, the answer is still very confused.

Is the mission a nation-building/counterinsurgency operation? If so, we're propping up a government that is† widely perceived as corrupt from top to bottom not only by the general population, but also by its vice president in an on the record quote. We're also trying to instill 21st century governance in what one questioner referred to as a 17th century society.

Is the mission a counterterrorism mission? If, so the additional troops will help tactically, but will do little to change the longterm strategic prospects. A more robust counterterrorism approach also risks inflaming anti-American opinion in both Afghanisan and Pakistan, especially given the growing use of airstrikes with the associated collateral costs in civilian casualties.

The two both advocate for the former approach, but argue that it will demand not only a significant increase in resources, but also a shift in emphasis from military to political solutions. Cross border strikes and a regional approach including Pakistan only make sense in that context. But before anything, they argue, the American people need to be prepared for the enormous costs of such a mission.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

COIN and the Limits of Nation-Building

Janine Davidson at Intel Dump cites a Tom Johnson and M. Chris Mason piece in the Atlantic, All Counterinsurgency is Local, before discussing the tension between the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasize engaging with governance and authority at the most immediate (ie. local) level, and the strategy of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes shoring up governance and authority at the national level:

[T]he question we need to examine is about tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing from a national or international security perspective when we focus on human security at the local level, as Johnson and Mason suggest? What might an international system with weaker nation-states look like?

Do we have to choose between strengthening the local over the national level systems? Is it possible to have both? And can we help build both simultaneously, or should we focus on the local level and then eventually aggregate efforts up to a national level?

It's a point I alluded to here, in discussing the ways in which targeting the faultlines of the Westphalian order is increasingly becoming a feature not only of asymmetric non-state actors, but of great power geopolitics as well. It's also a point that I was planning to develop today, even before reading Davidson's post. Preventing failed and failing states from becoming vectors of regional and global security threats -- whether through terrorism, organized crime (human slavery, money laundering), or drug trafficking -- has become the foundational logic of America's national security posture, as reflected in the U.S. military's doctrinal shift towards a counterinsurgency emphasis.

But the tactical-strategic paradox that Davidson flags, between COIN on the one hand and nation-building on the other, reflects a broader historical context that risks getting clouded by the need for practical solutions to the operational challenges of two wars. Because in ways that vary from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Pakistani tribal areas, America is running up against the fundamental and historically unresolved tensions between the modern Westphalian system and the traditional ethno-sectarian/tribal system. Our strategic posture amounts to a colonial crusade in defense of the Westphalian order, even as the tactical necessities demanded by that crusade identify the historical limits of that order's applicability.

We're essentially fighting a rearguard battle of the 19th century colonial wars, minus the colonies. The fact that we're engaged in this exercise at the very moment that our global dominance seems to have peaked and our financial foundation is more uncertain than at any time in several generations suggests that in ignoring history, we're condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   International Relations   Iraq   

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pakistan and the Bush Doctrine

Yesterday, I linked with arithmetic snark but without comment to TX Hammes' Small Wars Journal post on the broadening of the Afghanistan War into Pakistan. It's a very important piece, because it points out the danger of seeing Pakistan exclusively through the lens of our own tactical needs in Afghanistan, while ignoring the fact that for Pakistan, managing the Taliban in Afghanistan or its own tribal areas is part of the broader strategic calculus of its rivalry with India. Hammes argues that until we develop a strategy for handling this broader regional architecture, our efforts in Afghanistan (which he also characterizes as lacking a coherent strategic framework) will only put pressure on the Pakistani government without resolving the problem.

That problem tends to be formulated Stateside as a failure of the Pakistani civilian government to rein in the rogue elements of the military and ISI intelligence agency that play the Taliban and the U.S. against each other in order to hedge against India. Today, Arif Rafiq at the Pakistan Policy blog fills in the contours of what's at stake in the civilian-military turf war:

Zardari lacks the legitimacy and power with which to assert himself over the military.† While the Pakistani public supports the cessation of the ISIís political role, there is no support for tying the organizationís hands in other matters.† If pressed by Zardari, Gen. Kayani would be forced to enter the political realm, against his will, because of civilian excess.† Zardari should be wiser and focus on his self-proclaimed mandate of roti (bread), kapra (clothing), and makan (a home).

And so, Gen. Kayani is delineating the parameters of acceptable discourse on Kashmir, and at a broader level, Pakistanís national security issues. Gen. Kayani has given the civilians free reign over non-security matters.† He has, however, drawn a line in the sand.† The civilians cannot pass the line of control into his own domain.† Given Zardariís consolidation of power and the absence of checks and balances upon him, a foolish press against the military would compel that institution to intervene, making his presidency the shortest in Pakistanís history.

Hammes points out the dual nature of our Afghanistan mission and the lack of strategic integration between NATO nation-building efforts and American counterterrorism efforts. He doesn't say so explicitly, but the fact that the needs of the former are increasingly leading the latter to target the Pakistani tribal areas makes it clear that the Casus Belli that initially led us to invade Afghanistan has essentially jumped the border. There's been some discussion lately about what exactly the Bush Doctrine is. But the question is increasingly becoming, Does it apply to what Hammes reminds us is "a nuclear-armed nation with 170 million people"?

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   India   Pakistan   

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Afghanistan Illusion

The question of what to do in Afghanistan (and alongside it, Pakistan), is beginning to get the attention it deserves. So far, the default answer is converging on sending more troops, with little real thought as to where they'll come from and the resulting problems that will cause. Some will apparently be cycled in from a drawdown in Iraq. But the Iraq drawdown, as formulated so far, is going to come at a snail's pace, with the possibility of it being halted or reversed as conditions on the ground dictate.

Barack Obama fleetingly addressed the issue in his Berlin speech when he discussed the need for NATO countries to increase their troop commitments. But that, too, presents problems. To begin with, political problems in the three countries (England, Germany and France) potentially capable of answering the call. The difficulty these countries will have in "selling" the Afghanistan War to their public opinion will only escalate with the rise in casualties any increased engagement will entail. (The reaction in French opinion to the recent deaths of ten soldiers in a Taliban ambush is a case in point.)

Secondly, interoperability problems, since one of the Achilles' Heels of multilateral operations is the challenges presented by conflicting rules of engagement and doctrinal approaches to the conflict engaged. That's already the case in Afghanistan, and will only be complicated by the kind of double down now being called for.

Finally, there's the problem of military preparedness. The British military is already stretched from its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The French army is deployed in various peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Africa and Lebanon that in combination have put a heavy logistical strain on its military that already faces budgetary constraints. In order to deploy the 700 additional troops it committed to Afghanistan, the French Army was forced to to turn to foreign suppliers in extremis for everything from up-armored personnel carriers to radio transmitters. That's in addition to requisitioning pistols from the national Gendarmerie, and up-armored personnel carriers from its contingent in southern Lebanon.

One of the foundations of America's strategic culture is that once a conflict has been embraced by the public, no limits are placed on the means and resources that the military needs to engage it. It's an assumption that's based on the massively disproportionate wealth and prosperity America has always enjoyed compared to its enemies, but also to it's allies.

America has the means to conduct the Long War against vectors of instability that harbor extremism, of which Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas are now the principle theatres. Some questions still remain as to whether the political will can be maintained for the duration of what is certain to be a series of limited engagements with periodic spikes in casualties, the very sort of conflict American public opinion is historically averse to.

Our European allies, on the other hand, have neither the former nor the latter. An American troop buildup there will almost certainly lead, not to a concomitant European buildup, but to a European drawdown, especially if the conflict is widened into the Pakistani frontier by unilateral American operations. It's also important to remember, and the Russian-Georgian conflict serves as a timely reminder, that the entire strategic calculation of the Long War comes in the absence of any other conventional threats. Keeping in mind that it's always easier to start a war than to finish one, these are the sorts of things that should be part of the Afghanistan debate.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

After the Surge

It's admittedly been a while since I wrote about Iraq, which is a testament to the ways in which that conflict has become a mature stabilization operation. Twenty-three U.S. soldiers dead in August is twenty-three too many. But the security gains since January 2007 are enormous and game-changing.

I was opposed to the Surge when President Bush announced it, I've been skeptical of the weight it's been given as a causal factor of the decline in violence, and I remain unconvinced that it has accomplished its ultimate strategic goal of ensuring that Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and factional conflicts are resolved through the political process as opposed to armed violence. I also don't believe President Bush's decision to send the troops was particularly courageous from a political standpoint, since his only alternative was to admit to having committed the most catastrophic strategic blunder in American history.

That said, the Surge did accomplish two things. By signalling Bush's unwavering commitment to America's military engagement, it helped convince the various Iraqi factions that whether or not they ultimately resolve their differences through bloodshed, they'd stand to gain by waiting until after we're gone to do so. And should the security gains hold until the American drawdown is complete (whenever that is), the Surge will have allowed the American military to withdraw from Iraq with its coercive reputation intact. And that's indispensable if American power, in both its soft and hard expressions, is to be credible.

Now it's official, the shift of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan will begin in January 2009. That's, of course, where the rubber will hit the road in both theaters. I'm on record as being opposed to widening the conflict in Afghanistan, not because the objectives of the Afghan War aren't desirable. They are. I'm just not sure if they're achievable. As I pointed out above, I've been wrong before. Hopefully I'll be wrong here, too.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coordinating Interagency Integration

If you haven't seen it on the WPR front page yet, give John Nagl's and Brian Burton's piece on the need for building civilian institutional capacity for counterinsurgency and nation-building operations a look. Obviously conflict zones are going to command a great deal of American attention and resources, and as Nagl and Burton make clear, unless civilian agencies adapt their training and institutional orientation, they will increasingly see their expertise farmed out to, or absorbed by, the military. As the article also makes clear, that won't happen until these agencies are funded and staffed to a level appropriate with their essential contributions to these efforts.

The piece emphasizes the need for more interagency "integration" of operations, but one question it leaves unanswered is who ultimately will play the overall coordinating role:

. . .The demands of large-scale counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly clear: The United States must integrate civilian reconstruction expertise with military force in conflict zones. Ad hoc measures, like the establishment of the civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, were an important step towards creating this capability but are an incomplete solution. Recent State Department-led initiatives, which include the establishment of the Civilian Response Corps as well as the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) and the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, represent an effort to establish effective civilian control of the political, economic, and social dimensions of nation-building operations.

One of the problems identified with PRT's is that, lacking any uniform command structure, they are essentially coordinated by the agency controlling the funding stream. More often than not these days, that's the Pentagon. As Nagl and Burton put it, the State Dept. initiative is only a first step. An overarching conceptual framework of how interagency integration functions might be a useful second one.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Saving Afghanistan

A propos whether success is possible in Afghanistan, Hampton forwarded me this Time article by Rory Stewart which is must reading. His arguments are specific to Afghanistan, a country he knows intimately from having walked across it in 2002, but also read as a manual of restraint and modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, especially when that foreign policy is increasingly outsourced to the military. I'm tempted to clip a paragraph or two, but instead I'll just strongly encourage you to click through and read through to the end.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pakistan and the Limits of Sovereignty

Matthew Yglesias calls John McCain's refusal to commit to ordering a U.S. strike on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan were we to have actionable intelligence on his whereabouts bizarre. It's also inconsistent with these comments he made in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October:

Q: Does the U.S. have any options with regard to al-Qaida and reputed al-Qaida strongholds in the federally unregulated areas in Pakistan? Other than what seems to be sort of a status quo of waiting for them to come over the border, the Pakistani Army occasionally launching a strike to -- well, it's hard to say for what end because they don't seem to be sustained efforts. What are the U.S. options there?

McCain: I think they're very difficult options. I think that if we knew of al-Qaida -- more specifically Taliban, it's mainly Taliban that are operating in these places -- that we have to do what's necessary. We don't have to advertise it. We don't have to embarrass or humiliate the Pakistani government. . .

. . .These are all very tough calls, and in summary I think that what happens in Waziristan will be dictated by events in Islamabad, but I also think that we, where necessary, without in any way embarrassing our friends, can have a lot of options.

Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you'd go get him?

McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I'm sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he's still very effective in the world, very, very effective.

Ygelsias goes on to defend McCain's original position, and that of Barack Obama, saying "Under the circumstances, Pakistani sovereignty can't be your top concern." Kal over at The Moor Next Door argues that "cowboy bombings" in Pakistani territory, even territory where the Pakistani government exercises nominal control, is a fool's bargain sacrficing prudence for the appearance of toughness:

Any American action in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden or other targets should be done in consultation with the Pakistani government. With or without consultation, the legitimacy of the government is at stake within those areas it does exercise control over and in those within which it does not. Doing so would at the very least allow the government to prepare for the consequences, however bad they may be. Not doing so would cause major problems for the United States, and Pakistan.

Something that's been overlooked in the discussion is that the consensus is now converging on putting American forces in the line of fire of any eventual blowback from a Waziristan (read: Pakistan) operation, in the form of a dramatically increased American military presence in Afghanistan. That blowback would be on top of an already thorny situation. Last night, Hampton forwarded me this video interview with Maulana Fazlullah, a Swat-based Taliban cleric who declares that he's got waves of suicide bombers ready to be unleashed in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as this Voice of America article describing the breakdown of the recent "peace agreement" between the Taliban and the Pakistani central government in Swat province.

Clearly we have the right to secure our interests, and clearing out the Pakistan border areas of violent extremists is in our interests. But how far does that logic extend? Into Swat? Into Islamabad if, as a result of our incursions, the Pakistani government becomes threatened?

The discussion surrounding limited incursions and missile strikes into Pakistani territory also begs the question of why, back in 2001, we didn't use a similar approach to take care of the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, instead of generously relieving the Taliban of the responsibility for governing the entire country? It could be that such a limited campaign might have either, 1) proven ineffective; or, 2) dragged us inevitably into the broader conflict in which we find ourselves now. But if so, those are two arguments that weigh against the kinds of interventionism in Pakistan that's being bandied about so cavalierly today.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Pakistan   

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Afghanistan Surge

Do not miss Vikram Singh's WPR piece on the applicability of the Surge to Afghanistan. It's a balanced, insightful, and revealing treatment of what is increasingly becoming the common wisdom consensus. While Singh is far from a pessimist on the current situation in Afghanistan or on the chances for a successful outcome there, he very ably points out the limits of the current discussion.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To the Fallen, and the Standing

I would have liked to post this on Monday, but I was in NY with my son on a surprise visit for my Dad's 80th, and between jet lag and family time, I didn't get a chance to. That morning, me and the Lil' Feller had about an hour to kill before meeting up with everyone, since we were both waking up on Paris time. All weekend, there'd been a steady stream of Navy personnel in town for Fleet Week, and it occurred to me there might be some fun events programmed for a seven year-old. Sure enough, the USS Kearsarge was docked at Pier 90, a straight shot down to the water from the hotel, and it was open to the public. So we hopped in a Yellow cab and within ten minutes we were wandering around the various military vehicles -- a tank, an Armored Personnel Carrier, an amphibious landing craft -- stored in the hold.

I asked one of the Marine hosts, not even half my age, how many people rode in the back of the APC, which looked like an oversized oven fitted down the middle with two back-to-back benches about the width of a car seat. "Eight," he replied, before pointing out that by eight, he meant fully armed and equipped. "You don't want to be in there for more than five minutes," he assured me. Toss in the fact that as often as not an APC is transporting its passengers in a war zone, and I think it's safe to say that you don't want to be in there, period.

I was moved by the sight of all the young men and women in uniform in a way that I've never been before. I come from a family with a long history of pacifism and, yes, anti-militarism. Among the earliest photos of me in the family album is one, circa 1969, sitting in my stroller with a wool pennant reading "Bring the GI's home" draped across the front. In our family culture, though, hostility to the military was limited to the generals who sent young men into needless wars. The young men themselves were always regarded with a mixture of respect and regret.

This was the first time I'd ever really been surrounded by American soldiers during wartime. That it was also the first time I was face to face with the American military since my increased professional interest in national security and military issues probably also played a part in my heightened sense of appreciation. Clearly I was the target of a very effective info ops campaign, but I wanted to find some way of expressing to them my respect, my admiration, my emotion, not for their mission, which I find regrettable, but for their service, which I find heroic. The fact that it was Memorial Day, in the middle of a lightning visit back to my hometown, only reinforced the urgency of the sentiment. But as much as I wanted to say something, it would have felt silly to say it to only one of them, and impossible to say it to them all. I thought about trying to find an officer to use as a collective conduit, but the idea struck me as grandiose.

But more significantly, I felt curiously ashamed of expressing my appreciation, because to recognize the enormity of their service is also to recognize the normality of my own life. Unlike World War Two, where every segment of the population was mobilized into the war effort, or the Vietnam War, where the draft served to distribute the nightmare, if not equally, at least more widely, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have remained largely private wars: On the one hand, a mobilized military bearing an enormous burden; on the other, a demobilized citizenry bearing little to none.

So instead I explained to my son how moved I was, because these young people were serving at a time of war. And when we got to the transport helicopter fitted with medical stretchers up on the flag deck, I made it clear to him that these courageous men and women fly out every day knowing that they might be flying back strapped into one of them. War, I explained to him, is not a game. I hope to God he understood.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The PRT's Over

By all accounts, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq are pretty popular. Everyone -- be it military and civil service team members on the ground, Washington policy-makers on the Hill and in the Executive branch, or the media -- just loves them. In a conference call with PRT members a few months back, President Bush even went so far as to suggest that he envied them for what he, like many, perceived as the exotic adventure they're experiencing in the farflung corners of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And for good reason. After years of disheartening news in both theaters of operations, the PRT's seemed to capture the public's imagination with their combination of American ingenuity, resolve and industriousness, but also with their frontier-style independence. To be sure, they operate in dangerous theaters at great personal risk. But they're also such a novelty that, for the most part, they function as a sort of free electron in the military hierarchy's periodic chart. Often financed by discretionary Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds as improvised responses to conditions on the ground, the PRT's resemble a post-9/11 expression of the pre-Vietnam Peace Corps ethic, with a touch of 90's NGO euphoria thrown in for good measure: rogue units taking advantage of the chaos of a war to wage peace.

But all that's likely to change soon, since the freewheeling nature of the PRT's that makes them such a popular feelgood story also makes them a nightmare to government oversight committees. The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight, in particular, just published its first report on the PRT's, and not surprisingly focused on the need for clearly defined missions, doctrine, operating procedures, goals, and metrics to measure their success. In other words, all the institutionalized standardization that will almost certainly make PRT's more "effective" while sucking all of the life out of them.

The PRT's are a significant and innovative part of the Army's new approach to counterinsurgency, which with its emphasis on a "human-culture-society" approach to COIN resembles an art as much as a military doctrine. With the promotion of Gen. Petraeus to CENTCOM commander and the apparent ascendancy of the Army's COIN faction, that approach has now assumed the position of the "dominant narrative" within the culture of the Army. Which means that in its own way, it too will be increasingly institutionalized and formatted as it moves further from its origins as an improvised response to conditions on the ground and closer to a law of science, frozen in a textbook and captured in the vacuum of certainty.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cheney in Ankara

You'll recall that last month I mentioned an increase in Turkey's troop commitment in Afghanistan and a more active Turkish role in pushing back against Iran's nuclear program as likely chits for the U.S. signing off on its weeklong incursion into northern Iraq. Well, it seems that Dick cheney flew into Ankara today and met with Turkey's president, prime minister and the Army chief of staff to collect on both accounts. And in a further sign of America's diminished standing in the region, he left more or less empty-handed. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did issue a pro forma declaration urging Tehran to cooperate more fully with the IAEA.)

Now if this were a mob movie, some capo would be busy explaining to the Don in a husky whisper why someone had to get knee-capped, and quick, to keep people in the neighborhood from thinking we'd gone soft. Thing is, if this were a mob movie, chances are Cheney would be the capo sent to do the knee-capping.

So I'll be keeping my eye on this one. Ankara isn't too keen on appearing like Washington's errand boy, so there might just be a short delay for appearance's sake. The NATO summit two weeks from now, for instance, would make a nice, headline-grabbing forum for an Afghanistan announcement.

But if 'No' in this case really means 'No,' that's a pretty big setback for American regional strategy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Turkey   

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Monday, March 17, 2008

NATO's Bitter Pill

To get a sense of just how badly things are going for NATO in Afghanistan, consider the following. Just over two weeks from now at the alliance's summit in Budapest, about the only pieces of good news likely to be announced are that the French will deploy more boots on the ground to ease the strain on Canadian forces, and the Russians will allow logistical supplies to transit its air and ground space. You got that right: France and Russia are coming to NATO's rescue.

Of course, it's not the threat of a military defeat, but that of a political defeat that looms large. Afghanistan just has some sort of mojo that makes it the last meal of colonial empires, Socialist unions and very possibly trans-Atlantic alliances. And even if the weakened alliance should survive the shock, the medicine may prove more deadly than the disease. France is looking to leverage its NATO re-up to move European defense integration forward (and I've got a hunch that won't be as difficult as the WSJ suggests), and Russia already seems to have succeeded in attaching a heightened regional role to the supply route deal.

If it looks like these are the kinds of consolidations that eventually make America the odd man out on the European continent, that's because they are. As Europe looks ahead to the post-Bush era, about the only thing working in America's favor is that the post-Putin era has yet to begin.

Of course, the disaffection cuts both ways. If all NATO can offer is already available through coalitions of the willing outside the alliance structure, the alliance boils down to a big Article 5 security blanket that's not worth the miniscule European defense budgets it enables.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   European Union   Russia   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

The World's Reluctant Auxiliary Policemen

According to this Jamestown Foundation report, US-Turkish relations -- which had been thawing recently -- just hit another snag over the US' request that Turkey step up its military participation in Afghanistan. Turkey already has 1,000 troops in the Afghan theater, most of them in and around Kabul, but they're restricted by rules of engagement that limit them to firing in "self-defense". Washington would like Ankara to send in more boots, especially to the south and west where the fighting is going on, and loosen up their trigger fingers.

Ankara isn't too pleased about the request being perceived as a quid pro quo for American intelligence that helped it target PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan since last November. Also, with 100,000 Turkish troops massed on the Iraqi border to engage the 3,000-strong PKK guerilla/terrorists in the Qandil Mountains, it's unlikely Turkey can spare too much of its military muscle...

Right. Anyway.

More than anything, this just demonstrates the way in which the failure in Afghanistan is having a very serious impact not only on the region, but also on our relationship with our coalition allies. Robert Gates' two recent sorties excoriating NATO countries for not ante-ing up with needed troops and material serve as further illustration.

And while our unpopular commitment in Iraq definitely complicates the picture and has degraded the Afghanistan mission, the force generation questions that are being raised with our NATO allies extend beyond that particular theater. They are the same questions that France is raising with regard to EU defense (although for its own strategic reasons), and get to the heart of how the EU will define its identity in the coming multi-polar world.

As Hubert Vedrine often puts it, Europe has to decide whether it wants to be a continent-wide Switzerland or a world power. And if it wants to be a world power, capable of advancing its interests and shouldering its share of the responsibility, it has got to not only develop a greater force projection capability (ie. dramatically increased military budgets for the majority of the continent), but also develop the political will to act. Whether that will is expressed through NATO or the EU is another question to be resolved, but it's contingent on answering the first.

Afghanistan might not be the best barometer, because it's been compromised by the Iraq connection. But if they've grown wary of the "world's reluctant policeman", then sooner or later Europe (and "emerging" countries like Turkey, India, and Brazil) are going to have to come up with an alternative.

Update: Click and ye shall find. Apparently I've stumbled on the "collective unconsciousness" meme of the day, since The National Interest has got not just one, but two articles on related subjects (peacekeeping missions and German combat participation in Afghanistan).†

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   European Union   Turkey   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Afghan Awakening

A few weeks ago I flagged a report in the English press about Gordon Brown being ready to announce a new Afghanistan strategy, calling for among, other things, using large sums of money to buy the allegiance of negotiating with Taliban leaders. Brown subsequently chickened out about the announcement, but as the Telegraph reported a few days ago, not before giving the new strategy a try. As a result, a British diplomat working for the UN and an Irish diplomat working for the EU were politely tossed out of the country earlier this week.

At the time, I made two observations about Brown's proposal: 1) it was sure to put him pretty high up on the Bush administration's shit list; and 2) it's time to re-examine the logic of the War in Afghanistan. As for the first, the Telegraph further reports that the two diplomats were expelled at the request of the US and thanks to intelligence provided by the CIA.

As for the second, there seems to be a logical inconsistency in the US position of promoting an Anbar Awakening in Iraq while at the same time opposing a Helmand Awakening in Afghanistan. The Taliban only posed a threat to America in so much as they harbored Al Qaeda training camps. Now that Pakistan has taken over that function, the Taliban amount to a bunch of tribal warlords resisting a foreign occupation of their country, much like the Sunni tribes in Iraq. Either we take the job of re-constructing the country and the authority of the Afghan central government seriously, or else we sub-contract the security function to local players. But to do neither seems like the worst possible option.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

NATO In Afghanistan And Beyond

This Middle East Times editorial on NATO's faltering efforts in Afghanistan is throught-provoking for the questions it raises (and largely leaves unanswered) about the broader impact the alliance's first out-of-theater deployment might have on its future. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like an ideal test-case to define the post-Cold War NATO's role as a multi-lateral global security organization.

Six years later, with the mission having evolved from nation-building to a counter-insurgency campaign that is fraying the alliance's cohesion and commitment, that initial optimism seems near-sighted. And while most attention has focused on how the lack of resource commitment on the part of member nations has limited the campaign's effectiveness, less has been paid to the structural problems that plague the NATO/ISAF effort, in particular the incompatible rules of engagement among the various country's contingents.

Meanwhile back in Europe, dramatically different perceptions of how to deal with Russia have divided the alliance along the lines of the former Iron Curtain, with attitudes reversed from those of the Cold War-era. Now it's Eastern European capitals, with memories of Soviet domination, that advocate a more aggressive containment strategy in the face of Russia's resurgence, while Western Europe struggles to find ways to smooth relations with Moscow. America's clumsy handling of its Eastern European-based anti-missile defense system, as well as its aggressive base-procurement policy among former Eurasian Soviet republics, has only exacerbated the tension.

But in many ways, NATO's identity crisis reflects the degree to which the current global geopolitical situation is beginning to take on the aspects of another major paradigm shift for which the post-War 20th century multi-lateral institutions -- from the UN Security Council to the IMF/World Bank to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to NATO to the EU -- are no longer adapted. As recently as a month ago I was arguing here that America's standing in the world could be re-established with a modest, determined course correction by the next administration, as opposed to a dramatic about-face.

But re-establishing our standing, ie. our image, is a modest goal in and of itself. The fact is, as someone I interviewed for an upcoming article put it recently, there's simply no inherent reason why the Arab world should be anti-American, and I think the point can be generalized to the world writ large. We have an enormous amount of goodwill capital that it takes quite an effort to override.

On the other hand, to strategically situate ourselves in order to effectively advance our interests will now demand a fundamental strategic re-evaluation of how best to adjust our own orientation towards the various emerging poles of power around the globe, how best to reform the multi-lateral institutions to better reflect that emerging geopolitical reality, and how best to harmonize the two. There's absolutely no guarantee that having articulated a theoretically sound strategy that we'll be able to put it into practice. The world is too unpredictable for that. But without one, we'll be reduced to putting band aids on wounds that will soon outgrow our ability to cover them.

Of all the presidential candidates, I think Hillary Clinton would probably be the most effective at the band-aid solution, which is not meant to be as much of a back-handed insult as it sounds like. She's almost certain to steer America very ably, protecting our interests while at the same time accomodating our friends and allies to the extent possible. As such she'll also undoubtedly manage to improve America's image in the world. Depending on which John McCain shows up for duty, he'd probably do just as good a job, at least on the former count, if less so on the latter. But I think Barack Obama's combination of analytical insight and intellectual synthesis make him the most qualified to oversee the kind of fundamental strategic overhaul that I'm talking about.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

When Gordon Brown Talks, The Taliban Listens

To follow up on this post from yesterday, Gordon Brown's actual proposals for "talking" with the Taliban were couched in very diplomatic language:

"If they are prepared to renounce violence and abide by the Constitution and respect basic human rights, then there is a place for them in the legitimate society and economy of Afghanistan," he said.

Mr Brown, who held talks with Mr Karzai in Kabul this week, said that direct negotiations with the Taleban were not an option, but realism was needed when tackling the insurgency that has rumbled on for nearly six years. "Our objective is to root out those preaching and practising violence and murder, in support of men and women of peace," he said.

In other words, Brown is willing to talk with any Taliban members willing to accept what amounts to unconditional surrender. Which explains why they've managed to convince about 5,000 "tier-two and tier-three" Taliban to "talk", whereas the 70 Taliban "leaders" who listened to reason and laid down their weapons this year only did so once they'd been killed. Brown also committed to keeping almost 8,000 British troops in Afghanistan for the "longterm". Not a whole lot for Washington to throw a hissy fit about after all.

Update: According to The Independent, which cites the Taliban's former chief spokesman as a source, unlike Gordon Brown, Hamid Karzai doesn't mind talking with the Taliban and has been in direct negotiations with key lieutenants of Mullah Omar in an attempt to isolate the latter from his top-level leadership.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dead Man Walking

Gordon Brown is set to announce a major shift in strategy for Afghanistan, including a call for dialogue with the Taliban. That, coupled with the official British handover of Basra to Iraqi forces (read: Shiite militias) this Sunday, ought to put him fairly high on the Bush administration's shit list. But frankly, that's not the sort of thing people worry about anymore. Having just lived through the end of Chirac's second term, I can assure you that a year left in a "dead man walking" presidency is an awful long time. The major difference between Bush and Chirac being that Bush can still cause a lot of new problems, whereas Chirac just couldn't do anything to solve the old ones.

Beyond that, I've been wondering about the continued logic of the War in Afghanistan for a while now. The Taliban only posed a security threat to America insomuch as they harbored Al Qaeda training camps. In the aftermath of the initial invasion, regime change and a continued military presence to shore up the Karzai government seemed to make sense. But now that Al Qaeda has re-located to Pakistan and we've abandoned any pretense at nation-building, the Taliban no longer seem like the kind of menace that warrants a major American and NATO force commitment.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Other War

I've gotten used to thinking of the situation in Afghanistan as an irritating stalemate, with the Taliban seizing outposts that we're not really bothering to defend, but posing no real existential threat to the Afghan government. But this just-released report from the Senlis Council, an English think tank "known for its expertise on Afghanistan" according to Le Monde, describes things in significantly more alarming terms than a harmless game of whack-a-mole:

The insurgency now controls vast swaths of unchallenged territory including rural areas, some district centres, and important road arteries. The Taliban are the de facto governing authority in significant portions of territory in the south, and are starting to control parts of the local economy and key infrastructure such as roads and energy supply. The insurgency also exercises a significant amount of psychological control, gaining more and more political legitimacy in the minds of the Afghan people who have a long history of shifting alliances and regime change.

The depressing conclusion is that, despite the vast injections of international capital flowing into the country, and a universal desire to 'succeed' in Afghanistan, the state is once again in serious danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban. (All emphases in original.)

In addition to benefitting from a popular upswelling of non-ideological economic and political grievances, the Taliban is also gaining valuable technical assistance from an influx of experienced foreign fighters from the Iraq insurgency. (Which raises the obvious question of whether the decrease in violence in Iraq needs to be assessed on a regional, as opposed to a national, scale.)

As a remedy, Senlis proposes doubling the NATO-ISAF forces in the country from 40,000 to 80,000, removing the restrictions various countries have placed on the rules of engagement for their troops, and authorizing operations within Pakistan's frontier tribal areas. That's in addition to a massive increase in development aid. (All emphases mine.)

Of course, since none of that is going to happen, it's worth considering what Senlis thinks is an increasingly likely scenario: a Taliban return to Kabul in 2008.

This is really where Democrats should be doing more to make the GOP pay for its linkage of Iraq to the War on Terror. Because if Iraq and Afghanistan really are two fronts in the same war, then the good news coming out of Baghdad needs to be weighed against the bad coming out of Kabul. And if by invading Iraq we created a strategic alliance between Saddam Hussein's officer corps and Bin Laden's foot soldiers, then Dick Cheney's pre-war Iraq-Al Qaeda flimflam has actually become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Beyond that, as Matthew Yglesias has been arguing all week, the lesson to be drawn from the entire enterprise is what it shows about the limitations of preventive war and/or regime change as a non-proliferation policy. Which means we desperately need to come up with a plan B, because with the region-wide stampede for nuclear "energy" programs, things are only going to get worse.

So far, if the US-India deal is any indication, the Bush administration's preferred method is still the "rule by exception" on a case-by-case basis. It would be nice to see someone try to pin the candidates down on a broad policy vision, because along with global warming and globalization, this is going to be the determinant foreign policy issue of the coming decade.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Musharraf's Trump Card

In the face of their tepid reactions to the state of emergency in Pakistan, questions are being raised about whether Washington and London actually gave a last-minute green light to the measure. According to some reports, CentCom commander Adm. William Fallon was still in the offices of the Pakistani chiefs of staff while Pervez Musharraf was fine tuning the actual declaration, and by all indications had not yet left the country when the announcement was made.

But whether they reluctantly consented or not, it's increasingly clear that Musharraf felt emboldened to disregard their objections based on his reading of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, exacerbated by NATO's recent refusal to increase the force structure there. Having established Pakistan as an indispensable ally in that effort, Musharraf correctly assumed that neither America or England could afford to take him to task for his power grab, despite the enormous public relations fiasco the move represents.

It reminds me of the old saw: If you owe me $50 and you can't pay, you're in trouble. If you owe me $50 million and you can't pay, I'm in trouble. The return to democratic rule was kind of like Pakistan's interest payment in return for us showering them with military grants and re-integrating them into the circle of "responsible nations". Now, not only have they stopped paying interest, they've defaulted on the entire package.

In the meantime, because we failed to finish the job in Afghanistan before shifting our attention to Iraq, we've transformed a situation in which they needed us into a situation where we need them.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Invisible Hand

The consensus among Afghan President Hamid Karzai, European diplomats, and the US military is that eradicating Afghan poppy crops through an aerial spraying campaign could very well provoke a serious backlash among peasant growers against both the Afghan government and NATO forces. So needless to say, the Bush administration is energetically lobbying Karzai to implement just such a crop-spraying program. And as The Times reported a few weeks ago, Karzai is beginning to crack.

Which ain't good. Here's what a new Army War College monograph has to say about the consequences of the manual crop-clearing eradication program to date:

The U.S.-backed opium poppy eradication efforts have not succeeded in reducing the production of opium and have, in many cases, been counterproductive. The aggressive pursuit of eradication has alienated many peasant farmers and resulted in some of them turning against U.S. and NATO forces. The Senlis Council, an international drug policy think tank, argues that the U.S.-backed eradication effort was "the single biggest reason many Afghans turned against the foreigners."...

...The Senlis Council argues that eradication not only ruins small farmers, but drives them into the arms of the Taliban, who offer loans, protection, and a chance to plant again. Instead of improving the quality of life for Afghan citizens, the U.S.-backed opium eradication efforts are instead alienating many Afghans, strengthening the Taliban, and increasing instability.

The spraying program will only make matters worse since it will very likely destroy food crops planted among the poppies, and can be used to stoke fears of American chemical attacks among a suggestible populace.

There's no disagreement about the scope of the problem. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghan poppy production has flooded the world market, now supplying 92% of global illegal trade. The resulting windfall -- $3 billion (35% of Afghan GDP) in 2006 -- is increasingly funding the Taliban either directly or indirectly through protection rackets and payoffs. The legal market for opium-based medical products offers little solution, since it's too small to absorb the Afghan supply, offers only 20% of the illegal market price, and is already saturated anyway.

So here's a thought: Instead of lowballing growers with legal market rates, why not bid the price of the poppy harvest up by buying it from them at illegal rates? Black markets exist when profit and demand justify the risks involved in breaking the law. Raising the cost of the raw material will reduce profits, and the higher cost passed along to the end consumer will lower demand. It has the advantage of being a market-based solution. And it probably works out cheaper than the eradication program, aid packages and useless interdiction efforts combined.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ring The Alarm

Since being appointed Army chief of staff, Gen. William Casey has gone out of his way to sound the alarm on the toll six years of war have taken on the Army. This is from the keynote speech he gave at the Army's Annual Meeting, in which he foresaw a future of "persistent conflict":

"Today's Army is out-of-balance," said Gen. Casey. "The current demand on our forces exceeds the sustainable supply. We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as we would like for other contingencies. Overall, we are consuming our readiness as fast as we are building it."

In addition to the accelerated plans already in place to increase the standing force, Casey identified the changing role of the Reserves as critical to getting the Army back in balance:

"They are no longer a strategic reserve mobilized only in national emergencies," he said. "They are now an operational reserve, deployed on a cyclical basis to allow us to sustain extended operations. Operationalizing the Reserve Components will require national and state consensus as well as continued commitment from employers, Soldiers and Families. It will require changes to the way we train and equip, resource and mobilize, and also administrative policies. We owe it to them to make this transition rapidly."

This is worth noting, because what he's talking about is institutionalizing what was initially a stopgap measure. And it's a process that is already underway. Over the past four years, the Reserves have effectively functioned as a draft pool because, let's face it, anyone who signed up previous to 9/11 did not realistically expect to see active duty. Casey's suggesting we transform their role into a sort of rotating replacement corps, giving breathers wherever the line is stretched thinnest. Not, mind you, because of any logistical advantage that might offer, but because we simply don't have the capacity to prosecute the War in Iraq -- let alone "other contingencies" -- otherwise.

It's true you go to war with the Army you have, as Donald Rumsfeld famously noted. But you don't start wars unless you have the Army you need. Now we're playing catch-up, expanding the army in both explicit and implicit ways, all for a war that remains highly contested and so far largely inconclusive. One that even the Army chief of staff believes will do nothing to prevent decades of persistent conflict. Discouraging, to say the least.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Like Old Times

The thought of what might happen should the Pakistani state fail is the stuff of worst case scenarios. But if this Jamestown Foundation article about the increasing Talibanization of the Pakistani badlands is any indication, Pakistan would already seem to meet one of the minimum requirements for failed state status. Namely, an inability to project the government's writ throughout the country.

Of course, when it comes to Pakistan, what really matters is who's got their hands on the launch codes and the warheads. There remains, though, the little question of al-Qaeda, which has effectively traded its bases in a failed state for bases in a failed corner of a state. Not much of a downgrade, if you ask me.

What attracted Osama Bin Laden to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan wasn't the state-of-the-art infrastructure and the modern amenities. It was the fact that it was Taliban-controlled.†

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Afghan Women

One of the major accomplishments of the invasion of Afghanistan was the impact it had on Afghan women. At least, that's what was supposed to happen. Of course, changing a culture isn't that easy, so it's no surprise that the results have left a lot to be desired. But keeping Afghanistan a priority might have made a difference.

IRIN, an independent news outlet for the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, has produced a short film (about 20 minutes) illustrating some of the hardships Afghan women still face, including high rates of maternal mortality during childbirth, lack of education, and high rates of domestic violence and abuse. (WMP or RealPlayer. Or else here's the transcript.)

We didn't create these problems. But we did suggest that we'd stick around long enough to help solve them. We let more than just Osama Bin Laden get away in Afghanistan. We also lost an opportunity to demonstrate that we were willing and able to help people rebuild.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Priorities

You might remember Jack Idema, the ex-Green Beret convicted of operating a private prison in Afghanistan where he allegedly tortured handpicked "terror suspects". Apparently he was released from an Afghan prison two weeks ago as part of a general amnesty issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. And as if the story was lacking in the creepy department, he wanted to stay in Afghanistan, but couldn't because of the conditions of his release.

But here's the kicker. According to documents filed in a court case by the American consul in Kabul, Idema left the country for "an unknown destination".

Let me get this straight. Alberto Gonzales wants to listen in on my phone conversations. But a guy who entered a warzone illegally, conducted gonzo counter-terrorism operations, ran a private prison where he tortured his "suspects", wanted to stay incountry after three years in an Afghan prison (does anyone remember Midnight Express?)† -- in other words, the kind of guy I want the government to keep tabs on -- that guy just walks off into the sunset? What am I not getting?

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Say What?   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Post-Taliban

The frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan known as South Waziristan has gotten some attention lately. First because of the "peace deal" the Pakistani military struck back in September with "militant tribal groups allied to the Taliban and al Qaeda". Later because of an outbreak of fighting between local tribesman, led by an Afghan named Maulvi Nazir, and Uzbek jihadists who had set up shop in the area. Although it's hard to get accurate information from the area, which is beyond the reach of journalists, the Uzbeks reportedly suffered heavy losses before being driven into neighboring North Waziristan.

The Pakistanis, who took a lot of heat for their "hands off" policy, claim the development as proof that their decision to leave the job of policing the frontier badlands to the local tribesmen is bearing fruit. Not so, say Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Bill Roggio in the Weekly Standard. The fighting between Nazir and the Uzbeks had more mundane causes and doesn't represent a significant change in Waziri relations with their al Qaeda guests.

But according to this article on The Jamestown Foundation website, the campaign against the Uzbeks represents the first success† not of Pakistan's withdrawal from Waziristan, but of a covert Pakistani intelligence operation designed to re-integrate a new generation of Taliban leadership back into Pakistan's sphere of influence. The idea being that if the Taliban recognize that their alliance with al Qaeda runs counter to their political interests, they'll choose to cut the jihadists loose and focus on returning to power in Afghanistan.

Apparently the only thing wrong with the Taliban, as far as Pakistan is concerned, was the company they kept.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tactical Errors

It's no secret that the American tactical approach in Afghanistan has been, shall we say, slightly at odds with that of its NATO allies participating in the war. The Dutch, for instance, have in the past taken the approach of avoiding engagement with the Taliban insurgents, although they have recently adopted a more offensive-minded approach (even if it is known as the "amoeba model"). The British, too, have emphasized finding a working arrangement with the Taliban, going so far as to arrange a formal truce in Musa Qala, a district in southern Afghanistan they were responsible for securing.

The logic, in both cases, was to minimize the destabilizing effects of combat, both in terms of civilian casualties and infrastructure, while at the same time increasing trust and goodwill among the civilian population through reconstruction projects. As for the insurgents, the strategy was to win their allegiance, rather than kill them off.

All of which doesn't sit too well with Gen. Dan McNeill, the new American commander in Kabul:

“In its best case it might have been a tactical error. In its worst case it might have been a strategic blunder”, McNeill said of the ceasefire in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district.

He added that he could not give his full views on the British-backed truce because that “might be construed as criticizing one of our allies, and I wouldn’t do that”.

I'd sure love to hear his full views, but I think the abridged version gets the idea across pretty effectively. At any rate, he's made no secret of his favored approach, which involves more aggressive ground operations, combined with heavy air support. Resulting in, as you might imagine, increased civilian casualties.

Of course, anytime you get allies fighting a war together, you're bound to have disagreements. The history of WWII is full of them, from heads of state to theater commanders, all the way down to the grunts on the ground.

But this really shows the inability of the American military command to understand the nature of the war they're fighting. The British and Dutch know there's no way to pacify Afghanistan. It's been tried before and it's never worked. So they're trying to minimize the damage on both sides, in the hopes that the Afghans in power when they eventually leave haven't sworn an oath of eternal enmity against them.

That's the only way to win that war. And it's the one way we won't fight it.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Come Again?

This is the kind of candid military assessment that you just don't see that much of from Bush appointees. From Admiral William Fallon, Centcom commander, in Egypt meeting with Hosni Mubarak:

Asked whether the United States would attack Iran soon, especially as Washington beefed up military presence in the Gulf region recently, the top U.S. officer gave a negative answer.

"Washington already had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained.

He went on to say the Iranian issue should be reolved through diplomatic channels.

It's actually more than candid. It borders on ill-advised: An American commander on a foreign visit admits that the US military is stretched thin. I wouldn't be surprised to see Admiral Fallon offering up a clarification.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Lending A Hand

Remember the al-Qaeda training facilities in southeast Afghanistan? The ones where aspiring jihadists from across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe used to come to develop combat skills back before we drove them out of the country?

Well, according to this short piece in The National Interest, al-Qaeda's replaced them with live fire training in Iraq. And the technical expertise their operatives have gathered, like sophisticated IED technology and anti-aircraft tactics, is now showing up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Keep in mind, Bin Laden cut his teeth in the Afghan insurgency. For him, terrorism is only the preliminary tactic of a three-stage longterm strategy:

  1. Draw the US into a regional war through the use of terror attacks;
  2. Inflict enough losses to drive the US out of the Middle East definitively;
  3. Topple the newly-vulnerable moderate Arab states through local insurgencies.

So as far as he's concerned, live fire insurgency training will definitely come in handy some day. Of course, the only way his plan can ultimately succeed is if we help him out every step of the way. But so far, that's exactly what we've been doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Who's Zooming Who?

Michael Crowley of TNR took issue with Charles Krauthammer's "Iraq or Afghanistan" WaPo op-ed as well, specifically Krauthammer's dismissal of Afghanistan as "geographically marginal". Trouble is, he's a little wide of the mark:

I see the Pakistani bomb as a greater near-term threat to my own life than anything that might happen in Iraq in the next few years. Given the proximity of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the way Islamic radicals play the two countries off one another, it seems to me that creating stability and a climate inhospitable to anti-American terrorists there is no "marginal" thing at all.

First of all, it's important to remember that the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, was responsible for creating stability and a climate hospitable to anti-American terrorists in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Far from being a threat to Pakistan, our enemies in Afghanistan functioned as useful pawns for Pakistani interests.

I'd also disagree with Crowley's characterization of who's triangulating whom. The ISI's been tossing the Coalition crumbs since the invasion, while continuing to supply covert aid to the Taliban and their terrorist fellow travellers. If anyone's playing both sides, it's Pakistan.

As annoying as Krauthammer generally is, he's correct when he says that, as of today, Iraq is strategically more important than Afghanistan. Whatever threat Afghanistan posed to our national security was eliminated when the terrorist training infrastructure that it harbored was dismantled and Al Qaeda's command & control capacity was disrupted. And we can keep both from reconstituting that threat with targeted special forces operations and aerial firepower.

Regardless of the fact that Iraq didn't pose a credible threat to America in 2003 (which I think is indisputable at this point), the consequences of a failed state there now would pose a much greater threat to our strategic interests than the consequences of failing to stabilize Afghanistan, which, it's important to remember, has essentially been a failed state for the past 20 years.

That doesn't mean that a stable, de-Talibanized Afghanistan isn't in our interests. It is. More importantly, it's actually an attainable result, assuming we throw the necessary resources at the problem. Unlike a stable, de-Iranianized Iraq, which at this point is an impossibility.

Which is why the Democrats are correct in calling for shifting our priorities and our resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Even if they, and Crowley, are using the wrong arguments to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Half-Right vs. Mostly-Wrong

I hesitated before clicking through on Charles Krauthammer's op-ed in today's WaPo. The tagline, since changed, was typical Krauthammer nonsense, the gist of it being that Congressional Dems are wrong about shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Now I've hated Krauthammer ever since he used to write for the NY Post back when it didn't even have the excuse of being owned by Murdoch for its mindless editorial line. But in all fairness, on this one he happens to get two things right: First, for all the bitterness about how it was started four years ago, as things stand today the War in Iraq is by far more vital to American strategic interests than the War in Afghanistan. And second, the War in Afghanistan is not the central front in the War on Terror, Pakistani Waziristan notwithstanding.

Of course, Krauthammer being Krauthammer, that doesn't stop him from getting three things wrong:

  1. The War in Iraq isn't the central front in the War on Terror either.
  2. The War in Iraq is no longer winnable, and therefore doesn't justify the disproportionate resources it is being allocated.
  3. The War in Afghanistan is, and would benefit from a resource infusion, particularly in the form of reconstruction and development projects.

In other words, the Democrats are using the wrong arguments to advocate for the right policy. Which is still better than Krauthammer, who uses the wrong arguments to advocate for the wrong policy.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Essence Of Empire

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, from an article in the Hill:

ďWhile the military may be on a war footing, our nationís industry is not on a war footing,Ē Mundt told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. He urged industry to get to a point where it is producing equipment faster.

Mundt was referring specifically to the difficulties the Army has had replacing the 130 helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes two years from the time Congress ok's the funds before the helicopters are delivered.

I mentioned this before with regards to an eventual attack on Iran, but it bears repeating. The sine qua non of the neocon agenda is an America placed on permanent wartime footing. That is the essence of Empire: continuous partial engagement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are first steps towards that goal, but they are still reversible.† Should we attack Iran, on the other hand, there will be no turning back for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Afghan Spring

This passage from The Wind Blows Away Our Words, Doris Lessing's account of her travels among the Afghan mujahideen, gave me pause. The speaker is an Afghan guerilla commander briefing Western visitors on the status of the war against the Russians:

The main point, the key point, is that the war is going on at full strength whatever you may have heard. It is not going badly, as your newspapers sometimes claim. We will not stop fighting, we will fight until we win and the Russians leave, or until they kill us all. This is the basic and important fact. None of you in the West seem to have any idea of the extent of the Resistance; every house, every village is involved. If an area is quiet for a time, that does not mean it is subdued, only waiting, perhaps because of the weather. (p. 54, Pan Books 1987)

Sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact that there are places in the world where there's only one breaking story, and the news cycle lasts until you're either dead or victorious.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Robin Hood? Or Scarface?

From The Army Times comes the story of Spc. Luke Sommer, an Army Ranger who used his $20,000 re-enlistment bonus to finance a bank heist that he and four buddies, two of them fellow Rangers, pulled off with "military-style precision." That is, unless you ignore the part about a witness jotting down the getaway car's license plate number, allowing the FBI to track down the car the following morning parked inside the gated compound of Fort Lewis, WA. They quickly bagged evidence of the crime and four of the five suspects.

Sommer, a dual American-Canadian citizen who's fighting extradiction from Canada, claims the robbery was intended as a publicity stunt to call attention to war crimes he witnessed while on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Asst. US Attorney handling the case claims that e-mails and IMs found on Sommers seized computer reveal a plan to use the proceeds from the robbery to finance a criminal organization in Canada.

The case is interesting for more than just the intrigue of Somers' claims, which in all likelihood won't keep him from doing time. It raises the question of what impact the Iraq War will have on the generation that's fighting it.

For a while I've thought that the practical (as opposed to the ethical and moral) problem with torture once it's practiced by American agents abroad is that, sooner or later, the torturers come home. Same goes for occupying a foreign country. Eventually the occupiers come home, too. And at least some of them will return with the sense of omnipotence that being young, armed and all-powerful can instill.

That's why traditionally democracies make lousy occupying powers (the obvious exceptions being the post-War occupation of Germany and Japan), and why occupations so often corrupt democracies.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Say What?   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Now That Wasn't So Hard, Was It?

A "Senior Administration Official" flies out to Pakistan to warn Gen. Musharraf that unless he gets serious about cracking down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps on the Afghan frontier, he can expect some serious consequences from the newly-Democratic Congress. Three days later, Pakistan announces the capture of the highest-level Taliban to date, the former Defense Minister and a senior leader in the Afghan insurgency, Mullah Obaidullah.

Good thing the GOP is the party of national security.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   International Relations   

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