Tag Archives: National Security

Afghanistan…it don’t look good

Nir Rosen writes a brilliant, if disturbing, article in Rolling Stone after embedding with the Taliban.  It goes a long way towards showing how you can be ahead by 4 touchdowns at halftime but if you don’t show up for the second half of the game, you’ll still lose (ok, that’s my limit on sports metaphors for the rest of the year).

By May 2003, only 18 months after the beginning of the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but declared victory in Afghanistan. “We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction,” Rumsfeld announced during a visit to Kabul. The security situation in Afghanistan, in his view, was better than it had been for 25 years.

I was in Afghanistan at this time.  I remember there was a lot of talk about transitioning to away from combat operations to reconstruction.  The big rumor among the rank and file in the mess hall was that ‘soon’ we wouldn’t have to carry our weapons and that the Department of Defense would soon withdraw hazardous duty pay from troops serving in Afghanistan since there was no threat there anymore (!).  I wasn’t quite that optimistic but I certainly could see the possibility of transitioning to an environment more similar to Kosovo or Bosnia than Iraq.

Ten months later, as I was getting ready to leave Afghanistan I was much more pessimistic.  I saw a complete lack of progress and interest in addressing Afghanistan’s problems and saw my time there essentially as a ‘time out’ allowing the Taliban and other anti-coalition elements to get their shit together.

The Pentagon, already focused on invading Iraq, assumed that the Afghan militias it had bought with American money would be enough to secure the country. Instead, the militias proved far more interested in extorting bribes and seizing land than pursuing the hardened Taliban veterans who had taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. The parliamentary elections in 2005 returned power to the warlords who had terrorized the countryside before the Taliban imposed order. “The American intervention issued a blank check to these guys,” says a senior aid official in Kabul. “They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. But the warlords never abandoned their bad habits — they’re abusing people and filling their pockets.

The thinking in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 was definitely short term.  While there were programs nominally designed to disarm the militias and take power away from warlords, those programs were undermined by commanders who viewed those militia leaders as important for keeping the peace.  While I can’t speak for the entire theater, I did have the opportunity to view decision making close up at one command (brigade command equivalent)  and thinking and planning never extended beyond the end of the tour we were on.  Questions about long term effects, fulfilling the superior commanders intent, or trying to apply any sort of counterinsurgency principles were dismissed out of hand.   Rather, the priority was keeping the natives calm on our watch.  That generally involved paying off militia leaders and local warlords through work contracts on post, granting them exclusive access to sell goods to military personnel through a bazaar (a very lucrative trade), and turning a blind eye to widespread extortion of local workers as they left the base.  All of these things eroded support among the local population and created the impression that we viewed these warlords as allies.  The local warlords used that impression to keep local villagers obedient by threatening to call down American air strikes on anyone who opposed them.  The warlords had no such pull with us but it didn’t help to see Americans visiting these warlords, kowtowing to them and distributing U.S. taxpayer largess through them.

God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners.

Read that again.  It’s not just propaganda.  No one has ever adequately explained what war means today.  Yes, it was called ‘The Long War’ for awhile but before all this began, no senior person (like the president) ever sat down and told the American people ‘Look, we’re going to be at this for a generation or two.  That means we might have tens of thousands of soldiers fighting and dying for twenty, forty or more years.  That’s what we’re in for.’  Instead we got a whole bunch of ‘hoo-ah’ nonsense that set expectations way too high.

Unfortunately for us, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, et. al. don’t think in terms of election cycles or fiscal quarters.  They can (and do) think in terms of years, decades, and generations.  If we aren’t prepared to stick it out, we should just cut our losses now and be done with it.

“…Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. “All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints,” the intelligence officer says. “It’s the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country.”

This is the most personally distressing part of the article for me.  It may be silly but I spent my entire tour in Parwan province and spent a lot of time in the villages, on the roads, and meeting the people there and have a fond regard for the place.  The people of Parwan were so exhausted by warfare and so positive about our presence there that I find it difficult to think about there being a prevalent threat there.  In the dozens of times I left the wire, I can think of only a handful where I felt the threat was sufficient for me to wear my kevlar helmet.

In 2003/2004, everyone still wanted to get into a shooting war and (at least it seemed like) no one wanted to try to win the war we were in.  So, I had a string of motivated NCOs from various units come into my office asking ‘Where can we get into a fight?  Where can we kill some Taliban?’  I remember one XO of a marine battalion tell me ‘You guys in the Army can deal with that hearts and mind bullshit.  We’re here to kill people.’

Now, I’m not saying that was wrong.  Our military needs people who want to go out and risk their lives to blow stuff up and ‘kick some ass’.  I think it’s been pretty well established, however, that relying exclusively on such a mindset or strategy isn’t going to do us a whole lot of good.  Some of us knew that we needed to look towards a further horizon in 2003/2004 and lay some groundwork to prevent the Taliban and others from finding fertile ground for a comeback.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of people interested.

This is the price for six years of neglect.

“You Westerners have your watches,” the leader observed. “But we Taliban have time.”

So this is success?

There are two National Intelligence Estimates floating around in draft form, one about Afghanistan and one about Iraq.  The NIEs are classified but people are leaking the jist of them…and it ain’t good.

Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral”

…the breakdown in central authority in Afghanistan has been accelerated by rampant corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai and by an increase in violence by militants who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan.

…unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq could unleash a new wave of violence, potentially reversing the major security and political gains achieved over the last year.

The findings of the intelligence estimate appear to be reflected in recent statements by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, who has called the situation “fragile” and “reversible” and said he will never declare victory there. (emphasis added)

The biggest piece of nonsense peddled about Iraq is that we can achieve some sort of VE/VJ day type of ‘victory with honor’.  Neither Iraq or Afghanistan are going to become free, secular, Western style democracies.  With Iraq we need to figure out what we want to acomplish already and work towards that.  My ‘off the cuff’ suggestions:

  1. Prevent al-Qaeda from establishing havens in the Western part of the country
  2. Prevent Iran from turning Iraq into a client state
  3. Keep the Kurds from starting a regional conflict

Those are things we can do without running our military and economy in the ground.  There’s very little evidence to support the idea that we can turn Iraq’s kleptocracy into a functioning democracy.  We’ve overseen a rough segregation of Iraqi society along sectarian/ethnic lines which can avoid a major bloodbath so long as all the players keep to their corners (that’s a really big ‘if’).

Oh…one thing both of these reports agreed upon:

U.S. officials familiar with the new National Intelligence Estimate said they were unsure when the top-secret report would be completed and whether it would be published before the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Wow…what a shocker.

The Obama Doctrine

Yet again, J. over at the Armchair Generalist beat me to a post I wanted to write about the discussion in the last presidential debate about what an Obama or McCain Doctrine might look like.  I won’t retread old ground but thought that these two pieces (written in the last week of September) complement the candidates’ answers quite well.

The Stratfor article puts the Democratic view of foreign policy into a broader historical context by saying:

Thus, the main thrust of the Democratic tradition is deeply steeped in fighting wars, but approaches this task with four things in mind:

  1. Wars should not begin until the last possible moment and ideally should be initiated by the enemy.
  2. Wars must be fought in a coalition with much of the burden borne by partners.
  3. The outcome of wars should be an institutional legal framework to manage the peace, with the United States being the most influential force within this multilateral framework.
  4. Any such framework must be built on a trans-Atlantic relationship.

It’s funny but once I saw these it became clear why I had such a warm and fuzzy feeling about a potential Obama foreign policy.  My personal prefereces stick very close to these.  In fact, it would be nice to see principles like this formally accepted by Obama.  They’re clear, easily understandable and pretty darn hard to argue with.

Now, the debate answers:

Brokaw: Sen. Obama, let me ask you if — let’s see if we can establish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security. Take the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998, or take Rwanda in the earlier dreadful days, or Somalia. What is the Obama doctrine for use of force that the United States would send when we don’t have national security issues at stake?

Obama: Well, we may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake. If we could have intervened effectively in the Holocaust, who among us would say that we had a moral obligation not to go in? If we could’ve stopped Rwanda, surely, if we had the ability, that would be something that we would have to strongly consider and act. So when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible. But understand that there’s a lot of cruelty around the world. We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. That’s why it’s so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies. Let’s take the example of Darfur just for a moment. Right now there’s a peacekeeping force that has been set up and we have African Union troops in Darfur to stop a genocide that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead. And that’s what I intend to do when I’m president.

You can clearly see the influence of Samantha Power who was unfortunately dropped from the campaign due to a comment made about Hillary Clinton.  Still, it’s nice to see the ideas remain behind and there’s hope she’ll return after November 4th.  Too often intervention is seen as an either/or proposition.  Send in the Marines and take the place over or ignore it and hope it all works out in the end.  This position is more nuanced and allows for a broad spectrum of alternatives based on capability and political will.

Ideally, some sort of inclusion of the possiblity of military action in cases of ‘moral’ necessity in the guiding principles would be great so that we don’t just blunder around picking and choosing what we do randomly but I’m sure any attmepts to do so would be much more controversial.

Regarding war in general (from the Stratfor article):

Responding to attack rather than pre-emptive attack, coalition warfare and multinational postwar solutions are central to Obama’s policy in the Islamic world. He therefore straddles the divide within the Democratic Party. He opposes the war in Iraq as pre-emptive, unilateral and outside the bounds of international organizations while endorsing the Afghan war and promising to expand it.

This view on multilateralism and NATO is summed up in a critical statement by Obama in a position paper:

“Today it’s become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations. In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face. Such real reform will not come, however, by dismissing the value of these institutions, or by bullying other countries to ratify changes we have drafted in isolation. Real reform will come because we convince others that they too have a stake in change — that such reforms will make their world, and not just ours, more secure.

The article goes on to say that getting Europe to engage and pony up would be Obama’s first, and most critical, challenge.  While the Europeans can be a bit recalcitrant I think they ultimately want, and will more willingly follow, a strong, rational U.S. foreign policy.  In fact, I think Europeans will be pretty desperate for it.

Iran! Lions! Bears!

There seems to be quite a lot of talk about Iran this election and for good reason.  We haven’t exactly been best buds for awhile and they’ve been planning to rearrange the furniture in their neighborhood for awhile.  Of course, the fact that they’ve got a guy in power who may, or may not, be ‘cuckoo for cocoa puffs‘.

There’s been a lot of hand wringing, saber rattling, and general predictions of doom and gloom if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon.  While I agree it isn’t our desired end state, allow me to present a contrarin view…

First, it’s not like we can do a whole lot about it in the first place.  They learned quite well from the Israeli strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.  They spread out their facilities and built in redundancies.  At best we could delay their effort and piss them off in the process.

Second, let’s not forget that Iran of 2008 is not the Iran of 1979.  All revolutions, once they come to power, moderate and maintance of power becomes their primary concern.  The French, Soviets and Chinese had some pretty crazy ideas when their revolutions took over and within 30 years had settled into fairly conventional nation states (not necessarily ones I would want to live in but that’s another issue).  Yes, the Iranians cling to their revolutionary rhetoric but it’s not at all clear that they aren’t doing the same thing.  Hold onto power and try to further your national goals.

Third, it would be dangerous to assume that the Iranian leadership is irrational.  Just because they do (and say) things we don’t like doesn’t mean they’re crazy.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be crazy or he may be stiring the pot and saying outrageous things about Israel for his domestic audience in order to boost up his approval and take their minds off of the fact that in face of $100 a barrel oil, they still aren’t making great headway economically.  Also, it’s not like Ahmadinejad is the supreme leader of Iran and can make his word law.  He may want to bomb Iran all day long but there would have to be a whole host of others in the government who agree with him before such an action could happen.

Fourth, look at Iran’s position.  On their eastern border are about 70,000 troops (U.S. and non-Afghan coalition) and on their western border are over 140,000 U.S. soldiers.  The U.S. has been a hostile power since the revolution in 1979 and ever since the end of ‘major’ combat operations in Iraq there’s been talk about hooking a right turn and taking Tehran.

So, is it really that irrational to try to get a nuclear bomb?  Everyone knows that is the ultimate game changer.  And a small number of bombs is a defensive move.  Let’s say Iran gets 1, 5 or even a dozen bombs.  What does it do with them?  Unless you assume that Iran is headed by a Hitler-esqe (or Joker-esqe if you’re tired of Hitler analogies) freak who just wants to destroy the world, there’s no way you’d contimplate a nuclear strike against Israel.  Even if you were to throw out the notion of American retaliation, it’s a widely held belief that Israel holds 100-200 nuclear weapons.  It would be the very definition of Mutually Assured Destruction.

So what would a few weapons get you?  A guarantee that the U.S. won’t invade.  Increased prestige and a seat at the regional (and perhaps international) table.  I suspect these are the things Iran really wants.

In order to be an offensive weapon, Iran would need to develop a first strike capability which would limit or eliminate Israel’s ability to retaliate.  Given the distances and capabilities of Israel such an attempt is likely to end up as fruitless as the attempts by the U.S. and Soviets during the cold war.

So I generally agree with this article by Bob Baer:

I myself think a deal can be cut with Iran. During the last 30 years, Iran has gone from a terrorist, revolutionary power to far more rational, calculating regional hegemon. Its belligerence today has more to do with a weakened United States and Israel than with any plans to start World War III.

If we want to have any hope of influencing Iran in the future we going to have to engage with them.  This idiotic idea we seem to have gotten that by somehow ignoring countries we don’t like will result in them running back to us, begging to give them just one more chance is ridiculous.

I’m convinced that our adherence to that policy has done more to keep tyrants in power (see Cuba, Iran, Syria, Lybia, Venezuela, etc.) than Soviet subsidies, radical Islam or expensive oil ever could.

So let’s cut the crap and start using some soft power…


Ah, nothing like narrow minded ideologes to bring down our financial system.  It appears a number of our fine representatives are willing to sacrifice our livelyhoods in order to protect us from…SOCIALISM!!!  Horrors!!

From the NY Times:

Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican, said he was “resolute” in his opposition to the measure because it would betray party principles and amount to “a coffin on top of Ronald Reagan’s coffin.”

Hey, thanks Darrell!  You’re right, I (and millions like me) will be more than happy to stand on the bread line so that we can honor the memory of Ronald Reagan.  After all, you can’t make an omlete without breaking some eggs.


And as an aside, am I the only one thinking that Bin Laden and the Islamists are feeling totally vindicated right now?  While I think this has nothing to do with them, I can see how they’ll spin it.  Just like the Soviets, we invaded a Muslim country and faced economic ruin.  This was, after all, their plan.  Draw us into war(s) and then bleed us dry financially.

News from that ‘other’ war

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about Afghanistan which is a shame since there’s been a lot going on there and being said about it.  I’ll try to wrap it up now.

Dexter Filkins got a lot of kudos for his article on the Pakistani tribal areas in last week’s NY Times magazine article.  It’s well written and gives a good overview of the situation there but I’m not sure there’s anything terribly new here.

  1. The Taliban is using the area as a base
  2. The Pakistanis are going through the motions (at best) in their support of our war aims
  3. Pakistan is becoming destabilized
  4. We’re in deep doo-doo

The big news lately has been that President Bush has officially authorized the military to conduct operations inside Pakistan without prior approval from the government in Islamabad.

The new orders reflect concern about safe havens for Al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan, as well as an American view that Pakistan lacks the will and ability to combat militants. They also illustrate lingering distrust of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies and a belief that some American operations had been compromised once Pakistanis were advised of the details.

This distrust was present on the ground in Afghanistan back when I was there in 2003.  I remember hearing periodic ‘reminders’ that the Pakistanis were our good and loyal allies and that there were not to be treated any differently from our other coalition partners.  Of course those speeches were universally received with a ‘Yeah, right’ attitude and the fact that we had to be reminded of what good partners the Pakistanis were spoke to the true level of their reliability.  I can only assume that someone high up had bought some serious rose colored glasses and felt that constant repetition about how stalwart the Pakistanis were would somehow make it so.

Of course, the Pakistanis aren’t too happy about this and are threatening to defend their sovereignty.

Pakistan’s top army officer said Wednesday that his forces would not tolerate American incursions like the one that took place last week and that the army would defend the country’s sovereignty “at all costs.”

And the Prime Minister agreed.

I don’t know if that was for internal consumption to keep the army and Pakistani population from totally wigging out or if it was a warning to the U.S.  After all Pakistani forces firing on Americans isnt’ without precedent

“When the Americans started bombing the Taliban, the Frontier Corps started shooting at the Americans,” we were told by one of Suran Dara’s villagers, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being persecuted or killed by the Pakistani government or the Taliban. “They were trying to help the Taliban. And then the American planes bombed the Pakistani post.”

I can definitely see how this sort of thing can blow up in our faces.  A large scale (in size or duration) incursion into Pakistan could further weaken the secular forces there.  They don’t have much control as it is but at least they control their nuclear arsenal.  But what can we do?  The Pakistanis have clearly demonstrated that they have neither the will or capability to work the tribal areas on their own and without getting a handle on those areas we’re going to keep losing ground and taking casualties.

As what I hope is my only political aside of this post, let me remind you that this ‘new’ policy was put forth by Obama in August of 2007 (I can’t draw attention to that date in any other way) and at the time McCain said:

“You don’t broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation and that you are dependent on … in the struggle against (the) Taliban and the sanctuaries which they hold.”

By the way…great primer of the area by the BBC.

How can you not get furious that we’re at this point:

“I am not convinced that we’re winning it in Afghanistan,” Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday…”Frankly, we are running out of time,” Mullen said, adding that not sending U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan is “too great a risk to ignore.”

This did not have to be and a lot of people knew it.

Palin: “Uh…that mutual defense part of the NATO charter. That’s optional, right?”

So, after three weeks of seclusion from the press and round the clock prepping, Palin gave her first interview.  ABC has only released excerpts but there are some great lines in there:

GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

PALIN: Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia.


GIBSON: And you think it would be worth it to the United States, Georgia is worth it to the United States to go to war if Russia were to invade.

PALIN: What I think is that smaller democratic countries that are invaded by a larger power is something for us to be vigilant against. We have got to be cognizant of what the consequences are if a larger power is able to take over smaller democratic countries.

It doesn’t have to lead to war and it doesn’t have to lead, as I said, to a Cold War, but economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, again, counting on our allies to help us do that in this mission of keeping our eye on Russia and Putin and some of his desire to control and to control much more than smaller democratic countries.

Uh…I guess her handlers forgot to tell her that Chapter 5 of the NATO charter specifically states:

“…an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

This is kind of a big point.  If she’s going to lobby to admit Georgia into NATO, don’t you think it’d be a good idea to know what potential obligations that might mean for the U.S.

So, let’s review.  “Hey, NATO allies.  If Palin becomes president and you get invaded, we don’t have to go to war with your invader.  We don’t even have to have a ‘cold war’ with your invader.  How’s that make you feel about America’s commitment to our allies?”

Now, in all fairness.  She did seem to flip-flop on the issue after Gibson harped on it a bit.  So, she might not know jack about international issues but she appears to have a finely honed ‘spider sense’ regarding when she’s saying something stupid.

She was also asked about her whole “U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God” quote to which she said that she was riffing off of Lincoln.  I’m sorry.  I just can’t buy that she has the slightest inkling of anything Lincoln has ever said.  Good work by the political team in coming up with a good cover story though.

And finally:

GIBSON: And you didn’t say to yourself, “Am I experienced enough? Am I ready? Do I know enough about international affairs? Do I — will I feel comfortable enough on the national stage to do this?”

PALIN: I didn’t hesitate, no.

GIBSON: Didn’t that take some hubris?

PALIN: I — I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink.

Ah, brilliant.  That’s what we need.  Another president/vice-president combo that don’t think before they act.  Yes, running the most powerful country in the world, involved in two wars and instability elsewhere is sure to benefit from decisions based on ‘gut’ feelings.

Besides, are you telling me she didn’t think about it for one second?  She didn’t ask her husband?  She didn’t even consider her family?  Every presidential candidate I can remember has some story about how they got their family together to discuss this huge decision and make sure everyone was willing to go through with it.  Not Sarah.  Maybe that’s because she’s convinced she’s on a mission from god?