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Tag: "afghanistan"

No, Seriously; What Price Defeat?

[ 89 ] August 10, 2011 |

My column this week calls for a more rigorous appraisal of US interests in Afghanistan, and gives some reasons why we’re unlikely to see it:

In other words, would it make sense for the United States to “lose” the war in Afghanistan simply to put an end to the steady stream of casualties and the ongoing political and military investment in the survival of the Afghan government?

Some argue that the idea of winning by losing is a contradiction in terms. If the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai fell and the Taliban returned to power, they say, U.S. interests around the world would suffer grave reputational harm. Defeat would also increase the likelihood of additional terrorist attacks. However, the idea that the United States must “win at all costs” isn’t very satisfying. Even maximalists will find some measures — a domestic draft, for instance, or the mothballing of the aircraft carrier fleet — too high a price to pay for victory.

Assessing the cost of victory is complicated by two factors. The first is that costs are most clear in hindsight. It is very difficult while in the middle of a conflict to project how long the current level of spending and casualties will continue into the future. This is doubly true of counterinsurgency conflicts, which most often lack clear victory points. Second, the measure of “national interest” is more complicated than it sounds, as not everyone in the United States has the same foreign policy interest. To take an obvious example, workers very often benefit from protection against international competitors, while capital benefits from mobility and the relatively free movement of goods.


Becoming a Habit…

[ 2 ] November 24, 2010 |

I was on the Alyona Show again yesterday, representing the Queen City:

Subject was the Taliban negotiator impostor incident in Afghanistan.

On RT on Woodward on Obama

[ 2 ] September 23, 2010 |

I went on the Alyona Show yesterday to discuss a book I haven’t read:
To elaborate a bit, I think that it’s correct to say that the President could have de-escalated in Afghanistan if he’d been willing to expend the political capital necessary to do so. The Woodward seems to indicate that the President did, in fact, want options for de-escalation. Opposition within the military, the professional national security bureaucracy, and the foreign policy elite of the Democratic Party could have been overcome; a different set of advisers would have presented different options (although the pro-escalation bias in all three of the above communities would have persisted). Observing this, however, doesn’t excuse us from taking note of how difficult de-escalation would have been for the President. I don’t think it’s surprising that Obama chose to pursue priorities other than de-escalation; to the extent that we want assign credit and blame, taking note of the obstacles doesn’t preclude us from determining that he deserves either or both.

I’d also want to briefly re-iterate what appears to have been a central aspect of the President’s thinking: Ten years and another trillion dollars IS defeat, regardless of the situation that we leave behind in Afghanistan. There is no construction of US national interest (as apart from parochial interest) that could treat such an intervention as victory. The position of the uniformed military is interesting. Although the military as an institution is less pro-intervention than commonly assumed, in this case the senior command appeared to be resolutely pro-escalation. This is entirely understandable; this leadership continues to remember the demoralized military of the 1970s, and does not wish to be perceived as responsible for failure in another war. On the other hand, there are substantial portions of the uniformed military which are deeply skeptical of the COIN strategy being used in Afghanistan, and which wouldn’t be too sad to see that doctrine fail. This includes elements of both the USAF and USN, but also a faction of the Army.

Oh Sweet Jeebus

[ 23 ] August 27, 2010 |

Our last commander in Afghanistan was an avowed fan of Bud Light Lime. His replacement?

Despite admitting that he has not purchased a compact disc in years, General David Petraeus revealed Wednesday that he is “an Enya guy,” referring to the new-age Irish musician.

“I do like Celtic music. And Enya is among those,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Fox News Channel’s Jennifer Griffin in an exclusive interview.

Petraeus said he has not had the opportunity to enjoy his favorite artist in the battlefield, saying he has not listened to music since he’s been on the ground in Afghanistan.

“Maybe over time I’ll get to that,” he added.

Maybe the Taliban will decide that killing Enya fans isn’t worth the trouble?

UPDATE [by SL]:  I can’t resist once again quoting one of my favorite hatchet jobs:

Pondering the fate of post-September 11 pop, everyone predicted what they already wished for–Slipknot undone, Britney in hiding. What happened instead was the unthinkable–sales of Enya’s first album since 1995 spiked 10 months after release. (And she thought that movie where Charlize Theron fucked Keanu Reeves and died of cancer was a promotional coup!) Two years in the making with the artiste playing every synthesizer, the 11 songs here last a resounding 34 minutes and represent a significant downsizing of her New Age exoticism since 1988’s breakthrough, Watermark–it’s goopier, more simplistic. Yanni is Tchaikovsky by comparison, Sarah McLachlan Ella Fitzgerald, treacle Smithfield ham. Right, whatever gets folks through the night. But Enya’s the kind of artist who makes you think, if this piffle got them through it, how dark could their night have been? Like Master P or Michael Bolton only worse, she tests one’s faith in democracy itself.

Joint Commission on Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan?

[ 10 ] August 16, 2010 |

This is interesting for a couple of reasons:

Nato and the United Nations are cautiously considering a Taliban proposal to set up a joint commission to investigate allegations of civilians being killed and wounded in the conflict in Afghanistan, diplomats in Kabul have told The Guardian.

The Taliban overture, which came in a statement posted on its website, will revive a divisive debate about whether to conduct any formal talks with insurgents who are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and whose assassination campaign now kills one person every day on average.

The Taliban statement called for the establishment of a body including members from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, UN human rights investigators, NATO and the Taliban. “The stated committee should [be] given a free hand to survey the affected areas as well as people in order to collect the precise information and the facts and figures and disseminate its findings worldwide,” the Taliban said.

One human rights organisation has already thrown its support behind the joint commission plan, which echoes a similar idea floated four years ago.

The UN and NATO are treading carefully, but western diplomats say the proposal is being carefully considered. One said that some senior officers at the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were keen on the idea but that no steps could be taken until it was considered “at the highest political level”.

It appears that  last week’s UN report suggesting that 76% of Afghan civilian casualties over the past year were caused by the Taliban, rather than by the government or ISAF, hit home. NATO/ISAF should strongly consider taking the Taliban up on this offer.  First, it offers an opportunity to develop productive contacts with the Taliban, contacts that could provide the foundation for an eventual settlement.  Second, just as public criticism has helped make NATO more conscientious about civilian casualties, sensitivity about public criticism may make the Taliban more likely to moderate its behavior.  Even if the independent commission proposal is mainly a stunt, it still seems to indicate that the Taliban wants to be viewed as respectful of civilian life and property.

Nice Job, Cap’n

[ 6 ] August 12, 2010 |


You eat at enough DFACs and you’re going to see some awesomely bad Armed Forces Network commercials. One series that I actually like features MLB players, vets and managers telling the troops how much they appreciate them and want them to get home safe. (Josh Hamilton, Mike Scioscia, Dave Winfield, Rafael Furcal, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Victor Martinez, etc.) It comes across as a nice, heartfelt message.

Except, unfortunately for Derek Jeter, who looks into the camera and says, “To the troops, wanna thank you for your support…” Fingernails on a chalkboard.

Now we know what we’re fighting for.

Civilian Control

[ 3 ] August 5, 2010 |

I have an article up at Right Web on conservatives and civilian control of the military:

The reaction of right-wing elites to the cashiering of McChrystal represents a genuine improvement over the historical attitude of conservatives toward civ-mil relations. Most importantly, conservatives have affirmed civilian supremacy over the military, even in the context of a Democratic president lacking military credentials.

However, this affirmation carries some warning signs. In the future, conservatives may well use the McChrystal firing as part of a “stab in the back” narrative, explaining how a Democratic president lost an otherwise winnable war by declining to take military advice. While every indication suggests that Obama acceded to all of McChrystal’s requests on doctrine and troop strength in Afghanistan, future attacks may nevertheless use the McChrystal firing as a touchstone in the conservative narrative of the “war on terror.”

On Lighting A Candle Instead of Cursing the Darkness…

[ 9 ] August 3, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman’s article on USAF targeting procedures in Afghanistan is worth re-reading.

… despite some speculation to the contrary, it appears that David Petraeus will retain the restrictions described in the above article.

Apparently, This Is Meant to Be A Serious Argument

[ 16 ] July 29, 2010 |

It’s true — Time really is using a graphic image of horrible abuse by the Taliban that happened during the U.S. occupation as a reason to stay there forever with, presumably, no cost/benefit analysis whatsoever.    One thing that has chacterized both wars is policymakers and analysts who seem to have no idea how difficult effective state-building is; effective authority isn’t something you can establish because you really want to.    Staying in Afghanistan out of the belief that if we spend enough money and kill enough people an effective Weberian state will control the whole country and wipe out any Taliban influence is just nuts.    And the same inability to understand this leads to further policy errors related to the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs.

Sunday Book Review: Stones into Schools

[ 2 ] July 25, 2010 |

This is the sixth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools

Stones into Schools is Greg Mortenson’s follow-up to Three Cups of Tea, a book depicting his experience in southwest Asia building schools for girls.  In part because of his locale, Greg Mortenson’s efforts came to several US military spouse book clubs, which helped spread the argument to officers serving in Afghanistan.  The book continued to receive publicity (in part because of Mortenson’s speaking tours), and eventually led to Stones into Schools, a follow up volume.

You need to come to this book with certain expectation.  Although the subject matter is engaging, Mortensen is not a particularly sophisticated author.  Academics will find this interesting, but not very analytical; Mortensen starts with the assumption that women’s education will be transformative (a position that has some support in the academy) and doesn’t try to prove the argument or evaluate it in any very rigorous manner.  It would be wrong to say that Mortenson comes off as pompous, but there is a certain sense of self-importance, and the narrative is, of course, structured around the “white guy helps the primitives civilize themselves” idea.  All of this is forgiveable.  Mortenson has made an enormous sacrifice of his own time and money in order to help build schools in some of the world’s least accessible locations, and this has helped him produce a good book on development in southwest Asia.

Mortenson also includes some practical advice for non-governmental organizations.  In the wake of the Kashmir earthquake, for example, refugees received massive donations from the West, particularly the US.  Many of the donations included high end camping gear, which, while lovely, often caught fire when people tried to cook near it.  He also describes what can only be called the inefficiencies of frenzied disaster relief efforts.  I suspect that the response to the Haitian earthquake suffered from the same problems.

Mortenson has an instinct for negotiating local power structures.  He does a good job of identifying local power brokers, and isn’t bothered by the necessity to adapt to local cultures and decision-making practices.  His experiences indicate not only how difficult building relationship are in the area, but also how personalist.  One of Mortenson’s biggest deals nearly fails because of the illness and death of an important local powerbroker.  Indeed, Mortenson himself suffered a severe illness while traveling in Afghanistan, which was particularly troubling because many deals would have been imperiled by his death.

Mortenson is open about his failures.  Although most of his efforts at establishing schools have been successful, and few of his schools have been destroyed, he does detail several individual cases in which he failed to convince a family to send a young girl to school, or in which he was unable to bring together the resources needed to put a school in a particular area.  He also doesn’t describe the effort as likely to pay off in the short term.

In a couple of places, Mortenson discusses his relationship with the military.  Mortenson is impressed with the dedication of the US military, and at least its surface interest in humanitarian endeavor.  However, he’s skeptical of short term military success in Afghanistan.  This isn’t surprising, as his own work expects change on a much longer time frame. He also worried a lot about civilian casualties from air strikes.  However, Mortenson appears to have had good relationships with notable US military officers, including Mike Mullen.  Shortly before he was fired, Stanley McChrystal sent Mortenson a note, expressing the hope that Mortenson would continue his work even if McChrystal could not.

Mortenson’s book is both interesting and readable.  We don’t know yet whether Mortenson’s strategy will have any long term effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least on the geopolitical scale.  We do know that peoples lives have been improved.  However, Mortenson’s perspective is particular; there are many questions of development and NGO operation that he can’t shed any light on.  This doesn’t make Stones to Schools less worthwhile to read, however.

If Only…

[ 5 ] July 5, 2010 |

This seems optimistic:

As you may have heard, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is in the news again, and not in a good way, with reports of a speech he made in Connecticut referring to the war in Afghanistan as “a war of Obama’s choosing,” and warning of the futility of a “land war in Afghanistan.”

Whatever else they represent, Steele’s remarks have created a sudden and surprising fault line in the GOP over foreign policy at a time when that party has (following public opinion) focused its attention heavily on domestic issues, largely confining itself with attacks on the administration’s alleged weakness and fecklessness in dealing with other countries, while tolerating anti-Iraq-War heretics like Rand Paul…

We’ll soon see if Steele can survive, and if this event turns out to be a momentary embarrassment, or the beginning of a real debate among Republicans about the party’s foreign policy message going into 2010 and 2012.

I’ll be taking “momentary embarrassment.” Meanwhile, the DNC uses this opportunity to cover itself with glory. A couple of thoughts:

1. I can understand why the DNC folks felt that they could hit Steele with the “He hates the troops” bit after being on the receiving end of the same nonsense for eight years. Nevertheless, GOP displays of doubt on the issue of bottomless war support are unquestionably a good thing, and Michael Steele is much more important than either of the Pauls. Any anti-war sentiment in the GOP ought to be nurtured, even if it’s made in the context of an attack on a Democratic President.

2. While Steele will probably get crucified for this by the powers that be, I’m guessing that there’s a substantial portion of the GOP that agrees with him about Afghanistan. Part of the reason for the shift of attention from Afghanistan to Iraq was skepticism that US forces could do much long term good there. Just as the expectations for the war in Iraq did not include prolonged violent occupation, the idea that 100000+ troops would eventually be required in Afghanistan would have driven Donald Rumsfeld crazy. While Bill “Any War, Any Time” Kristol continues to hold the GOP conch on national security issues, there’ll be no debate about the sensibility of the maximalist hawk position. I suspect, however, that even within the elements of the GOP that care about national security there’s mounting skepticism about the neocon approach.

See also Clemons.

Ricks in Lexington

[ 2 ] March 25, 2010 |

While I’m on the subject of Tom Ricks…

Last month, Tom Ricks visited the Patterson School and gave a couple of talks about Iraq. One talk was for the Patterson students, and the other for the general public. Because of bad weather, however, most of the turnout at the public talk happened to be Patterson students or recent Patterson graduates.

Ricks argued that the invasion of Iraq was the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. He suggested that the Surge succeeded at a tactical and operational level, but failed to resolve the basic strategic and political problems of the US occupation of Iraq. He is relatively optimistic, however, about the McChrystal plan in Afghanistan; he believes that the fundamental political issues are more tractable than in Iraq, and in particular that the unpopularity of the Taliban among the Afghan people makes military victory possible. The Karzai government was the most serious problem, but he suggested that making a credible threat to leave Afghanistan was the most effective tool that the United States had in order to make Karzai more accountable to his domestic constituency.

The most controversial aspect of Ricks’ argument will be familiar to anyone who read his recent op-ed in the New York Times. Ricks contended that the political situation in Iraq is untenable, and that civil war is inevitable in the absence of a substantial, long-term US commitment. He further argued that the civil war would be destructive to US interests in the Middle East, and would produce a greater humanitarian disaster than Iraq has yet seen. Although the Surge failed overall, he suggested, combined with the strategy of buying off the Sunni insurgency it did manage to produce a substantial drop in violence. The current situation in Iraq is an uneasy truce, enforced by US troops and dependent on US financial commitment. US disengagement in the near or medium term, he argued, will make the status quo untenable.

Obviously, this argument doesn’t fall into any convenient ideological box. The progressive coalition remains appropriately hostile to the notion of maintaining a substantial military commitment to Iraq over the long term. Conservatives aren’t much more excited about a long-term commitment, preferring instead to declare victory and blame any post-withdrawal violence on the Democrats.  I think that a modest percentage of the uniformed military is just about the only constituency that supports a continued large scale presence in Iraq, although, as I suggested, conservatives will be happy to blame any post-withdrawal disasters on Obama.

There are certainly elements of Ricks’ argument that I agree with. I am deeply skeptical of the ability of the Maliki regime to maintain control without the presence of substantial US forces.  I’m also quite certain that Iran is more influential in Iraq than it ever has been.  However, that doesn’t get me very close to Ricks, for a few reasons.  The first is the aforementioned lack of any constituency for keeping a large scale presence beyond the short term; Democrats certainly don’t want to stay, and Republicans are hoping that Democrats will be the ones to pull out.  The second is the apparent disinterest of the Iraqis in a continued US presence.  Even if the leadership could be convinced that US troops were necessary for survival (political or otherwise) general Iraqi resistance would be… substantial.  Third, Ricks argument on Afghanistan makes the threat of US withdrawal a centerpiece; the main obstacle to success is Karzai, and our main weapon against Karzai is the threat that we’ll abandon him to his domestic opponents.   I’m not sure why the same dynamic wouldn’t hold in Iraq; if we make clear that we’re “around for the long haul” then there’s little incentive for political reconciliation.

Still, even though I disagreed with Ricks’ conclusions, his talks were excellent and informative, and his visit was extremely productive.

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