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Tag: "afghanistan"

Great Gamble Addendum

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

Ralph, in comments to the Great Gamble review:

Soviet casualties and aircraft losses (reported thru military channels to the General Staff) were much lower than what is popularly believed. The Soviets definitely had a “casualty avoidance” mentality and endeavored to fight the war “on the cheap,” in my opinion — committing relatively modest forces.

This is something I forgot to mention in the review. Feifer argues, more or less in passing, that Soviet war dead from Afghanistan probably exceeded the 14427 official figure, possibly by a factor of four or five. I’ve seen this argument in other places, but I’ve never seen very good sourcing for it. I suspect that the 14427 number is probably the floor for an estimate of Soviet dead in Afghanistan (why would they exaggerate?) but I’d have to see some good evidence as to why a substantially higher number is plausible. It’s bloody difficult, even in an authoritarian state, to make dead soldiers disappear, and it’s really, really difficult to make 50000 dead soldiers disappear. Units have to be filled, bodies have to be buried, families of the dead get irritable and vocal, and so forth.

Anybody know of any good data on the subject?

Sunday Book Review: The Great Gamble

[ 0 ] January 11, 2010 |

As conditions have deteriorated in Afghanistan in the past several years, academic and military specialists have paid greater attention to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, in an effort to support one faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan against another. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, having suffered serious losses of prestige, blood, and treasure. Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble covers the political and strategic details of the war in depth, with some forays into tactical and operational details of the actual fighting. He also draws larger conclusions about the impact of the war on Soviet and Afghan society.

Feifer deals at some length with Soviet decision-making prior to the war, arguing that the Soviets understood their own motives as defensive. The Soviets had grown unhappy with Hafizullah Amin, believing that his control over the country was slipping and that he was making too many overtures to Pakistan and the United States. The Soviets were also concerned with the spread of Islamic radicalism in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and wanted to shore up their southern flank. There was some opportunism to the Soviet action, as they believed the US was preoccupied with its own affairs and unlikely to become involved in the conflict. Many within both the Red Army and the CPSU were ambivalent or outright opposed to the invasion, however. Greater engagement had hazy prospects of success, they argued, and the game wasn’t worth the candle. In part because of the declining physical and mental capabilities of Leonid Brezhnev, the hawks prevailed; the Soviet Union began what was expected to be a brief, cheap military intervention in December 1979.

Feifer’s book would be better characterized as a history of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan than of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. While he does include some operational details, the focus is much more on the ambiance of the war, the slowly shifting expectations of Red Army soldiers, and the Soviet relationships with the Afghans. In some ways this is fitting; counter-insurgency campaigns lack the kind of decisive battle found in more conventional combat. At other times, however, Feifer seems uncertain as to whether particular battles or operations even took place. The book often fails to sufficiently explain the context of the engagements is does discuss.

Comparative questions about the Soviet and American experience in Afghanistan immediately leap to mind in any discussion of the Soviet war. Some differences are stark, while some similarities are frightening. On the one hand, the Red Army never displayed the technical and technological capacity that has characterized the American war. Soviet units often suffered casualties that would be shocking to Americans; entire company-sized units often suffered complete destruction. Soviet aircraft also suffered a much higher rate of attrition than their American counterparts, due in no small part to the effectiveness of US and Pakistani supplied anti-aircraft weapons. Soviet cruelty to civilians also appears to have been much more regular and much more brutal than that displayed by Americans since 2001. To put it bluntly, the worst Taliban propaganda about American atrocities pales in comparison to the self-reported behavior of Red Army soldiers.

And then there are some nagging similarities. While both the Soviet leadership and the rank and file of the Red Army had a tenuous relationship with orthodox Marxist ideology, many in both groups genuinely believed that the they were “saving” Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a feudal backwater, beset by an archaic religious ideology and a premodern tribal structure. Many Soviets believed that the invasion would substantially change Afghan life for the better. The Soviets engaged in many infrastructure projects designed to increase opportunity for Afghans, and to improve the prospects for economic development. The Soviets also took an interest in social revolution, with an eye towards breaking the hold of Islam and tribal organizations over Afghan life.

Soviet tension with its Afghan puppets also carries some reminders of the US experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Vietnam. The Soviet invasion was precipitated by the perceived need to intervene on behalf of one faction of the Afghan Communist Party against another. It is the only war I know of in which both factions requested Soviet intervention in the weeks leading up to the invasion. The Soviets continuously pressured Karmal and Najibullah to end corruption, reform governance, and build bridges with opposition forces in order to reduce the scope of the intervention. As in the American experience, these efforts rarely worked; both the Soviet and American proxies had their own constituencies to worry about. Concerns about legitimacy limited Soviet actions, just as they have American. The Soviets didn’t want to annex Afghanistan, and didn’t want it to appear as if they intended to do so. This made it difficult to take a heavy handed approach to even recalcitrant Afghan political actors. The Soviets were more willing to conduct negotiations with mujahadeen figures than their Afghan proxies, and on several occasions signed truces with various resistance factions.

The Red Army suffered all of the problems of shifting to COIN as the US military, and then some. Soviet military engagement was never completely coherent in terms of objectives; on the one hand, there was the realization on the part of the high command and the political authority that accomodation with Afghan civilians was necessary. On the other hand, the poorly disciplined and conventionally oriented Red Army proved too unwieldy to conduct warfare with the precision required by COIN; civilians were regularly butchered, and often deliberately targeted at the operational level. There were also some ideological problems, as Red Army political doctrine had trouble coming to terms with the notion that factors independent of class conflict could drive and insurgency. Soviet doctrine improved over the course of the war, at least in the tactical and operational senses. The Soviets became much better at conducting search/destroy and convoy missions through experience, and on many occasions successfully isolated and destroyed significant mujahadeen concentrations. On the other hand, rebuilding the Red Army as a COIN-oriented forces proved too much, and in any case excited neither the high command nor the Soviet political leadership.

Feifer suggests some other similarities that hearken more to the American experience in Vietnam than in Afghanistan, at least so far. The end of the war preceded the collapsed of the Soviet Union by three years, meaning that there was rather less time to dwell on the experience in Russia than in the United States. Nevertheless, some of the same bitterness and resentment of war critics that emerged in the wake of the fall of Saigon was also evident among Red Army veterans of Afghanistan. Even during the war, critics of the Soviet Union (and of the war) were attacked by veterans an unpatriotic, and unappreciative of the sacrifices made by Red Army soldiers. Feifer argues that while the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the Afghanistan conflict off the radar screen of most Russian citizens for a while, that there has recently been some re-evaluation of the war, focused on the experience of Red Army soldiers.

The most important lesson of this book for the United States in Afghanistan is that drawing on even recent historical experience for lessons is perilously difficult. The US Army and the US Marine Corps are not the Red Army; the Taliban don’t have the same degree of support from Pakistan or the United States; the US invasion appears to have been more popular in Afghanistan at any point than the Soviet; US goals for nation-building are different than Soviet; the US economy is far more capable of weathering the strain of prolonged conflict than the Soviet. And yet; both the Russians and the Americans had to transition between a conventional and a COIN force. Both had to deal with unreliable, unaccountable proxies. Both had to deal with the confusing composition of Afghan society. Both had to conduct operations in an inhospitable climate. Both had to deal with steadily increasing unhappiness and alienation on the domestic front. While it might be enough simply to say that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” it remains unclear whether the similarities outweigh the differences, or on what metrics a comparison should be made. Learning is hard, and stuff.

As for the book, it probably lacks sufficient detail to leave specialists on Afghanistan, on COIN, or on the Red Army terribly pleased. Feifer doesn’t provide much about Afghan society, or about the changes wrought by the invasion, Soviet occupation policies, or the widespread destruction caused by fighting. He also doesn’t delve into a lot of detail about the tactics and composition of the Red Army. Feifer gives some account of the US and Pakistani contribution to the war, but intelligence specialists probably won’t be satisfied. However, The Great Gamble does provide a reasonable overview of the politics of the conflict, with enough fighting to contribute considerable flavor. I can’t recommend the book unreservedly, but many readers will find it productive.

Back to Af-Pak

[ 0 ] January 7, 2010 |

David Axe and the folks at War is Boring have an ambitious journalistic project, and could use your assistance. If you have a chance, drop a quarter in the jar.

I Am Shocked, Shocked to Learn of the Necessity of Additional Troops!!!

[ 0 ] December 3, 2009 |

Donny Rumsfeld, not quite lying:

In his speech at West Point last night, Obama claimed that before he took office, “commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.”

Rumsfeld is now strongly denying that claim, calling it a “bald misstatement.”

“I am not aware of a single request of that nature between 2001 and 2006,” Rumsfeld said. “If any such requests occurred, ‘repeated’ or not, the White House should promptly make them public. The President’s assertion does a disservice to the truth and, in particular, to the thousands of men and women in uniform who have fought, served and sacrificed in Afghanistan.”

There is a sense in which Donald Rumsfeld is telling the truth. The sense in which he is telling the truth is structured as follows: Donald Rumsfeld either intimidated or outright fired anyone in the military brass who tried to make a formal request for additional troops, in either Afghanistan or Iraq. He made it clear from a very early point in his tenure that he would view such requests as acknowledgments of defeat, both in terms of the wars in question and for his project of military transformation. As Bradley Graham details, when the idea of reinforcement was mooted or when informal requests were made, Rumsfeld brusquely interrogated the generals in questions until the topic was dropped. Sending more troops was not something that Rumsfeld was prepared to entertain, and he was careful to surround himself with people who made certain that the topic was never seriously raised.

So yes, Don Rumsfeld is telling the “Truth.” Virtually everyone understands the worthlessness of this “Truth;” even wingnuts, enamored of the post-Rumsfeld surge, are reluctant to man this particular barricade. Recognition of Donald Rumsfeld’s incompetence is perhaps the last truly bipartisan consensus in modern American politics.

Instant Reaction: Bloggingheads Style

[ 0 ] December 2, 2009 |

Last night, I diavlogged with Matt Duss on the subject of the Obama speech:

As this suggests, I’m pretty ambivalent about the escalation.

Imperial naivete

[ 0 ] December 2, 2009 |

St. Ignatius of Georgetown bestows his benediction on Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, but, being a liberal columnist at the liberal Washington Post, he regrets that the announced plan fails to commit the nation explicitly to perpetual war:

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act togetherat last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a date certain, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That’s the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

Of course one would have to be an idiot to imagine that Obama’s announced strategy of employing a Surge(tm) with a “date certain” for withdrawal is what it pretends to be. The plan as presented is obviously for public consumption: the real plan will have to be either:

(1) To abandon Afghanistan, as the Bush administration eventually abandoned Iraq, but only, as in Iraq, after a face-saving military triumph over the current wave of civil insurgency, aka the declare victory and leave option; or

(2) Perpetual occupation.

The most Orwellian moment last night was Obama’s proclamation that, unlike previous empires, “we do not seek to occupy other nations.”

We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

As a country, we are not as young – and perhaps not as innocent – as we were when Roosevelt was President. Yet we are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom. Now we must summon all of our might and moral suasion to meet the challenges of a new age.

Stirring sentiments indeed. He might want to repeat them in Oslo next week, when he picks up his Nobel Peace Prize. It certainly beats “We should invade other countries when it gets good results.”


[ 0 ] December 1, 2009 |

Stephen Walt:

Americans have come to believe that spending government revenues on U.S. citizens here at home is usually a bad thing and should be viewed wth suspicion, but spending billions on vast social engineering projects overseas is the hallmark of patriotism and should never be questioned. This position makes no sense, but it is hard to think of a prominent U.S. leader who is making an explicit case for doing somewhat less abroad so that we can afford to build a better future here at home. Debates about foreign policy, grand strategy, and military engagement — including the current debate over Obama’s decision to add another 30,000-plus troops in Afghanistan — tend to occur in isolation from a discussion of other priorities, as if there were no tradeoffs between what we do for others and what we are able to do for Americans here at home.

Via Yglesias

Bailing on Bin Laden

[ 0 ] November 29, 2009 |

I should hope that the absurdity of conservative commentary on Afghanistan is self-evident, but to summarize briefly, the Obama administration is currently under wingnut fire for a) under-resourcing the Afghanistan mission, and b) failing to do exactly what Stanley McChrystal wants (even as it, apparently, does pretty much exactly what Stanley McChrystal wants). The patent stupidity of these arguments is manifest, as the Bush administration evidently under-resourced the Afghanistan mission for some seven years before Greater Wingnuttia noticed what was happening, and the Bush administration further overrode the authority of local commanders when those commanders had unpleasant things to say, generally to the loud applause of aforementioned Wingnuttia (see, for example, the Bush administration’s decision to push forward with the Surge, in spite of the resistance of the larger US military establishment). There’s some risk, of course, in making it All About Bush, but then I suspect we’re not yet close to accounting for the lasting damage that the Bush administration (and its cheerleaders) did to US security.

The latest cause for re-examination comes with the utterly unsurprising news that the Bush administration completely botched the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in 2001 and 2002 by failing to deploy sufficient forces to Tora Bora, and by relying on Afghan proxies to fight Al Qaeda forces. The administration was abetted in its ineptitude by Tommy Franks, who apparently didn’t believe that capturing or killing the man responsible for murdering 3000+ Americans was very interesting or worthwhile. Franks “genius” went down the memory hole around the same time that Donald Rumsfeld became persona non grata among the Wingnutty, but it bears recollection that Franks was, for a while, the Greatest American Hero Evah for Destroying the Mighty Legions of Saddam Hussein. I actually think that Franks’ execution of the early weeks of the Iraq War was more capable than the retrospective judgment allows, but nevertheless it’s fair to say that his inclusion in the pantheon didn’t last very long.

Jules Crittenden, Standard Bearer of the Knights of Wingnuttia, seizes the opportunity to blame this all on …. John Kerry. Rather than denying the now-consensus position that the Bush administration developed and pursued an utterly disastrous Afghanistan policy (and really, this holds regardless of your larger attitudes about the Afghanistan War), Jules describes examination of the failure in the following terms:

So, eight years later, what’s the point?

The horse is still out, and going forward, the vaguely hinted-at suggestion is that it’s important to stay focused on barn door open-closed operations.

Indeed. It’s never worth taking time to examine massive government failures.

Beyond the insinuation that calling the Vietnam War a mistake is somehow similar in criminal degree to the failure to catch Osama Bin Laden, Crittenden also provides this gem:

Give your highly experienced field commanders what they ask for, a counterinsurgency plan to aimed at winning, rather than some fraction of a counterinsurgency plan aimed at exiting ASAP

Right. Maybe I’m crazy, but it seems that the relevant cliche here doesn’t involve a horse and a barn door, but rather a pot and a kettle. But then there’s always the memory hole…

Obama’s war

[ 0 ] November 24, 2009 |

An unfortunate aspect of the nature of politics is that principled opposition to disastrous and/or immoral policies tends to either disappear or at least lose much of its intensity when such policies are adopted by politicians one supports.

Certainly over the last year we’ve seen this among what passes for the political left in this country, in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s true that Obama inherited these wars. He was elected to end them.

Yet today it’s being reported that, after nearly doubling the US military presence in Afghanistan earlier this year, he has decided to increase that number by 50%, at a direct cost of one million dollars per soldier. The indirect costs are incalcuable.

The administration’s plan contains “off-ramps,” points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or “begin looking very quickly at exiting” the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

“We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that’s it,” the U.S. defense official said.

In short, the next six months will be crucial.

If you haven’t yet seen this recent Frontline program on the current situation in that country it’s worth your time.

With Friends Like These . . .

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

The Sun (of all papers) manufactures a controversy about . . . Gordon Brown.

The time line is telling. Brown, blind in one eye and of notoriously illegible handwriting (something I can say that I understand), pens a letter to the mother of a fallen soldier expressing sorrow over her son. The illegible scrawl could be interpreted as clumsy, hasty, and riven with sloppy spelling (including, allegedly, her surname). Jacqui Janes, the mother, with the help of The Sun, decry the obviously anti-military inclinations of the PM.

The story leads the news for a day. The PM phones the mum. The mum has a rant.

And it’s conveniently on tape.

What is lost in this furor is the more important issue: the British services are under-equipped, and it’s entirely possible that more helicopters in the theatre might have increased the probability that her son’s life was saved.

Rather, what we have is a typically shrill manufactured tabloid critique of a Prime Minister that The Sun is already on record as not supporting.

But at least Rupert Murdoch regrets his papers’ anti-Brown stance, a man he considers his friend.

Two Points on COIN

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

First, I don’t think that there’s quite enough appreciation of this:

But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective. The 2017 budget deficit or the potential economic impact of a manufacturing plant closure in Georgia is not the kind of thing a lieutenant, captain, or major serving in the field is going to think about. But it’s still, in an objective sense, quite important and senior Pentagon figures are not mistaken to treat it as such.

And part of the subtext of the Afghanistan debate is that as a matter of bureaucratic warfare, it makes enormous sense for the currently ascendant COIN faction to try to press its advantages—to exaggerate the extent of what was achieved in Iraq in 2007, and to overstate the strategic significance of achieving some kind of comprehensive success in Afghanistan.

The battle against the Taliban isn’t the only fight taking place in Afghanistan. We’re also, as Matt suggests, seeing serious combat between two visions of warfare, and two factions within the greater defense community. The broad, and sometimes hyperbolic, claims about the potential effectiveness of COIN should be understood in this light, as should much of the pushback. One faction, broadly speaking, wants a military organized around the possibility of conventional combat. The other has been skeptical of this approach for some time, and has found an unexpected opportunity over the past six years to press its case. The Surge was a huge gamble for this faction; conditions didn’t favor its success, forces were insufficient, and the top brass didn’t care for the approach. In spite of all this, and assisted by a number of other factors, the Surge enjoyed surprising tactical and operational success. It didn’t solve the strategic problem of Iraq, but it was a huge bureaucratic victory for the COIN faction, and it created major problems for the more conventionally oriented factions in the military. The heart of the fight over COIN in Afghanistan is, I think, about whether this bureaucratic victory will be consolidated or rolled back.

I’m of two minds on this fight, because while I’m very skeptical that ground forces of the United States will be required to fight a conventional war against a peer competitor during my lifetime, I’m increasingly skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for the intellectualism of COIN proponents, and an equal degree of contempt for right-critics of COIN like Ralph Peters. Along these lines, I think it’s important to push back on a particular line of COIN critique:

In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually assures long-running military campaigns in other hot spots, even as we’re engaged in combat and rebuilding operations in Afghanistan. “We’re going to be involved in this type of activity in a number of countries for the next 15 to 20 years,” said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty skeptical of this line of thinking, and I’d like to see that quote in full context; I’m not convinced that Barno is making the point that Dreyfuss wants him to make. There’s no question that COIN can be a critical part of the imperial project; indeed, for really successful territorial imperialism in the modern age a COIN oriented military would be absolutely necessary. The roots of COIN clearly lie in the age of empire. However, I think that warnings about how the adoption of a successful COIN doctrine and orientation will lead to additional counter-insurgency campaigns is fundamentally wrong-headed, for two reasons. First, the United States didn’t need capable COIN to become involved in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A conventional military doctrine did nothing to prevent any of these wars, and there’s no indication that it would do so in the future.

More importantly, I think that COIN skeptics underestimate the degree to which the dominance of the conventional faction was necessary to the war in Iraq (and perhaps also to the war in Afghanistan). The motivating concept behind the invasion of Iraq was the idea that potential enemies of the United States could be terrified into submission by a cheap, quick, and technology-laden war of conquest. The invasion was intended to frighten Syria, Iran, North Korea, and others. In the end it failed to do so, because no one believed that the United States would be willing to devote all of the blood and treasure to Iran or Syria that it was expending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, I suspect that many of the fiercest advocates of war would have opposed the conflict if they’d had an idea how long it would last and how expensive it would be. In particular, there’s not a shadow of doubt in my mind that Don Rumsfeld would have bitterly opposed the war if he’d had a sense of where it was going; he loathed COIN, loathed nation-building, and loathed the idea of the US being bogged down for an extended period in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The war would also have been less attractive to a number of other prominent neoconservatives.

Winning quickly and leaving, perhaps with a few major bases and oil contracts, was the point of the war. Public support of the conflict was more or less premised on this outcome. Winning quickly and leaving, however, is something that COIN advocates can never promise. The way of fighting that COIN proponents advocate doesn’t lead to the sort of war that American hawks like, or that is very palatable to the American public. The kind of war that COIN advocates want is the kind of war that the US is least likely to engage in if the COIN faction becomes dominant. In the American political context, an appreciation of the costs of COIN means fewer wars, not more.

The Will to Stupid

[ 0 ] October 30, 2009 |

Serwer does the necessary business to this idiotic David Brooks column:

We’ve been hearing some version of the “is Obama tough enough” argument since he started running for president, and as always, it’s really less about Obama’s individual tenacity than whether or not he possesses the same sterling moral qualities that led the questioner to their principled beliefs about public policy. In other words, it’s not “is Obama tough enough” but “is Obama tough enough to do what I want him to do?” And in this case, Brooks wants Obama to show some Green Lantern-style willpower and let everyone know the U.S. is there to stay indefinitely.

Right. Brooks writes:

I’ve called around to several of the smartest military experts I know to get their views on these controversies. I called retired officers, analysts who have written books about counterinsurgency warfare, people who have spent years in Afghanistan. I tried to get them to talk about the strategic choices facing the president. To my surprise, I found them largely uninterested.

Most of them have no doubt that the president is conducting an intelligent policy review. They have no doubt that he will come up with some plausible troop level.

They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

So, in other words, they’re actually worried about his policy choices? One choice would imply a lack of determination, while the other choice would reflect more Will, Grit, and Determination than Kaiser Soze? The stupidity here is palpable; if Obama were determined right now to withdraw every last soldier from Afghanistan, he’d earn not a whit of credit from the True Grit Brigade. Determination only, ever means one thing; more troops, more commitment, open ended, with no genuine evaluation of goals, means, or metrics.

I know that you can’t expect much from Brooks, or from the rest of the True Grit Brigade, but Jesus; we just had eight years of a President who put grit, determination, and will ahead of any effort to actually evaluate matters of policy, and NO ONE thinks that this brought about good outcomes. Why don’t we all get DETERMINED, and GRITTY, and use our INFLEXIBLE WILL to modulate down the stupid just a bit? Wouldn’t that maybe be helpful?

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