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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.

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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.

Statecraft and the State

[ 6 ] March 17, 2010 |

Yglesias links to an interesting article by Sheri Berman on the relevance of early modern state-building to policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it would be fantastic if some school of diplomacy and/or international commerce offered a course bringing together the statebuilding literature and the Afghanistan/Iraq policy literature…

ANA: Ghosts of the Red Army

[ 0 ] February 12, 2010 |

The building blocks of the Afghan National Army:

The Afghan government is dominated by former mujahedeen guerrillas; both the minister of defense and the army chief of staff are former anti-Soviet insurgents. Most ANA generals and colonels appointed to serve just below them, however, are veterans of the Soviet-built Afghan military that hunted these insurgents through the 1980s.

Facing a dearth of professional officers, the U.S.-led coalition is bringing these former foes in from the cold, restoring their Soviet-era rank and giving them command positions. American officers say few other Afghans have the formal military training and know-how to run conventional divisions and brigades.

There’s a lot here for anyone interested in military culture. It isn’t really surprising that former Democratic Republic of Afghanistan officers are playing key roles in the ANA; as the article suggests, they’re the only ones with any experience managing units as large and as bureaucratically complex as the forces currently being fielded. Guerrilla fighting experience does not, as a general rule, translate well into management of a semi-conventional military organization. China and Vietnam represents partial exceptions in which the transition between guerrilla and conventional military organization was managed more or less smoothly, but in both cases there was an ideologically coherent and bureaucratically sophisticated party apparatus backing the army up. In Afghanistan, this isn’t really the case.

It’s also not at all unusual for a “revolutionary” military organization to borrow officers from the ancien regime. The French Army of the Napoleonic Era obviously did so, as did the Red Army of the 1920s (Tukhachevsky was a former Czarist officer), and the ReichswehrBundeswehr of the 1950s. In all of these cases the officers supplied technical expertise at the expense of sometimes suspect ideology; in this case, however, I daresay that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is supposed to look much more like the Soviet-sponsored regime than the intervening Taliban regime. It’s not all that likely that the officers in question will harbor much residual sympathy for the DRA, and although it can legitimately be asked whether they have “dirty hands,” the same questions apply to former mujahadeen and warlord fighters.

The article suggests that one source of trouble has been friction between the Soviet style command that the erstwhile DRA officers were trained in and the Western structure of the ANA. I suspect that there’s a role for NATO’s Eastern European members to play in smoothing this out; every former member of the Warsaw Pact has been forced to deal with a crisis of military culture since 1989, which should generate some insight into the difficulties of the ANA.

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.”

QOTD

[ 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

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