Archive for June, 2010

Military Drinking and Truth Telling

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , on June 26, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Although everyone who reads this may not believe me, I had actually planned to write last week’s entry as a semi-tongue-in-cheek advocacy of reinvigorating the military officer club system (which has basically disappeared except as a lunchroom in many places). The reason behind this advocacy was that it might encourage officers to drop by for a drink or two after work (something frowned upon by our current holier-than-thou military leadership). The reason for that, in turn, was that maybe if we got a few high-ranking general officers sufficiently far into their cups,they might express themselves candidly about what they thought of the militarily insane policy we are conducting in Afghanistan (my assumption, based on some personal observation, is that drunks–despite their other shortfallings–generally tell the truth, because their more “refined” defense mechanisms have drowned in a pool of Jack Black or Yuengling beer).

This line of reasoning, unfortunately enough, was both vindicated and overcome by events last week, as General Stanley McChrystal and his merry band of yes-men aides drained a Paris bar of much of its supply of adult beverages and engaged in a bit of truth-telling about what they thought of the national security team that had made up the current strategy (on which, of course, their boss had signed off). As might have been expected of a military staff, they blamed everybody except the general for the problem (sycophancy being one of the most prominent qualifications for service on a general staff), despite his wide public association with the counterinsurgency strategy that is so spectacularly not succeeding in Afghanistan.

There is nothing wrong or even uncommon about military people bitching; it’s part of the culture. There is also nothing wrong with military candor, up to and including saying “can’t do” rather than “can do” when given a task at which they cannot succeed.

There are, however, times and places specified for registering complaints, and President Obama was quite specific in his remarks sacking McChrystal to emphasize that no one had used the prescribed channels for registering dissent to complain. If the mission had been imposed upon them (there is no public evidence it was), they–read McChrystal–could have registered his reservations at the time the orders were issued, and if they were not modified to provide what he considered to be reasonable  expectations of success, he could have declined the command or, as he will end up doing anyway, resigned his commission. That may be a harsh set of options, but they are also the rules that military leaders accept when they “pin them on.” If there was still bitching to be done, it should have been confined to some very dark, private little place where nobody who might even conceivably record and transmit the complaints could hear them. The back room in one of the officer’s club, with the door closed, comes to mind. Then the drinking and alcohol-induced truth telling could have begun.

The rules do not, however, extend to getting wasted and bitching in a Paris bar in front of a magazine reporter (from notoriously liberal Rolling Stone, at that) who has placed a tape recorder on the table and is recording the proceedings. In the aftermath, the sycophants are crying “foul,” arguing that what was printed was off the record–not for attribution or reporting. Give me a break! Anything you say to a tape recorder is on the record, and it even leaves an indelible record that cannot be denied. Is it a surprise that the commander-in-chief and those defamed would respond to “VP Bite Me” by playing a little “bite me” to the perpetrators.

The actions by General McChrystal and his staff were both reprehensible and stupid. They were reprehensible because they violated the military’s own justice code (the UCMJ) and were, should anyone care to pursue them, potential subjects for courts-martial. McChrystal bears the responsibility for this. Given the nature of military staffs, it is absolutely inconceivable that any of the staff members quoted in article would have said the things they did if they had any reason to believe Stan the Man disagreed or disapproved of those sentiments. Sycophants don’t do things like that.

Moreover, and in my mind most damning thing, however, was the sheer stupidity of the episode. We have been bombarded for months about what a bright, even brilliant, guy McChrystal is, and yet he organized/condoned what has to be one of the most mlonumentally boneheaded non-military actions by a military officer in recent memory. What was done in front of that reporter goes well beyond simple bad judgment; it borders on criminal stupidity. 

The general and his boys drank and bitched. That’s what I had hoped they would do. But, they did it wrong, and their judgment was awful. I trust all the aides who took part in this disgraceful display of inanity are falling on their swords next to their leader. The problem, though, is that Stan McChrystal has lowered the bar: who is going to believe claims of brilliance when the next guy with stars on his shoulders smiles into the camera? The fact that such a question can now reasonably be asked may be the lasting legacyof Stan the Man.

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Blowback in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, War on Terror with tags , , on June 20, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Whenever official Washington, be it the White House, the Pentagon, or the military, describe what is happening in Afghanistan, it is always discussed in terms of “progress.” This creates the mental construct that whatever is going on must be forward moving–we hardly ever think that progress can be negative. So, when things go well in Afghanistan (which is not very often), that is a sign of “real progress.” When things have so obviously not gone well–or as planned–to the degree that no one can say real progress with a straight face (which is much more often the case), then progress is described as something like “slow.” But it is always progress.

What if this entire frame of reference is simply wrong? Is it not possible that what we are doing is not only not making things better (better for whom, of course, being another question), but is actually making things worse for us or the Afghans? No one with official status is going to admit this possibility, because to do so suggests they have been doing a lousy job, either of planning a mission that had no reasonable prospect of success, of executing a strategy to fulfill the political objectives of the strategy, or both. The evidence, however, is not so clear that progress is the correct paradigm to deny the possibility that its opposite might not be more realistic.

The key concept to questioning the current paradigm is “blowback,” the idea that the actions one takes in effect creates negative consequences. The June 21, 2010 edition of Newsweek elaborates this concept in an article fittingly titled “Blowback” by Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas. Part of the subtitle of the article is “how to battle Muslim extremists without creating more here at home.” The analysis suggests that it is possible to think of American efforts as creating more problems for the United States than it is solving–negative progress, in other words.

The whole idea of the American involvement (the political objective) is to refashion Afghanistan so that it will cease to be a source of terrorist action against the United States, and the military objective and strategy is to defeat the Taliban so that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven, training ground, or recruiting ground for terrorists who seek to penetrate and attack the United States. It has been the mantra of the entire effort that this is what we are doing and that this is both the intended and actual outcome of our effort.

But what if that analysis is simply wrong? What if the effect of U.S. efforts is a blowback that increases rather than decreases the number of terrorists bent on wreaking havoc on American soil? How could this happen? Blowback.

The Newsweek authors explain the basic idea. As they put it, “Any military action in a foreign country produces new incentives for the enemy.” In the case of American action in Afghanistan, the military action that has created animosities that have turned into the creation of new terrorists have been attacks against Afghan targets that have harmed Afghan civilians. The Newsweek article says, based on interviews with Afghan Jihadi sources that “the Taliban had no interest in attacking America directly–until the U.S. military started taking out their leaders (and sometimes their families).” They also quote an unnamed Taliban source, who says, “The Americans are attacking us in our country, our villages, and our houses, so why shouldn’t we attack them in their country?”

Pretty good question, and one that the U.S. military recognizes. General Stanley McChrystal has been emphatic about limiting so-called collateral damage–mainly civilian casualties–but mythology about precision weapons and the like notwithstanding, such events will always be part of war–Clausewitz’s “fog and friction.” It may be possible to limit the problem, but it is probably not possible to eliminate it altogether.

Killing people and destroying their things antagonizes people. We know that and have acted accordingly. The entire post-9/11 military effort by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan is, after all, blowback for the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda. Why would we be surprised that some Afghans feel the same way about what we are doing in their country?

To deny that there is some blowback factor attached to the Afghan effort is ridiculous,and anyone who says there is not is either a liar or hopelessly naive. The real question is whether the efforts the United States is taking in Afghanistan is suppressing more potential and actual terrorism than it is creating. In other words, if the United States were not doing what it is doing, would the Afghan terrorist threat be greater or lesser than it is today? Put yet another way, is progress positive or negative, or is progress the right word to describe the impact of what we are spending an awful lot of money on to create?

I do not know the answer to the equation: the suppression/blowback ratio, but neither does anyone else. If the answer were overwhelming positive and demonstrable (two quite different propositions), I cannot believe that we would not be shouting it from the rooftops as evidence of “progress.” That we are not suggests either that we have not asked the question (possibly because we fear the real answer), or that we have and cannot fit the answer we have found into the progress model. Since the whole effort appears to be making little progress, it would be nice to know though, wouldn’t it?

A Bump on the Road to Kandahar

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, Uncategorized, War on Terror with tags , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan would be laughable, the stuff of a Peter Sellers romp (“The Pink Panther” series, “The Mouse That Roared”) or black comedy (“Dr. Strangelove”) were the results not so deadly to American service members and the American treasury. The comedy of errors reached a new pinncale (or low point, take your pick) this past week, as the funny guys with the red noses and orange hair wearing green uniforms with stars on their shoulders announced (with straight faces) that it now looks like the proposed “libration” of Kandahar will have to be delayed until September. Why? Because the citizens of Kandahar, represented by our favorite Afghan, Hamid Karzai, and his evil brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (the strongman leader of Kandahar and kleptocrat par excellence) , are not quite sure they want this stronghold of the Taliban liberated or not.

Where is Norman Lear when you really need him to turn this into a half-hour sitcom? Stan McChrystal, the Jay Leno of allied forces in Afghanistan, explained why the operation was now behind schedule. “When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” he deadpanned for the camera (one would expect him to be saying this while doing figure eights on a unicycle with a parasol in one hand). The rough translation of his statement, I think, is that it is harder to liberate people who don’t want liberating than people who do. What a revelation!

And why would the good citizens of Kandahar not want to be liberated? Well, possibly it is because they do not feel the need to be freed fom their current position and transformed into some other condition, such as the further imposition of the Kabul government over their lives. They already have one corrupt Karzai in their midst; why do they need a new swarm of kleptocrats? Moreover, while this notion appears too abstract for Americans to understand, it is not clear why or whether the people of Kandahar, who are currently ruled by Afghans (admittedly, ones WE don’t like) would feel they had been liberated (freed) by their conquest by foreigners (Americans). The United States may feel better if Kandahar is no longer under Taliban rule, but it is not at all obvious that the people of Kandahar agree. If anything, the evidence (the obvious lack of enthusiasm over the prospects) seems to be that they don’t want us to liberate them. So why don’t we get it?

I take no satisfaction lampooning the extraordinarily limited intellects that have gotten us into this mess and are apparently not bright enough to see their errors or how to rectify them. The death toll among American forces is up this month, and it is mostly Kandahar-related. To the extent we continue to press forward toward that city, the death toll is going to continue to rise, and will probably increase substantially, despite the fact that it is not clear that they want to be liberated, to paraphrase McChrystal. Yet, the more I think about this and the more I write about it, the more insane the entire enterprise appears.

Afghanistan is and has been a fool’s errand since the United States allowed Usama bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora in December 2001. What we have been doing since, and particularly what we are doing now, has essentially nothing to do with the fight against Al Qaeda, the war on terrorism, or anything else that vaguely constitutes an adequate justification for expending American lives in that dreary land. It is time to declare the Aiken solution, and bring the troops home. NOW!