Archive for Afghanistan

Modern Military Atrocity: The Case of Sgt. Bales

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, U.S. military manpower, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The alleged rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales in an Afghan village that ended with 17 dead Afghan civilians has caught the public attention because the acts atrributed to the 38-year-old father of two were so brutal, ghastly, and repulsive. They are a textbook case of war crimes–more specifically crimes against humanity–and are, as such reprehensible and intolerable. Whether Sgt. Bales is the perpetrator (which seems fairly well established) and whether there are special mitigating circumstances such as mental condition are properly the province of the military court that will try him, and there is no intent here to prejudge or predict the outcomes of that process. There is, however, reason to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred, at least partly to try to be sure it does not recur.

Let me begin with what may be a controversial proposition: the massacre in which Sgt. Bales allegedly engaged is probably not as unusual as some would have it. I operate on the assumption that such incidents, while not common, probably occur in most conflicts. In some cases, they become known in more or less detail–the My Lai incident in Vietnam, Wounded Knee during the western Indian wars, and the Bataan death march, for instances, are all examples, and I suspect that virtually all wars of any duration produce such incidents. This dores not condone them; it simply acknowledges that nasty things happen from time to time in war. What distinguishes the current episode is how quickly, how widely, and in what detail its has become known. The question is whether episodes like this one, including the publicity it engenders, are simply a part of modern warfare. For essentially three reasons, I think the answer is yes!

I present these factors in no particular order of importance. The first is the impact of the electronic revolution, and more specifically, the loss of private behavior that is a consequence of the electronic revolution in communications. Unlike previous periods of time, there is essentially no private behavior in public places any longer: somebody is going to see, record, and transmit accounts of any bad behavior in which essentially anyone engages–or at least anyone engaging in or contemplating untoward behavior has to assume that is the case. This realization has multiple implications for a wide variety of formerly private behaviors, but in war, it means that anything one does may well–probably will–become public. Since war is about violence often committed in highly emotional situations, one must assume that stress-caused actions, some of which are not glorious or praiseworthy, are going to be recorded somewhere by someone. That is just a fact of the modern world, and all soldiers need to be drilled very thoroughly in that reality, if they are not already. This phenomenon is neither good nor bad, although it can be both in different circumstances. But one cannot deny that it exists. In some earlier, unmediated times, the Afghan incident might have gone unreported and blame unassigned. No longer!

Second, the nature of modern warfare may make incidents like what happened in Afghanistan more likely than before. Modern war, particularly the kinds in which the United States has engaged in the past half-century, has two salient characteristics that reinforce the point. The first is that these wars are asymmetrical. This means, among other things, that the enemy does not fight under established rules of warfare. often does not wear uniforms that distinguish it from the general population and often uses youths as fighters, for instance, and this means that the American soldier entering hostile territory does not necessarily know whether he is among friends or foes. This knowledge has to be enormously stressful for the individual soldier, and probably inevitably, some will snap. The fact that most wars are in developing world countries where American forces are physically distinctive, are sometimes viewed as unwelcome intruders, and where the interests being served may be ambiguous makes dealing with these kinds of war zones even more difficult. It is frightening enough when one faces a hostile but distinguishable army; it is an additional source of difficulty when trying to attain abstract goals in a very foreign and hostile environment.

Third, an possibly most controversially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fairly clearly demonstrated the limits of the all-volunteer force (AVF) concept. The problem of such forces, of courses, is that they will inevitably be comparatively small and expensive, and they cannot easily be expanded except by recourse to outside contractors who are simultaneously more expensive and less reliable (certainly less controllable). the current force was not built for all-out employment over a decade of continuous employment–no military force is. Because ut cannot easily be expanded (more people won’t volunteer), the only way to handle the burden is to recycle the existing force through multiple deployments in the kinds of hostile, stressful environments described above.  Sgt. Bales, after all, was in his fourth deployment when he allegedly attacked the Afghan village, and his history is not unusual. There are physical and, we are increasingly learning, psychological limits to the amount of combat stress that humans reasonably can be expected to endure. 

These three factors are neither a full explanation of the Afghan incident nor do they offer an ecuse for its occurrence or Sgt. Bales’ alleged role. Rather, they are some of the factors that affect modern warfare and which will, almost inevitably, lead to future instances that are not dissimilar to that in Afghanistan this time. None of them is easily solvable, if they can be solved at all. The genie is out of the bottle in the electronic revolution, and it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that vivid reportage of atrocities like this one does not appear is to insure the instances don’t happen in the first place. The nature of modern war, however, virtually ensures that people will come under stress and behave badly in the future and that whatever they do will become publicly available for all to see. The overuse of an overextended military probably in turn makes the likelihood of regrettable behavior all the more probable. Until someone can devise a way to keep the chain of factors from being engaged, one can, regrettably, only expect more of the same. 

Do any of these factors exonerate Sgt. Robert Bales. That is a judgment for others to make based on the real evidence in this trial. What it does suggest, however, is that Sgt. Bales or whoever killed those 17 innocent civilians was subject to forces that he or they probably did not recognize or understand and that, moreover, this is not the last time it will happen.

Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.

The Rising Cost of Stupidity and Brutality

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.

The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.

The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.

This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.

This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.

The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.

Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed. 

These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.

The Pakistani Traitor and the CIA: A Strange Parable

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, Pakistan, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The government of Pakistan is currently holding in custody Dr. Shakeel Afridi, a physician accused of treason, and is threatening to try and execute him. The action for which the treason is alleged is the assistance that Dr. Afridi provided to the CIA in its successful efforts to locate, target, and assassinate Usama bin Laden, who was hiding, more or less openly, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.

The pretext on which Dr. Afridi was operating was what the Los Angeles Times, among other sources, labeled a “phony vaccination campaign” that had the apparent purpose of innoculating Pakistanis against various diseases but which was more focused on obtaining a DNA sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. Dr. Afridi was the physician who was conducting these vaccinations as a ruse and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of bin Laden. As such, he was clearly acting as the agent of a foreign intelligence agency (the CIA), which constitutes espionage but not necessarily treason, particularly as alleged by the government of Pakistan. Definitions of treason–and more specifically high treason–which the Pakistani government specifies against Dr. Afridi, normally includes “betrayal” of one’s own country and consciously working with the government’s enemies to harm or overthrow the government. Working for the CIA could be considered betrayal of the country if one assumes that the United States is the enemy of Pakistan; it is hard to understand how this allegation can be leveled against someone working for an ally of Pakistan, which the United States presumably is supposed to be. Moreover, it is hard to make the intellectual leap to this collusion and some action intended to harm or overthrow the government of Pakistan, unless bin Laden is somehow an important part of that government, which he was not. Something, as the old saying goes, is rotten in Denmark.

The case of the vaccimation doctor is, in fact, a parable, and yes, a strange one, of U.S.-Pakistani relations generally. The United States and Pakistan are allegedly partners, have even been formal allies, and are supposedly united in the common quest to act in unison against terrorists and those who would destabilize and overthrow Afghanisan’s regime. Yet the Pakistani government treats the United States virtually as an enemy when it comes to the execution of actions designed to carry out their joint mission, such as assassinating bin Laden.

There are, of course, good reasons for the apparent anomaly represented by this situation that act as a parable for the future of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. One can accept the idea that Dr. Afridi did in fact violate Pakistani laws in working for the CIA and that Pakistan has a right to try and punish transgressors. It is also true that the harshness of the charges and possible consequences of a trial for treason are harsh, arguably excessive, and that they will further alienate a U.S. government that has been less than delighted with Pakistani attitudes about the bin Laden operation all along. Try to find someone in the U.S. government, for instance, who believes nobody in the Pak government knew absolutely anything about where bin Laden was hiding “in plain sight” in the home of Pakistan’s military service academy. You won’t find many takers.

Presumably, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Servcie Intelligence (ISI) is up to its neck in all this. ISI acts as a lone ranger in carrying out what it believes to be Pakistan’s best interests, and these often conflict with those of the United States. ISI created the Taliban, after all, and is not going to abandon them, since it believes they are a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. ISI is also up to its ears in terrorism, including the training and dispatch of Kashmiri “freedome fighters” and others in the badlands provinces of Pakistan (NW Province, FATA, etc.) along the Afghan border. Their self-perceived interests and hose of the United States could scarcely be farther apart, and that is not a condition likely to change anytime soon.

The upshot is that the United States and Pakistan are at effective odds on a range of mutual interests that their papered over comity cannot hide. Pakistanis complain consistently about US intrusion in their country through missions against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by American drones and the like. The Pakistanis complain these are violations of Pakistani sovereignty, which they are, but mostly it is posturing for the purpose of impressing anti-American sentiment against Americans. Americans, for their part, wonder why the United States continues to funnel assistance to a regime and people who not only do not like us much, but who also oppose our objectives in the region. There are no simple and compelling answers to that dilemma.

The parable becomes more and more relevant as the United States moves inexorably toward disengagement in Afghanistan. What the United States and Pakistan see as the future of a post-American Afghanistan are not, to put it mildly, identical. Pakistan wants a weak, pro-Pakistani government in Kabul, one that will pose no threat to Islamabad, and this means a government that is also anti-Indian. The Indians, unsurprisingly, want and are working toward the opposite outcome: a pro-Indian, anti-Pakistani Afghanistan that will help in the encirclement of Pakistan. The Paks thus want a postwar Afghanistan where the Pashtuns–and especially those with some affiliation with the Taliban–are well placed, whereas the Indians prefer that power effectively reside with non-Pashtuns. The United States wants a stable postwar Afghanistan that is resistant to terrorist reimposition, thereby reinforcing the notion the U.S. has actually accomplished something positive in the country. What the Afghans want is largely beside the point.

As the American involvement starts to wind down in Afghanistan and the players begin to jostle for position, the contradictions in what the outsiders want in Afghanistan will become more apparent, and one prominent aspect of that posturing that will be a victim is the fiction that the United States and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on these matters. Just ask Dr. Afridi, if you can find the prison cell in which he is apparently being held largely incognito by our allies.

Afghanistan: An Intermestic Moment

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , on June 26, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s long anticipated announcement of a schedule for removing American fighting forces in Afghanistan last week elicited the familiar and predictable howls that seem to follow anything that this chief executive does. Some thought he proposed too much, some not enough, and hardly anybody thought he had it just right. What’s new?

The president’s action and reaction to it almost perfectly exemplified what some political scientists (including this one) refer to as “intermestic policy.” The term refers to policy issues that have both an INTERnational and a domESTIC component, hence the name. Most foreign policies have some intermestic aspect to them: there is hardly any issue in the foreign policy realm that does not have some domestic impact, and vice versa. The impact is that it reduces the boundary between foreign and domestic politics, a boundary that used to be sancrosanct. An old saw has it that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” the implication being that purely political concerns should not extend into America’s relations with other countries, toward whom it is only right and patriotic to maintain a common face.

In today’s environment where absolutely everything is political and highly partisan (what Pat Haney and I refer to as “hyper-partisanship in our new foreign policy text), the boudary represented by the water’s edge has been swamped; it is literally under water itself. In the most prominent issue areas with an intermestic cast, the domestic and international elements of policy intermix, confuse one another, and make sensible policy more difficult to maintain. The United States policy toward the war in Afghanistan is a classic example of this phenomenon run amok.

Look at the war through the dual lenses of international and domestic politics. The international (foreign policy) concern is with the effect of various endings of the war on the international environment and America’s place in it. Clearly, the major concern is the status of a post-war Afghanistan in relation to international religious terrorism, most obviously associated with Al Qaeda. There are two basic arguments to be made about this aspect. One is that without a “victory” in Afghanistan, the country will likely revert to being a haven for terrorists (as it was during the latter 1990s), meaning that continuing the war until a satisfactory outcome is achieved (and however that is measured) is vital. From that vantage point, and given the assessment of the situation on the ground (we are not yet winning), the president’s decision is premature and damaging to efforts to reach a satisfactory ending, and thus the withdrawal is too much. The other side is that the outcome is excessive to the cost, that it is unlikely to be achieved by outside military force and that, since the successful decapitation of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not worth the effort because the threat has been sufficiently reduced to allow a successful effort with far fewer forces. From this vantage point, the withdrawal is not nearly enough.

The domestic side has two different aspects that are not necessarily connected intimately to the international dimension. One is that public opinion has turned decisively against the war, with those who want out altogether becoming a progressively larger part of majority which dislikes the war. Clearly this majority thinks the president did not go far enough. Among those who support the war, most wrap themselves tightly in the flag and argue that to do anything but continue would dishonor those who have sacrificed (an honor presumably served by sacrificing more Americans). The other argument is economic: at a little over $100 billion a year (and I personally suspect that is a “low ball” estimate), the United States simply cannot afford to continue the war. This justification has little to do directly with the international worth of the effort, and more to do with deficit reduction.

When one stacks up the pro and con arguments, the negative arguments are most strongly represented in domestic concerns–and especially the affordability argument in the current economy–whereas the more muted arguments in favor of staying in tend to be more international, associated with the military’s reluctance to abandon an enterprise in which they are heavily invested. The “inter” and the “mestic” thus come into conflict and, most tellingly, result in a debate where one side simply does not address the other. Those who want the U.S. to leave on economic grounds make an after-the-fact defense of the lack of need to continue, but they don’t really address systematically nor refute those who maintain our interests will be weakened if we do. Similarly, those who believe we should stay admit the war is expensive but that the outcome overrides the negative economic impact. Neither side refutes the other position convincingly.

President Obama is caught in the middle of this. As president, he is both chief executive in all the domestic senses of that term and commander-in-chief, with overriding foreign policy responsibilities. He (like any president) can avoid neither the “inter” or the “mestic,” and thus ends up sitting on the fence. Critics–on both sides–generally have the luxury of avoiding these distinctions, since they bear no direct responsibility for outcomes. The view may be better from the top of the fence, which is higher than the ground below, but it also makes whoever sits there a better target for the shoes hurled whenever the incumbent opines from the fence top.

There is nothing that can be done to remove the intermestic element from foreign policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and the system simply needs to find a better way to conduct its foreign policy when it knows that whatever it does will affect American citizens directly and thus become political, because some will benefit and others will not in any circumstance. The grease that could make that process smoother and ultimately more productive is a less partisan, super-charged political atmosphere, one that is less hyper-partisan. No one should hold their breath for that to happen anytime soon.

The U.S. and Pakistan after Bin Laden

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, Pakistan, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As the details of the stunning American Navy SEALS raid that killed Usama bin Laden last Sunday filter into the public view, one controversy seems to be brewing much more obviously and openly than any other. That concern is the role of Pakistan in providing the sanctuary in which bin Laden apparently existed for upwards of six years. What, excatly, did the government of Pakistan know about all this? And why did they keep secret what they did know?

As is well known by now, bin Laden lived in a walled compound in what is now referred to as the Islamabad “suburb” of Abbottabad, which was also where a number of retired Pakistani military officers resided. Although it is not clear that bin Laden ventured outside the high walls surrounding the several structures that constituted the compound, the dead terrorist was a tall, striking figure, and there have been reports that a number of people saw someone fitting bin Laden’s physical description wandering the grounds off and on. Someone, it seems, must have been suspicious enough to alert officials, but apparently nobody did (exactly how the United States first got wind of his location remains a carefully guarded secret). The simple fact, however, is that it strains credulity to maintain that no one anywhere within the Pakistani governmental structure had any idea that the world’s most wanted criminal was hiding rather openly under their noses, especially given Pakistan’s well-known penchant for security.

It is important to the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations tow determine who knew what in all this. Pakistan is not unimportant to the United States. It is a big country(the world’s six most populous), it has nuclear weapons and a history of conflict with nuclear-armed neighbor India (with whom it is engaged in a covert semi-war over Kashmir), it has been an ally in the “war” on terror, and it has been a partner of sorts with the United States on matters surrounding Afghanistan. None of these are inconsequential concerns, especially since they occur in a highly unstable Pakistani political system that has relied partially on assistance from the United States for its well-being. The relationship is, in other words, a two-way street.

All of this relationship is endangered by uncertainty about Pakistani complicity in bin Laden’s exile residence in their country. If hiding and protecting him was a matter of official Pakistani policy, the repercussions could be extensive: no American administration could openly condone close relations with a country that performed such perfidy. At the same time, concern about Pakistani sensibilities because of American violation of sovereign Pakistani air space to attack Taliban and Al Qaeda within Pakistan would vanish if the Pakistanis prove to be unworthy partners. An abrupt rupture of U.S. support for Pakistan internationally (in its relationship with India) or internally could further destabilize a Pakistan that already sits perilously close to the boundary between stable and failed states in the world. It is probably a good idea to look before we leap.

To say “Pakistan” must have known about bin Laden’s hideaway is not very helpful in assessing the situation. Pakistani politics have always been extraordinarily complex, compartmented, and adversarial. The Pakistani military has always had considerable influence and control (critics say excessively so), and they are at constant odds with and suspicious of basically secular democratic influences, such as that represented in the current Zardari government. For their part, those who support popular civilian government have been no great shakes, among other things being masters at the art of political corruption. The military distrusts the civilians, the civilians distrust the military, and both sides have ample justifications for their qualms.

The wild card in all this is Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This organization, which was configured in something like its present configuration by President Ayub Khan, is an aggregate of various domestic and foreign intelligence elements within the government. It is quite extensive, and it plays a number of roles, including serving as a conduit to Islamic radicals seeking to annex Kashmir to India. It is widely identified as having sired the Taliban as a way to keep Afghanistan weak and thus to maximize Pakistani influence in that country. It served as an instrument to help funnel foreign assistance to the mujahadin groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and its first associations with bin Laden probably date to that period, when bin Laden served as a recruiter of foregn fighters into Afghanistan. The exact relationship between the ISI and bin Laden after he formed Al Qaeda is a bit murky, but it is fair to say the two organizations knew one another. Further, the ISI has been active within Pakistan’s Pashtun minority community, and it has served as a trainer for what many consider terrorists going into Kashmir.

If any one part of the Pakistani government almost certainly knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts, it was almost certainly the ISI. In turn, however, the ISI has been cooperating with American intelligence in the effort to identify and take out Taliban and Al Qaeda assets in Pakistan. Exactly what kind of “double game” the ISI was playing in all this requires the imagination of the late Robert Ludlum to unravel, but if there are not ISI fingerprints on the situation when all is said and done, it would be one of the world’s great surprises.

The problem is how the United States should proceed with Pakistan. Almost certainly, there will be pressure on the administration for some kinds of sanctions against the Pakistani government to “fess up” to their involvement, but embarassing the civilian regime might well be counterproductive. If those who were complicit in hiding bin Laden are to be found and dealt with, it will take the mutual efforts of the civilians and the professional military bringing the ISI to heel, and that will be a monumental task that will not be assisted by American indignation, however well based, that Pakistan must have played a role in keeping bin Laden safe for so long. Pressure behind the scenes is certainly appropriate and is no doubt being applied “as we speak.” Beyond that, maybe the best thing for Americans to do is simply to bask in the satisfaction that bin Laden is dead, that Al Qaeda is now in the throes of a process to determine his successor that will likely leave it further diminished, and that the SEALS performed a job well done.

“Fragile and Reversible Progress” in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , on April 17, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Speaking of the situation in southern Afghanistan at what is the traditional beginning of the military campaigning season (it is warm enough and the winter snow has melted), this was the assessment put forward by General David Petraeus about what he considers to be more favorable circumstances as the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies prepare for yet another year’s battle with the Taliban. We are making “progress,” but it is “fragile and reversible.”

Wait a second! Haven’t we heard these identical words (or at least very close approximations of them) before in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this phrase not simply a part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written under Patraeus’ difection for the Army and Marines that has been discussed in this space before? It certainly has a familiar ring about it. Why?

There are several candidate reasons. The most prominent involve the nature of countering indigenous insurgencies in foreign countries (foreign at least to those conducting the counterinsurgencies). In this situations, “progress” is an elusive term. Does it mean military progress? If so, what are the measures of that progress? Attrition of the enemy? Victory in encounters with the opposition? More territory gained and secured? These are traditional ways military progress is measured, and they do not quite fit insurgent circumstances. We generally do not know how effectively we are “attriting” (killing off) the enemy, or we cannot measure accurately his ability to replenish whatever losses he endures (remember Vietnam and the infamous body count that “proved” in 1968 that the North Vietnamese/VC had been so depleted they couldn’t possibly field the size forces they did at Tet?). Victories on the battlefield are also an imprecise measure, as demonstrated by the famous exchange after Vietnam by an American officer and a North Vietnamese where the American said, “We never lost a single battle,” to which his counterpart replies “That is absolutely true and irrelevant.” Similarly, control of territory is a notoriously limited metric, both since insurgents do not consider territory held their objective and because holding gained territory is the Achilles heel of COIN strategy (because of having too few troops to keep liberated areas secure). 

Maybe “progress” means political progress, winning the battle for political loyalty (LBJ’s “hearts and minds of men”), which is the ultimate measure of success in insurgency. But how do measure that? Typically (including in the current case) we ask people in the areas we have liberated if they are glad we’re there. Standing at the wrong end of an American rifle barrel, those we ask almost always reply that they sure do like us better than they did the Taliban. What a surprise and wonderful measure of loyalty and conversion that is.

All this suggests that “progress” is a slippery term, and it is unkind (but not unfair) to say we really do not know, in any meaningful operational way, what it means in this or similar circumstances. We do know, however, that it is, at any point in time, “fragile and reversible.” The translation for this term is pretty straightforward: whatever “progress” we experience is ephemeral and subject to rapid, radical change, but with a rejoinder. The rejoinder is that we have worked damned hard to make this progress, and if policy (defined in terms of support levels) for what we have done flags, the result could well be that the fragile progress may be reversed. Is there any reason to wonder about the motivation of such a warning when faced with a presidential determination to review policy in a few months, with scaling back the resources that have allowed “progress” to occur as a major element?

One could be more sanguine about this pronouncement by Petraeus if one had not heard it so many times before. When was the last time anyone heard the U.S. or allied military command pronounce progress as solid and irreversible? It is always “fragile and reversible,” and one must ask why.

The answers lie in the nature of the enterprise. Outside intervention in civil wars in the modern world has turned out to be fool’s work: it never succeeds in the manner those contemplating it anticipate before they jump in. NEVER! I have discussed these dynamics in a number of books (“Distant Thunder” and “Uncivil Wars,” both published in the 1990s are the most complete statements, but the arguments also appear in the various editions of “National Security for a New Era”). Basically, the problem is that intervention, no matter how well intentioned by whoever (i.e. the U.S.) does it will never be viewed in the same benevolent manner by whoever is the recipient of the action. Intervention changes civil wars, adding to the firepower of the government on whose behalf one intervenes, but it also alienates the target population unless the action is swift, decisive, and followed by a rapid withdrawal before the natives can get sick of us. These conditions never hold in modern internal warfare, meaning intervention will always be resented and opposed. Progress, such as it may appear, will always be “fragile and reversible,” because it is the intervener’s progress, not the progress of the (reluctant) host government. It does not matter how “bad” the Taliban are (which is bad) or how “good” the government may be (which they are not), intervention will always make the insurgents look better.

It really is as simple as that. The United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and the best we can come up with are statements of “fragile and revsersible” progress which is, effectively, no progress at all. The president has said he expects to be in Afghanistan with significant force at least until 2014, and apologists for the war think it will be much longer than that. Why? The best we can hope for is more “fragile and reversible” progress. It’s really as simple as that.