Tag: Afghanistan war (page 1 of 3)

And The Winner Is?

Obviously, too soon to tell.  But with the new Obama announcement setting an enddate-ish, my nominee might just be:
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Post-Kristof Monday Links

Good morning Ducks, here are your links from South Asia… (I am not even going to pretend I know what’s going on in the Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, or Venezuela.  I’ll stick to what I sort of know…).

  • Redhead Duck and offspring. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

    Vasundhara Sirnate at The Hindu writes passionately in defence of the offensive. While Indian liberals will (rightfully) continue to be upset at Penguin India’s capitulation to the so called “offended” feelings of a small and obscure group of Hindu fanatics, the liberals fail to realize that the increasing pressure to censor and protect the sentiments of various religious communities is actually just an extension of the dominant state ideology, what Manjari Chatterjee Miller labelled as “Post-Imperial Ideology” in her recent book Wronged by Empire.  Miller argues that Indian prickliness (in international relations) toward perceived slights in status and Indians’ desire to consistently frame relations in terms of victimizers and victims is a major legacy of the trauma of colonialism.   So perhaps it should not surprise us that in the domestic arena, the work of a brilliant (foreign) scholar of Hinduism can be painted as little more than an attempt to humiliate and offend pious Hindus.  India will need to change more than its censorship policies (which are actually pointless in a digital age), it will need to change its hegemonic ideology — which is of course highly unlikely.  In the meantime, the lesson for foreign scholars and foreign diplomats is clear: speaking boldly in India will result in little more than squabbles in which the foreigner is accused of deliberately seeking to humiliate the Indian state or people.

  • Arwin Rahi at the Diplomat argues that Afghanistan must recognize the Durand Line as its permanent border with Pakistan.  Rahi is at least correct that Afghanistan needs to come to terms with this boundary — because for better or worse South Asia has inherited Westphalian definitions of statehood, but if anyone thinks that Afghan recognition of the border will end Pakistani efforts at influencing the character of the regime in Afghanistan, they are forgetting the broader strategic orientation of the Pakistani military.
  • Javid Husain at the Nation (Pakistan) calls for national reconciliation in Afghanistan to avoid a civil war. Unsurprisingly, he claims that the Afghan Constitution should be modified to meet the “reasonable” demands of the Taliban. Umm… right.  Moving on…  He also says that Karzai has displayed a “belated eagerness” to reach a deal with the Taliban, which indicates that the author was mentally on hiatus for the last decade.   Despite the howlers, the article may indicate that there is at least a faction in Pakistan that would settle for using the Taliban as a kind of veto player (as opposed to seeking outright hegemony) in post-Karzai Afghanistan.

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Monday Morning Linkage

sitting ducksGood mornin’ duck fans! Let’s start the week by revisiting last week’s firestorm in …

Afghanistan

  • Hamid Karzai has become a bewildering enigma for many Americans as he launched yet another verbal tirade against the US last week.  This time he recklessly accused the US of colluding with the Taliban.  The NY Times speculates that Karzai is keen to shape his legacy given the ultimate fate of Mohammed Najibullah and many other Afghan leaders who came before him.  This is certainly plausible, but hardly the whole story.  Unfortunately, the article also condescendingly implies that the Afghan head of state simply “does not understand” that his government is totally dependent on international funding.  Karzai understands; everyone in Afghanistan knows who is paying the bills.
  • President Karzai’s accusation that the Americans are currently colluding with the Taliban is extremely implausible and completely unsubstantiated.  However, me thinks some Americans doth protest too much.  Beneath all of the American outrage and bluster, it is important to remember that the US engaged and supported the Taliban regime after they took Kabul in 1996.  Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sought to work with the Taliban.  Bush even invited the Taliban to his Texas ranch in 1997.  The US was perfectly aware of the Taliban’s treatment of women and their general abuse of human rights from early 1996.  Moreover, in recent years the US has negotiated with representatives of “the” Taliban (as if the Taliban were still just one organization) without involving Karzai – although there is no evidence that the US is currently negotiating with Taliban members as Karzai claims.

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Leader Comebacks

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  So spoke Winston Churchill, after the Allied victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein.  We could say much the same of his defeat in the 1945 general election.

 A core assumption underlying most of the work analyzing the impact of domestic politics on international relations is that leaders want to remain in office.  Insofar as ensuring national survival, territorial integrity, and policy autonomy might help leaders retain power, focusing on political ambition often does not tell us anything more than we might get from a state-centric approach.  But there are some important exceptions.  For one, democracies rarely if ever fight wars against one another.  The fact that different institutions create different incentives for self-interested leaders may have something to do with that.  For another, we often attribute the occurrence (or continuation) of wars to electoral motivations.  I myself argued for a long time that Obama was pursuing the same strategy in Afghanistan that Nixon pursued in Vietnam – don’t lose the war until you’re a lame duck.

Most of these arguments, however, assume that a leader’s career ends once he or she leaves office.  Yet this is not the case.  Many leaders eventually make a comeback, returning to office after some time out of power.  The British electorate deemed Churchill less suitable for managing the postwar economic recovery than international crises, and so favored the Labour Party in 1945.  Yet they once more turned to the Churchill and the Conservatives in 1951 after the Labour Party had achieved most of what it set out to do.  If we were to limit our attention to the 1945 election, we might conclude that Churchill did not benefit electorally from victory in WWII (as I myself once did), even though Churchill’s wartime record contributed to his return to power.

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Winding Down in Afghanistan?

US “combat operations” in Afghanistan are officially scheduled to wind down in 2014.  And media attention is now turning toward speculating (i.e. relaying contending institutional preferences between the White House and the Pentagon) on the level of US troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.  Current estimates, in case you still care, are that US troop levels will be roughly around 10,000 assisted by a couple thousand NATO troops — assuming, of course, that President Karzai agrees to prolong the suspension of his country’s full sovereignty.  For next year, however, it is likely that at least 60,000 US troops will remain through the fighting season.

The notion that “combat operations” will be wrapped up by 2014 while US forces shift toward an advisory “support role” reflects a typically deceptive use of an innocuous sounding phrase like “support role” that the public has come to accept uncritically from our military leaders and policymakers.  Regardless of what US troops actually do in their “support” capacity, it is clear that the narrative arc — despite the salacious demise of one of the story’s chief architects and protagonists — is still oriented toward reassuring Americans that the decade long war is nearly over and that Afghanistan has been miraculously stabilized.  This noble lie may be necessary for extricating the bulk of US/NATO/ISAF forces from this war, but it is also dangerous given the way that myths about the successful use of force create their own reality over time. Continue reading

More Evidence for the Underlying Theory of the “Reset”

The basic theory behind the Obama Administration’s “Reset” policy was that US-Russian relations could be disaggregated: that it is possible for two countries to disagree on a range of issues and still cooperate on matters of common interest. That bet looks to be correct; despite a significant deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow, the pursuit of common interests persists. 

The Russian government has given approval for the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk as a hub for transits to and from Afghanistan. 

The decree is dated June 25. 

Moscow announced plans to create a NATO transit hub in Ulyanovsk in March. The decision sparked protests in the city, the birthplace of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has called the deal “humiliating” for Russia. 

But both NATO and Russian officials have sought to allay fears the hub would turn out to be a fully-fledged base. 

“We have no intention to establish a base in Russia,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a video link-up with RIA Novosti in March. “This is a pragmatic arrangement which allows us to transport non-lethal weapons and troops to benefit our operation in Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, too many pundits and policymakers continue to reduce US bilateral relations with other countries to single “barometers.” See the excellent piece by Steve Weber and Ely Ratner about Sino-US relations.

More Evidence for the Underlying Theory of the "Reset"

The basic theory behind the Obama Administration’s “Reset” policy was that US-Russian relations could be disaggregated: that it is possible for two countries to disagree on a range of issues and still cooperate on matters of common interest. That bet looks to be correct; despite a significant deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow, the pursuit of common interests persists. 

The Russian government has given approval for the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk as a hub for transits to and from Afghanistan. 

The decree is dated June 25. 

Moscow announced plans to create a NATO transit hub in Ulyanovsk in March. The decision sparked protests in the city, the birthplace of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has called the deal “humiliating” for Russia. 

But both NATO and Russian officials have sought to allay fears the hub would turn out to be a fully-fledged base. 

“We have no intention to establish a base in Russia,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a video link-up with RIA Novosti in March. “This is a pragmatic arrangement which allows us to transport non-lethal weapons and troops to benefit our operation in Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, too many pundits and policymakers continue to reduce US bilateral relations with other countries to single “barometers.” See the excellent piece by Steve Weber and Ely Ratner about Sino-US relations.

Urination Distraction


Over the past few weeks we’ve had to endure military brass and top government officials falling over themselves to condemn American GIs – first for urinating on dead Afghans, and more recently for beating a sheep. Earlier in the Iraq and Afghan wars, we’ve suffered through pious denunciations of soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib or laughed as they targeted “dead men” with drones.

How noble the sentiment!  Criticizing ordinary servicemen who do not abide by the rules of engagement or who break the laws of war.  In fact, however, most of the official condemnation has ulterior motives.

The real purpose is not to shame or punish the soldiers, appropriate as that is.  Rather it is to advance and legitimate the war effort, with all its attendant inhumanity and cruelty.This is clearest in statements that decry the incidents for comforting the enemy and incensing civilian populations.  Such effects are indeed likely.  But those who issue this kind of condemnation are in fact suggesting that what is really wrong is not the incidents themselves, but the release of videos about them.  As long as such occurrences were kept quiet, there’d be little to complain of.

The same cover-up logic explains why the government has gone to such lengths to attack those, like Wikileaks, that release such information.  Conversely, to answer Charli’s recent question, those who send such videos to the press are certainly protesting and are hardly “fools.”  Meanwhile, those who originally took the videos and sent them to their friends are simply engaged in an age-old war custom, flaunting trophies.  And those who urinate on corpses or cheer as they blow up supposed enemies are acting like men have always acted and will always act in war. 


But there is a deeper explanation for the sanctimonious slamming of our errant troops.  Too many such incidents cut against the well-honed spin that the U.S. military is a thoroughly professional fighting force.  Even while they train soldiers to kill, military leaders must keep up the claim that our soldiers do so humanely!  Only the exceptions – the vicious, the stupid, or the exhausted – would break the rules.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.  


Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.

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A Reminder

The United States is currently fighting wars in lands that, while distant to us, are not so distant to their inhabitants and US soldiers.

I am tempted to carry on about the “new normal,” or compare the experience of peripheral wars to that of imperial Britain, France, and Russia. But the fact is that US forces have been engaged in some form of conflict–whether directly or indirectly–pretty much continuously since the start of World War II. And that’s a conservative timeline.

Still, the most striking thing of the US wars of the twenty-first century is how incidental they’ve been to most people living in the metropole. David Remnick wrote a fantastic piece about this on the tenth anniversary of September 11. Indeed, during the year I spent in the US government a constant refrain was how everyone needed to be reminded that the US was at war.

I was working in the Department of Defense.

Transitioning Toward Anarchy

The second phase of the transition of security responsibility from ISAF/NATO to Afghan Security Forces has begun (the first phase began in July 2011).  This means that roughly 50% of the population will now be under the protection of Afghan troops.

Some of the areas being handed over are still quite active insurgent zones including many parts of Helmand, Ghazni, and Nangrahar provinces.  For example, Ajristan, one of the districts in Ghazni, is reportedly completely under Taliban control. In fact, the Taliban have a strong presence in 13 out of the 19 districts in the province and there is little or no presence of government employees in the Taliban dominated districts. The few secure districts are also not easily accessible because the road networks pass through surrounding districts that are dominated by the Taliban, according to the independent newspaper, Hasht-e Sobh (1 December 2011).
The situation might not be so bad if the Afghan Security Forces were well trained, professional, and a capable fighting force, but they are not really any of those things.  This is not for lack of funding. By 2014 billions of dollars will have been spent by foreign governments, mainly the US, to rapidly train and equip the soldiers, but Afghan experts fear the Afghan forces are still completely inadequate for the task. Unfortunately, Afghan forces have been bedeviled by high desertion rates, illiteracy, insurgent infiltration, and hurried training.

Of course, we should expect the announcement of several major new operations led by ISAF forces to clear out insurgent areas next spring and deal a death blow to the Taliban, but similar operations — despite lots of hype — have had limited long term effectiveness in the past — regardless of NATO propaganda

It is likely that the timing of the second phase, just before the 2nd Bonn Conference, was meant to show the international community that progress is being made. However, since the relationship between ISAF & NATO and Pakistan has publicly deteriorated in the last few days — with Pakistan now boycotting the conference, the transition process is in significant danger. A crumbling security situation, unprepared Afghan forces, and a hostile Pakistan on the border implies that there is almost no chance for the creation of a stable state in Afghanistan before foreign forces are scheduled to leave… if there was any hope to begin with.

[Cross-posted from Humayun]

Editing an Incident

The chasm between Pakistani and Western reactions to last week’s NATO attack on Pakistani forces seems to be growing if official actions/statements, media reports, conversations with friends on all sides, and ad hominem twitter flame wars are any indication.

It goes without saying that Pakistanis are still in mourning for the death of their soldiers in what is a major national tragedy for a country that has had many national tragedies in recent years. But there is more going on than the understandable hurt and anger that follows a tragic friendly fire incident. This incident appears to be intensifying the sense of humiliation felt by a large number of Pakistanis and the sense of deep mistrust felt by many Westerners after the Abbotabad raid.

There are probably a dozen other reasons why the tension is increasing at this point in time, but one that strikes me is the role of the media in fanning the flames of distrust, particularly as I see the kinds of articles being posted on social media sites by Pakistanis and Westerners.

It is obvious that the national press helps to frame and shape public opinion in any country, what is more interesting is how. (I want to be careful here: I am not making any argument about why this is being done — frankly, I don’t know why; I am not arguing that there is a conscious decision by newspaper editors in Pakistan to fuel greater distrust. I am only stating that selective or careless editing and reporting seems to limit the scope for dialog and create even more misleading impressions, although there is no doubt that the relations between Pakistan and its Western allies have been deeply strained for sometime and not without cause, i.e. some of the strains are not due to misunderstanding but to understanding one another all too well.)

Exhibits A&B: The Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper ran an article on Friday titled “Nato Plans to Quell Pakistan Based Insurgents: Guardian” which was based on the Guardian article, “Nato plans push in eastern Afghanistan to quell Pakistan Based Insurgents.”  Since it was obvious that the Dawn article lifted passages word for word from the Guardian article, I thought it would be interesting to compare what was changed from the original to the version aimed toward a predominately Pakistani audience.  Using the compare document versions / track changes function on MS Word, it is easy to see what the Pakistani edits look like (see below).  Text inserted by the Dawn is underlined, text deleted by the Dawn has a strike through. Here are some initial observations — the document with tracked changes follows afterward:

1. The first and most obvious change between the two version is the different pictures which accompany each article. The Guardian shows a crowd of Pakistanis burning an effigy of President Obama, while the Dawn went with a file photo of General John Allen.  Here the credit goes to the Dawn for not choosing an inflammatory image.

2. An entire paragraph explaining how Western officials had been encouraged by the results of drone strikes in North Waziristan was deleted.  The fact that these drone strikes occurred with the cooperation of the Pakistani military is obviously critical to providing a complex framing of the events.

3. The idea that Pakistan’s army might permit a “free fire zone” in the tribal areas has also been deleted, but perhaps because it is speculative and somewhat absurd to begin with.

4. The possible explanation that NATO might have accidentally thought the fire from the Pakistani side was coming from insurgents is deleted.  This is a serious omission by the Dawn.

5. Evidence that Pakistani officials had cooperated to defuse a similar incident only a few days after the deadly attack is deleted.  Later, the Dawn also deletes the part of the Guardian story which mentions that General Allen had met with General Kayani only the day before last week’s attack to try to coordinate cross-border efforts against the insurgents’ havens in Pakistan.

6. The statistical evidence cited by ISAF which might explain why there will a planned push in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan is deleted.

Obviously, this is only a comparison of two news items in what is by now a massive and growing number of articles on the incident. So there is no way to say anything even remotely definitive. However, this little exercise makes me wonder whether these kinds of omissions in the way the incident is explained are replicated in other Pakistani accounts.  And I also had to wonder what aspects of Pakistan’s side of the story are being omitted in Western narratives…


LONDON:
Nato plans push in eastern Afghanistan to quell Pakistan-based insurgents

Exclusive:
 Isaf aims to reduce threat to Kabul by insurgent groups and has not ruled out cross-border raids into Pakistan commanders are planning a substantial offensive in easternAfghanistan aimed at insurgent groups based inPakistan, involving an escalation of aerial attacks on insurgent sanctuaries, and have not ruled out cross-border raids with ground troops, The Guardian newspaper reported on Friday.
The aim of
the
offensive over the next two years is to reduce the threat represented by Pakistan-based groups loyal to insurgent leaders like the Haqqani clan, Mullah Nazir &and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Nato hopes to reducethe level of attacks in the eastern provinces clustered around Kabul to the point where they could be contained by Afghan security forces after transition in 2014.The move is likely to add to already tense atmosphere following recent border post attack by Nato helicopters that resulted in death of 24 Pakistani soldiers.


The move is likely to add to the already tense atmosphere following the recent border post attack by Nato helicopters that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. On Thursday, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani,ordered his troops to return fire if they came under attack again by its ally.
While drawing down forces in Helmand
&
and Kandahar, the US will step up its presence in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, bringing the long-festering issue of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistanthe Pakistanitribal areas to a head. MessageThe message being given to Pakistan military the Pakistani military is that if it cannot or will not eliminate insurgent the havens, US forces will attempt the job themselves, reportthemselves.

Western officials had been encouraged by the fact that a blitz of drone strikes against commanders loyal to insurgent leaders Jalaluddin and his son Sirajuddin in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, and against forces loyal to Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan, had produced few civilian casualties and no reaction from the Pakistanis. Consequently, an increase in cross-border raids by special forces – and even the withdrawal of the Pakistani army to create a free-fire zone – have not been excluded.

“The Pakistanis may not have the strength to defeat the Taliban and the Haqqanis on their own, even if they wanted to,” a western diplomat
said.
It is unclear to what extent
the
killing of 24 Pakistan soldiers in Nato air strikes last Saturday will have on the Nato strategy. An investigation is underway into the incident. incident, which appears to have started with an exchange of fire between Pakistani and mixed Afghan-Nato forces, with the latter calling in air support. Nato sent in aircraft believing the fire from the Pakistani side was from insurgents.
As a consequence, Pakistan
has
closed supply routes used by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)(Isaf)and barred the US from using a Pakistani air base to launch drones.However, Nato officers said that Pakistani forces had been co-operative in a similar incident on Tuesday, helping prevent it from escalating.

Isaf statistics published earlier this week showed a 7% drop in insurgent attacks across Afghanistan in the first 10 months of this year compared to the same period last year. The decrease in the Helmand area was 29%. But in the eastern provinces the figures show a 21% rise in attacks, now the most violent area, accounting for 39% of all attacks.

The
Isaf commander, General John Allen, said the need to confront the sanctuaries in Pakistan was “one“oneof the reasons we are shifting our operations to the east”.east”.
In an interview in Kabul, Allen, a US marine, did not give specifics of
the
strategy and said nothing about cross-border operations.The day before the fatal border clash, he had met Kayani, to discuss cross-border co-operation ahead of the eastern surge, clearly hoping the move against the sanctuaries would be a joint effort.

According to The Guardian,
Allen said he did not know what the long-term consequences of last Saturday’sSaturday’sclash would be, describing it as a “tragedy”,“tragedy”,but made clear that the push to the east would continue.

“Ultimately
“Ultimately the outcome we hope to achieve in the east is a reduction of the insurgent networks to the point where the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces(ANSF)] can handle them, reducing them in 2012, if necessary going after them in 2013,”2013,”Allen said.

“I
“I won’twont go into the specifics of the operations but as we consolidate our holdings in the south and as the population centerscentres there in the Helmand River valley and in (Kandahar,)[Kandahar], we will conduct substantial operations in the east … the idea being to expand the security zone around Kabul.


In particular we are going to pay a lot of attention to the south of Kabul,Wardak, Logar, Ghazni, Zabul.

Because in the end if you have a population in the south that feels secure and it’sit’ssecured by the ANSF, and you have a population in the east in and around the centre ofthe gravity of Kabul, and those two are connected by a road so you have freedom of movement, you have a pretty good outcome.”outcome.”

Armadillo

Last night PBS’ POV program aired the Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (filmed 2009; released 2010) about a Danish-British Forward Operating Base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Although much of the documentary portrays standard tropes and follows a time honored narrative arc from a long line of war films, Janus Metz‘s work sparked debate in Europe because it appeared to depict Danish soldiers “liquidating” wounded Taliban fighters and piling up the bodies to take trophy photos. Thus, as the director notes, the film challenges the notion of soldiers as heroes while also showing the ways in which the experience of combat perverts the psychological state of the soldiers.

More subtly and perhaps more subversively, the film allows Afghan civilians, who are caught in the conflict between ISAF and the Taliban, to speak for themselves. Children beg for food, but they also heckle the soldiers for killing their livestock and wounding their family members and they bluntly tell the soldiers to just go home. Village elders seek compensation for destruction to their property and livelihood by ISAF forces while also trying to keep the somewhat oblivious soldiers off of their crops. There is even a wonderfully absurd encounter at a madrassa where the Danish troops try to secure support and information from the teacher at the madrassa by telling him that with his cooperation they will be able to build schools for children in the village — as if a madrassa were not a school.  The arguments of the soldiers about creating security if only the villagers would collaborate with the ISAF troops are calmly defeated through knowing smiles and gestures explaining what the Taliban will do to collaborators… The hopeless and confused nature of the conflict where violence begets more violence becomes startlingly apparent in these brief interactions.

If you did not get a chance to see this film, the full length version is available at PBS POV.

Armadillo

Last night PBS’ POV program aired the Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (filmed 2009; released 2010) about a Danish-British Forward Operating Base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Although much of the documentary portrays standard tropes and follows a time honored narrative arc from a long line of war films, Janus Metz‘s work sparked debate in Europe because it appeared to depict Danish soldiers “liquidating” wounded Taliban fighters and piling up the bodies to take trophy photos. Thus, as the director notes, the film challenges the notion of soldiers as heroes while also showing the ways in which the experience of combat perverts the psychological state of the soldiers.

More subtly and perhaps more subversively, the film allows Afghan civilians, who are caught in the conflict between ISAF and the Taliban, to speak for themselves. Children beg for food, but they also heckle the soldiers for killing their livestock and wounding their family members and they bluntly tell the soldiers to just go home. Village elders seek compensation for destruction to their property and livelihood by ISAF forces while also trying to keep the somewhat oblivious soldiers off of their crops. There is even a wonderfully absurd encounter at a madrassa where the Danish troops try to secure support and information from the teacher at the madrassa by telling him that with his cooperation they will be able to build schools for children in the village — as if a madrassa were not a school.  The arguments of the soldiers about creating security if only the villagers would collaborate with the ISAF troops are calmly defeated through knowing smiles and gestures explaining what the Taliban will do to collaborators… The hopeless and confused nature of the conflict where violence begets more violence becomes startlingly apparent in these brief interactions.

If you did not get a chance to see this film, the full length version is available at PBS POV.

Realist Dreams

 The Realist tradition in International Relations long ago won the big battle by getting the best name.  By calling itself Realism, the realist tradition makes all other approaches to IR seem idealistic, based in dreams but not realities.  Anything but grounded in hard, cold calculations of how things really are.  But the joy of realism is how often its acolytes indulge in fantasy.  Ah, but only if we could have the good old days of the cold war, for instance.* 

*  Insert gratuitous cite of Mearsheimer’s piece in International Security.

Who do realists look to as their latter-day Bismarck?  Henry Kissinger, of course, who was a Realist thinker at Harvard before serving as National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State.  So, it is far from an accident that Gideon Rose cites the Kissinger/Nixon exemplar when suggesting to Obama a way out of Afghanistan.  Leave by lying.  The best way to preserve national power and enhance national security would be to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, as frittering away more resources on an unwinnable war is anathema to a realist, just as it was when the drain was South Vietnam.  But just picking up and leaving quickly hurts the reputation, so try to leave in a way that provides a decent interval between exist and the collapse of one’s ally.  And lie about it.

Rose acknowledges that this is hard, due to domestic politics, but more or less wishes away such constraints.  More problematically, he does not recall the consequences of the Kissinger/Nixon strategy, especially when you”lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind.”  That would be bombing Cambodia and Laos and invading the former (not to mention the War Powers Act).  Rose cites drones as being better than the “ham-fisted” approach.  Sure.  But what happened to Cambodia after the US left?  Just a smidge of genocide.  Ok, perhaps the most catastrophic episode of genocide in per capita terms–one quarter of Cambodia’s population if I remember correctly.

So, the big question is really not so much what happens to Afghanistan after we leave if we do not leave well, but what happens to Pakistan?  A nuclear-armed Pakistan, with a most broken set of civil-military dynamics, on-going insurgencies, deep poverty, extreme corruption, an irredentist campaign targeting its larger and nuclear-armed neighbor.  Hmmm.  I guess it is better to be a Realist** and ignore this ugly bit of reality. 

**  Some of my friends and students confuse me for a Realist since I do tend to think that power has a great deal with shaping outcomes. I just don’t think power or security influence the choices leaders and states make as much as Realists aver.

Kicking the Can Down the Ring Road

How is it that time and time again we are persuaded to hang on for another year in Afghanistan with the mantra that counterinsurgency (a.k.a. COIN) will really work this time. While I certainly acknowledge the limited range of alternative options and oppose any peace agreement with the Taliban, I think that putting our faith in COIN time and time again is problematic… To understand why, perhaps a (not so brief) recap of how the discourse of COIN has mutated in Afghanistan would be helpful…

From late 2003 to mid 2004, Robert Andrews, a CIA and DoD official and Donald Rumsfeld’s head of special operations, began urging the US to undertake a “countrywide counterinsurgency” campaign in Afghanistan (WaPo, 8 August 2004). However, COIN in Andrew’s outlook mainly entailed an effort to broaden the manhunt for terrorists by attempting to target drug lords who were thought to be propping up the warlords, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. (In actuality, of course, it was the US which has paid, armed, and legitimated Afghanistan’s warlords since 9/11. In turn, those warlords helped to maintain the central government’s weakness thereby fueling the dramatic growth of narco-trafficking — but these inconvenient contradictions in US policy were ignored by experts who never seriously contemplated the idea that the US itself could be the heart of the problem they were trying to manage.) Andrews, like his boss Donald Rumsfeld, thought that the idea of counterinsurgency could be used as an antidote to “overmilitarization” of the conflict. They still seemed to envision counterinsurgency as reliant on light, fast moving elite units linked to “local allies.”

Other military experts did articulate a more conventional understanding of COIN doctrine, for example US CENTCOM Director, Brigadier General Douglas Lute, argued that COIN required a separation between the insurgent and his base of support.  However, Lute said that it takes 20 years to develop a seasoned civil affairs officer or to train a linguist (Tampa Tribune 26 August 2004). In other words, he was skeptical of the ability to transform the US military to engage in a counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. Such frank and pessimistic comments would become a rarity or heavily diluted in order to be used as a plea for patience with an ever expansive COIN strategy in the years to come.

In November 2004, the US Army re-issued its counterinsurgency manual for the first time since the American defeat in Vietnam. Although the release of the manual was intended to address challenges being faced in Iraq, it would obviously become relevant in Afghanistan once the Taliban’s Maoist-style insurgency would move into a more confrontational phase (Giustozzi 2008).  Notably, this manual advised against a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign stating that the longer a counterinsurgency strategy is used the more resentment it breeds. Despite its flaws, the hastily published manual replaced the woefully outdated and Orientalist “Small Wars Manual” then being used in Iraq:


“One purpose for the manual, Colonel Horvath said, was to update archaic language and concepts. The ‘Small Wars Manual,’ which many Marines carried to Iraq, includes sections on the ‘management of animals’ like mules, and assertions like a warning that mixed-race societies are ‘always difficult to govern, if not ungovernable, owing to the absence of a fixed character,'” (NY Times, 13 November 2004).

Nevertheless, the existence of the Small Wars Manual calls into question some revisionist claims in the mainstream press that the US military had no framework for thinking about an insurgency prior to 2004.

By 2005, the US began to talk openly of handing off the Afghanistan campaign to NATO and cutting the 20,000 US troops by at least 20% the next spring in order to focus on the Iraq War. NATO initially balked at the idea of being drawn into a counterinsurgency campaign commanded by the Americans (NY Times 14 September 2005).  Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that the US could manage the counterinsurgency with the current level of troops until NATO was ready. In October, NATO caved to US pressure and agreed to increase its troops from 9,000 to 15,000, move away from its existing peacekeeping mission, and take on the counterinsurgency mission minus the counter-narcotics mission (NY Times, 7 October 2005).  The US still hoped that it could hand off the entire COIN mission to NATO’s 15,000 troops in the near future. (In other words, this was basically a mini-surge). Lt. General Barno predicted in April 2005 that the insurgency would collapse in about a year.

As it turned out, 2005 was the most lethal year for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began. But American commanders claimed to have killed 600 insurgents and had plans to “step-up” attacks in insurgent areas and to train Afghan troops to fight through the winter. The US also hoped that spending $68 million on “development” projects would help win over hearts and minds in southern Afghanistan the next spring. The relative absence of Taliban attacks during the 2004 Presidential elections and the 2005 Parliamentary elections, which we now know was mainly due to intense US pressure on Pakistan to seal its borders (Rashid 2008, 259), bolstered the idea that counterinsurgency efforts were working.  US advisors boasted that the 20,000 strong ANA was ready to safeguard the country and that they had already performed admirably under fire. Defense Intelligence advisors told reporters that the ANA was stocked with former mujahideen who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s.  Hence, the Afghan troops were considered “competent and capable,” (Daily News [New York] 18 September 2005).

As the Americans transferred authority to Canadian troops in Kandahar at the end of 2005, the Canadians stated they would use the same rules of engagement as the Americans. Canadian Col. S.J. Bowles stated that “We understand this is an active insurgency,” (NY Times, 31 December 2005). The US had encouraged such statements because it was concerned that a failure to vigorously pursue COIN tactics and strategy would endanger the “slow but steady political, economic, and security gains” they claimed to have achieved in southern Afghanistan. It was clear that the Americans thought holding on to territory in southern Afghanistan was critical to the counterinsurgency struggle. The US military continued to believe that the Taliban was some kind of ethnic insurgency rather than a ruthless, adaptive, and opportunistic set of loosely affiliated militant organizations that would recruit disaffected and frustrated young men wherever it was possible and convenient.  Hence the US continued to focus on clearing and holding southern Afghanistan when it should have realized that the Taliban were probably busy infiltrating the north in the same way they had gradually infiltrated the south.

By 2006, US military officials claimed that COIN doctrine had finally been incorporated into US military training centers. Army experts and commanders stated that prior applications of COIN (e.g. cordon and sweep) were incorrect and counterproductive due to inadequate training. General Petraeus stated that as the next crop of officers entered the field, COIN would be properly applied to “make a difference” in 2007 (WaPo, 21 January 2006). In reality, light infantry forces had been receiving at least some training in counterinsurgency since 1987 at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana (Dallas Morning News, 20 March 2006) — but the General’s narrative was rarely challenged.

In May 2006, the Marines began drafting a new counterinsurgency manual apparently for the first time in 25 years.  This manual argued “The (counterinsurgency) effort requires a firm political will and extreme patience,” (China Daily, 23 May 2006). Military experts were quoted as saying that the operation could last another 3 to 12 years, some even said it could go on for any number of years. The mission to “push out timelines” was now in full swing (WaPo, 24 September 2006). A key element in gaining support for an indefinite timeline was to show sufficient progress to continue the campaign yet another year.

Thus, one of the most frequently cited statistics to show that counterinsurgency was working and hearts & minds were being won over related to the number of schools being built and the enrollment of girls in those schools. In fact, the school was usually the only sign of the central government’s penetration of remote rural areas. The fact that this strategy would make schools into a lightning rod for the insurgents, thereby endangering Afghan children, was either not thought through or simply ignored. School building should have followed other (gradual) development objectives rather than leading the attempt to penetrate rural areas (to the extent that a strategy based on the state’s penetration of rural areas has any wisdom in the Afghan historical and cultural context). Of course, with each school burning and attack on teachers and school children by the Taliban, the enemy was portrayed as even more ruthless and the counterinsurgency strategy was redoubled.

Another metric of demonstrating progress was counting bodies of dead insurgents — a practice which was contrary to the essence of standard counterinsurgency doctrine. If anything the reliance on such a metric at a time when COIN was supposedly becoming the core doctrine of western forces in Afghanistan indicated tensions within the US military as well as ISAF (Globe & Mail 3 November 2006). Perhaps there is/was a disagreement between soft, hard, and very hard COINistas in the military. Of course, even in a conventional conflict, body count data would only be meaningful if the Taliban had a limited stock of recruits or an inability to replenish its ranks continuously. As such an assumption was questionable, the repetition of official body count statistics by journalists was a relatively mindless activity.

A third metric to secure patience were statistics about the growing size of the ANA and ANP to which power would eventually be handed. The startling desertion rates and high levels of illiteracy among the recruits were rarely mentioned in the early years. It was also not generally acknowledged that the ANA had mainly been trained in a light infantry model to support US and ISAF operations. It was always unclear just how many ANA and ANP troops would ultimately be needed. There was no discussion of how an ever expanding Afghan military could be supported by the domestic economy of one of the poorest countries on Earth. The political ramifications of building a massive military and police force for Afghanistan’s democracy were also not articulated to the public. By 2007, the ANA had reached 37,000 soldiers and there were plans to double the size of the military. The fetish for “doubling” existing troop strength should have been a clue that military planners had no idea of what constituted a sufficient or sustainable military… ultimately, it did not matter how many troops were necessary, stating a goal of doubling troops by next year would help make the case for more patience and more funding for the strategy for at least another year.  So now in 2011 we have an ANA with 150,000 troops, with the goal of 260,000 by 2014, the ANP is now at 115,000 police officers with goal of 160,000 by 2014.

Finally, a revisionist chronology of the Anbar Awakening and the Surge in Iraq helped to build confidence that COIN can work in Afghanistan.

To skeptics who argued that the situation in Afghanistan increasingly seemed like a quagmire, COINistas would point out that classical counterinsurgency actually dictated a far higher level of troop strength and an 80/20 allocation of resources between nonmilitary and military efforts (New Yorker, 18 December 2006). Although the basis for such claims is questionable and reliant on deference to military authority, they create immense space for bureaucratic budgetary lobbying to “do it right, this time.” So today in 2011 we have 132,203 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, including 90,000 US soldiers.  There are also 18,919 private security contractors in Afghanistan. Will this be enough troop strength, particularly when combined with 260,000 ANA and 160,000 ANP to carry out counter-insurgency the “right way” against an estimated 36,000 Taliban? Check back in 2014…

Of Lords and Flies

The release of the first three of a reported 4,000 photos and videos from an American “kill team” in Afghanistan threatens to become the next “Abu Ghraib.”  The horrific images of civilian corpses being photographed with grinning American troops raises important questions about the American military’s ability to maintain professional standards and discipline; soldiers’ (racialized) understanding of and ability to engage with foreign societies; and the underside of military culture. In other words, contrary to the military’s spin machine, these images are not an aberration or simply the product of one “rogue” unit. Moreover, the central issue is not how to manage the “fall out” of (righteous) Muslim rage but how to encourage Americans to take a hard look at military culture in a time of unrelenting affective militarism.


Not An Exception or an Aberration

Another alleged kill team was caught in Iraq under the command of Col. Michael D. Steele in 2005.  Steele’s brigade allegedly murdered at least 8 unarmed Iraqi men and intended to murder more civilians when a soldier finally disobeyed illegal orders (New Yorker, 7/6/2009).  Steele’s Charlie Company (a.k.a. “Kill Company”) kept a kill board (a dry erase board) in which they tallied all kills, whether civilian or militant, as a way of keeping score in a game between platoons. Notably Steele was praised by his superiors for “combating terrorism” at the same time as he was being investigated by the US military for committing a massacre.

Reports by Iraq War veterans of the practice of carrying “drop weapons” and “drop shovels” to plant on dead civilians leads one to suspect that the murder of civilians may have been more widespread than just one brigade. Aaron Glantz and Iraq Veterans Against War have described the practice of desecrating corpses (including running over them with humvees) and taking “trophy photos” of the dead in Iraq (IPS, 9/16/2008).

Although taking a large number of photos and videos of trophies is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are precedents at least going back to WWII. We know that the practice of taking physical trophies by defiling corpses has been a persistent feature of modern warfare. However, American troops seem to have abandoned their practice of beheading their enemies which was documented in the Pacific theater during WWII.

Of course, the US is not unique in having its soldiers accused of this subset of atrocity.  The Israeli army in October 2001 found photos of its soldiers gloating over the mutilated corpses of Palestinians (Sunday Telegraph, 10/14/2001).  The IDF denied reports that the ritualized practice of taking “trophy” photos of “big game” was widespread. However news reports stated that company commanders used such photos to motivate their troops and regularly carried such photos with them. The practice of collecting trophy photos had become so widespread that the “leisure and society” section of an unofficial Israeli army site carried photos of defiled corpses from the Lebanon war.

Bosnian Serbs were accused of collecting the ears of their victims and mixing animal parts and bones in with human remains in the mid-nineties. The Serbs tended to take photos of their victims prior to killing them in order to sell the photos to desperate family members seeking signs that their loved ones were still alive (USA Today, 8/3/1995).

In the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers took photos of the atrocities and even the rapes they committed… One could go on with examples, but the point is that the practice of collecting physical and photographic trophies is not new to the US nor is it exclusive to the American military.  Given the prevalence of this type of behavior one could speculate that aspects of military culture incite such violations of norms and that the military may at times even benefit from illegal tactics.

Snuff Films in the State of Nature

But what do the photos actually tell us about military culture? The photos and accounts of the American kill team’s exploits in Afghanistan reveal soldiers who seem to have believed that they had entered into a kind of tribalized state of nature or at least a lawless zone. The 12 soldiers who composed the “kill team” allegedly murdered civilian targets at random, abused corpses, and collected body parts (including teeth and fingers of their civilian victims) as trophies.

According to Der Spiegel, the murders of Afghan civilians were “tightly scripted” and highly staged to fit particular standard narratives — as if these men thought they were repeatedly playing video games. One of the American soldiers told his father in a Facebook chat that his buddies had detonated a grenade to stage a plausible scenario before “mowing” down their innocent victim.  The scenario was again enacted to slaughter Mullah Allah Dad who was ordered to kneel in a ditch before throwing a grenade at him, shooting him and then collecting their “trophies”…

Why did these men so extensively document their crimes?  Were these intended as actual snuff films? With whom did the soldiers hope to share their documents? The answers are not yet known.

What we do know is that the soldiers in this unit were consuming large amounts of illicit and prescription drugs. A lawyer for one soldier has argued the unit should not have been allowed into the battle-space given the pervasive use of drugs and medications. Of course, while pervasive drug use may explain some of the soldiers’ distorted judgment and paint a picture of lax institutional discipline, it does not explain the specific content of the ritualized crimes or the desire to create documentary evidence of the atrocities.

What is needed is a theorization of the images taken by kill teams. If, as Michael Shapiro argues, the photograph is considered a simulacrum of the real, then the photograph carries with it an evidentiary function. The photo captures and reinforces existing structures of power relations (William Callaghan, “Trauma and Community,” Theory & Event 10, no. 4, 2007). One wonders if the intent is not to freeze in time a state of exception; to capture the space of the state of nature. If this line of speculation is at all correct, it reveals a desire to capture a moment of overwhelming power.  In essence it reveals a persistent anxiety about a return to an ordinary and generally powerless life.  The problem is that these photos are clearly staged in a ritualized fashion. Perhaps the aestheticization of brutality anesthetizes the viewer, and in a manner similar to pornography, requires the perpetual collection of documentary evidence to achieve the effect of the first viewing.  What else can explain the need to collect over 4,000 photos and videos? 

Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?

Cause and Effect in the "War on Terror?"

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?

Wikileaks, the Daily Telegraph and the ‘Special Relationship’

In his Introduction to the recent New York Times collection of materials on Wikileaks, Open Secrets Bill Keller comments on the way in which the newspapers involved shaped the leaks in accordance with their own agendas. Thus, the Guardian gave extensive coverage to leaked US army accounts of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, reflecting their scepticism about the war; the NYT, on the other hand, took the view that they had already given front page coverage to all the major incidents and so gave this matter much less emphasis. There is no doubt that the Guardian’s perspective was much more in line with that of Julian Assange – but that hasn’t prevented a major fall-out between Wikileaks and the Guardian over the latter’s book and its portrayal of Assange and so now, rather incongruously, the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Conservative Party in the UK, has become the major recipient of new Wikileaks material. It is interesting to see what they have made of it, where their emphasis lies.
The short answer seems to be that they are interested in highlighting the extent to which Anglo-American relations have soured in recent years. This partly comes through in the material on Libya and the release of al-Mehgrahi in 2009, which admittedly could be seen as serving a Conservative agenda given that it was the last  Labour Government that behaved disingenuously, but goes wider than that.  For example, we have also been told how the US spied on the Foreign Office and gave British nuclear secrets to the Russians. This is all pretty much on a par with telling us about the religious affiliation of the Pope but the emphasis given by the Telegraph suggests that for this newspaper at least  the ‘Special Relationship’ is no longer very special and they are happy to advertise this fact.

What makes this of wider interest is that it fits with other straws in the wind. Consider, for example, the obvious lack of any personal chemistry between President Obama and David Cameron. This isn’t particularly surprising – they have very little in common apart from the possession of first class intellects – but what is rather surprising is that the government doesn’t seem to be concerned by this state of affairs.  Tony Blair clearly regarded establishing a personal relationship with whoever is elected US President as part of the job-description of the British Prime Minister, and most of his predecessors would have agreed, but not Mr Cameron. There is a fascinating contrast here between the PM’s attitude and that of France’s President Sarkozy who has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the US President, a role-reversal which has left French public opinion bemused and a little irritated. 
Nor is this simply a matter of personal chemistry.  Foreign Secretary William Hague’s briefings on his current tour of the Middle East have been very critical of Israeli belligerence in a way that opens up a  more substantial gap between British and American policy on the region than has been apparent for a long time. The contrast with Tony Blair’s position on Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, where Blair was alone among European leaders in refusing to call for an early cease fire, is striking.
It may be that we are witnessing a real moment of change in Britain’s foreign policy.  We should be clear that this doesn’t amount to a re-orientation towards a European as opposed to an Atlantic identity; even though Cameron has better personal relations with both Sarkozy and Angela Merkel than he has with Obama – and it’s difficult to think of any time since 1945 when something similar could be said of a British PM – there is no intention to change in a fundamental way the semi-detached attitude towards Europe characteristic of British governments. Nor will we cease to be loyal allies of the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Rather, I think it is a case of a genuine reassessment of Britain’s power in the world and a willingness to abandon at least some of the illusions of grandeur that for so long have survived the end of empire and the loss of real great-power status. David Cameron may actually be the first British leader to have a genuinely post-imperial attitude towards the world, someone who is comfortable to be the Prime Minister of an middle-power and who doesn’t need to have his or his country’s self-esteem boosted by American approval.  In a rather confused, half-assed way, the recent Defence Review reflected this position; it was confused because clearly the Defence Secretary is unreconstructed, but the effective scrapping over time of the new aircraft carriers, and the delay in replacing Trident can, I think, be seen in this light.

But what of the Tory Party?  This is where the Telegraph’s handling of Wikileaks is interesting.  It clearly suggests a scepticism about Britain’s relations with the US, but does it indicate acceptance of a new, lesser but more realistic, understanding of Britain’s place in the world?  We will find out over the next few years.

Wikileaks, the Daily Telegraph and the 'Special Relationship'

In his Introduction to the recent New York Times collection of materials on Wikileaks, Open Secrets Bill Keller comments on the way in which the newspapers involved shaped the leaks in accordance with their own agendas. Thus, the Guardian gave extensive coverage to leaked US army accounts of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, reflecting their scepticism about the war; the NYT, on the other hand, took the view that they had already given front page coverage to all the major incidents and so gave this matter much less emphasis. There is no doubt that the Guardian’s perspective was much more in line with that of Julian Assange – but that hasn’t prevented a major fall-out between Wikileaks and the Guardian over the latter’s book and its portrayal of Assange and so now, rather incongruously, the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Conservative Party in the UK, has become the major recipient of new Wikileaks material. It is interesting to see what they have made of it, where their emphasis lies.
The short answer seems to be that they are interested in highlighting the extent to which Anglo-American relations have soured in recent years. This partly comes through in the material on Libya and the release of al-Mehgrahi in 2009, which admittedly could be seen as serving a Conservative agenda given that it was the last  Labour Government that behaved disingenuously, but goes wider than that.  For example, we have also been told how the US spied on the Foreign Office and gave British nuclear secrets to the Russians. This is all pretty much on a par with telling us about the religious affiliation of the Pope but the emphasis given by the Telegraph suggests that for this newspaper at least  the ‘Special Relationship’ is no longer very special and they are happy to advertise this fact.

What makes this of wider interest is that it fits with other straws in the wind. Consider, for example, the obvious lack of any personal chemistry between President Obama and David Cameron. This isn’t particularly surprising – they have very little in common apart from the possession of first class intellects – but what is rather surprising is that the government doesn’t seem to be concerned by this state of affairs.  Tony Blair clearly regarded establishing a personal relationship with whoever is elected US President as part of the job-description of the British Prime Minister, and most of his predecessors would have agreed, but not Mr Cameron. There is a fascinating contrast here between the PM’s attitude and that of France’s President Sarkozy who has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the US President, a role-reversal which has left French public opinion bemused and a little irritated. 
Nor is this simply a matter of personal chemistry.  Foreign Secretary William Hague’s briefings on his current tour of the Middle East have been very critical of Israeli belligerence in a way that opens up a  more substantial gap between British and American policy on the region than has been apparent for a long time. The contrast with Tony Blair’s position on Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, where Blair was alone among European leaders in refusing to call for an early cease fire, is striking.
It may be that we are witnessing a real moment of change in Britain’s foreign policy.  We should be clear that this doesn’t amount to a re-orientation towards a European as opposed to an Atlantic identity; even though Cameron has better personal relations with both Sarkozy and Angela Merkel than he has with Obama – and it’s difficult to think of any time since 1945 when something similar could be said of a British PM – there is no intention to change in a fundamental way the semi-detached attitude towards Europe characteristic of British governments. Nor will we cease to be loyal allies of the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Rather, I think it is a case of a genuine reassessment of Britain’s power in the world and a willingness to abandon at least some of the illusions of grandeur that for so long have survived the end of empire and the loss of real great-power status. David Cameron may actually be the first British leader to have a genuinely post-imperial attitude towards the world, someone who is comfortable to be the Prime Minister of an middle-power and who doesn’t need to have his or his country’s self-esteem boosted by American approval.  In a rather confused, half-assed way, the recent Defence Review reflected this position; it was confused because clearly the Defence Secretary is unreconstructed, but the effective scrapping over time of the new aircraft carriers, and the delay in replacing Trident can, I think, be seen in this light.

But what of the Tory Party?  This is where the Telegraph’s handling of Wikileaks is interesting.  It clearly suggests a scepticism about Britain’s relations with the US, but does it indicate acceptance of a new, lesser but more realistic, understanding of Britain’s place in the world?  We will find out over the next few years.

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