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.

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.

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?

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.

Candid views from the troops.

I just finished reading Dominic Tierney’s new book How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires and the American Way of War. As the title suggests, he presents the standard American exceptionalism argument about why and how the US begins wars — that both the public and elites hold deeply entrenched beliefs of America’s “benign power” to transform the world. But, these same wars often end when the public and elites turn against these “crusades” after those we are there “to help” fail to appreciate the self-evident benefits of American military support and liberal values and institutions.

It’s hard to say when the US will end the war in Afghanistan given that there is still a tenuous elite consensus backing it. But a majority of Americans want out and reporting like the clip shown below from the Pech Valley — in which mid-level commanders and soldiers now openly question whether or not the US presence is making things worse in their area of operation — directly challenges the pro-war narrative and will almost certainly weaken elite cohesion. (It’s also striking to see a battalion commander state that the American presence helps the enemy.) Apparently, the Afghans are failing to appreciate the “self-evident benefits” of the American presence.

Wikileaks “Document Dumps” vs. Government Secrecy Dumps

The Wikileaks releases are political dynamite not just because of the specific issues they discuss.  Also, and more importantly, they challenge a dominant mode of foreign policymaking in the U.S. and many other countries:  government secrecy dumps—routinely stamping vast amounts of information “top secret,” thereby placing it beyond the eyes of all us “untrustworthy” citizens.  For this reason alone, the Wikileaks releases are important—and important for us to continue discussing on this blog.

To take a minor issue first, pooh-poohing the releases as “nothing new” is misplaced.  This is obvious from the facts that the releases have dominated headlines worldwide for days, that authoritarian governments have tried to keep their publics from seeing any of them, and that democracies like our own seem to be trying to do the same.  (Recently, for instance, I could not access Wikileaks from its U.S. site, although it was easy enough to do so from a European one.)  At a minimum, we are getting a detailed look at diplomats’ interpretations of events and relationships that most of us knew about only in broadest stroke.  That is very worthwhile—and in any case, there is in fact lots that really is new too.

What about the alleged harm to America’s security and diplomacy that the Wikileaks releases will supposedly cause?  I am doubtful about this assertion, as I’ve written before.  This is not just because even government officials–with the most interest in claiming harms–have admitted that there have not been any (even while darkly intimating that they are coming).  It is primarily because I believe far too much of our foreign policy–as well as too much of our domestic policy–is now conducted behind veils of secrecy that make it difficult if not impossible for citizens to know what is being done in our names.

Sure, it may be true that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions or outcomes.  But less information, strategically released by one side to an issue (the government), is far worse.  A basic fact about organizations is that they work to expand their powers and to protect themselves, fervently covering up their own uncertainties, embarrassments, mistakes, and corruption.  This is of course true of governments too.  In an admittedly small way, Wikileaks challenges that tendency—and provides information that citizens, and hopefully at least some of their elected leaders, can use to upend it.  In that regard, kudos to Rep. Ron Paul for being one of the few politicians, Democrat or Republican, to make that point publicly!

In light of the huge and concrete harms that have actually occurred in significant part because of government secrecy, Wikileaks’ releases offer a helpful alternative, with so far only abstract and possible harms.  If recent decades of U.S. foreign policy teach us anything, it is that the government and the military sometimes tell the truth–but also sometimes color the facts for their own purposes—sometimes make stupid mistakes–and sometimes lie to the American populace.  Those errors and lies cost huge amounts in money and lives.  The Tonkin Gulf incident, the build-up to the Iraq War, continuing incidents in Afghanistan—these are only the more egregious and costly cases of numerous others in recent decades.

In other words, the current regime of government secrecy dumps has not worked.  In that circumstance, I am open to trying a regime of substantially greater transparency–and think it would likely result in better decisionmaking.  Unsurprisingly, our politicians are unwilling to take such an approach.  They benefit too much from the lack of accountability it permits.  On the contrary, in recent years, they have vastly enlarged Top Secret America and hugely expanded their surveillance of ordinary Americans, all in the name of “security.”

In that circumstance, we are left with the press–some of which has remained skeptical and objective, but much of which has adopted cozy relationships with power—and has often cheer-leaded government policy and even secrecy.  That leaves us with various NGOs that try to improve government transparency, like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks releases contain information that I as a U.S. citizen have a right to know.  After all, this is the government I support through my tax dollars and vote for in elections.   The cables document the extent to which current policies have failed, in ways that the government seldom admits to its own people.  To take just two examples: our “allies” in the Middle East failing to stop funding for terrorists, as today’s New York Times reports; and the despair of ground-level American officials about the epidemic corruption in our ally, Afghanistan.

Why should I have to wait for some government bureaucrat to perhaps declassify these materials decades from now—or possibly never?  Why is it wrong for me to know in detail about the ways in which my tax dollars and my government are operating?  Why should we not have more complete and accurate information, allowing us to check claims of government officials, before we spend trillions of dollars and take hundreds of thousands of lives in our wars?

The argument that we should wait 10 or 20 or 50 years so that serious academics can give us a full explanation of today’s events elevates scholarship over policy.  It also naively assumes we can trust our officials to release an objective account of events, even decades later.  I seriously doubt that.  

Of course, there is a need for secrecy in some cases.  The classic one:  troop movements in the midst of a war—or delicate diplomatic negotiations in real time.  The interesting thing, however, is the extent to which government officials strategically use leaks themselves to advance their positions in many situations.  Exhibit A:  the buildup to the Iraq War.  And again, those who should provide some check on the politicians, instead often act as mouthpieces for government positions.  Exhibit B:  Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The argument that most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy issues may be true.  But so what?  Even if true, and only a small foreign policy elite in government, academia, and the media pays attention most of the time, I think it is worthwhile to have Wikileaks-style material available, if only for them—so that they can more easily awaken the American public to the folly of so many of our policies.  More generally, if we had less secrecy about the trillions of dollars being wasted in places like Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the actual risks posed to us there, many more Americans might become interested—and disgusted enough to mobilize against our security policy rat-hole.

As for the claim that Wikileaks is engaging in a deplorable “document dump,” the reality is that this release is being done slowly, in coordination with major media around the globe.  And Wikileaks has improved its ways of doing so, in particular redacting names.  I’m all in favor of targeted releases of information on specific instances of hidden criminality or waste, of course.  But the reality is that there is a wealth of other matters that governments do that are not “criminal” or “corrupt”–but that citizens should know about to gain a fuller picture of what their politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers are doing in our names and with our money.  In that respect, even if Wikileaks were simply “dumping” large numbers of documents, this would pale by comparison to the government’s security dumps.

Some have written that they fear these releases will simply drive more governmental communications into oral form, resulting in worse decisionmaking and less information in real time.  This is of course speculative—so let me add my own speculation.  The instinct to “cover your ass” is one of the most common in any organization.  I am confident that, up and down the chain of command, government functionaries will be reluctant to take questionable actions without written authorization, if for no other reason than CYA.  

The “torture memorandums” in the Bush administration offer a prime example.  One reason for their preparation and approval at the highest levels was to reassure government officials who would actually do the dirty work that they would not be prosecuted.  Without such written support, the possibility of prosecution would probably have deterred many from taking such dubious actions.

Will foreign officials be more reluctant to speak to American diplomats off the record—or, worse yet, stop inviting them to their cocktail parties and weddings?   Again, I doubt it.  Those officials invariably have ulterior motives for speaking or socializing with a superpower.   To think that they will cut us off in the future is shortsighted.  To think that they have always been candid with our diplomats in the past is naïve.  To continue with the secrecy that has enveloped these kinds of contacts in the past is perverse.   

If anything, we need more openness to avoid the costly missteps that crafty foreign leaders have manipulated us into in the past, due in part to our own misjudgment and credulity.  The possibility of disclosures could in fact make our diplomats think twice about what they are seeing and being told overseas.  If anything, we need more of that, given the gullibility and group-think of military and governmental officialdom.  Exhibit C:  Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi; Exhibit D: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the “Taliban leader” with whom we “negotiated” this year, to the tune of untold American dollars—before discovering him to be a fraud.

Will the State Department instruct employees to be less blunt in their assessments of democratic  leaders, for fear of offending their tender sensibilities, if the info ever came out?  Please.  These are all adults engaged in politics, not children in a pre-school class.  Democratic leaders are used to being called names by their own countrymen.  If they don’t have thick skins, they have no business being in their offices.

As for hurting the feelings of various despots around the world, some of them admittedly “our” despots, I say, Good.  In any case, someone like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or anyone savvy enough to get the world’s only superpower to do his bidding, is not going to be fooled into thinking that a diplomat’s smile and handshake represent his real feelings.  Nor is he going to be shocked to find himself described in frank terms to American officials.

All that said, I have little doubt that “patriotic” government officials are already scrambling to come up with new ways to secure their vast secrecy dumps from (horrors!) the American people.  Joe Lieberman is already demonstrating the bluntest and most questionable ways in which our “public servants” are doing that.  But I am doubtful that the secrecy regime can be much more severe than it is today—and hopeful that the Internet, combined with the occasional conscience-stricken government official, will keep things at least as open as they are now.

Who knows?  Unlikely as it seems, the disclosures and the debate might prompt more Americans to question our secrecy dumps.  That might even move some brave politicians to change current policies toward real transparency.

Russia’s Return to Afghanistan

The participation of four Russian counter-narcotics agents in a US/ISAF raid on four heroin labs in Afghanistan has left many pundits wondering whether the war in Afghanistan as well as US/NATO/ISAF–Russian relations are entering a new phase.  However, before one can speculate, there are a few misconceptions in news reports that I think should be clarified and corrected in order to place the story into its proper context.

First, several news papers have adopted the narrative that the Soviet military was “defeated” in Afghanistan. The NY Times report (10/29/2010) states,

“The operation, in which four opium refining laboratories and over 2,000 pounds of high-quality heroin were destroyed, was the first to include Russian agents. It also indicated a tentative willingness among Russian officials to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan two decades after American-backed Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet military there.” 

The notion that the mujahideen defeated the Soviet military in Afghanistan is a rather odd interpretation of history. (It seems part of the same myth which claims a decisive role for Stinger missiles while ignoring the neutralization of that technology through the transfer of SCUD missiles to the Kabul regime). The Afghan insurgents never overran a single Soviet military base from 1979 to 1989. And while parts of Afghanistan were not stabilized, it is important to keep in mind that Soviet strategy sought to destabilize and depopulate areas which were firmly under insurgent control. The Soviets did suffer heavy casualties during a nearly decade long occupation, but the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was part of a larger strategy by Mikhail Gorbachev to gain trust and breathing room from the West in order to restructure the Soviet economy.  In any case, the insurgents were not able to overthrow the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in Afghanistan until 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In large part the reason that the insurgents were unable to overwhelm the Kabul regime was evident in the Battle of Jalabad shortly after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 — the insurgents were simply unable to transition form a guerrilla force to a coordinated military force.  If the insurgents (backed by US and Pakistani intelligence) could not even overthrow the Kabul regime, it can hardly be argued that they defeated the USSR.  It is important to realize that the Soviets were not defeated so as to avoid a simplistic narrative arc which portrays the Russian interest in Afghanistan as either vengeful or foolish.

Second, it is worth noting (as several news articles correctly point out) that Russia has been cooperating with US/ISAF for some time by permitting logistics operations across Russian territory. Russian cooperation is obviously shaped by its own interests. Russia’s immediate interests in Afghanistan is quite clearly the need to stem the flow of heroin, which they have not been able to curtail through the demand side of the equation.  In essence, the (alleged) violation of Afghan sovereignty is a means of reasserting Russian sovereignty.  (I am saying that the violation of Afghan sovereignty is “alleged” because I do not accept the explanation by the Karzai regime’s media advisor, Rafi Ferdows, that even Afghans on the raid were unaware that Russians were accompanying them since all “yellow-skinned Angreez” look alike.)  Of course, this individual raid is unlikely to have much impact on the drug (and related HIV/AIDS problem) in Russia even in the short term. From a broader perspective, Russia is also concerned about the stability of Central Asia as a region, and Russia is not merely a passive player in regional security.  Russia has been in discussions with Tajikistan about using the Ayni airbase for the CSTO and beefing up security on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

Third, while the international media tends to emphasize those elements in a story which seem to produce sparks, conflict, and tension between states, there is little reason to accept the notion that Afghans as a people or their government are inherently opposed to Russian involvement in counter-narcotics. Despite denouncing the (supposedly) unauthorized Russian involvement, the Government of Afghanistan also stated that a bilateral agreement might be a possible route to future cooperation in counter-narcotics.  Afghanistan has cooperated with its regional neighbors to close drug labs in the past. The most recent case prior to the Russian raid was a nine month cooperative mission with Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency which resulted in the closure of 12 drug labs in Afghanistan and the arrest of 50 drug dealers in the first nine months of this year.  In fact, there was apparently some discussion at last year’s SCO meeting of a quadrilateral counter-narcotics initiative involving the “quartet”: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Russia. Moreover, President Karzai had indicated only a couple weeks ago that Afghanistan seeks the best possible relations and trade transactions with China, India, and Russia.  Similarly, Azizollah Karzai, the Afghan ambassador to Russia (and Hamid Karzai’s uncle), mentioned a few weeks ago that the two countries share a commitment to fighting terrorism and narcotics.

Placed into context, it is likely that Russian counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan will probably increase in the future.  However, this activity is not likely to be tense or conflictual (particularly because of something like Soviet era animosity); there are ample mutual interests and diplomatic mechanisms to ensure cooperation between the two countries. Finally, in terms of Russia’s relations with the US/NATO/ISAF, the involvement of Russians in the recent anti-narcotics operation does not seem to be a major deviation away from an already established pattern of cooperation on selective issues of vital interest to all the parties involved.

Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  


Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.
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