Permissible Arms

A Tin-Plated Anniversary

Posted in afghanistan, isaf, united states by Karaka on 21 October 2010

Another unpleasant, unplanned absence. Sigh. To everyone that I owe email: apologies for being out of contact. I’m trying to wade through everything now. Shoot me another one if you don’t hear from me by this weekend. Mea maxima culpa.

Say what you will about the ANA–and there’s a lot to be said–but there’s something compelling about this collection of photos of an ANA graduation. (From thruafghaneyes.)

Newly trained female officers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) attended their graduation ceremony at the National Army training center in Kabul on Thursday, 23 September 2010.

There are real problems with a transition from ISAF to ANSF in 2011. In the US, the President has a real political problem if he doesn’t stay the course of at least semi-withdrawal by that date. In Afghanistan, there are competency issues, numbers issues, readiness issues, and that whole pesky desertion/retention problem. Not that this is news to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last (gulp) ten years.

Petraeus, speaking from London, is trying his best to make hay from hash by citing progress in literacy and health programs. But who really thinks the ANSF will grow big enough in such little time–at the very least, not without cutting some corners in training, recruiting, and over all quality.

We’re coming close to the exact two choices that have been present since this plan for Afghanistan came out last year: either find a way to keep this 2011 deadline soft enough that ISAF can keep trying to make the ANSF work; or accept that after ten years ISAF only started the real work a year and a half ago, and the political time on this war has run out. Sucks to be in the Afghan Army or Police Force, here’s the keys to the car, try not to wreck it too badly.

Not to be too pessimistic or anything. I think I’m just going to go look at those pictures some more and think about the counter-factual world that might have been if real ANSF training had started in 2003.

Pressure Drop (Upcoming Afghan Elections)

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 7 September 2010

Hope the Americans enjoyed their Labor Day as much as I did–with family, friends, and a barbecue in the backyard. Posting has been spotty as I’ve been working on some projects behind the curtain, but I hope to bear the fruits of those labors soon.

Stories of interest:

Afghans to handle most security for Sept. 18 election.

Afghan soldiers and police will take the lead securing provincial elections later this month with international forces backing them up, according to the International Security Assistance Force.

“These elections are Afghan-led, Afghan-run and the Afghan National Security Forces have the lead in providing election security throughout the nation,” Air Force Capt. Will Powell, an ISAF public affairs officer, said in an e-mail this week.

Afghan National Police will be responsible for protecting voters at polling centers while the Afghan National Army secures nearby neighborhoods and roads, he said.

“It’s a critical step in the development of both the Afghan Security Forces, but also the country as a whole, for the people to see and develop trust and confidence in their own security agencies,” he said.

This is good news and good press, especially in light of the failed ANSF mission last month. Putting an Afghan face on Afghan security operations is exactly what ISAF has been working towards, and what ANSF are beginning to claim. Speaking of, this parliamentary election has the greatest number of women running for an elected position in the short history of Afghanistan’s democracy. To my utter lack of surprise, however, those female candidates and those that support them are finding their experience to be a very dangerous one. Women running for Afghanistan parliament now have tougher time:

But not since the five-year reign of the Taliban, which ended in 2001, have female candidates faced such intense political intimidation, the women say. Less than two weeks before the balloting, many are deeply frustrated by their inability to get out and connect with voters, particularly in rural areas.

Even in Kabul, the capital, where campaign posters showing women’s faces are tolerated, the electoral placards are sometimes defaced with marks and slashes. But in villages where the Taliban is active, campaign workers are often too frightened to put them up.

Female candidates and their supporters receive a stream of threatening phone calls. Large campaign rallies are almost unheard of, because voters and office-seekers alike fear suicide bombings. Terrified family members sometimes plead with would-be lawmakers to drop out of the race, and some have heeded the call.

The respect I have for those candidates–both male and female–who are pursuing this election at risk to themselves, their families, and their colleagues is unparalleled. Not to be too starry-eyed, but this is pioneerism in action. I hope election day comes quickly and with fewer casualties.

Also on the election, Scott Worden’s piece on Afghan election fraud provides some good context:

The main question, then, is not whether the parliamentary election will be clean, but what the consequences of another highly flawed election will be.

To assess the potential damage that significant irregularities in the parliamentary elections could cause, it is useful to consider the fraud that occurred in the provincial council vote in 2009. While the dispute over the presidential race dominated international headlines and absorbed most of the diplomatic energy devoted to rescuing the legitimacy of the process, the provincial council elections involved the same constituencies as this year’s elections and were equally if not more flawed. Both ballot stuffing and counterfeit tally sheets skewed the results in many of the provinces. But because the provincial councils, like the parliament, involve dozens of candidates running for multiple seats in the same constituency, the patterns of fraud are more difficult for outsiders to detect.

Voters and candidates within a province know, however, when a vote has been stolen when the list of winners is announced. Does one family or tribe dominate the list? Are certain ethnic groups left out? Did the winning margin for a controversial candidate come from only one polling center where there was violence on election day and no-one showed up to vote? This puts a premium on having a fair and transparent dispute resolution process that has both domestic and international support.

This election has the potential to right some wrongs (and should a strong parliament emerge, also act as a needed check on Karzai’s rather unilateral power–shall we take bets on parliament strength? No? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too) and do some image scrubbing internationally for the Afghan political process; but it also has the very real potential to go horribly, heinously wrong.

Finally, Sharifullah Sahak’s piece in the NYT At War blog, A Pashtun Writes, provides some heady insight into the Afghan electorate going into this month’s elections. He’s writing on the execution of the pregnant window by the Taliban early last month.

I felt anger that the authorities weren’t able to protect her. The Taliban have no right to judge her. The government should protect her, but cannot in such areas.

And I felt confused, as all Afghans do, at how many different laws our people have to live under – the laws of their tribe, or of the Taliban, or of the government. The laws should protect her, but we have so many different laws.

A lot of people probably read about that story and thought, No wonder, they’re just Afghans, or They’re just Pashtuns, what do you expect of such savages?

Well I’m an Afghan, and I am also a Pashtun, and I think what they did, whether it was in the name of religion or tribal custom or whatever, was wrong and horrible.

And I am neither the only Afghan who feels that way, nor the only Pashtun who finds the Taliban’s actions to be extreme. There are many savages in our country, it’s true, because war makes life safe for savages and unsafe for educated people.

It is very easy for those of us in the west to discuss and analyze the political implications of the upcoming elections–myself included–but I have found time and time again that the most pertinent voices are from Afghans themselves who have access to a public voice.

Sleeping through the static

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, iraq, united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 1 September 2010

Must reads of the day, Iraq War (or ending thereof) edition:

Mike Few at Small Wars Council; have a quiet moment ready.

Boys, so many of you did not make it to see this day. I love you and miss you much. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Iraq is still a mess, but, officially, the U.S. heavy involvement is done. I wish that you were here to see it. I wish that I could write a letter to each one of you, but I can’t. There’s too many- 30 of y’all to date not counting Afghanistan. I’m gonna start at the beginning.

Today is a strange day. The Army promoted me to Major. Andy Hilmes is about to be a battalion commander. Can you believe that? I’m gonna be who I set out to be. I promised y’all that I would do my best. I stayed the course.

Gulliver, on refuting assumptions about millennial attitudes post-Iraq War.

You know what else has limits? The explanatory power of age-based demographic binning. Let’s give it up. Stuff like this is tired, and it doesn’t teach us anything. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Elizabeth Dickinson? Sure. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Duncan Hunter, Jr., who is 33 and probably doesn’t agree with a single damned thing Elizabeth Dickinson wrote? Sure. We’re not “the Iraq war generation.” That generation may exist in the Army and Marine Corps — a limited, more experientially and culturally homogenous grouping, and one that’s been directly shaped by personal experience with that war — but it doesn’t exist in society. One of the great “lessons of Iraq” is this: people in a society as broad and rich and disparate as the U.S. will always find ways to disagree about what’s best for the country and its security. Let’s not contribute to polarization and acrimony by suggesting that there’s one appropriate way to have experienced the last decade.

I too am wary of painting my (our?) generation with a broad brush. I’m in the later half of my twenties, and the one thing I can say with absolute certainty about my peers and the Iraq war is that for 2/3 of them this whole war business “slipped their minds” in favor of playing Halo or trying to find a job to pay off their student loans or deciding whether they wanted an iPhone or a Droid. Should Dickerson’s piece be qualified even further than what she states near the end of her piece:

Of course, I am but a subset of my demographic group, and no one authorized me to speak on behalf of my peers. But like the generation that grew up in Vietnam, we will be the Iraq generation. What that means is not yet clear, but it begins now. It’s day one of life with no Iraq War.

by saying that even this is only relevant for the, let’s face it, minority of people in the millennial generation who think of “foreign policy” as something more than that wicked backpacking trip through Germany the summer before senior year; or of those who even think of places outside the United States at all. Because I’m going to say that my generation, as much as you can loosely categorize a group of otherwise disparate humans into a collective based on something as broad as age, is as insular as most in the sense that the border of thinking ends at the border of this country, if it doesn’t end at exactly where one lives and works. Claiming any kind of real awareness of Iraq and Afghanistan as nations and not “stuff that shows up in the news a lot” seems to be giving great leeway to my millennial peers that I frankly do not believe exists. I would bet anyone a beer (but not Bud Light Lime) that more twenty-somethings have watched the 82nd Airborne GaGa-dancing than have read a single news report on the effects of counterinsurgency on the advancement of the Afghan people.

I’m pretty cynical on this, I know. It’s borne from my own experience. Dickinson’s article requires at least one (probably more) caveat: her points only apply to those who are paying attention in the first place.

Friday Miscellany (Think long, think hard.)

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 27 August 2010

My Afghanistan in 2050 post has been cross-posted to Feminist Philosophers, which pleases me to no end. There’s been some interesting discussion in the comments of the Chicago Boyz post as well that I’m working on parsing.

Also from that discussion, see Afghanistan 2050: A Chronic Low-Grade Sameness. Or, Each Life, A Story. by Madhu.

Ours was not a typical refugee or disaster victim virtopsy. Those we had done in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, on international hospital ships in rough and calm seas both. We only needed the scans to do those. The bodies were not ours and were disposed of as the locals or families saw fit. (Presuming the families would let us scan them. This was sometimes difficult to arrange.) From the scanned images, however, we could compile data and enter it into the open database that our physician-NGO group provided to the public. We shared our conclusions with a world-wide audience of academics, the curious, the bored, the skeptics, war proponents, human rights activists, nationalists, speculators, terrorists, cranks, freaks, perverts, politicians – whoever felt like “tuning in.”

In the “things I never expected” file, Murfreesboro, TN on The Daily Show this week. I would embed, but WordPress apparently hates anything but Youtube. Murfreesboro–where we used to shop for back-to-school clothes, and maybe hit the Red Lobster. Weird.

Andrew Bacevich’s personal missive in Salon this week about the “unmaking of a company man” seems to shed some light on his point of view, light that helps to understand something of his recent pieces, I think.

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations.

Interesting. I missed an opportunity to see Bacevich speak earlier this month, which I regret.

David Wood sort of cheerleads General Conway, or at least doesn’t criticize:

But it took the Marine Corps’ blunt-spoken commandant, Gen. James Conway, who retires this fall, to name the rhetorical fig leaf that emerges from all the comments officials have made about July 2011: the White House could order an inconsequentially small withdrawal of, say, three dozen troops — and claim it had fulfilled Obama’s promise.

“I certainly believe some American unit, somewhere in Afghanistan, will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. But not Marines in southern Afghanistan, he said, where “it will be a few years” before any withdrawals are possible.

Seeming to call for some forthright talk from the Oval Office, the outgoing commandant added: “I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war, but I would remind [them] that the last of the 30,000 troops only arrived this month. I would also quote the analysis of one of my regimental commanders when asked about the pace of the war. He said, ‘We can either lose fast or win slow.’ ” The upshot of all this hedging and backtracking, together with the steady drumbeat of sobering news from Afghanistan, is that a general understanding is emerging in Washington that July 2011 may come and go without any significant troop reductions, and perhaps without any troop reductions at all.

Conway spent the last week and a half going off without a filter, for which one might rightly be wary of engaging in his claims, but I do think there’s a fair assessment here of where ISAF will actually be in July 2011. In addition, Karzai has stated that the withdrawal deadline has boosted Taliban morale, for whatever that is worth.

In the amusing-and-truthful file, this post by @laurenist on celebrity aid appeals has both edgy humor and pointed assessment. Good for a Friday afternoon read.

At least when it was Sean Penn, I didn’t care. But with Misha, I care. Misha, I want you to succeed! You seem like a smart guy, I figure maybe there’s hope.

Let’s start with the orphanages. They tug at heartstrings, the stories about Haitian orphans were all over the news cycle, I get why there is a natural desire to support and fund orphanages. One of the things Misha says in the Random Acts’ introductory video is he wants to “cut out the middleman” in aid delivery. (That was the sound of a thousand heads hitting their desks in aid agencies across the land.) That means sending funds not to an Oxfam America, Mercy Corps, or even Save the Children, but instead sending funds directly to three orphanages in Haiti.

Long story short: bad idea. Disaster relief, especially after an earthquake like the one that hit Haiti, takes years, not just months. Long-term development projects for rebuilding livelihoods, schools, and public services are essential.

Here’s the gentleman in question, give you his best brooding, smoldering stare:

People, you do not understand how much effort it takes to resist photoshopping Starbuck’s head onto this image. (It would make such a good profile picture, man!)

From Dawn to Dusk

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, pakistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 24 August 2010

Back from my stint at Attackerman. That was a good experience, if a little stressful–Spencer’s audience is a lot bigger than mine, and I hope I kept the fire going well enough in his stead with my compatriots.

For all the people (journalists) bemoaning the slow news days of August, I must say I don’t see it. Between the floods in Pakistan, the existential crises of Pakistan’s obstructionism in Afghanistan, the likely food shortage resulting from Russia’s non-stop drought/wildfire combo and Pakistan’s floods, plus the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the interesting philosophical questions that can arise from the withdrawal, it’s been a non-stop thought farm for me. Granted, it’s no McClusterfuck, but it hasn’t been a quiet month.

Speaking of the flooding, I keep coming back to stare at this picture:

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Simmon, NASA.

That kind of macro view really shows how massive the Indus has become, and how terrifying it is. (H/t Natural Security.) What a crummy Ramadan.

Unleash the Carpets of War

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 21 August 2010

Having read Charlie Wilson’s War earlier this year, I watched with interest a headline this week in the NYT: Russia Pushes to Increase Afghanistan Business Ties.

Twenty years after the last Russian soldier walked out of Afghanistan, Moscow is gingerly pushing its way back into the country with business deals and diplomacy, and promises of closer ties to come.

Russia is eager to cooperate on economic matters in part by reviving Soviet-era public works, its president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said Wednesday during a summit meeting with the leaders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, the second such four-way meeting organized by Russia in the past year.

In fact, Russia has already begun a broad push into Afghan deal-making, negotiating to refurbish more than 140 Soviet-era installations, like hydroelectric stations, bridges, wells and irrigation systems, in deals that could be worth more than $1 billion. A Russian helicopter company, Vertikal-T, has contracts with NATO and the Afghan government to fly Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters throughout the country.

The Kremlin is also looking to blunt Islamic extremism in Central Asia, which poses a threat to Russia’s security, particularly in the Caucasus, and to exploit opportunities in the promising Afghan mining and energy industries.

This speaks of two things: first, Russia carefully revisiting its previous interests; and second, the diplomatic warmth between the Unites States and Russia in the last year spreading to other endeavors. There is no way Russia would have touched Afghanistan with a long stick if some of the air hadn’t been cleared during Secretary Clinton’s work on START. However, there are clear economic benefits for Russia in Afghanistan, not the least of which is the infrastructure left in place after the Soviet-Afghan War of the 80’s. This, I say with caution, is a positive sign because Russian economic investment in Afghanistan can prove helpful to Afghanistan’s shuttered economy.

Either way, I bet Charlie Wilson is having a huge glass of bourbon in the underworld.And whichever member of the Taliban is charged with reading the newspaper is already cursing the Russian infidel.

Afghanistan in 2050

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 20 August 2010

I am pleased to announce my contribution to the Chicago Boyz round table on Afghanistan in 2050. My piece is Back to the Future: Afghanistan in 2050.

This is Afghanistan in 2050; it looks remarkably like Afghanistan in 1950. Men and women walk the streets without fear of death by stoning; women choose to shop with uncovered heads; education is widespread and equally available for all Afghans.

100527_5-Afghanistan-69-v1

The differences between Afghanistan pre-Taliban and Afghanistan post-Taliban are challenging to conceive. From 1996 until the invasion of the United States in 2001, the world as Afghanistan knew it changed dramatically, and undeniably for the worse. The lot of women under the Taliban’s harsh regime was devastating. But perhaps the greatest hope for Afghanistan in 2050 is to look into its past.

From the ’50’s to the ’70’s, Afghanistan was a largely stable country under the rule of Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King steered his country slowly into modernization, opening it to the West and allowing his subjects greater political freedom. The culture of the time also liberalized, providing social freedoms for both men and women. Notably, women were allowed into the work force, chose whether to cover or uncover their hair and bodies, and had more substantial agency over their own lives.

This, then, is the challenge Afghanistan should undertake: undo the last sixty years of repression and throw as much weight as possible behind the cause of Afghan women. As Afghanistan pushes, and is pushed, towards control of its own destiny over the next four decades, perhaps the best hope for the country’s future lies with its female citizens.

More at the round table. Other contributors include Steve Metz, Gian Gentile, my nifty-keen blogfriend Zenpundit, Joseph Fouche, and many others. I encourage you to dive in over at CB.

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Bargaining Chips

Another boring-but-informative (and potentially useful) link dump. Where are my words?

Soldiers smoked late one evening at Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Paktika Province.

Only Got One More Step to Go

A little bit of late night blogging; somehow Friday just slipped away from me. Posting has been light as all my blog-related brain cells have been dumped at Attackerman; normal service should resume soon as the vestiges of moving office suites fall away.

Bits and bobs:

I shall attempt substance soon. Promise.

Back to Reality

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 9 August 2010

Adam Weinsten has some good thought on Brad Manning over at Attackerman today. Also at ZIA, some of the data culled from the leak is graphically represented. I still think it’s a grey area, whether to utilize the information or not, but still interesting to see.

As I blogged at Attackerman this morning, Secretary Gates announced today some big cutbacks in the defense department budget–including the closing of JFCOM, which General Odierno was recently nominated to head. According to the Secdef, Odierno knew and was supportive of the decision (of course, he would have to be so publicly) but I wonder where he–and the many defense contractors who will be made redundant very soon–will eventually go.

Matt Gallagher at Kerplunk opined as to why the US needs to return to the draft.

Which brings me back to the Draft. I’ve become more and more convinced that a healthy republic needs conscription to keep it healthy and honest. The gulf discussed isn’t anyone’s fault, an unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force – but this gulf must be filled, unless we’re intent on recreating Legions loyal to their commanders over country. (An extreme example. We’re nowhere near there. Yet.) The Draft would be controversial, debated, and very likely protested. All good things in a properly functioning people’s government. Meanwhile, the benefits of such would be twofold:

1) The citizenry would actually hold their political leaders accountable, as they’re supposed to. Apathy being a republic/democracy’s worst enemy is not a new understanding, but it remains a poignant one…

2) Wars would become a collective undertaking by the nation as a whole, rather than an isolated segment of the population. This would prove beneficial to both society and to the military. The number of sons and daughters involved would greatly increase, thus increasing personal connections and a sense of engagement, thus increasing product output.

I shrunk this down a little, to avoid reproducing his post, but I will note that I’ve had a discussion about a draft with a friend of mine several times, and we were both a little surprised to discover that the both of us–liberal Portlanders that we are–support the draft. And not solely a military draft, but a civilian draft as well. The idea being that you gave a year, two years, in service to your country either in defense or administration. We never fully worked out the weedy parts of it, but I still find it an interesting idea, analogous to Americorps or the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Worth reading, even if (especially if) you disagree. You can also catch Matt on CSPAN Books here.

I wish I’d caught this live, but the New America Foundation hosted a roundtable on civilian casualties in Afghanistan last week.

Using recently declassified data from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Jacob Shapiro and a team of academic researchers have produced the first detailed analysis of the link between civilian casualties and violence directed against ISAF troops.

I’m about halfway through, and hopefully I’ll be able to watch the rest this week if work is even slightly more placid than it has been.

MoI’s post on organized crime in Iraq struck some real chords. The U.S. invasion in 2003 removed all restrictions upon Iraq’s gangs. First, before the U.S. attack Saddam released 30,000-100,000 criminals in October 2002. Second, the Americans invaded without enough troops to secure the country. Then the government collapsed, followed by the economy falling apart. Finally the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military. All of those factors together emboldened gangs, and the anarchic situation that Iraq found itself in created powerful incentives towards lawlessness to make a living.

Josh Keating and Mike Few ask What’s the Difference Between Combat and Noncombat Troops? in the FP Explainer; see Mike’s extended thoughts at SW Council. (That totally looks like Star Wars Council, doesn’t it?) I’m working on a brain dump, but life as I know is has still not fully returned to peaceable normal. But I have high hopes for tomorrow.

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