Permissible Arms

And now I’m done.

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 27 July 2010

Shorter Fred Kaplan: “Hi n00bs. Welcome to the war in Afghanistan.”

Best section:

By contrast, there’s very little in the raw WikiLeaks documents—at least among those reprinted in the Times and the Guardian—that is at all inconsistent with official U.S. and NATO statements about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama and various allied leaders, as well as their top aides and commanders, have acknowledged and decried all of these nightmares—civilian casualties, corruption, Pakistani collusion, and more—openly and repeatedly.

These problems were, in fact, the main reasons behind the new strategy that Obama put in place in December 2009—after the period covered by all of the WikiLeaks documents, which date from 2004-09.

Yes. Thank you. See also Exum in the NYT.

And now I don’t really want to talk about this any more.

Document Dumping

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military by Karaka on 26 July 2010

Brian Platt at Canada-Afghanistan Blog has it by the nose:

A targeted leak, meant to disseminate information that needs to be brought to public attention, is one thing. Militaries all over the world have a sordid history of covering up scandals. There is certainly a time and a place for whistle-blowing.

But this was a senseless leak, an act of pure treason. A democratic country with an all-volunteer military operating in the field has a legitimate reason to keep action reports classified. To dump almost 100,000 reports into the public detailing what your fellow soldiers are doing is not principled, it’s dangerous and foolhardy, and I hope that everyone responsible for sending these reports to Wikileaks gets locked up for a long, long time.

The Taliban can now go online and read the secret files of the NATO soldiers allied against them. If you want a scandal, there it is.

And as Josh Foust put it at CJR:

You don’t need access to specialized knowledge of the war, or the histories of either country, or insight into the inner workings of the intelligence community to understand these things—you can learn it watching CNN.

Which brings us back to Assange, who seems to lack any sort of insight into the war or where it’s being fought; he just has his own ideology, which involves exposing secrets he thinks are immoral to keep. (There are secrets Assange will not leak onto the Internet—the identities of his sources, for example.) Just clicking at random in the Wikileaks War Diary reveals the names of Afghan sources you hope will not be targeted as a result of this leak: Simon Hermes, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; Mohammed Moubin, who met with the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction team in 2006; Gul Said, who was assisting the PRT near the American Base at Bagram. On and on it goes, name after name of “collaborators” with the U.S. military, name after name of people whose lives are now in direct danger.

The New Yorker had an in-depth profile of Julian Assange last month that provided insight into WL, its founder, and the agenda behind it all. On reading it, I understood more of what drives WL and Assange to release the information turned over to him–not that it makes me agree with that decision at all–but after yesterday’s document release, I’m more inclined to charge Assange with an egoistic drive for publishing these files more than any adherence to a vision or a belief system about making information public in order to drive a resulting agenda.

WL didn’t get the reaction it/he wanted from the publication of the ’07 civilian casualty video. So it upped the ante with these documents to press for action, or at least response, to the Afghan war in the manner Assange and his community view it. I don’t think they’ve ever thought of themselves as something other than an agenda-driven organization, and that agenda includes making public classified information and documents as well as presenting those documents with some editorialization to make them as damning as possible.

Paul McCleary correctly stated that “What the #wikileaks docs describe is war. People are only shocked because they hadn’t paid attention before — but this is how war looks.” That’s the traction that will come out of this. Shock, for the first half of this week’s newscycle, and then retreat from daily thought. Because the important things, about the ISI, about heat-seeking missiles, about civilian casualties, were largely either already known or inferred. And the only real thrust WL has is the scandal of the leak itself–but scandals have expiry dates. This won’t change policy, it won’t force ISAF’s hand, it won’t do anything in the long run but get WL name and Julian Assange’s picture in the papers for a brief moment in time.

The vision fails.

Wikileaks, Making Headlines Again

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 26 July 2010

In what will be news to no one who reads this blog, Wikileaks dumped 92k documents on the world at large related to the war in Afghanistan. Most of the initial commentary I’ve seen has less to do with the content of the documents–which isn’t really shocking or surprising to anyone who even lightly follows the war–and more to do with the ethical/practical results of a watershed leak. Is this, more than the previous Wikileaks story, a germinal moment in the development of new media? Or is it merely opportunism?

The best analysis I’ve read thus far (given that this just happened yesterday) comes from John McCreary’s Nightwatch, which I encourage you to read in its entirety as it’s a veteran intelligence analyst’s take on the information leaked, the interpretation of the documents from other sources, and an intelligence angle on the manner in which the information should be interpreted.

In today’s reports the new outlets did not reach the obvious conclusion that the increased use of manpads against US helicopters might have contributed to McChrystal’s decision to limit tactical air support because aircraft losses were mounting, mimicking the Soviet experience. In other words, the deaths of innocent Afghan civilians might have been less significant than the rising losses of US airframes. That possibility needs follow-up research.

92,201 reports are not the same as 92,201 facts. In the NightWatch/KGS materials on Intelligence as Evidence the central theme is that every field report must be subjected to six foundation tests and two argument tests, after a filtering process that identifies it as having potential value. None of the news outlets did any of that difficult, tedious work.

Thus, it is only partially accurate to assert the reports provide new insights into how “grim” the war is. Some provide local insights that need to be matched to other reports. Some are fabrications. Many are time sensitive, with no enduring value except as time capsules.

Much more at Nightwatch.

I don’t have the brain for post titles today.

Posted in afghanistan, pakistan, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 28 October 2009

I’m still pretty shattered, so I apologise for not blogging in my usual form, but right now I’m pretty happy that I can read again instead of staring blankly at the wall, so please forgive my brevity. Two things of note:

I don’t think anyone is shocked to learn that Pres. Karzai’s brother is likely on the CIA’s payroll:

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.

The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.

But I do wonder at the timing of the story. It breaks just as the processes for the 7 November runoff began, illuminating the ties between the US and the Karzai family, and seems to undermine those relationships in odd ways. Food for thought, anyway.

Drew Brown at S&S published an article on Stryker colours Monday that I had noted because the framing of it interested me: More than six years after sending the first Stryker armored vehicles into desert combat, the Army has decided that it’s probably a good idea to start painting them tan so they will blend in with the environments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then also: But with the war in Afghanistan heating up, soldiers with a Stryker unit there welcomed the news — even if it has taken more than five years for the Army to make the change.

It’s kind of an odd way to criticize the decision, and Michael Yon seems to agree:

The story is datelined to Zabul Province, Afghanistan, and true enough, the color out there should be desert brown. (Or perhaps, in some places at some times, white.) But elsewhere in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, civilians mostly live near water, so colors around their homes generally are green during the green months. In Afghanistan, the “Green Zone” (GZ) is the area around the rivers and lakes, and much or possibly most of the fighting occurs in these green areas. The enemy fights more when the GZ is green than during the winter brown.

Just as important, predicting camouflage needs for Strykers can be incredibly difficult. Stryker units tend to get moved around more than other combat units because Stryker units can project so much force quickly. Afghanistan’s geography doesn’t help: Down in the Helmand River valley where Brits, Danes, Yanks, and others are fighting, you can go from strict GZ to 100 percent desert-brown conditions in just a few seconds. The border between verdant and seemingly endless cardboard brown is usually only the width of an unpaved road — literally, a line in the sand and rocks. One side of the road can be dry as bone, while just meters away on the other side of the road, the mud tries to suck the boots off your feet. (The Brits have the opposite problem; they have very good desert-brown camouflage, but do most of their fighting in the GZ.)

Also, even if brown is a better overall camouflage for Afghanistan — though this is unclear even to many experienced soldiers and me — it is unfair to imply (by datelining the story to Zabul Province and referring to more than six years of Strykers in desert combat) that the Army has had Strykers there during the entire war. The first rotation of Strykers to Afghanistan arrived only some months ago; before that, they were in use only in Iraq.

Anyway, thought it was interesting.

Finally, from Nightwatch yesterday, this analysis of Pakistani politics is well worth reading:

In 2008, as part of the election compact with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Zardari agreed to repeal Musharraf’s measures to re-engineer the government. Zardari apparently has enjoyed the power, but not the accountability. In addition his abuses of patronage have eroded respect for the elected government, whose chief executive is Prime Minister Gilani, not the president, who is head of state. Zardari has promised to honor his promises on this issue in the past, but this is the first time his Information Minister has spoken as his agent to a national audience. Still, seeing is believing in the case of Zardari.

The move would have implications on many levels, assuming Zardari executes this undertaking. For example, it would restore the National Assembly to its Westminster roots in which the legislative and executive powers of the government reside in the National Assembly.

The Presidency would revert to its British model, of a ceremonial figurehead. That would pretty much nullify an enormous amount of diplomatic energy during the past two years devoted to persuading Zardari, instead of trying to persuade Prime Minister Gilani.

Military hostility to Zardari – for example, for having misstated in public in 2008 Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons use policy — would become pointless and misdirected. Reversion to a ceremonial presidency would relieve military pressure for political change. In other words, it would reduce the threat of a military coup or other action against the President.

It would complicate foreign diplomatic initiatives which would need to be redirected to the parliament (National Assembly). The Presidential system is convenient as a one stop shop, compared to the parliamentary system.

Finally, it would give direction to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political ambitions. In a strong presidential system, Nawaz must court the provincial legislators as well as the national assembly because in combination they make up the electoral college for the president. In a restored parliamentary system, Nawaz only needs to get elected to the National Assembly. From there he can do all that would be necessary to become prime minister, including changing constitutional term limits on holding the office of the prime minister.

And now I crawl back into bed.

I think this counts as a slow news day.

Posted in afghanistan, american media, intelligence, terrorism by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Stratfor put out a concise overview of the challenges in aviation-focused terrorism prevention this week, but I think the most useful part is its succinct breakdown of current terrorist threats:

Currently there are three different actors in the jihadist realm. The first is the core al Qaeda group headed by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The core al Qaeda organization has been hit hard over the past several years, and its operational ability has been greatly diminished. It has been several years since the core group has conducted a spectacular terror attack, and it has focused much of its effort on waging the ideological battle as opposed to the physical battle.

The second group of actors in the jihadist realm is the regional al Qaeda franchise groups or allies, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jemaah Islamiyah and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These regional jihadist groups have conducted many of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in recent years, such as the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the July 2009 Jakarta bombings.

The third group of actors is the grassroots jihadist militants, who are essentially do-it-yourself terrorist operatives. Grassroots jihadists have been involved in several plots in recent years, including suicide bomb plots in the United States and Europe.

It’s kind of like a cheat sheet by which to understand the current news-scape. The rest of the article is well worth reading as well, but I find it interesting to see this summarized so neatly.

In “news heard ’round the world” today, the Obama administration has stepped away from the Eastern European missile defence system [The Guardian], in a move that has strongly displeased the Czech Republic and will likely make significant strategic strides in the US relationship with Russia. I think it’s pretty clear that this has been announced just as the US is going into talks with Iran, and needs Russia at least amenable to US goals; and to be honest, I was never really convinced of the necessity or prudence of the shield anyway. But I bet this will piss Bill Kristol off. (Yay.)

The NYT covers Biden’s continuing trip in Afghanistan, noting that there was more artillery fire in Baghdad, but Biden and al-Maliki both ignored it. That’s kind of classy. Of course, one of the main reasons for Biden’s trip is to push through political reconciliation before the elections early next year.

“I think the threat is that the political process will not give the country sufficient cohesion to work on its economic issues and otherwise become a strong and stable factor in the region,” the American ambassador, Christopher R. Hill, told reporters Tuesday night.

Not an easy task, especially when the Iraqi parliament is currently at a stalemate.

Also in Iraq, AP via Stars and Stripes has news of the largest US military detention camp being shut down.

The U.S. military on Wednesday closed Camp Bucca, an isolated desert prison that was once its largest lockup in Iraq, as it moves to release thousands of detainees or transfer them to Iraqi custody before the end of the year.

While it is likely a result of the plan for withdrawal, it also speaks to a confidence in Iraqi security that this camp is closing down; reverting the custody of over eight thousand prisoners is no small task for any security force. I’ll be waiting to see whether Iraq can in fact keep those prisoners secure.

In Afghanistan today, the main news (other than Karzai vacuously insisting the election was legitimate) was of six Italian troops and ten Afghani citizens dead from a car bomb in Kabul. (AP covers as well.) This is notably the worst hit Italian forces have taken, and the Taliban have taken responsibility.

David Ignatius at the Washington Post takes up recent calls for a reconfigured intelligence direction. I could make some claims about the misuse of intelligence operatives post 9/11, but I suspect we all kind of know this already. Either way, this seems to be a good start:

Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be “politically sustainable,” through more transparency with Congress and the public. “We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years,” he said.

I particularly like “lawful.”

I’m still digesting the Stephen Farrell story, but Forbes.com’s Tunku Varadarajan has some in-depth analysis of the matter. There is a difficult imbalance in Western reporting: Afghanistan is not safe enough for journalists to investigate without security, but because of that security, journalism has a very particular and limited lens. So on the one hand I sympathize with Stephen Farrell’s choice to investigate further despite clear directives from his military embed that it was not secure enough for him to do it; on the other, it was foolish and dangerous to do so.

Speaking of embeds, I’m still working my way through Michael Yon’s latest files; it’s always fascinating, if somewhat militarily biased.

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