Permissible Arms

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.

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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.

Memory (Stop) Loss: Counterinsurgency Edition

My office is knee-deep in a full-scale move to a larger suite, which has eaten away at this week like a particularly adventurous pika with stack of vegetation. I’ve been spending my limited spare time finishing Tamim Ansary’s compelling, thoroughly wonderful Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world from the Islamic perspective (more on that later) and reading the Qur’an for the first time. At some point I realized that, while I had read excerpts from the Qur’an, and interpretations of bits of the Qur’an, I had never actually read the Qur’an itself. This is an attempt to rectify that, though it’s a bit slow going as I try to digest the translation, the footnotes, and the meaning of the suras.

A US Army soldier looks over a note containing Pashto translations of frequently-used phrases June 14, 2010 in rural Dand District, just south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In other reading, Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, has a raw and incendiary op-ed in the Asia Times Online. I disagree with much of the substance of Jones’ article–that counterinsurgency is a failed policy that has not worked in Afghanistan–and, fundamentally, with her understanding of what counterinsurgency is and how it works. She seems to think that proponents of counter-insurgency consider it to be a panacea, a trick that will work to end violence and poverty and insecurity overnight, or at least in the nine months since it was implemented in Afghanistan. But that is simply not so–most expressions of the doctrine pair it with the idea of entrenchment, of a substantial period of time. To look at a policy that has been in place for less than a year, a policy which explicitly requires a substantial duration of time (the relative softness of the July 2011 withdrawal date notwithstanding) and say that it has failed is either a deliberate misreading of the situation or a lack of understanding about the doctrine itself. I won’t recommend that you read the op-ed–it comes across more like the teenaged rage of someone who has just understood what poverty means for the first time rather than a thorough criticism of doctrine as it’s applied in country. And it pains me to say that, because Jones has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan and certainly has earned her bones on the subject. But the piece is sloppy, poorly understood, and far too loose with tone for me to be anything but critical.

Tim Hsia, at the NYT At War blog, has a compelling piece on the military and politics, which is probably another wave in the hopefully terminal RollingStan flap. Worth reading both for commentary about personal politics of soldiers and the larger political frameworks of both the US and Afghanistan/Iraq.

In other words counterinsurgency turns Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is an extension of politics” on its head. Military officers in a counterinsurgency environment realize that “politics overseas is an extension of a counterinsurgency war.”

Counterinsurgency is not just about eliminating insurgents; at its core it is a political struggle that requires identifying and separating political irreconciliables, whilst also shepherding former insurgents into reconciliation meetings. After all, if one has won the hearts and minds of the populace, then one has just as likely won their political affiliation to the incipient national government of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Soldiers with whom I have worked have been more versed in the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan than in domestic politics. Back home, I have yet to meet any American civilian who is more knowledgeable about the politics of Afghanistan or Iraq than the typical Army company commander. This perhaps is the real “political” problem: a civilian population detached from the nation’s foreign policy issues.

Great start to a discussion from that post.

Laleh Khalli at the Middle East Report writes on The New (and Old) Classics of Counterinsurgency, running through names and works familiar to most who are well-read in the subject. However, it does offer a nice overview of COIN literature and a healthy bibliography for someone interesting in wading more deeply into doctrine.

This, frankly, creeped me out. Wanted: Jihadists to Marry Widows at the NYT:

A snippet of news from a shadowy corner of Iraq: Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia recently issued a fatwa telling its fighters to marry the widows of those who have fallen…“Asking current or future fighters to marry the widows means either that they are seeking to re-establish marital ties in an effort to regain some traction in the tribes, or that they have completely moved away from the ideological foundation that fighters are to come to Iraq and immediately die in suicide bombing attacks,” Mr. [Malcolm] Nance said.

“It’s fascinating either way. If it’s the former, then they must believe there is a glimmer of hope that blood ties with these Iraqi women will gain them an edge of protection in a country that wants to be rid of them. If it’s the latter, it’s akin to a call for their fighters to settle down and gain an earthly reward by having a wife and children and to start a new generation of jihadists.”

Mr. Nance said the fatwa was “so absolutely desperate” that it could have come from only the highest levels of the organization.

Either way, it reinforces an idea that women are a possession, and that their husbands, as jihadists, have made them part of a kind of tribe of jihadists who can now claim them for other jihadists. That’s one meta-reading. It also speaks to a consolidation of power and assets within a group that can be controlled. Mostly, I figure it has to do with financial insecurity among widowed families, but the implications are unsettling.

Jason Sigger’s Civilian Strategists Should Be Better is a must-read for the last week(ish).

Cutting defense spending, for reals? (Updated)

Posted in us congress, us defense, us military, us politics by Abbie on 1 July 2010

Hi all. Karaka has graciously invited me to post links and observations while she enjoys some time off. I promise not to rant too much since she called me “delightful.” Well played, KP.

Cmd Salamander has an interesting thread going on a proposal from U.S. Representative Barney Frank and others about a “Strategy of Restraint” for federal defense spending (h/t Starbuck). Federal budgets and appropriations are my thing–it’s part of my day job–and I’ve learned over the years to take proposals like this one with a grain of salt. I doubt this proposal, like so many that have come before it, will come to fruition.

But, for the first time since I began working in DC, I’m hearing serious discussion on Capitol Hill–and perhaps more importantly, from DoD–about making real cuts to federal defense funding in the FY11 budget and beyond. To save face, I’m blatantly ignoring the Emergency Supplemental currently being debated on the Hill that would provide funding for Afghanistan, among other things. For those who don’t obsess over the ridiculousness of the federal budget and appropriations process like I do, “emergency” funds fall outside the confines of the congressional budget. (That is to say, when Congress has passed a budget, unlike this year.)

Here’s my point: Is it simply a reaction to the economy that is allowing Congress to willingly gut-check the American purse on defense spending during a midterm election year…while we’re at war? Of course not. But what does it mean for DoD, State, etc. and their efforts domestically and internationally in the coming years?

It’s fair to note that DoD is by no means a solitary target. In fact, President Obama’s FY11 budget request calls for a spending freeze in all non-security discretionary spending. It was Secretary Gates who insisted his Department find considerable savings over the next five years.

Gates said he wants contracts scrutinized more closely for inefficiencies and unneeded overhead. He said the savings could be shifted to support U.S. troops around the globe. Pentagon officials said they’re looking for annual savings in the $400 billion spent on goods and services.

I believe all federal agencies can and should do a better job of using taxpayer dollars responsibly. But this shift in congressional rhetoric on defense spending from both sides of the aisle–albeit stronger on the left–strikes me as telling. Election outcomes aside, where should DoD focus their spending and where should they cut?

As always, Small Wars Journal has some fascinating debate about defense spending and politics generally in their threads. Check it out! (And, as this blog’s host has suggested, send them some money while you’re at it. They’re good people!)

Update: Robert Haddick has authored an excellent article entitled “The Pentagon’s entitlement spending problem” that touches much more saliently than I could ever hope to on some of the issues DoD’s budget is facing now and will continue to face in the future. Well worth the read.

Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.

Natural Security: the PB&J of my interests.

Posted in energy, united states, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 16 June 2010

I’ve been enjoying Steve Levine’s work over at his new Foreign Policy blog, The Oil and the Glory. Subtitled “the geopolitics of energy,” it hits two of the major interests in my life: energy, and national security/foreign policy. I don’t talk much about my job here, but it involves the energy industry and keeps me very engaged in consumer politics, climate change, and different kinds of energy mechanisms. Levine is pretty much at the intersection of my work and my passion, which makes Oil and the Glory of great interest to me.

In particular I’ve enjoyed his commentary on China’s hybrid car subsidy and on the US and Kyrgyzstan. I’ve even braved FP’s horribly unpleasant commenting system to weigh in:

It’s not as though these actions are operating in a vacuum. The White House and Department of State are likely as concerned about the START treaty and the public ramifications of stepping into Russia’s sphere of influence, as it were. Despite having a base at Manas, it seems clear that the US would defer to Russia’s involvement so as not to upset existing long-standing talks with a much wider effect.

I think it is easy to overstate US involvement in Kyrgyzstan–there was uncertainty, initially after the coup, as to whether the lease at Manas would in fact be renewed, and it is primarily used as a support base for Afghanistan, rather than an influential long-term base for the region itself. It would be a challenge for State to put more resources into assisting Kyrgyzstan in light of all of this. Not impossible. But a challenge.

and Steve responded:

A Washington stress on weapons has been a constant vis-a-vis Moscow across administrations, including in the post-Soviet era. What is different here is that, in most of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the policy attitude was a focus on the independence of the ‘Stans and the Caucasus, and almost an indifference as to Russia’s opinion on the region. You accurately describe the State Department’s state of mind. But it is precisely that state of mind that separates the present from the past. Washington made it appear to the Central Asians and the Caucasus countries that they were part of the grand sweep of history favoring democracy and the market, with the implication that they were to be made safe by the West. The 2008 war in Georgia and the current state of affairs in Kyrgyzstan punctured that myth. The current attitude appears to me at least to be more realpolitik than the past, which claimed to be realpolitik.

Thought-provoking stuff.

Hey, speaking of energy and security, let me re-point you to Natural Security, which I’ve been working my way through in my copious (ha, ha) spare time. I can’t overstate the relationship of our internal energy policy to both our capabilities abroad and at home. It’s why I’m disappointed both that Lindsey Graham walked away from the climate bill, and that Congress/White House aren’t using this bloody oil spill to railroad some efficiency measures and renewables through to legislation. I mean, seriously, as terrible as this spill is, it’s also an ideal platform to achieve some base-level energy austerity mechanisms. Way to waste a disaster, politicians.

Left, Right, and Dead Bloody On

Posted in united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 11 June 2010

Shamelessly cribbing from Starbuck (and Ink Spots), the trailer for Restrepo has been released. Restrepo is the film made by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger alongside Junger’s book War (link again to my review at SWJ which has collected some interesting commentary). The film will be showing at the Human Rights Watch film festival, which began yesterday in New York City. The trailer is absolutely arresting; I’ll be keeping my eye out to see if it shows up here on the left coast. Camp Victory, Afghanistan, will also be shown. I encourage you to go if you can.

I still have a few pages of notes from the CNAS conference yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to sort them out yet. More forthcoming. In the meantime, read Michael Cohen’s piece in TNR, and Exum and Spencer’s responses. I like that Exum responds with the theory and Spencer responds with the practical outline.

The World, Viewed from a Hotel Basement

I’m hoping to write more on CNAS’s fourth annual conference tomorrow, when my entire day doesn’t get devoted to live-tweeting the event! To read through the day, check out the #CNAS2010 tag on Twitter. But here’s a couple of my particular notes from the day.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Tellis: Mutual suspicions between Pak & Ind over Afgh continue unabated. #CNAS2010 The existential battleground is emplaced in Afgh today.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Okay, Richard Fontaine wins points for addressing Madam President. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Fontaine “…Accepting that a US presence in South Asia has become the new normal.” #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

India is unwilling to push Iran to the point where they might lose a potential ally; but India doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pendkarakapend

Flournoy: We are still trying to face 21st century challenges with Cold War systems and projects. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Flournoy: “We cannot keep spending more and more to get less and less.” #CNAS2010 as with everything, money talks.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Fick: Rule #4 for future questions: No quoting TS Eliot! #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Flournoy: “We have never resourced State to build an expeditionary civilian capacity.” #CNAS2010 There is not enough “word” in the world.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Sanger: You tend to view the engagement strategy through the most challenging country…it’s only interesting if it’s difficult. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Cronin: We have a growing mismatch between our means and needs. #CNAS2010

There’s more at the hashtag, but that gives you a good idea of how the day went. I think overall it was a very strong series of panels, asking difficult questions and providing something of a roadmap towards answering them. We’re still left with a lot of uncertainty in a many different directions–how do we build up a civilian reconstruction program that we’ve never funded or incentivized, how do you balance talking to repressive regimes with the less accessible citizens of repressive nations, what will our conflict environment look like in the next several decades and how should we incorporate lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan–but I think it lived up to its playbill slogan of “Shaping the Agenda.”

More tomorrow.

Now where’s my flag pin?

Posted in united states, us congress, us military, us politics by Karaka on 27 May 2010

I am utterly bushed, but I couldn’t let the House’s repeal of DADT go unmentioned.

From Reuters:

The House of Representatives voted 234-194 to approve an amendment aimed at ending the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows homosexuals to serve in secret but expels them if their sexual orientation becomes known.

What a wonderful thing to kick off Memorial Day. And not even as dramariffic as Blog Kerfluffle Mark II: How the Axe Swings!

It’s a good weekend to feel patriotic. I hope you all enjoy it.

and he even put the budget on iMovie!

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us politics by Karaka on 25 January 2010

::blows dust off blog::

Well, that was a longer absence than I anticipated. I have some crummy health problems that are occasionally more persistent than I would like, and this was one of those instances where I dropped a ball. (The ball being this blog.) Forgive me?

I’m still working on getting caught up on, well, everything (a couple hundred emails! 1500 items in RSS feed! rending of fabric!) but this piece from Slate caught my eye this morning. The iState of the Union: Steve Jobs delivers the annual presidential address.

Now let’s take a look at national security. When we got in here last year, torture was basically OK. We were water-boarding people and doing all sorts of terrible things. If you’re the president of the United States, how do you solve this? Hmm. Oh wait, we have solved this. We banned torture. Boom. Now that’s what I call an amazing breakthrough.

(APPLAUSE. HOOTING.)

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Afghanistan. That war’s not going so well. Kind of a quagmire. So what do you do? You get a better strategy. The 2010 Afghanistan war is newer, better, and cheaper. Want to see what it looks like?

(DELIRIOUS SCREAMS.)

OK, let me call up iMovie. See those drones? They were doing OK, taking out some of the top guys in the Taliban. That just wasn’t good enough. We took them apart, totally redesigned them. They’ve got multi-touch, 3G, and augmented reality terrorist locators. Starting tonight, you can buy them on apple.gov. Just kidding. We wouldn’t do that. But we could do that, if we wanted to. And boom—just like that, we’ve changed warfare. How do you like that, America?

(CHANTS OF “USA! USA!”)

…USA! Man, a corporate takeover never looked so good. (And I don’t think I’ve ever been so eager for a State of the Union address as this one.)

If you folks have some handy links of things I should read that I’ve missed in the last several weeks, I’d appreciate it if you’d drop them in the comments.

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