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.
Another boring-but-informative (and potentially useful) link dump. Where are my words?
- Gorgeous photos by Dima Gavrysh at the NYT Lens blog.
- The Natural Security Blog on soft power.
- Michael C. at On Violence on Training the Army after Iraq (perhaps worth reading in conjunction with Kenneth Payne’s The Army after Afghanistan).
- John Sullivan and Adam Elkus on Strategy and insurgency: an evolution in thinking?
- Chicago Boyz round table, Afghanistan in 2050.
- Good comments on Matt’s post at Attackerman on the life and times of the Foreign Service.
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:
- Ink Spots on Stephen Biddle’s recent interview on Afghanistan.
- Adam Serwer, Sharia vs. the New Deal and One Final Point About Sharia-Compliant Finance.
- Ambassador Hill is bugging out of Iraq while the paint’s still drying. That’s going to go over real well.
- BBC Audio Slideshow covering midwife Sadiqa Husseini, a midwife in Bamyan, Afg. Several interesting stories out of the BBC Afghan desk recently; worth poking around there.
- Kenneth Payne, of Kings of War renown, writing at Current Intelligence on the British Army post-Afghanistan. Incisive.
- Steve Metz’s SSI op-ed, America’s Flawed Afghanistan Strategy (PDF), h/t SWJ.
- Erica Gaston, The problem of “population protection”, at the Af-Pak Channel.
I shall attempt substance soon. Promise.
I’ve been inattentive this week–I’m co-ordinating my office’s move, the first in eight years. How much junk can ten people collect in eight years? A lot, a whole lot, of junk. So until we’re into the new place on August 2, posting will be light to nonexistent. Apologies.
I’ve been reading David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, which may come in as the most difficult book I’ve read thus far this year. And I haven’t been shying away from the hard stuff. Finkel’s observations have a grinding, struggling quality to them. It’s as if he’s describing a drowning in slow motion, wrenching every excruciating detail from the scene and reconstructing it with some of the layers removed to show you the pain and fear in high definition.
In some ways, this is just a variation on the themes explored in Sebastian Junger’s War or The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Stories about soldiers given a task for which they couldn’t be fully prepared, for which there can never be sufficient training; soldiers learning truths about themselves and about life. The hard realities of being in wars which were never meant to be wars.
Where Finkel veers off, though, is in the nature and tone of his descriptions. He scours away the extraneous, leaving behind a stark frame of a story. He clearly wants you to draw your own conclusions, but informs the way you draw them from the way he structures his prose.
There’s a clear and unaffected respect for the soldiers he observes. But Finkel draws on the disgust and bewilderment and FUBARness of the situation by strategically placing certain lines that change your perception of the story he’s telling.
This is not necessarily a criticism, mind. More something I’ve noted over halfway into the book. It does make it a challenge to read at times, because the thread of agenda, or at least of desired perception, is more evident to me now than when I started it. “The Good Soldiers” is a book for a whiskey and ginger evening, when you can lose yourself in the pages and come out the next day not remembering it clearly. Hard to read, but worthwhile for that fact.
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.
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).
A handful of links:
- Paul McCleary has a good article on the Afghan NCOP and police forces: “And generally speaking,” [Ward] added, “when they’re partnered, we see the right kinds of behavior.” But the question is: what happens when they’re not partnered? Good question.
- The NYT At War blog reviews reports on Afghan opinion polls. According to the findings, corruption remains the third-biggest concern to Afghans, following security and unemployment. One in seven adults experienced direct bribery in the past two years. The total of bribes paid by Afghans in 2009 added to roughly $1 billion, almost double the amount in 2007. The average bribe paid was $156. There are some nice charts, as well. How on earth does an average Afghan have $156 to burn on a bribe?
- The Big Picture covers Afghanistan, June 2010. Quite frankly the best photojournalism column around. This gets my pick, though there are some truly awe-striking photos in this collection. There are at least three or four of Afghan girls and women, as well.
- MikeF (hi Mike!) started a robust discussion of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency at Small Wars Council worth your time; he very kindly posted links to Starbuck’s review and my own. Now that I’m a bit removed from my initial reactions to the book, I do think it has merit, certainly as an introduction to counterinsurgency as a practical concept and as a handy portable version of the doctrine, such as it is. I’m doing a re-read of “The Accidental Guerilla” at the moment, and I do think it’s interesting to see how Kilcullen’s ideas have shifted over time, as he’s gained more insight and experience. Still, as a whole book I do think it has some structural flaws. Well worth the $15 (₤10).
- And also, h/t Starbuck for Bing West’s review of Counterinsurgency at the National Interest. I particularly liked this line: Stack plays Thomas Hobbes to Kilcullen’s John Locke. Very well put.
- If you were as baffled by this whole Dave Weigel-getting-fired business as I was, check out this Diavlog with the man in question. (H/t Ackerman.)
- CHUP on the burqa ban and fear. Such policies and practices, regardless if it means banning the burqa or banning criticism of it, are ultimately unproductive because it further polarizes the debate rather than resolving any of its underlying issues. Good discussion in the comments.
- As you all surely know, Mattis is for CENTCOM which is an excellent power shuffle around the board. One might think his pass over for Commandant was orchestrated to get him into CENTCOM, if one was a particularly twitchy conspiracy theorist. Which I am not. For more on Mattis, AFJ has excerpts from Tom Ricks’ “Fiasco” available for ungated reading.
- Paul Staniland recently did a guest post series at the Monkey Cage on how counterinsurgencies end. I wish they were all linked together, but if you have the time its worth poking around for them all.
- Embedistan, also on the At War blog.
Madhu pointed me to Thomas Rid’s take at KOW on the Douthat op-ed I rallied on yesterday. It’s definitely a different perspective on the same piece, and while I disagree with some of his conclusions–namely his too-faithful idea that there is any kind of consensus on continued presence vs. withdrawal in Afghanistan, and the idea that those in favor of COIN as a strategy are particularly optimistic or hopeful about it–the post is definitely a counterweight to my own.
Andrew Exum, who seems to be visiting the rolling mountain landscape of my childhood at the moment, has gotten quite a robust comment thread going on at Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope; Carl Prine’s comments in particular are intelligent and strong. (You’ll have to scroll down, the software that powers that blog sucketh for giving comment-specific data.) The discussion is on-going.
Aaron Ellis takes on the same Bacevich op-ed, as well as Bernard Finel’s similar position, in his post today on “RollingStan and civil-military relations” that speaks to a lot of my own thoughts on the subject. I hadn’t really waded into the civilian-military accusations that flew about as soon as the McC flap broke, because I honestly didn’t consider it to be the most significant aspect of the story–though clearly a lot of the internet disagreed with me on that. Finel responded to the Thinking Strategically post, in a manner that kind of baffles me–he refutes the claims, but inasmuch as I’ve been reading him recently, I find Ellis’s points to be apropos. Both Bacevich and Finel have inflated the controversy surrounding Rollingstan to the point of hyperbole, and don’t seem to acknowledge that the matter is, effectively, closed. M4 is out, P4 is in; the counterinsurgency policy stays the same; Obama exerted his executive authority, and everyone seems entirely happy with P4 as his choice. What more is there to hack away at, here?
The answer, of course, is not liking the strategy in the first place; but as Obama’s Rose Garden remarks plainly told, that matter of changing strategy was never up for debate.
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:
- Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
- 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.
- 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.
As the internet continues to spew forth oil commentary regarding General McChrystal’s running off at the mouth, I find that more and more I’m coming around to the idea that President Obama should choose to retain McChrystal in Afghanistan. I refuse to believe–as someone who does find virtue in a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, a strategy that will not work over months but over years–that disrupting the chain of command, even for a fiasco as belly-floppingly painful as this, will not damage our strategy.
A lot of the commentary, particularly in the throes of SWJ comments, revolves around the idea that “no uniform is irreplaceable,” which is certainly true. But I don’t care about a uniform. I care about the plan, the mission, the strategy, the over-arching thing that we’re doing there, and that is bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than the President.
On the one hand, perhaps replacing McChrystal would buy the administration some time to extend the deadline on Afghanistan. “Here’s a replacement,” they could say, “so we need more time on the clock.” But frankly, my confidence in Mr. Please Everybody in that regard wanes with each passing day. Would the Obama administration actually take that brass ring? Doubtful. Maintaining a deadline, even a soft one, gives Obama some credibility with his detractors on both the left and the right.
But retaining McChrystal is the best thing for these counterinsurgency practices. As the man who largely advocated for them to the President, as the man who has been the boots on the ground for the better part of this first year of work, and as one of only a handful up upper-echelon US officials who can claim a good relationship with Karzai and his government, McChrystal should remain in position. It would be heartbreaking to lose the bigger picture because an old white dude flapped his jaw to the wrong reporter.
According to Spencer’s report on the White House press briefing earlier this morning, it’s hardly clear which way the wind is blowing at the WH.
None of that sounds like a White House that’s ready to scrap its counterinsurgency strategy in the year to go before it begins to shift to a heavier focus on training Afghan forces and withdrawing troops. But McChrystal will have to reiterate his commitment tomorrow to working with the team that, in many ways, signed onto a strategy he himself largely convinced the president to support. “This is bigger than anybody on the military or the civilian side,” Gibbs said. Translation: McChrystal can go or stay, but the strategy has been set. And that may be the greatest irony of the entire McChrystal imbroglio.
And the vocally vocal Senate is as split as the blogosphere on “should he stay or should he go,” with Sen. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham pressing for ousting, and Sens. Levin and Kerry less predisposed to smiting from the Hill.
This was filed only hours before McChrystal is reported to have sent in his resignation (via Joe Klein and some dude from Twitter). That doesn’t mean he’s out of the game. It’s certainly the only reasonable politic move he could make, given the circumstances. But I’m hoping that Obama chooses not to accept the resignation; that instead he demands a higher level of service and imbues Afghanistan with the gravitas it deserves. It’s a serious game we’re playing here, with the well-being of a dozen nations involved. If the President wants to show the American people the war he has backed since March 2009 is worth the effort, he should wipe aside the juvenile bullshit and tell McChrystal to get his ass focused on the mission. Like the Commander in Chief ought to.
He’s speaking on “The Accidental Guerilla,” and it’s sort of the visual retread of what many of us will already know from his work and from COIN theory in general. The better part of it is the question-and-answer session in the latter half of the video.
I enjoy watching Kilcullen speak–I think when he’s conversational, it reflects well on him both in writing and in speaking. But I also think it’s pretty neat to see all the people Google has hosted at their campus.