Permissible Arms

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.

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“Counterinsurgency,” by David Kilcullen

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 15 June 2010

Please join me in welcoming Starbuck from Wings Over Iraq, guest posting today with his review of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency. In turn I’ve guest-posted over at WOI with my review of Counterinsurgency; check it out here!

David Kilcullen’s “Counterinsugency” is a must-read for counterinsurgency practitioners at the tactical and strategic levels, as well as for policymakers, government officials, and NGOs. At a minimum, it should be in the cargo pocket of every officer and NCO headed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Though the book is not without its flaws, Kilcullen has taken a number of critical counterinsurgency lessons–some gained through harrowing experience–and packaged them in a handy, notebook-sized publication. I’ll examine each section of the book in turn.

Introduction: Understanding Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The book begins with a touching dedication to Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, administrators of Small Wars Journal, before moving to a base discussion on the fundamentals of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Often, I’m compelled to skip over the introduction of a book, but the introduction to Counterinsurgency is laden with great information.

Much to my amusement, in offering a brief primer on counterinsurgency, Kilcullen addresses, though does not name, “armchair chickenhawks” who advocate the “brute force” approach to counterinsurgency (this guy, perhaps?), noting that the Romans and even the Wehrmacht implemented state-building approaches in their times.

Though I agree with the argument, I found that it wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, and some might mistakenly find contradiction in the case of the suppression of the Darul Islam movement, which came to an abrubtabrupt end shortly after the capture of its leader and key lieutenants, which Kilcullen discusses later. Again, greater clarification of supporting factors–even a primer on why insurgencies lose–might have been helpful. However, the chapter is, overall, an excellent foundation in the basics of counterinsurgency; though, those familiar with The Accidental Guerrilla might find themselves skipping ahead to the next chapter.

The Twenty-Eight Articles

I have to admit that I skimmed through this chapter, having read Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles a few times before. For those unfamiliar with Kilcullen’s work, “Twenty-Eight Articles” are short anecdotes, written in the style of T.E. Lawrence’s Twenty-Seven Articles, which Kilcullen penned his Moleskine notebook as he sat in a Starbucks coffee shop in Washington. Many of the lessons were learned though practical experience, presumably through some very…difficult…lessons. Take a look at number nineteen.

Engage the women, beware the children. Most insurgent fighters are men. But in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Co-opting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents. You need your own female counterinsurgents, including interagency people, to do this effectively. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population. Conversely, though, stop your people fraternizing with local children. Your troops are homesick; they want to drop their guard with the kids. But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from. The insurgents are watching: they will notice a growing friendship between one of your people and a local child, and either harm the child as punishment, or use them against you. Similarly, stop people throwing candies or presents to children. It attracts them to our vehicles, creates crowds the enemy can exploit, and leads to children being run over. Harden your heart and keep the children at arm’s length.

This reminds me very much of the situation I faced in Honduras, where we would often conduct joint airborne operations with the Honduran parachute battalion. Without exception, children would hide in the tall grass of the drop zone, waiting for American parachutists–recognizable by their uniforms and distinctive MC-1C parachutes–to land. The children would chase American paratroopers as they fell to the ground and beg them for money; even going so far as to actually roll and pack the parachute for them. While I would always give them candy and a little money, I understood the same thing Kilcullen did. By giving out candy and money, we were reinforcing behavior, and our very presence often created the same crowds Kilcullen described.

I won’t comment more on Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles. Far better counterinsurgency practitioners than I have already commented on Kilcullen’s work in Small Wars Journal (Pt. 1234). Suffice to say that if you haven’t read “Twenty-Eight Articles”, you need to.

Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

At this point, we move from a tactical view of counterinsurgency to an operational perspective, with a chapter on effective “metrics”–measures of performance in counterinsurgency. Those that follow Kilcullen and the CNAS gang may have already gotten a large portion of this already during a week-long segment on metrics at Tom Ricks’ blog (here’s part two of five).

As soon as Small Wars Journal linked to the series on metrics, the trolls came out of the woodwork bashing them, crying that human endeavors cannot be encapsulated into equations, diagrams and statistics. This echoes a recent trend, identified not too long ago in SWJ, which suggests that the study of warfare is–rightly so–moving away from a “scientific” study in a more “humanist” direction. Indeed, complaining about statistics is hardly a novel idea.

We all complain about metrics. To a large extent, I sympathize with the critics. It’s impossible to capture the broad range of human behavior in equations, computer models and statistics. T.E. Lawrence once noted that “nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals”. Indeed, metrics in any field of human endeavor–from business, to battle, to baseball–only tell a portion of the story. As one commenter in SWJ noted, you couldn’t measure the improvements in security by mere numbers. You could feel the difference.

Nevertheless, as much as I believe in Jedi senses, they can’t alwayalways accurately measure intangibles. We–and more importantly, the American public–need to communicate security improvements with statistics.

Using metrics to gauge intangibles is by no means limited to the military. We measure the health of our economy with the Dow Jones and S&P, we measure earned run averages and slugging percentages, and we measure Megan Fox’s hotness in terms of 34C-26-24. Verily, as much as we complain, we’ll always use metrics, and Kilcullen’s metrics are as good as any I’ve seen.

Globalization and the development of Indonesian counterinsurgency tactics

They say that confusion is the first step along the path to enlightenment, and nowhere is that more true than in this chapter. While doing a decent job at highlighting the differences between the organizational cultures between the armies of Australia and the US, Kilcullen actually gives us some counterinsurgency wisdom which seems to run contrary to current population-centric doctrine. During the 1950s and 60s, the Indonesian Army was faced with the prospect of an insurgency in West Java from the organization Darul Islam.

However, shortly after the capture of the insurgent movement’s leader, Darul Islam began to crumble. Although Kilcullen mentions that civic action followed military success, he doesn’t elaborate fully upon these methods. Thus, those who feel that simple military action can “crush” an insurgency might look at the suppression of Darul Islam as an example. (For more on this issue, see Pat Porter’s excellent analysis at The Offshore Balancer)

Fortunately, Kilcullen expands upon his analysis of the Darul Islam insurgency by noting that it was a very leader-centric insurgency–one of the greatest flaws an insurgency can have–some critics of counterinsurgency might see this as a misreading of COIN doctrine. In Kilcullen’s defense, though, he does mention that the advances in communication and information technology have led to less transparency, and thus, a decline in “crushing” insurgencies. I think it’s a topic worth researching more, in full.

Reflections on the Engagement at Motaain Bridge

Some reviewers have felt that this was an unnecessary distraction. I disagree, as it demonstrates the types of situations our troops, particularly our junior leaders, might find themselves in “small wars”. From Kilcullen’s lessons on dealing with the international media (get the right message out, and get it out quickly), to lessons on the psychology of combat (post-traumatic stress, “tunnel vision”, hyper-alertness, etc), Kilcullen’s vivid description of combat made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, as I nervously chewed on my highlighter.

Deiokes and the Taliban

A short chapter, Kilcullen explains the need for effective governance in counterinsurgency using a vignette from Herodotus’ Histories. Structurally, it seems as if it might fit well in the earlier portions of the book, as it once again serves as a short introduction to counterinsurgency, though in operational and strategic terms.

Kilcullen paints a very grim picture of Afghanistan, in which ISAF controls the central government in Kabul, but the Taliban hold sway throughout the countryside by practicing effective “bottom-up” governance. Kilcullen proposes a “bottom-up” counter to Taliban influence, strengthening national leadership by improving governance at the local level. Using the example of Somalia/Somaliland, Kilcullen asserts that nation-building efforts in Somalia, led by the UN, have performed poorly in relation to those practiced in Somaliland due to the fact that the UN focuses on central, national governments while Somaliland built its peace dealings from the grassroots level.  Kilcullen doesn’t delve too deeply into this example, although he does provide anthropologist Ioan Lewis as a reference for this subject, so I’ll have to check out her report.  (Possibly this one?)

Countering Global Insurgency

The final chapter is by far the longest, and the most controversial.  In it, Kilcullen expands upon and refines an idea he first put forth in The Accidental Guerrilla, where he first theorized that there is a global Islamic insurgency.  According to Kilcullen, global movements such as al-Qaeda attempt to link together disparate movements–Chechen rebels, insurgents in the Philippines, even Muslim groups in South America–into one larger movement.  It’s an interesting, though possibly a little alarmist, look at the larger threat we face from these sorts of movements.

However, addressing the bigger picture might have been a bridge too far for this book.  Though the chapter is fascinating, it could have been greatly expanded upon.  Indeed, though the title of the chapter is “countering global insurgency”, Kilcullen spends a mere paragraph outlining a constitutional approach to reforming the governments of the developing world, quipping that he could write another chapter on the topic.   I would be quite interested to hear his thoughts on this subject.

Overall

Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5.  Kilcullen is obviously a master of this realm, yet I feel he cut himself short limiting himself to a pocket-sized book on the topic of counterinsurgency.  The chapters feel somewhat disjointed, as if pieced together from separate works on the topic.  In fact, I think that less might have been better, packaging all but the final chapter, saving that one and expanding upon it for a future book.

Nevertheless, Kilcullen’s work is always a joy to read.  Kilcullen, like Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, is one of those few people who has not only the penchant for becoming embroiled in incredible adventures, but also possesses the wit to write them well.  For those that are not familiar with Kilcullen’s “Twenty-seven eight articles” or his series on metrics, this book is a must-read.

I did feel somewhat let down that I had read large portions of this book in various articles throughout the blogosphere.  Yet, it’s still well worth the price.  The first 2/3 of the book contains invaluable advice for the counterinsurgency practitioner at the tactical level, and I’ll certainly have it in my assault bag during my next deployment (whenever that might be).  You should, too.

Slingshot politics

A lot to cover today.

I got oversaturated pretty quickly with information and speculation about the Times Square bombing, but I recommend Kings of War, All Things Counterterrorism, and obviously LWJ for the story. And Steve Coll has some perspective:

Anyone who tries to set a vehicle on fire in Times Square on a warm Saturday night is going to make news in a big way. Presumably that was the primary goal of the perpetrators—to attract attention, to spawn fear. The very amateurishness of the attack—unlike the Christmas Day attack, for example, it does not immediately call into question the competence of the government’s defenses—offers President Obama the opportunity to start talking back to terrorists everywhere in a more resilient, sustainable language than he has yet discovered. By which I mean: They intend to frighten us; we are not frightened. They intend to kill and maim; we will bring them to justice. They intend to attract attention for their extremist views; the indiscriminate nature of their violence only discredits and isolates them.

Secdef Gates delivered some mixed news to the Navy this morning (full remarks h/t DoDBuzz):

“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates asked. “Any future plans must address these realities.”

In a pointed speech about the future of the naval arsenal, the secretary told a gathering of naval officers and contractors that no U.S. adversaries are attempting to out-build the U.S. fleet. Rather, he said, they are developing other ways to neutralize U.S. power. He cited Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles and Iran’s use of everything from cruise missiles to “swarming speedboats.”

In response, he called for more shallow-water capabilities, long-range drones and sea-based missile defenses.

What’s the saying, fighting the next war while you’re still building for the last one? That seems to be the idea Gates is battling.

Two bits on Kyrgyzstan, which has kind of dropped off the face of news coverage in the last several days. First, the interim government has turned the state-run KTR television channel into a public broadcasting station, which is effectively a show of faith from the interim government to show Kyrgyzs that it’s going to keep the promises it made. Which is great, but more than anything I really love the picture that accompanied the article, reposted here.

The interim government has also authorized cash rewards in exchange for information that helps capture the former government’s leadership, presumably to answer for crimes committed.

Of interest, AFRICOM is undergoing a three-week Operation Flintlock as part of its The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. It’s effectively a military exercise designed to train partner African nations in counterterrorism programs as a deterrent method. At least twelve nations and 1200 people are involved. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

From Diplopundit, it’s been a tough time for mandarins as of late.

And finally, I’m reading Paul Scharre’s article in the AFJ about meeting needs for irregular and conventional warfare in the Army. More thoughts when I’m finished reading, but figured the COINers and anti-COINers would be interested.

Lots of goldfish, one tiny fishbowl.

Posted in iraq, terrorism, united states, us military by Karaka on 9 November 2009

I admit, I find it surprising how much Iraq recedes in our view as 2010’s drawdown grows nearer; I suppose there’s only so much ink for a (electronic) page, and Afghanistan is in everyone’s minds. But Iraq remains a fragile state, and the US presence there is significant still. So, a few pieces from here and there that I thought I’d bring to your attention.

First, it did not go unnoticed that the Iraq parliament succeeded in passing election reform [WSJ]:

Lawmakers agreed Sunday on the key sticking point — how the vote will be held in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which is claimed by Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but at least it’s done now,” said Fryad Rawandoozi, spokesman for the Kurdish bloc.

Despite the eleventh-hour agreement, Iraq’s election commission said Sunday that it still didn’t have enough time to prepare for the January 2010 vote. The commission can’t delay the poll unilaterally, however, and Parliament’s agreement appears to have put the election back on track.

In the agreement hammered out over Kirkuk, eligible voters will be determined by 2009 voter-registration records, a condition supported by the Kurds. But a technical committee will be set up to review the votes. If there are a certain number of irregularities, the elections will be repeated in a year, a condition pushed by the Arabs and Turkmen.

I think the key word in the phrase “appears to have put the election back on track” is “appears,” though wrestling with the Kurd bloc is certainly a step in the right direction. Kurdistan has always fascinated me, an island unto itself, almost. However, if things truly proceed only a fortnight or so behind schedule, it shouldn’t compromise the US military withdrawal; though I still remain concerned that security in Iraq is of the smokescreen variety.

From Army News we learn of a key-giving ceremony, granting more MNF-controlled land back to, well, the Iraqis:

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of Joint Area Support Group-Central, helped contribute to that progress, Oct. 25, when they handed the keys to two large properties inside Baghdad’s International Zone back over to the Iraqi government — a symbolic gesture that transferred the property to the Iraqis.

“In terms of square footage of habitable structures, Essayons and Freedom Compound are the largest we’ve turned over so far,” said the 32nd Brigade’s Maj. Gregory Schlub, who is the officer in charge of real properties for Joint Area Support Group-Central, in Baghdad.

The two properties, formerly used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, include about 25 acres of land and buildings with about 380,000 square feet of floor space.

I really hope I’m not the only person rather uncomfortable granting a “key to the city” to the people who in fact possess it; methinks a press pool officer might’ve thought a bit harder about that one.

Stratfor, sharing my wariness about January 2010, writes of Iraq: A Rebounding Jihad:

The Sunni sheikhs are using the [Islamic State of Iraq] to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Sunnis must be accommodated if there is to be real peace and stability in Iraq. One sticking point for the Sunni elders is that a large percentage of the Awakening Council members have not been integrated into the security forces as promised. Of course, the Shia and Kurds then use these attacks as an excuse for why the Sunnis cannot be trusted — and it all becomes a vicious circle.

The political situation that is driving the security problems in Iraq is complex and cannot be easily resolved. There are many internal and external players who are all trying to influence the final outcome in Iraq for their own benefit. In addition to the internal squabbles over power and oil wealth, Iraq is also a proxy battleground where the United States and Iran are attempting to maintain and assert influence. Regional players like the Saudis, Syrians and Turks also will take a keen interest in the elections and will certainly attempt to influence them to whatever degree they can. The end result of all this meddling is that peace and stability will be hard to obtain.

This means that terrorist attacks likely will continue for the foreseeable future, including attacks by the ISI. If the attacks in August and October are any indication, the remainder of the run-up to the January elections could prove quite bloody.

Granted, had IED defenses not been put into place, the attack on Oct. 25 in Baghdad could have done significantly more damage, but in a sense this is the crucible in which ISF will indeed prove itself. Can ISF keep its citizens secure as the Americans leave? Can it prevent politically motivated terrorist conflict? Can it do so and remain a strong independent force not subject to corruption?

I hope so. But the first quarter of ’10 will be an important time to watch Iraq, I think.

Finally, Alissa Rubin’s column in the New York Times, From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War:

And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.

In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down. Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality. The Americans, too, did their share of violence, and among the worst they did was wishful thinking, the misreading of the winds and allowing what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide” to swell. Could they have stopped it? Probably not. Could it have been stemmed so that it did less damage, saved some ofthe fathers and brothers, mothers and sons? Yes, almost certainly, yes.

Ricks tipped me off to this article, and while I find it to be one of the least compelling styles of journalism–personal experience masked as opinion masked as news–I do find it interesting to read in the context of the leavetaking that is being prepared. Lessons learned, people? Bring ’em here.

Stalemate In Perpetua

Posted in afghanistan, isaf by Karaka on 14 October 2009

Yesterday–and it’s still technically yesterday!–Spencer Ackerman posted about AJ Rossmiller’s new column in TNR. I said this in reply to Spencer’s post:

You know, I read this post over my morning coffee, Rossmiller’s over my bagel, and this guest post over at Ricks on the second cup of coffee; and after a couple hours digesting it, I’m still on the damn fence.

I agree in principle with what you’re saying here, but I guess I’m just not entirely convinced that reconciliation will actually, necessarily work in the interests of US national security or in the interests of the Afghan citizenry. It’s a way to get out faster; but I’m not sure it’s the best way to leave.

And Spencer asked me to pull it apart a little more, so I took the thought to my pub and over a pint of Open Bridge Brown I sorted it out a bit.

So, we’re talking about the political reconciliation of the Afghan Taliban with the current established Afghan government. My inclination is to think that such a reconciliation is not the best course of action. I came up with four reasons why.

ONE. ISAF is already present in Afghanistan. If McCrystal’s Assessment is adopted to reaching US/NATO goals in AFG, forces will probably be present in country for at least four to five years more. It seems credible that civilian forces working to reduce corruption in the established government would be a better alternative to inviting our declared enemy into a legitimate role in the government it purports to hate and rebel against; reconciliation only works if there is power-sharing, and there is no indication that the AFG Taliban are interested in sharing power at all.

TWO. Prior to 2009, ISAF was fighting (to the best of my knowledge) a counterterrorism campaign in AFG. I don’t think we can accurately predict the martial outcome of COIN in country, since it hasn’t been practiced to full effect yet; and if COIN proves more effective at fighting the Taliban, political reconciliation becomes less attractive and perhaps less necessary. I don’t see an effective argument suing for reconciliation before COIN has taken a stab at reducing the insurgent threat. Though, I have seen the argument for reconciliation made as a pretext to withdrawing sooner rather than later, and that reaffirms my original statement that it’s a way to get out faster, but not necessarily better.

Further to that, I also think that COIN’s effectiveness could take more than one aspect, namely the reintegration of insurgents into Afghan citizenry, eroding the influence and existing political power of the Taliban, and/or a wide swathe of insurgent deaths. Even one of those things would have the effect of lessening Taliban presence and control and strengthening the central government’s legitimacy.

THREE. I don’t take the Taliban’s public claims seriously. Propaganda always means something other than what is being stated. To take the Taliban at its public word could be foolish–given last week’s bogus claim of harmlessness, it seems apparent that the Taliban’s greatest hope is getting the foreigners to leave what they consider to be their territory. They have every reason to lie or obfuscate to reach that goal.

Taking CNAS intern Kyle Flynn’s comments on Peter Bergen’s senate testimony into account (primarily because it is very recent and also something I touched on in my original response) and the Oral History of the Taliban (also recent), there is no factual reason to believe that the AFG Taliban wouldn’t re-establish their regime if given the opportunity and use that power to provide al-Qaeda with another launching pad.

The argument that al-Qaeda does not necessarily need Afghanistan to accomplish its goals is both accurate and well-heeded; but it sure does make it easier on them. Furthermore, if the US continues to have a presence in South/Central Asia–which the events of the last 18 years indicates it will–it is a matter of US influence and security to have in place a government in line with whatever democratic views we attempted to import there.

The Taliban don’t exactly fit that bill, and should they be reconciled with the current AFG government, it seems probable that they would exploit the control of the 200 districts they currently hold into a grab for political power. It would likely introduce another government, one sourced by Islamic extremism. And that’s not good for US interests even without al-Qaeda’s involvement, given the proximity of AFG to Pakistan, Iran, and India (all nuclear states).

FOUR. Probably the point most important to me, personally, is the relationship of the Taliban to the people it professes to represent and govern. The following is copied from Women Against Shariah, at the most cursory level. (That is a heartbreaking blog to read.)

* Shariah: an all-encompassing and in-transmutable system of Islamic jurisprudence, found in the Koran and the Sunnah, that covers all aspect of life, including daily routines, hygiene, familial roles and responsibilities, social order and conduct, directives on relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims, religious obligations, financial dealings and many other facets of living.

* Ird: the sexual purity of a woman that confers honor to her husband, family and community. Ird is based on the traditional standards of behavior set forth in the shariah code and includes subservience to male relatives, modest dress which could include veiling and the covering of the body, and restricted movement outside of the home. The loss of a woman’s ird confers shame upon her family and can result in ostracism by the community, economic damage, political consequences and the loss of self esteem.

* Zina: the Koranic word for sexual relations outside of marriage. Under shariah law, Zina is punished by lashings, imprisonment or stoning to death.

* Honor Killing: a murder, usually of a female, committed to restore the social and political standing of a family or community when it is believed that the victim has violated traditional behavioral expectations. Such violations can include improper covering of the body, appearing in public without a male relative chaperone, talking to an unrelated male, or exhibiting independence in thought and action. An honor killing can also be based on hearsay or gossip that is perceived as damaging to a woman’s relatives.

* Forced Marriage: a marriage that is conducted without the consent of one or both parties in which duress is a factor. Such duress can include violence or physical intimidation, psychological abuse, blackmailing, kidnapping, or threats of imprisonment or institutional confinement.

Now, there are several stripes of what WAS refers to as militant islam, but I think it’s common knowledge that the Taliban have a fairly strict interpretation of Shariah. To me, turning political power over to men who will use their power to oppress half the population is sufficient reason in and of itself to remain until the population is secured. I don’t want my heart to bleed all over this post, but it is a fundamental problem for me to consider political reconciliation with a group of people who will clearly and unabashedly utilize that power to enact and further systemic oppression of women. And given the Taliban’s grave presence in Afghanistan currently, it would arguably be a lot of political power.

That oppression, too, has the trickle down effect on Afghan children, and the various other minorities within Afghanistan.

One of the recurring arguments I have about political-ethnic divides within Afghanistan relates to the notion that because Pashtuns are the great majority in country they should be taken seriously and, I interpret, be a large political power because of their numbers–about 42% of the population. But what I find troubling about the argument from majority is that the proposed majority almost inevitably uses that power to oppress or eradicate the minorities which (seem to) threaten that power.

I find it hard to distinguish a compelling argument that suggests political reconciliation with the Taliban would not be a problem for the overall security of the Afghan people.

So, I stand by my original, more tenuous claim–political reconciliation may be the fastest way for ISAF to get out of Afghanistan, but I don’t think it’s the best. Not when it leaves several problems both in terms of US security, Afghan security, and problems both immediately and in the long-term.

That was more hawkish than I’d anticipated it being.

Friday Errata

Linkdump of what I’m reading over the weekend:

How to Measure the War by Jason Campbell, Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro:

The news is not all bad, however. With the help of outside donors, the Afghan government has made great strides in providing increased access to basic health care, with 82 percent of the population now living in districts that have a basic package of health care programs, up considerably from 9 percent in 2003. This metric is of limited value for truly sick individuals, who probably still cannot access health care in many cases. But it has translated into significant improvements in the rate of vaccinations as well as infant and child mortality rates. Though literacy rates continue to linger at less than 30 percent, more than 6 million children currently attend over 9,000 schools. Gender equity is improving as 2 million of the students are girls and 40,000 of the 142,000 teachers are women. This represents a marked improvement over the Taliban years. Finally, telephone usage has increased dramatically to an estimated 7 million Afghans, up from just 1 million in 2002.

Course Correction by Ganesh Sitaraman:

The project underway at Camp Julien aims to help the United States and its allies succeed where King Amanullah, the Russians, and even the mujahedin failed. Julien is home to the Counterinsurgency Training Center–Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition forces are trying to teach themselves and Afghans how to fight a different kind of war. For one week each month, 130 students descend on Julien to learn about counterinsurgency. Attendees come from every possible background: U.S. and coalition troops of all ranks, ages, and nationalities; State Department and USAID personnel; Afghan soldiers and police; members of NGOs; contractors; Army anthropologists. (I was there in July as part of my research on law in situations of counterinsurgency.)

The Missing Debate in Afghanistan by Peggy Noonan:

It is strange—it is more than strange, and will confound the historians of the future—that Gen. McChrystal has not been asked to testify before Congress about Afghanistan, about what the facts are on the ground, what is doable, what is desirable, how the war can be continued, and how it can end. He—and others, including experienced members of the military past and present, and foreign-policy professionals—should be called forth to talk to the country in the clearest terms under questioning from our elected representatives.

Before the surge in Iraq, we had the Petraeus hearings, which were nothing if not informative, and helped form consensus. Two generations earlier, we had the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam, which were in their way the first formal, if deeply and inevitably contentious, airing of what was at stake there and what our position was.

Why are we not doing this now? Why are we treating Afghanistan almost like an afterthought, interesting and important but not as urgent a question as health care?

Robert Gates: Solidly in the Middle of the Afghan Strategy Storm by David Wood:

Today, that hard work is paying off as even some congressional Democrats, skeptical of McChrystal’s proposed plan for Afghanistan, are suggesting they wait until they’ve heard what Gates thinks. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has criticized the McChrystal proposal as too troop-heavy. Congress at some point ought to hear directly from McChrystal and Petraeus, Levin said last Sunday. “But above them all is a secretary of defense. We ought to focus on what will Secretary Gates’ recommendation be to the president . . . we ought to listen to the secretary of defense when he makes up his mind.”

If Tehran Gets the Bomb: How Iranian nukes would reshape the Middle East by Lee Smith:

If Iran gets the bomb, other regional powers will pursue nuclear programs—if they are not already doing so. Inevitably in a region as volatile as this, there will be a few small-scale nuclear catastrophes, probably rulers targeting their own people. Saddam gassed the Kurds and slaughtered the Shiites, Hafez Assad massacred the Sunnis of Hama, and mass graves throughout the region testify to the willingness of Arab rulers to kill their own people—in their hands, a nuclear weapon is merely an upgrade in repressive technology. Still, it’s extremely unlikely the regimes will use these weapons against their regional rivals. Remember, the main reason these states support nonstate terror groups is to deter one another and thus avoid all-out war.

Ingushetia’s cycle of violence by Dom Rotheroe:

It is a complaint we hear all over Ingushetia, that there is no law or justice. In a society in which blood vendettas are part of a man’s honour, young male relatives of the deceased have to seek their own justice.

They head into the hills to get a gun and take revenge. And while with the extremists, their ideology may shift accordingly. Some may become suicide bombers, of which the North Caucasus has seen a resurgence this summer, culminating in an attack on Ingushetia’s main police station in August which killed 21 and injured more than 100 more.

My most poignant memory of the Albakov family is of Batyr’s younger brother, Beslan. Beslan’s rejects blood revenge and wants legal justice for his brother, a justice he knows will never come. He also knows that the security forces will suspect him of seeking revenge and therefore may come for him at any time.

His quietly desperate face is the face of Ingushetia today, trapped between the rock and hard place of the militants and the authorities who seem intent on feeding the ever-growing cycle of violence.

Only going forward

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 6 October 2009

Richard HolbrookeGeorge Packer’s recent profile of Richard Holbrooke that appeared in the New Yorker last week has conveniently been made available in its entirety online, just in time to make all the grafs I transcribed on Friday a waste of effort. Oh well.

It was a long, thorough, and clear-eyed picture of Richard Holbrooke, a man who has been in and out of politics for years and is now the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; that is, the civilian co-ordinator for US efforts in those two countries. Appointed by President Obama, he’s close with Secretary Clinton and is someone to keep a close eye on as the Obama administration [eventually] concludes its review of the Afghan war. Read the article yourself, but here’s the bits that stuck out to me.

Afghanistan and Pakistan now constituted a single theatre of war, Holbrooke wrote, where America would have an unavoidable interest long after the war in Iraq was history. “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize,” he wrote in March, 2008. “This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history.”

That’s a little more than a year and a half ago, and as much as its proving to be true now, many folks don’t seem inclined to hear it.

Shortly after the Inauguration, Obama went to the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a slide briefing; instead of delineating a clear goal, the briefing listed more than a dozen goals. Obama called [Bruce] Riedel and asked him to lead a two-month strategic review of the war. Holbrooke would work closely with him.

I guess that’s mostly a “If you think it’s bad now, imagine what it was like nine months ago!” anecdote.

A pure counterterror approach had, in fact, been the Bush Administration’s policy for yeas: kill or capture terrorist leaders, with minimal support for political institutions in Kabul and Islamabad. It had created the mess that Obama inherited, with two countries under threat from insurgents and Al Qaeda’s strength increasing. “Al Qaeda does not exist in a vacuum,” Riedel said. “They’re part of a syndicate of terrorist groups. Selective counterterrorism won’t get you anywhere, because they bad guys don’t stay in their lanes.” And without an extensive military presence and connections to the Pakistani and Afghan governments the US would likely lose the intelligence networks that have been built up since 9-11. Obama would have to accept the risk that Al Qaeda might pull off another catastrophic attack. The abandonment of Afghanistan would also be a dire prospect for Afghans, especially women, but in war-weary America this argument no longer had force. The basis for a policy had to be American self-interest.

Emphasis mine. It’s hard to convey sarcasm effectively on the internet, but allow me to denote it thusly: [!]Well, of course American self-interest is the only argument that works effectively for a policy change![!] Anyway. Basis for policy shifted, from counterterrorism to a more holistic counterinsurgency.

“There’s a long-term problem,” Abramowitz told him. “It’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of effort. And the Administration, in order to get the money, has to convey there’s a short-term fix. But there is no short-term fix.” John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told me, “Everyone’s on a relatively short fuse here to see that the strategy is being defined correctly.” He expressed concern that the Administration’s strategy “demands greater nation-building resources than people may be aware and certainly than we have thus far committed.” James Dobbins, now with the RAND Corporation, couches the problem this way: “There is a gap between the reason we’re there and what we’re doing. The rationale is counterterrorism. The strategy is counterinsurgency.”

A gap which is playing itself out pretty clearly in the administration right now. Timely article.

Eventually, the Americans would leave Afghanistan, allowing Pakistan to pursue its own interest in the region. “Countries don’t change their strategic vision overnight,” [Vali] Nasr told me. “It’s not as simple as Bush saying ‘I hate terrorism, you hate terrorism, we’re all on the same page.’ This is a long, hard battle. We need to turn the Pakistani military, but we can’t do that without getting it to see its interests differently, which means building relations.”

Continuing to build relationship not only with Pakistan, but as a further bolster to Afghanistan, one presumes.

There was no deal to strike with the Pakistanis, only trust to build, and Holbrooke’s outsized personality seemed to be under wraps. In moments when I overheard him talking to Pakistani leaders, he took the solicitous tone of someone reassuring an unstable friend. “It’s like dealing with psychologically abused children,” a member of his staff said. “You don’t focus on the screaming and violence–you just hug them tighter.” …Beneath Pakistan’s dysfunctional government lies a social system that, in rural areas, remains feudal.

You know, Rory Stewart suddenly comes to mind: And that you can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan. I mean, unless you understand that Pakistan is 20-30 years ahead of Afghanistan, you don’t understand where we’re starting from. And Pakistan is still not an ideal state.

“Why do people join the Taliban?” Holbrooke asked [Helmand Governor Gulab] Mangal. (It was a question that he asked wherever he went.)

“Lack of knowledge, religious inspiration, lack of jobs, poverty,” the Governor said. “Others, because of our wrong practices. And a large number because of pressure–because they will be killed.”

“Do you have a program for those who want to leave the Taliban and come back to the government?”

The Governor said he had discussed the subject that morning with elders in one of the districts. “But will they get jobs?” Holbrooke pressed. “The last programs didn’t work very well.”

He never got an answer to his question. But I’d be real interested in all the responses he got from asking.

Sarah Chayes, a former reporter who founded a sustainable-development cooperative in Kandahar, and who is now an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, told me, “What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead, we gave them warlords, because we were focused on counterterrorism.”

Controversial figure, valid point.

The NATO official worried that Holbrooke, instead of leaning hard on the Karzai government, might see Karzai as a necessary conduit for cutting a deal with the Taliban that would allow the Americans to leave. “Holbrooke is fundamentally not a nation-builder, he’s a dealmaker,” the official said. “But this is not something you can bargain your way out of.”

Yeah, that pull quote pretty much stands on its own.

Burt Field, an Ar Force major general and Holbrooke’s military adviser, was beginning to question the military’s model of how to fight the Taliban. He said that the Americans were telling the Afghans, “We’re going to keep the Taliban off your back and connect you to your government–and that’s counterinsurgency.” But, Field went on, “it’s premised on the fact that the government wants to be able to provide those key services. What if that premise is false?”

A question even more vital given the recent elections.

When I repeated Hill’s remark to Holbrooke on the plane, he took out a pen, and on a napkin he wrote down, “INSTITUTION BUILDING.” He drew a line under it, and below the line he wrote “DIP PHASE.” “Things are not sequential,” Holbrooke said. “They have to be parallel processes.” He acknowledged that no Dayton would come at the end of the diplomatic phase.

And that pretty much sums up the situation Holbrooke is in with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading this profile didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence that we (as a nation) actually know where we’re going with this thing, but it’s interesting to get such a close profile of someone with significant influence on the Obama administration’s strategy and policy. I think it does give some insight on where Holbrooke is going with this ship he’s steering, and a better understanding of our current diplo relationship with Pakistan. Anyway, read the article.

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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