Permissible Arms

From Dawn to Dusk

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

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

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

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

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Simmon, NASA.

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


Anti-COIN, the equivalent of a Kinks song.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states by Karaka on 29 June 2010

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.

Pro Petra

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 June 2010

Because Jon Stewart is at least mildly devilish, every single time I read or hear “General Petraeus” my mind is immediately flooded with the Daily Show’s rendition of Iraq Me Dave Petraeus.

It’s very vexing.

Anyway, some commentary:

  • Danger Room thinks on a return to air war.
  • Ackerman (who will soon also be Danger Room) pokes at Petraeus and Pakistan.
  • David Wood, remaining one of my favorite war journalists, has a short but sweet dispatch on Petraeus in Afghanistan: Lost in the furor over the disgraced Gen. Stanley McChrystal is this simple truth: The counterinsurgency strategy championed by his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, works.
  • Gulliver at Ink Spots evaluates the savviness of the Petraeus pick.
  • Dennis Murphy at the Army’s DIME blog weighs in with a strategic critique of RollingStan.
  • In this morning’s At War, Dexter Filkins and John Burns answer commenter queries about McC and Petraeus. While it has not yet gone batshit, I await that inevitability.
  • Tom Ricks’ Washington Post op-ed should be read with the context of Ricks’ close understanding of Petraeus, and also in his reiteration of two key points: first, that Petraeus is very skilled at fostering cohesion within his command, and second, that such cohesion relies to a great degree on effective civilian counterparts (which are in short supply in the region). Several people have chimed in to suggest that ousting McChrystal gives Obama sufficient cause to re-evaluate his civilian personnel as well, which I think it true, but I suspect unlikely. Obama has already assumed the risk of replacing his military command. It would appear to be fickle to replace Eikenberry and Holbrooke in the same house-cleaning, only a year after his strategy is put into place. Now, Eik and Holbrooke weren’t present at the Rose Garden statement yesterday, so it may very well be that their shuffling is on the horizon. Certainly it would be best for Petraeus to go in with people he can count on. But replacing your top three guys in a short period of time will feed a perception of ineffectiveness that may be more harmful than Eik or Holbrooke’s actually ineffectiveness.
  • And Jason Sigger points us all to the prize-winning political cartoon of the week:

I got 99 problems, but a General ain’t one.

Posted in afghanistan, japan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

Okay. Time to turn to more productive and less hand-wringing matters. It’s done, it’s over, the lady has sung and that song is a Rolling Stones cover.

This afternoon, Secretary McHugh released its review of Wanat.

After careful consideration of the additional information, Campbell concluded that the officers were neither negligent nor derelict in the performance of their duties and that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Therefore, he withdrew the adverse administrative actions.

“In every review and study conducted to date, the courage, valor, and discipline of the soldiers who fought at Wanat have been universally praised. These soldiers were well-trained, well-led, and fought bravely to defeat a determined and intense enemy action to overrun their base in Wanat. They persevered in a fashion that deserves broad recognition of their bravery and tenacity,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff. “Our hearts go out to the families of the fallen soldiers.”

You can access the public (redacted) files from the CENTCOM investigation here. This is probably for the best, though I’m refraining from saying anything firm until I’ve had a chance to review the CENTCOM files.

Newly affirmed Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has apologized to the Okinawans who live in close proximity to the US bases on the island, in a smart early political move.

“On behalf of all of our people, I apologise for the burden,” Mr Kan said, but added that it was integral to the “peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.”

“I promise to seriously try all the more to reduce Okinawa’s burden related to the US bases and eliminate the associated dangers.”

Okinawa currently hosts more than half of the 47,000 US soldiers in Japan. Mr Kan was speaking at the ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, in which some 200,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.

He states he will adhere to the 2006 US-Japan agreement, which is what his predecessor finally acceded too; rebuilding Japan’s relationship with the US was a quick follow. Okinawans will likely not be happy, but they weren’t happy before, and at least PM Kan is being honest about the limits of his influence on this issue.

The NYT’s Lens Photojournalism column features photographs from Restrepo’s Tim Hetherington. Some of them are dramatic; others are a study in contrasts.

How does your Afghanistan work tie into what you just said?

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

And how did you do that in Afghanistan?

By working across the spectrum, by first saying, “O.K., I’m going to photograph for Vanity Fair.” And that is a platform that has, say, a two or three million readership. Then those images, because I retain the copyright, are syndicated worldwide. They appear in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Great, that’s another valid audience. The image that won World Press Photo gave another spotlight and went global in a way that could lead people to reach my other work. Then I made “Sleeping Soldiers,” which was a digital projection. It was an art piece, meant for galleries – but that’s still a valid audience.

The whole interview is long and meaty and a respite from the many interviews with Hetherington’s colleague, Sebastian Junger, whose FDL Book Salon with David Axe devolved into a tiresome anti-war kabuki with little to do with the actual book. That seems to be more and more where conversations on “War” are heading, and I agree with Axe that Junger might have been better off calling the book “Combat.”

Finally, CFR has an interview with Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan that got promptly buried by RollingStan.

Will there be pressure on the president, when he looks up from the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, to try to be clearer on this whole policy? We’ve had many officials saying, “That July date doesn’t really mean much, it was just a symbolic statement.”

There are a lot of people that want to pin the administration down on this. The hearings in the Senate the last couple of days have been the latest example. The hearings right after the West Point speech were an earlier example. Lots of people are confused and want more clarity. They want more clarity for widely divergent motivation. Typically, progressive Democrats want it made very clear that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal. Conservative Republicans want the perception that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal to be explicitly denied by the administration in order to increase the likelihood that we’re going to stay. So lots of people want more clarity. My guess is that they may not get it. We’ll see what happens with this upcoming December review [Obama in the speech also said the Afghan policy would be reviewed in December].

All this, and America and England face off for the next round of the World Cup. Independence Day never looked so much like a footie metaphor.

Goodbye, M4, Hello P4

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

The press conference was quick and dirty–less then ten minutes. Obama was flanked by Biden, Mullen, Gates, and Petraeus. The President announced that he has accepted General McChrystal’s resignation, and has asked General Petraeus to step in as commander of ISAF. McChrystal’s statement was emailed to the media:

This morning the President accepted my resignation as Commander of U.S. and NATO Coalition Forces in Afghanistan. I strongly support the President’s strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people. It was out of respect for this commitment — and a desire to see the mission succeed — that I tendered my resignation.

It has been my privilege and honor to lead our nation’s finest.

The word is that he will not be returning to Kabul; his things will be sent to him in the US. He was not present for the press conference.

I’m down with Petraeus–I don’t know many who aren’t–but man, this whole thing sucked. It’s not even been 48 hours since the AP ran news of the RS article, and McChrystal was summarily booted.

I’ll link to the transcript of Obama’s statement (he took no questions) when it’s up, but the general riff is that the war is bigger than any one man; the military is subject to civilian command and must respect that chain of command; the policy put forth in 2009 regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan remains firmly in place; and while Obama takes no personal insult from McChrystal’s comments, neither can he retain in service a man who does not adhere to the highest standards of conduct demanded of him.

That’s all fair. And I can accept the rationale for cashiering McChrystal. But I still think that if Obama wanted to lead from the front, he would have disciplined McChrystal rather than benching him. If you want your strategy to be effective, you don’t change up command a year in. It’s not that I don’t think Petraeus will be effective–I do–but I do not see with clarity how this serves the mission.

But I guess I also don’t see it as a massive failure of civilian-military relations, which perhaps I should.

ETA: Here’s the remarks.

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

My multiple responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief led me to this decision. First, I have a responsibility to the extraordinary men and women who are fighting this war, and to the democratic institutions that I’ve been elected to lead. I’ve got no greater honor than serving as Commander-in-Chief of our men and women in uniform, and it is my duty to ensure that no diversion complicates the vital mission that they are carrying out.

That includes adherence to a strict code of conduct. The strength and greatness of our military is rooted in the fact that this code applies equally to newly enlisted privates and to the general officer who commands them. That allows us to come together as one. That is part of the reason why America has the finest fighting force in the history of the world.

It is also true that our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command. And that’s why, as Commander-in-Chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy.

Second, I have a responsibility to do what is — whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda. I believe that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. And I don’t think that we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change. That, too, has guided my decision.

McChrystal is Out.

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

Press conference is starting late (I’m shocked!) but MSM is already reporting that the President has fired McChrystal and has General Petraeus in mind to replace him.

BREAKING – POTUS to speak in fifteen

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

We’re all waiting breathlessly for President Obama to let us know which way the wind blows; as it stands, a 1:30 ET press conference has been added to his schedule. You can watch it streaming live in fifteen minutes. I have no doubt that I, and everyone I know, will be tweeting the crap out of this press conference.

CiC Speaks

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 22 June 2010

From WaPo:

“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor – showed poor judgment,” the president said, surrounded by members of his Cabinet at the close of their meeting. “But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.”

As the media were being ushered out of the room quickly, Obama stopped them to make more comments and try to put the focus on the troops.

“I want everybody to keep in mind what our central focus is – and that is success in making sure that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot attack the United States and its allies,” Obama said.

“And we’ve got young men and women there who are making enormous sacrifices, families back home who are making enormous sacrifices,” he said. “And so whatever decision that I make with respect to Gen. McChrystal – or any other aspect of Afghan policy – is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there and that ultimately makes this country safer.”

So there’s a little hurry-up-and-wait for us, but like Gibbs this morning in his briefing, the White House isn’t giving anything away. Here’s one place where Obama’s tendency towards careful consideration works in his favor.

McChrystal and the Gang

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states, us military by Karaka on 22 June 2010

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.

Warning: General Speaking on the Record

Posted in afghanistan, us military by Karaka on 21 June 2010

Hoo boy. The last thing you want coming out in the Monday evening news cycle is a luscious story of betrayal, gossip, and insubordination to fuel the rest of the week’s news and commentary, but you can’t always get what you want:

Tensions between General Stanley McChrystal and the White House are on full display in an unflattering profile in Rolling Stone of the commander of US and NATO forces in the Afghan war.

McChrystal jokes sarcastically about preparing to answer a question referring to Vice President Joe Biden, known as a skeptic of the commander’s war strategy.

“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?'” the article quotes him as saying.

“‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?'”

McChrystal tells the magazine that he felt “betrayed” by the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, in a White House debate over war strategy last year.

Referring to a leaked internal memo from Eikenberry that questioned McChrystal’s request for more troops, the commander suggested the ambassador had tried to protect himself for history’s sake.

“I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” McChrystal tells the magazine.

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, “I told you so.'” [AP]

Yowch. Why on earth would you be that candid with Rolling Stone, of all ridiculous magazines? Of any magazine, really, but it’s not like RS doesn’t have a tradition of publishing controversial material. This is like a silver platter of controversy.

Furthermore, why would be anyone in such a delicate position of authority be so incautious halfway through a time-sensitive mission with vast political consequences? It almost seems unrealistic, if the White House, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen hadn’t rung up McChrystal shortly after the story broke on the wire, according to Marc Ambinder.

Who needs a flotilla or an oil spill when you have political brushfire like this jeopardizing the war effort?

ETA: And in a lightning fast walkback, McChrystal has issued his apology (h/t Danger Room).

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard. I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.

But sir, if you have poor judgment with a stupid magazine profile, how on earth can there be great confidence in your leadership of this war? I’m inclined to favor actions, not words, but we’re struggling a little with those, too.

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