Permissible Arms

“A rotating black hole.”

Posted in afghanistan, united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 18 May 2010

That’s what I’m calling my life right now. I seriously do not understand where all the time goes, except being vaguely aware that it is going really, really fast.

In light of that, posting has and may continue to be less frequent; I’m not real keen on that, but such is things.

Over the weekend, I watched a couple programs worth mentioning here. The first, which I brought up on my twitter account on Saturday, was BBC2’s “The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia.” I’d gotten it mostly to refresh my memory about T.E. Lawrence alongside a reading of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and was surprised–but only for a moment–to realize that it was hosted by Rory Stewart.

The two-part special is framed as a walk through Lawrence’s life (with fair attention paid to details of historical accuracy over common misconceptions from the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, drawing parallels of his post-WWI through to post-WWII actions in Arabian lands to entrance of the US and Britain into Iraq (and Afghanistan, which didn’t really do him any favors in his comparison). The thesis of Stewart’s program is essentially that Lawrence himself became disillusioned with Western involvement in the Middle East after the revelation of Sykes–Picot. Lawrence had effectively promised Faisal bin al-Hussein (or Faisal I) an independent pan-Arab state, which Lawrence’s leaders did not deliver. Stewart suggests throughout that the long memory of the people of the Middle East has contributed to the mistrust, unrest, and insurgency in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world of Western nations, which doesn’t seem wrong, exactly, but certainly seems to be a broad claim.

Futhermore, Stewart takes the position that, as Lawrence came to protest European colonization and continued administration of lands in the Middle East, so too should we see parallels in Iraq (and Afghanistan). It’s well understood that Stewart thinks we should scale back our presence and influence in Afghanistan and by extension Iraq (though given the pull-out dates for troops in Iraq it may be less contentious now), and Lawrence is used by Stewart as a vehicle to enhance that argument. “If Lawrence of Arabia did not believe this could be done,” he seems to ask, “what hubris makes us think we can?”

I note above the broad claim, and having finished two hours of this program I concluded that his thought was not merely broad but sweeping. Set against a meandering sort of walk across some truly staggering landscapes–with which Stewart is quite familiar–we, the viewer, are invited to consider the implacability of the peoples by whom we are viewed only as occupiers. Since 1916 Europe (and now the United States) has been viewed as a betrayer of promises, and such are the people we must pacify.

Even acknowledging the troubling impetus for invading Iraq, Stewart’s thesis in this piece takes a deeply narrow gaze and interprets Lawrence’s words as if they are allegorical to the contemporary wars. I do not believe there is any part of the wars of the United States and Britain over the last ten years that is narrow, and they are hardly allegorical.

In Stewart’s piece last year criticizing Obama’s then-sketchy plans for what to Do About Afghanistan, he writes in the London Review of Books of another Lawrence, Sir John the viceroy of India, saying of the British Empire and Russia during the Great Game:

But he undermines the fantasy of an Afghan threat as much through the rhythm of his prose as through his arguments. His synecdoche, ‘the Oxus and the Indus’, emphasizes to a domestic policymaker the unknown and alien nature of the landscape; the archaism ‘wend’ illustrates the circuitous routes; his repetitions enact the repetitive and tiresome journey. He highlights the political and religious energies of the resistance (placing them ‘every mile’) and suggests internal divisions without asserting them (by describing Afghanistan not as a single state but as ‘countries’). His concessive subjunctive ‘let them’ reflects his attitude of uncertainty about the future. It is not an assessment of the likelihood of a Russian march but an enactment of its potential and it reduces the army by the end of the sentence to a decrepit band on the edge of the Indus, which it would be difficult to perceive as a threat.

But there is no “let them” here. There is only “we have,” and if we cannot rewrite the past we also cannot abandon that which we have started–particularly as Afghanistan (if not, exactly, Iraq and its copious oil) is not an exercise in colonialism but one in addressing a long-neglected mess.

Tomorrow, “The Fog of War,” or the curious history of Robert McNamara.


Other people golf. I read the milblogosphere.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 27 September 2009

David Brooks’ The Afghan Imperative is a strong argument for McChrystal’s assessment of Afghanistan, and while everyone and their dog has blogged a response to this op-ed, I’ll say only that I find it to be a strong case. But this in particular rang true:

Proponents of withdrawal often acknowledge the costs of defeat but argue that the cause is hopeless anyway. On this, let me note a certain pattern. When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart’s Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.

No freakin’ kidding. Something to keep in mind when reading your way through this discussion.

The Washington Post covers Friday’s meeting between McChrystal, Mullen, Petraeus, and Admiral James Starvidis (supreme allied commander of NATO) in Germany. I bet that wasn’t just scotch and cigars.

The NYT has a rundown of the competing voices in Obama’s review of Afghanistan. Good overview of the political situation.

Scott Simon from NPR has a short excerpt on the destructiveness of the Taliban that is well worth reading/listening to.

The Taliban outlawed news, art, music, theater, song, literature, dance, sport, comedy and any religion but theirs. They built a society in which women were captive, dissenters were prisoners and minorities — Buddhists, the Hazara people or gays — were marked for extinction.

And as sort of a corollary, Newsweek has The Taliban’s Oral History of the Afghanistan War, which is long and difficult and strange to read. You should read it anyway.

AP via Newsday covers US forces moving into Afghan city with some amazing photographs.

The Special Forces soldiers spend their days in and around Nili meeting with local leaders, visiting schools and helping the doctors at the province’s two hospitals. Everywhere they go, they bring soccer balls and backpacks for the children and radios and food for the adults. They never give out aid directly, relying instead on the elders or Afghan police.

“These guys have to learn how to do this,” said Capt. Mark, a former enlisted Green Beret and helicopter pilot whose deep blue eyes draw immediate notice among Afghans. “That way when we are gone, the ideals are already in place.” The Special Forces soldiers, who all have thick beards to blend in with Afghan culture, are only identified by their first names under rules for journalists embedded with them.

This is pretty much COIN in action.

Missiles, Elections, and Rallies, oh my.

Posted in afghanistan, iran, iraq, nato, united states by Karaka on 18 September 2009

I can’t say I’m all that surprised that Silvio Burlesconi announced the withdrawal of a sixth of Italian troops from Afghanistan; I think Gary Schmitt over at the new Defence Studies blog pretty much covers all the important points.


Everyone’s talking about Missile Shields right now. Nathan Hodge gives some of the tech specs of what the program might look like. Danger Room is always a good source of acronyms if you’re running low. The DIME Blog’s Dennis Murphy talks about Sec. Gates and strategic communication:

And so the Secretary’s action closed a proverbial say-do gap and made inroads in the elusive battle of ideas. It was a first, but important step in the right direction in this ongoing and generational ideological struggle.

Frank Kaplan at Slate breaks down the decision to step away from the Eastern European program, and the NYT reports that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is encouraging the US, Europe, and Russia to link their defence shields.

Robert Burns (AP) offers an analysis of this move in US Missile Defence, which segues us nicely into–


–Iran, where protests against the government countered a government-sponsored rally to stir anger against Israel:

But witnesses reported that demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans had taken complete control of Tehran’s expansive Seventh of Tir Square. Video posted to YouTube showed thousands of others holding up green ribbons and rallying peacefully in Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. Late in the morning came reports of tear gas being fired into crowds in the capital, but they could not be confirmed.

I’ll confess to being petty enough to enjoy the Iranian people not taking Ahmadinejad’s bullshit lying down.


Biden continues his trip through Iraq [VOA]:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan Thursday to press Kurdish leaders to compromise on the controversial issue of sharing Iraq’s oil wealth. Biden met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, in the regional capital of Irbil.

The great unanswered question about NATO withdrawal from Iraq, in my opinion, is whether Kurdish autonomy will be tolerated.


The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing called “Exploring Three Strategies on Afghanistan; video is available at that URL. I for one am going to spend part of my precious Saturday living the dream of watching Senate hearings in my pajamas.

The NYT continues coverage of the Afghani election:

The prospect of a runoff election is growing after President Hamid Karzai was awarded 54.6 percent of the votes in the much disputed presidential election last month. But even as American officials noted that the Afghan authorities had begun printing ballots for a second round of voting, these officials said they were worried that a runoff could not be held before Afghanistan’s fierce winter starts in November.

…Time to start talking about a Transitional Authority, folks.

Metrics is also the name of a band.

Posted in afghanistan, us politics by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Steve Coll over at Think Tank picks up Objective 3b where I dropped it yesterday.

Here, however, is objective 3b: “Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.” There is some carefully modest language in that sentence; nonetheless, it crosses into the realm of nation-building, including the construction of political legitimacy for an Afghan government that is accused of having just tried to steal a national election.

In many ways, I think that is the crux of this metrics document. I already accept that we are nation-building in Afghanistan, and that we have been, whether we like it or not, for years. I think mostly I’m surprised 3b didn’t get bumped further up. But the inherent, and pervasive, issue with nation-building is not so much whether it can be done, but how effectively is can be done. And what resources are being used to effect that job.

I maintain that I don’t think troops are the single most effective way to accomplish that goal, but I accept the necessity of that increase. If such a goal is clearly stated here, in this Administration document, I wonder if the White House is coming to any kind of conclusion about that too.

Nation building at the barrel of an M-16.

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 16 September 2009

Some Afghanistan errata.

Oliver North’s file from Monday, In the Afghan Battle Space:

Until 2nd LAR arrived here, this part of Afghanistan had been without any government or coalition presence since 2002. On July 4, with Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, present, Afghanistan’s national flag was unfurled, and Masood Ahmad Rasooli, a university-trained pharmacist in his late 20s, was installed as district governor. When I asked him this week if he has been threatened, he shrugged and told me through a Marine interpreter, “Of course. That comes with the job.” [Washington Times]

David Wood, over at Politics Daily, offers probably the best real-world understanding of McChrystal’s COIN strategy from last month:

In a related program, soldiers are teaching village women to make high-protein baby formula from locally available produce. That’s a project of the civil affairs teams led by Special Forces Maj. James N. Schafer. “I wish I had more teams,” he told me. “We are doing better; things are better than a year ago. But we need more civilians – we don’t need more guys carrying guns.”

These aren’t simply feel-good projects; they are ruthlessly assessed as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency war-fighting plan. Rather than simply asking local Afghans if they’d like a new school or a baby nutrition program, soldiers ask detailed questions to understand local origins of instability: What causes the conflicts that the Taliban can exploit? It may be a lack of jobs, or corrupt officials, or high child malnutrition. Action is taken to meet those needs. Then the results are carefully measured – did the project really provide jobs? Was the corrupt official removed? If necessary, new actions are planned. Results must deliver more security, more jobs or better government.

“[W]e don’t need more guys carrying guns.” The things about nation-building, on a practical level, is that military forces may be necessary to assure security, but artillery won’t replace homes, jobs, and lives lost in war. I think we need more trained personnel who can implement the real challenges of rebuilding a nation. But I accept that the only way to achieve that is to insure the security of that personnel through additional troops. That doesn’t seem to be the option, though–the option, as it is becoming clear to me, is that NATO forces are responsible for the double duty of security/enemy engagement and that nation building. And I am not convinced that it can reasonably be successful.

Paul Pillar has an op-ed in the WP questioning the relationship of location to terrorism:

How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism.

Granted, it is worth noting that the 9/11 attacks were planned initially within Afghanistan before being exported to other bases in Europe; but I think his point still stands. If terrorism is what we went into Afghanistan to combat, then perhaps we have effectively done that. (Note Gen. McChrystal saying there is little evidence for major al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan at this time.) Of course, I think the long war against terrorism fits cleanly into Pillar’s conception here; but I also think that Afghanistan, as it currently stands, is not a relationship we (US/NATO/ISAF troops) can abandon–and not merely for the somewhat hyperbolic claim that the terrorists would return immediately. I believe that we are ethically obligated to remain, because that nation is in such a state of disrepair that to withdraw would be morally abhorrent. It is our mess to clean up.

It’s interesting to me that the biases I’d expected to see in the WP–hawkish determination to remain in Afghanistan–aren’t being picked up. Instead there seems to be a general bent towards withdrawing from Afghanistan, and letting it stand as a failure.

Foreign Policy breaks down the metrics that will/are be used to evaluate progress in Afghanistan-Pakistan. I’d really like to sit down and analyze this, but I don’t have time and other people did it better. Maybe tomorrow. Either way, it’s really interesting to see a method of evaluation laid out, and Objective 3b is relevant in light of this post.

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