Permissible Arms

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:


Rights, civil and federal

Posted in afghanistan, kuwait, us military by Karaka on 21 October 2009

In all the fuss about Senator Kerry’s work to get Karzai to accept a runoff, it’s been interesting to note that Special Rep. Holbrooke hasn’t really been present:

Mr. Holbrooke’s absence on the world stage in recent weeks has raised questions about his role going forward.

His staff offers a simple answer: The famed 68-year-old diplomat who helped broker the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995 has been in Washington helping to preside over the president’s monthlong Afghanistan strategy review.

He has provided the White House with much of the information reviewed at a series of war council meetings, according to those involved.

“His job is [in Washington] right now,” said Ashley Bommer, Mr. Holbrooke’s spokeswoman at the State Department.

The article is a little hyperbolic, but it’s one of the few I’ve seen mentioning Holbrooke on this issue at all. With all five of President Obama’s internal war-room reviews concluded (enough to send Secdef Gates off in search of other assurances), one wonders if Holbrooke is going to make in back in time for the 7 November runoff, and when the White House will announce the results of this policy confab.

Elsewhere, Paula Broadwell’s op-ed in the NYT yesterday (crossposted to KOW, h/t akinoluna for the link, who also has a practical, clear-eyed assessment of Broadwell’s suggestions) is predictably making…no waves, as far as I can tell. Which is a shame, because I think she makes some well-thought points:

However, the persistent threat of counterinsurgencies combined with evidence of women’s proven effectiveness in such situations serve as powerful reasons for updating the law.

The U.S. military’s Central Command recently published a “Memorandum of Law Concerning Women in Combat Support Operations.” It explicitly condones the use of the F.E.T.’s. The Defense Department’s general counsel is scheduled to consider the matter in the near future.

For now, these F.E.T. initiatives are confined to the Marines and there are relatively few women available for these jobs — only 6 percent of Marine Corps personnel are women. Moreover, given the ad hoc nature of the teams — F.E.T. members have “day jobs,” serving as logisticians or intelligence officers or in other vital positions — their commanders are often understandably reticent to give up an individual for an additional duty.

To quote akinoluna:

She never actually says it, but all the talk about how female Marines in FETs have “day jobs” and have to “find time” for the extra training and how their commanders are reluctant to release them to join a FET, it seems like she could be implying that it’s time to train female Marines specifically for FET-like jobs.

It makes sense. It’s not good to pull Marines from one important job to work at another important job: you might be causing them to work abnormally long hours and you’re definitely forcing someone else to pick up the slack at their original job when they aren’t around.

There’s also no reason why the Marine Corps can’t do it.


In Afghanistan, thirty-one certified midwives graduated from an 18-month programme [Pajhwok]:

One midwife named Fahima said she would use her knowledge in serving mothers and children in rural areas. “I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders, because most of the treatment in rural areas is traditional and unhygienic.”

There is no way to understate the difference modern medical knowledge can make to rural ob/gyn needs. Even rudimentary knowledge can be the difference between a successful pregnancy/birth and an unsuccessful one.

And in Kuwait, women were granted the right to pursue a passport of their own volition [BBC]:

The country’s first female MPs were elected in May 2009.

The article abolished by the court dated back to Kuwait’s 1962 passport law which required a husband’s signature on a woman’s passport application.

Aseel al-Awadhi, one of the new MPs, welcomed the passport law ruling as a “victory for constitutional principles that puts an end to this injustice against Kuwaiti women”.

Meanwhile, it looks like the pope might have a place for me if I ever give up my lapsed Anglican ways and wish to return to the fold. Unlikely, but it’s nice to have options.

Maybe we should all go underground

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, pakistan, us military, us politics by Karaka on 7 October 2009

A quick rundown of what I’ve been reading this week:

Sameer Lalwani and Peter Bergen’s op-ed in the NYT last week is both timely and worth noting; as Specrep Holbrooke develops a more active military presence in Afghanistan, as he seems likely to do, this could effectively pay for the training–and eventual security–of the ANA and ANSF in the nation.

Nicholas Schmidle’s article in the Fall ’09 issue of WAJ, Talibanistan: The Talibs at Home. This too is timely, as discussion ramps up about what to do in Pakistan as much as in Afghanistan. More anecdotal than anything, it gives a particularly Western view into the poltics Holbrooke is wading into.

During the two years I lived in Pakistan, on a writing fellowship, I watched this process unfold. In the spring of 2006, I browsed the hashish and gun markets in Dara Adam Khel, a frontier town in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which fell to the Taliban a short time later. When I visited the Swat Valley with my wife in June of 2007, the government was as in control as it ever was; when I returned alone four months later, the Taliban had established checkpoints throughout the valley and scared off the police through a campaign of ambushes and suicide attacks.

KOW had a nice conversation starter, Strategies are Like Sausages, which dovetailed nicely with the essay put out by SWJ last month by Adam Elkus and Mark Sanfranski, Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle. Lots of good stuff in both posts’ comment sections. Both come to more-or-less the same conclusion–that current dialogue about Afghanistan (et al) tends to conflate “strategy” with any number of other things, but most particularly practice and policy. In the case of the SWJ essay, the authors suggest that frequently a strategy is derived from an operational methodology, which is the intellectual equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. In the case of KOW, the author dissects the relationship of politics and policy in light of a given strategy. I don’t have much in response that I haven’t already said elsewhere, but this paragraph from the conclusion of the SWJ paper stuck out to me:

But the basic problem remains that policy elites increasingly lack the experience and cognitive frameworks to create strategy, and in the absence of a clear threat it is likely that the short term considerations of domestic politics and international crisis management will win out over long term strategy. It is difficult for democratic systems to produce grand strategy because of the role of interests and lobbies, the tendency of politicians, to erase the doctrines of their predecessors regardless of their utility, and the paucity of basic knowledge of strategic concepts, coaltion warfare, and strategic history.

This, by the way, is why I don’t think McChrystal was ever particularly out of line in his remarks. He was advocating a policy that took long-term operations into consideration (for a value of “long-term” that is at least longer than any American politican would like to see US forces in southwestern Asia) rather than the politics of a mid-term election process, the political picture of sending more troops, or a short term fix that would allow American forces to withdraw. He was well in line with what he had been asked to do by his superiors, in line with the strategy laid out in March; a strategy which, according to Sec Clinton, has not changed.

Speaking of Clinton, her appearance with Sec Gates at GWU earlier this week was recorded and is available streaming here; transcript here. Well worth listening to. If nothing else–and there is a lot else–this speaking engagement reflects a very different working atmosphere in the Obama administration from that of his predecessor. The candidness with with both Secretaries spoke and their support of one another spoke to that. There’s several things worth review, but here’s one of many I find interesting:

SESNO: But — but my — my question was, what are the things that the military is now doing that should be handled and are better handled by our diplomats?

CLINTON: Well, Frank, let — let me just answer that, because a lot of what happens when our military — and they’ve been doing an incredible job against a really ferocious enemy in Afghanistan, particularly along the south and along the border — without civilians, it’s very hard to make the transition from, you know, the soldier or the Marine holding the automatic weapon who has been trying to route out the Taliban to going and trying to help a farmer get enough yield out of his wheat crop so that he doesn’t want to grow poppies.

I mean, that’s — that’s, you know, an issue that is very difficult for the military to take on a sustained basis. But in the last several years, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was young lieutenants, captains, majors, they were doing that.

They were trying to do both jobs. And at a certain point, we need to support them. And I appreciate what Bob said about how it affects — trained civilians are force multipliers. They can begin to do the civilian interaction with, you know, tribal elders and others that will help to make the environment more secure that our Marines and soldiers have helped to create.

That is pretty much my essential thesis when it comes to Afghanistan. (Why this isn’t available as a podcast is beyond me.) Use your military to establish security so that civilian presence can be installed more long term. Interestingly, Ricks reports a kind of pilot programme that might be heading in this direction:

Word at the Pentagon is that the Army is going to designate the XVIII Airborne Corps as the permanent headquarters for Afghanistan. This is part of Gen. McChrystal’s long-term plan to create a team of “Afghan Hands” who can build for several years, during multiple tours, on their experience and relationships in the country.

In order to do this, the corps headquarters will nearly double in size. At any given time, about half will be in Afghanistan and the other half back home in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Something to keep an eye on.

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.

Do we call television traditional media yet?

Posted in afghanistan, american media by Karaka on 2 October 2009

I hate a lot of television news. In most cases, tv news programmes don’t give me any more access or information than what I can glean from the print media I read, and the audio programmes I listen to. But there are a couple I find wholly worthwhile, and I’m pretty thrilled to add this one to the list.

Christiane Amanpour is, by all rights, a personal hero of mine. Strong, smart, confident, and one of the best interviewers I’ve ever seen; she’s finally chosen to take an anchor position, which premiered last week. Called Amanpour, it is a fast-paced interview programme which invites the key players in contemporary news issues to speak candidly.

The first issue was comprised of back to back interviews with Afghanistan President Karzai and Richard Holbrooke. CNN embeds apparently choose not to play nicely with, however, so I can’t embed it; but you can subscribed to the podcast (and download the first one) through the website or on iTunes.

The thing that really struck me about her interview with Karzai was that she pulled absolutely no punches. She questioned him on corruption chargers, on the election, on ISAF troops and the ANSF. Karzai dodged a lot, but still. And then with Holbrooke–who has more experience with Amanpour’s investigative questioning–she just hammered him one after another and another. Remarkable. I really recommend you watch at least the first issue, which is available through iTunes. But I’m thrilled to add her to my limited roster of people I will willingly watch talk on television.

Friday Et Cetera

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 2 October 2009

Just to clarify my position from yesterday, I do fundamentally disagree with Rory Stewart’s position of a minimalist presence in Afghanistan. I think that withdrawing the force ISAF currently possesses in Afghanistan would be a remarkably devastating move, not only for American security but also for the Afghan people. Downsizing, too, would have the same effect.

But I do think that Stewart has a point when he brings up the fate of Afghan civilians, those not associated with the Taliban or with al-Qaeda, and the importance of addressing the basic human needs of the population. Doing so–insuring food, potable water, jobs, basic security–is the first of a long series of steps to instituting an infrastructure that can become self-sustaining. I think Stewart is wrong in believing that drawing down the troop numbers will have a sustaining effect on the people; I do think that the United States has made and must continue to make a commitment to the security of the Afghan state, for its own sake and the sake of national security. But I’m interested in Richard Holbrooke’s intention to expand the breadth of US civilian work in the country, and I firmly believe that will have as or more significant an impact on the needs and infrastructure of Afghanistan as ISAF presence will.

I mention this only because while I do appreciate Stewart’s point of view and his expertise in Afghanistan, I also disagree with him, and I don’t think I made that very clear.

Two Older White Dudes, Reviewed.

Posted in afghanistan, american media, pakistan, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 22 September 2009

There are a couple profiles out of key players in today’s military-political-defense scene. First is Noah Shachtman ‘s look at Sec. Defense Robert Gates over at Wired:

Every secdef talks about changing the Pentagon, then almost immediately gets stymied by bureaucratic resistance. Only this time, Gates’ talk is turning into action—a Gates Doctrine, if you will. Its core tenets: Base policy on the wars that are most likely to happen and the technology that’s most likely to work. Stop trying to buy the future when you can’t afford the present. With a White House veteran’s feel for Washington, a love of policy, a penchant for secrecy, and an old man’s sense of the ticking clock, the silver-haired administrator has become the most dangerous person in the military-industrial complex. “I’ve referred to myself as the secretary of war, because we’re at war,” he says in a nasal Kansas twang, raising his voice over the roar of the plane’s engines. “This is a department that principally plans for war. It’s not organized to wage war. And that’s what I’m trying to fix.”

Also related, a similar look at Gates from the NYT:

The looming decision on Afghanistan could put Mr. Gates’s experience to the test as never before. With both Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now on record as saying more combat troops would be required for victory, Mr. Gates must balance his commanders’ desires and his president’s stated skepticism.

As sort of the single major holdover from the transition from Bush to Obama, Gates seems to be in a unique position to advise the President on previous doctrine, namely the “suggestions” and “deadlines” left in place by a Cheney-directed group of defence aides; the desires of the military officials (McChrystal and Mullen and, as other bloggers never fail to remind me, McKiernan as well before his dismissal) to shore up the troops and resources; the limits of Obama’s political willingness to remain in Afghanistan; and the places all of those different things intersect.

Either way, he’s an interesting man to follow.

The New Yorker’s George Packer goes in-depth with US Special Representative to Afghanistan-Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. That links to the abstract; the print edition won’t be out until the 28th, and I will be patiently waiting for it until then. (Unless some friendly reader can hook me up with an electronic copy?) Either way, given how much influence Holbrooke has on the President, I am certain it will be an interesting read.

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