Permissible Arms

Transatlanticism

Posted in afghanistan, europe, united kingdom by Karaka on 25 May 2010

Okay, I may have some problems with Rory Stewart’s general perspective on things, but I was taken by surprise to find that he was elected MP of Penrith and the Border in this month’s UK election.

A former diplomat, army officer and tutor to Princes William and Harry, Stewart was a deputy governor in southern Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, founded a charity in Afghanistan and has made the New York Times bestseller’s list with a book about his hike.

He’s already regarded as a possible successor to Cameron, even though he only joined the Conservative Party last summer.

Yet, only last year, Stewart thought a political career was out of reach. [AP]

A possible successor to Cameron–isn’t that something. I wonder how much influence Stewart will end up having over the Ministry of Defence.

Steve Coll wrote today about the new British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Stewart’s advice to David Cameron going forward on the matter of Afghanistan:

During his visit to Washington, Hague spoke cautiously about Afghanistan and emphasized his government’s desire to forge unity with the United States. He said the new government saw no need to “rush into a disagreement” with the U.S. about the subject of talking to the Taliban. Acknowledging that American commanders prefer to postpone serious consideration of such talks until after they have carried out their military push into Kandahar during the next six months, he added, “You can easily see that people would have different views about timing.” Nonetheless, he made clear that “it will be a big part of our job to support the peace process” and that the British push for more politics in Afghanistan, and less fighting, would persist.

Ah, but six months will go by quickly–it doesn’t even mark the end of the calendar year. As Germany finally steps up to the plate and the infil of soldiers and civilians from US agencies continues, how long before inside opinion in Parliament becomes a matter for the floor? Particularly given recent polling that indicates 52% of the British populace are against the war. I can’t help but be chary of what this means, exactly:

Hague was asked to define success in the Afghan war. He replied, “To arrive at a point where Afghans can look after their own affairs without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s one long-term, large-scale project right there.

In other news, the Security Crank has returned from hibernation. Let the verbal savagery begin again.

“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.

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.

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.

The applicability of the martial.

Posted in afghanistan, us politics by Karaka on 2 October 2009

Rory Stewart is an interesting guy–former officer in the British Army, officer in the Foreign Office, author of several books and now the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School; not to mention the Executive Director of the Afghan arts non-profit Turquoise Mountain. I mentioned his August essay in the London Review of Books, The Irresistible Illusion, several weeks ago and recently caught his interview on the Bill Moyers Journal. You can watch the video here or download the audio of the interview through iTunes. I’ll embed the video tomorrow; I have trouble with getting WP to play nicely with things other than youtube.

Aside from the fact that Stewart is in some ways a personal role model for me, I find that his assessment of Afghanistan is quite astute. As a man who has served in Iraq as a soldier and walked Afghanistan as a civilian, he has what appears to be an incisive view into the situation as it stands; namely, what Obama will choose to do with the information he has asked for and been giving. Entonces:

I think it would be a political catastrophe for the President to refuse to accede to a request from the man on the ground. Broadly speaking, this is a civilian President. He’s said that he believes in defeating the Taliban. He believes in building a legitimate effective state. There’s a highly respected General on the ground — who’s backed up by Admiral Mullen, who’s backed by General Petraeus — saying we need 40,000 more troops. It would be almost inconceivable, at this stage, for the President to refuse that request.

I’ve mentioned my view that the president shouldn’t have asked for a document he wasn’t prepared to take into full account, and I think that should the administration’s internal review counter McChrystal’s already implemented tactics, it’s going to be pretty rough seas for troops, for US politics, and for the Afghan people.

They may be possible over the long term for Afghans themselves to build a stable state. But it’s probably a project of decades. It needs indigenous leadership, a sort of Afghan Thomas Jefferson, to rebuild its state. It’s not something that foreigners can come in and do from outside. The United States, its allies, are quite good at certain kinds of things — building roads, providing some training to the military, helping to build hospitals and schools. But building a state is a project for a founding father. The same with fighting the Taliban. Again, they have quite a lot of support from villages in the south of Afghanistan. And the Kabul government, as we saw in the last election, just doesn’t have much credibility or support.

A rather depressingly accurate assessment. You can’t nation build from the outside; at most you can offer the tools for a nation to build itself. But perversely, that’s why Karzai is so attractive to NATO governments and the US government in particular–he’s an Afghan figure one can point to as being instrumental in the initial NATO incursion, and secured himself a position of great political power parlayed from that relationship he secured with NATO forces. So he has the thin veneer of being not only legitimate as an Afghan-for-Afghans, but also as a founding member of this new government. Of course, that is shadowplay, and not very good shadowplay; his corruption is widely known, most evidenced in the election. But in terms of keeping up experiences, NATO could do a lot worse than have Karzai running things. And it seems in this the Western world is willing to accept less in hopes of achieving more. To wit, the dismissal of Peter Galbraith when politic was against him.

But most of all, Afghans I think day to day are not actually obsessed with the Taliban. What they’re obsessed with is normal security. By which they mean crime, looting, kidnapping, gangsterism. Most of my colleagues in Afghanistan would be scared to get in a car to go down to Kandahar, not because of the Taliban, but because of the criminal gangs. They’re horrified by their police, which is perceived as very predatory, very corrupt. They’re very skeptical about their government. They’re impatient with how slowly the aid development has come.

I suppose this, then, is where I wonder at the corollary between these clear needs Stewart is describing for the Afghans, and what can be done about it. To some extent, with a presence already in the nation and General McChrystal implementing a change in methodology that will work in serious ways to address those needs, and already has in some cases, I wonder whether Stewart thinks there are other ways to implement the fulfilling of these needs?

I haven’t been shy about advocating my belief that the civilian presence in Afghanistan should be much greater than it is, nor have I ignored the very real security challenges that would accompany such a civilian presence. But while I find it generally heartening from the perspective of Afghan human rights to see the tide of our military turn towards counterinsurgency, I do have real concerns about its effectiveness long term. And not to step off-topic, but Tom Ricks had an anecdote in his blog today that’s germane to this topic.

She nodded and said, “That’s good, because I’m going for three to five years. That’s what McChrystal is asking for.”

Well, I nearly spilled my Trader Joe’s merlot. “Three to five years?” I said. What a far cry, I thought, from 2003, when Bremer’s little GOP beavers would come out to the Green Zone for three to five months, or even a few weeks.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what made me interested in taking the job. When I heard that, I said to myself, ‘Hey, this guy is serious.'”

A) I wish I had her job; and B) while I agree with Stewart that realistically the United States can’t make a commitment to remain in Afghanistan for forty years, I think it’s not at all outside the purview of McChrystal’s assessment or the review of Secdef Gates to commit to five-eight years of work and progression, as the reblog illustrates. Claiming withdrawal is a straw man (as too many politians have done, and a position Stewart is not taking); opposing troop increase does not address the real issue, which is strategy in Afghanistan; and while a troop increase is one tool in a larger toolbox that can be used to achieve the needs Stewart outlines and the martial goals McChrystal articulated in his brief, it is not the only thing that must be done to truly achieve stability in Afghanistan.

And stability, in a pragmatic sense, seems that it would look something like this:

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. But the Pakistan army, the police, the civil service, the financial administration, the education are whole decades ahead of the Afghan. So, our whole model is broken from the beginning. Because you could put all this investment in, you would make Afghanistan look a bit more like Pakistan, but that wouldn’t achieve whatever your national security objectives seem to be.

Stewart is spot on here. But I think the point where Stewart and McChrystal overlap is more or less my own position: that in order to address the basic needs of a starved population, and in order to achieve the security needs of both US national interest and those of Afghan civilians, there must be a greater increase in civilian agencies working to provide the Afghan people themselves with tools to construct their own nation. Not a nation that is de facto controlled by the Taliban; not a nation that is led by a corrupt President buoyed by foreign diplomacy; but a nation that is by the [Afghan] people, for the [Afghan] people that addresses first, hunger, and second, a vote.

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