Permissible Arms

Only Quick Patches

Posted in afghanistan, american media, united kingdom, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 2 August 2010

So, while Attackerman’s in Afghanistan, I’ll be chipping in as a guestblogger over at his pseudonymous blog. If I can defeat the evil Comcast internet-giving box tomorrow, I should be back to form; but I’ll be posting both there and here as the DSL gods allow. First post is up, on David Sanger’s piece in the NYT.

Amitai Etzioni has an article up at TNR, “Unshackle the Troops“, that I would really like to read if TNR wasn’t behind a bloody paywall.

H-War and Edge of the American West are ramping up for another Military History Carnival. Maybe I will actually have the time to finish the post I was working on for the last one. (ha.)

Aaron Ellis’ takedown of Melanie Phillips was a tour de force. Of the many things one could say about David Cameron, his lack of foreign policy credentials are not particularly salty.

The Guardian’s portrait gallery of ANA soldiers managed to edge out The Big Picture in remarkable photojournalism this week. (H/t Current Intelligence.)

Ghulam Hidar, an ethnic Turkmen from Jowzjan, near the Turkmenistan border. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP

Blake Hall and Jim Gourley’s guest posts (dispatches? I don’t completely understand the classification at TBD) at Ricks’ blog are heartwrenching. Must read, if you can.

I’m out with a buddy a while back. We’re talking about brands of beer. He hears a car backfire, and suddenly he’s scanning ridgelines. He’s not here anymore. He’s all the way in Afghanistan, and he takes me halfway back to Iraq with him. I think about saying something, telling him that he’s here, not there. That I’m with him. That everything is okay. But that would be the wrong thing to say. A couple of minutes pass as we walk. He keeps scanning, I just stay by him. After that, we go back to talking about beer. We don’t mention anything about the event.

A couple of days later we’re walking along and he says “you know, I really freaked out the other day.” I tell him that I know, and I was right there with him. That’s all that needs to be said. He knows my story. We don’t need any elaborate cathartic rituals or long discussions about it. It’s no different than strapping on armor and walking outside the wire. I trusted him to be able to take care of himself, and he trusted me to catch him the moment he couldn’t. We’re Ranger buddies, not baby-sitters. Giving him dignity and letting him fight the battle on his own is just as important as helping him get up when he gets knocked down.

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Rather Late Monday Errata. (Still catching up.)

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, europe, isaf, islam, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 12 July 2010

A handful of links:

  • Paul McCleary has a good article on the Afghan NCOP and police forces: “And generally speaking,” [Ward] added, “when they’re partnered, we see the right kinds of behavior.” But the question is: what happens when they’re not partnered? Good question.
  • The NYT At War blog reviews reports on Afghan opinion polls. According to the findings, corruption remains the third-biggest concern to Afghans, following security and unemployment. One in seven adults experienced direct bribery in the past two years. The total of bribes paid by Afghans in 2009 added to roughly $1 billion, almost double the amount in 2007. The average bribe paid was $156. There are some nice charts, as well. How on earth does an average Afghan have $156 to burn on a bribe?
  • The Big Picture covers Afghanistan, June 2010. Quite frankly the best photojournalism column around. This gets my pick, though there are some truly awe-striking photos in this collection. There are at least three or four of Afghan girls and women, as well.

This June 4, 2010 picture shows the starry desert night over Camp Hansen at Marjah, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Hyunsoo Leo Kim)

  • MikeF (hi Mike!) started a robust discussion of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency at Small Wars Council worth your time; he very kindly posted links to Starbuck’s review and my own. Now that I’m a bit removed from my initial reactions to the book, I do think it has merit, certainly as an introduction to counterinsurgency as a practical concept and as a handy portable version of the doctrine, such as it is. I’m doing a re-read of “The Accidental Guerilla” at the moment, and I do think it’s interesting to see how Kilcullen’s ideas have shifted over time, as he’s gained more insight and experience. Still, as a whole book I do think it has some structural flaws. Well worth the $15 (₤10).
  • And also, h/t Starbuck for Bing West’s review of Counterinsurgency at the National Interest. I particularly liked this line: Stack plays Thomas Hobbes to Kilcullen’s John Locke. Very well put.
  • If you were as baffled by this whole Dave Weigel-getting-fired business as I was, check out this Diavlog with the man in question. (H/t Ackerman.)
  • CHUP on the burqa ban and fear. Such policies and practices, regardless if it means banning the burqa or banning criticism of it, are ultimately unproductive because it further polarizes the debate rather than resolving any of its underlying issues. Good discussion in the comments.
  • As you all surely know, Mattis is for CENTCOM which is an excellent power shuffle around the board. One might think his pass over for Commandant was orchestrated to get him into CENTCOM, if one was a particularly twitchy conspiracy theorist. Which I am not. For more on Mattis, AFJ has excerpts from Tom Ricks’ “Fiasco” available for ungated reading.
  • Paul Staniland recently did a guest post series at the Monkey Cage on how counterinsurgencies end. I wish they were all linked together, but if you have the time its worth poking around for them all.
  • Embedistan, also on the At War blog.

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:

Lists and POVs and Changes

Posted in afghanistan, american media, counterinsurgency, us military by Karaka on 30 November 2009

H/t to Starbuck for the link to Ricks’ Foreign Policy posting of what he considers to be the top ten minds behind COIN. A top ten anything is going to be contentious, and there’s a teeth-snapping discussion at SWJ which proves that rule.

The thing that stuck out to me, though, is that it’s an odd kind of meta-criticism of an argument already taking place, an argument Ricks is involved in. Sure, it starts a conversation, but…isn’t it the sort of sound-byte knowledge that is basic-level info for those who are into the discussion, and effectively useless for those who aren’t? Even if the point is to draw people who were less informed into the greater swath of discussion, Ricks hardly gives enough information about his list-picks for a good understanding of any one person’s position.

I don’t mean to pick nits, but even as a conversation starter, the post seems strangely third-person pov for such an immediate issue.

In the +1 to Ricks column, though, I did catch him on Weekend Edition on my drive back from taking Sister Pend and Bro-in-law Pend to the airport. He gave an interesting shading to Obama’s upcoming West Point speech that I hadn’t considered, points enumerated again in his blog. That was a nice surprise for a five AM drive.

I don’t really have anything to say about Exum taking a breather other than it’s a bit of a shame, but at least he’s not leaving a vacuum behind him. This is a truly wonderful community of thinkers and intelligencers and commentators, and Exum helped make that possible.

Things to read:

Wednesday Et Cetera

Posted in american media by Karaka on 7 October 2009

Last month, I posted a criticism of the Columbia Journalism Review‘s criticism of Tom Ricks, because “blog” actually means “responding to things other people are responding to.” And it looks like Jaime McIntyre got into it too:

If you don’t like what a reporter is saying, or if the story does not affirm your previously held belief, it’s all too easy to dismiss it with the assertion that the reporter has lost his independence. In short, it’s a cheap shot.

Challenge me on my facts, question my conclusions, hold me accountable for reporting that falls short, but don’t suggest just because I have spent time talking to people who know more about something than I do, I’ve been snowed; that somehow, despite my years of experience, I have lost my critical faculties, the very skepticism that is the bedrock of any good reporter.

Believe me, Ricks has lost none of his skepticism or independence over the years. Just the opposite. The CJR’s problem seems to be that after some very thorough research and firsthand reporting, Ricks has simply come to some conclusions the article’s author doesn’t agree with.

And he certainly carries more weight than I do! Just came across this today, and figured it was worth mentioning. (He also has a piece out today on DADT and Col. Prakash’s paper.)

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.

It’s not like Journalism is Fight Club.

Posted in american media by Karaka on 16 September 2009

I’m kind of running on Doctor Who-time here, but I thought this article/critique of Tom Ricks in the Columbia Journalism Review was, well, rather odd.

The charge seems to be that Ricks ceased to be an objective journalist and has instead become an opinionated advocate for counterinsurgency strategy. Well…yes. And I’m not sure Ricks would disagree. There is a reason he works for CNAS instead of the Washington Post. There’s a reason he produced two books and maintains a blog, rather than doing file copy for a newspaper. It’s because he…ceased to be an objective journalist when he became an opinionated advocate for counterinsurgency strategy.

The article apparently disapproves of that move, because every other paragraph from halfway through is a quote from someone in the Beltway ragging on Ricks’ insatiable appetite for this topic. The author looks to criticize Ricks for no longer retaining the journalist’s virtue of objectivity, but the account of Ricks’ career clearly gives rationale for that: Ricks’ perspective from the embeds he did in the early part of this century gave him the basis to present his own accounting of those events. His books weren’t reporting; they were analyses. His blog isn’t reporting; it is commentary. And he has not somehow lost something by shifting into this other role. He has made a career change in line with his own personal changes.

I don’t really get the point of the article. Was it to deliver a hit to Tom Ricks for leaving the journalists’ club? Was it to claim that he has drunk the counterinsurgency kool-aid? Because it seems rather petty to criticize a dude who no longer claims journalistic objectivity for not retaining that journalistic objectivity.

Speaking of Ricks, he exercised his opinionated, non-newsprint-affiliated voice on Wednesday to criticize the spin put on illiteracy rates among ANSF troops by AP:

The Afghan army is “hard to train.” Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? One reason armies have had officers is to ensure that for every 100 or so soldiers, there is someone who can decipher a map and read orders.

I kind of prefer this feisty, no-bullshit Ricks to WP-affiliated reporter Ricks, I must say.

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