Permissible Arms

A Tin-Plated Anniversary

Posted in afghanistan, isaf, united states by Karaka on 21 October 2010

Another unpleasant, unplanned absence. Sigh. To everyone that I owe email: apologies for being out of contact. I’m trying to wade through everything now. Shoot me another one if you don’t hear from me by this weekend. Mea maxima culpa.

Say what you will about the ANA–and there’s a lot to be said–but there’s something compelling about this collection of photos of an ANA graduation. (From thruafghaneyes.)

Newly trained female officers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) attended their graduation ceremony at the National Army training center in Kabul on Thursday, 23 September 2010.

There are real problems with a transition from ISAF to ANSF in 2011. In the US, the President has a real political problem if he doesn’t stay the course of at least semi-withdrawal by that date. In Afghanistan, there are competency issues, numbers issues, readiness issues, and that whole pesky desertion/retention problem. Not that this is news to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last (gulp) ten years.

Petraeus, speaking from London, is trying his best to make hay from hash by citing progress in literacy and health programs. But who really thinks the ANSF will grow big enough in such little time–at the very least, not without cutting some corners in training, recruiting, and over all quality.

We’re coming close to the exact two choices that have been present since this plan for Afghanistan came out last year: either find a way to keep this 2011 deadline soft enough that ISAF can keep trying to make the ANSF work; or accept that after ten years ISAF only started the real work a year and a half ago, and the political time on this war has run out. Sucks to be in the Afghan Army or Police Force, here’s the keys to the car, try not to wreck it too badly.

Not to be too pessimistic or anything. I think I’m just going to go look at those pictures some more and think about the counter-factual world that might have been if real ANSF training had started in 2003.


California, Here We Come

Posted in united states by Karaka on 4 August 2010

Cross-posted at Attackerman: Not exactly national security, but pretty darned important nonetheless: Judge Vaughn Walker overturns Calif. gay marriage ban.

A federal judge overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban Wednesday in a landmark case that could eventually land before the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if gays have a constitutional right to marry in America.

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker made his ruling in a lawsuit filed by two gay couples who claimed the voter-approved ban violated their civil rights.

Supporters argued the ban was necessary to safeguard the traditional understanding of marriage and to encourage responsible childbearing.

California voters passed the ban as Proposition 8 in November 2008, five months after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples,” the judge wrote in a 136-page ruling that laid out in precise detail why the ban does not pass constitutional muster.

That sure made hump day a whole lot less sucky. The Big Picture also has some very moving photojournalism up on gay marriage. It’s cool if we disagree on this subject, but it’s nice not to be discriminated against in one more state.

For Your Sorrows

Posted in afghanistan, united states by Karaka on 4 August 2010

Some great posts at Attackerman yesterday. I wrote on a bank heist turned beheading, mikey mused on the ethics of Wikileaks, Adam framed the road out of Iraq, and Spencer checked in from Afghanistan.

On another note, last week Gulliver asked What’s the magnitude of human tragedy required to justify a financially and strategically bankrupting enterprise? It’s a great–and massively challenging–question, one I’ve wrestled with for a long time. And continue to wrestle with–there’s no easy answer. But this NYT article makes some of my points for me, I guess. Afghan Women Fear Loss of Modest Gains:

As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.

“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women’s Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan Province.

Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women’s freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women’s rights in many places.

Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban’s return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.

It’s not that I think that NATO/ISAF is responsible for insuring these freedoms and rights; at least no more than any human has an obligation to see that the rights of other humans are secure. But we’re already there. There’s already an obligation to Afghanistan for destroying the power structure of their country (though everyone would agree, except the Taliban, that such destruction was for the good), to at least insure that another power structure is built and is self-supporting. If we’re already there, and we have to stay for awhile anyway, why not strive to push the new power structure to acknowledge and support the rights of women?

I’m aware that this is by necessity an abstract thought–there’s a great deal of context that has to be overlaid over this whole thought exercise. Does this human tragedy lever NATO/ISAF into staying beyond a point when it should reasonably stop? No, I don’t think so. But we haven’t reached that point yet. And there’s still much to be done.

Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.

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.

Friday Errata (I wonder when Gaga will become muzak?)

Posted in afghanistan, japan, kyrgyzstan, united states by Karaka on 18 June 2010

A couple of links for this astonishingly un-rainy Friday morning:

It still feels like a weirdly slow news day, though.

150 Years of Amity (apart from that bit in the middle)

Posted in japan, united states by Karaka on 17 June 2010

My attention this morning has largely been overtaken by CNAS’s conference on US-Japan relations; as you might have notice I’ve been pretty captivated by Japan over the last few months, so this is fascinating to me. You can watch it live here and follow my tweeting thereof here.

Natural Security: the PB&J of my interests.

Posted in energy, united states, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 16 June 2010

I’ve been enjoying Steve Levine’s work over at his new Foreign Policy blog, The Oil and the Glory. Subtitled “the geopolitics of energy,” it hits two of the major interests in my life: energy, and national security/foreign policy. I don’t talk much about my job here, but it involves the energy industry and keeps me very engaged in consumer politics, climate change, and different kinds of energy mechanisms. Levine is pretty much at the intersection of my work and my passion, which makes Oil and the Glory of great interest to me.

In particular I’ve enjoyed his commentary on China’s hybrid car subsidy and on the US and Kyrgyzstan. I’ve even braved FP’s horribly unpleasant commenting system to weigh in:

It’s not as though these actions are operating in a vacuum. The White House and Department of State are likely as concerned about the START treaty and the public ramifications of stepping into Russia’s sphere of influence, as it were. Despite having a base at Manas, it seems clear that the US would defer to Russia’s involvement so as not to upset existing long-standing talks with a much wider effect.

I think it is easy to overstate US involvement in Kyrgyzstan–there was uncertainty, initially after the coup, as to whether the lease at Manas would in fact be renewed, and it is primarily used as a support base for Afghanistan, rather than an influential long-term base for the region itself. It would be a challenge for State to put more resources into assisting Kyrgyzstan in light of all of this. Not impossible. But a challenge.

and Steve responded:

A Washington stress on weapons has been a constant vis-a-vis Moscow across administrations, including in the post-Soviet era. What is different here is that, in most of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the policy attitude was a focus on the independence of the ‘Stans and the Caucasus, and almost an indifference as to Russia’s opinion on the region. You accurately describe the State Department’s state of mind. But it is precisely that state of mind that separates the present from the past. Washington made it appear to the Central Asians and the Caucasus countries that they were part of the grand sweep of history favoring democracy and the market, with the implication that they were to be made safe by the West. The 2008 war in Georgia and the current state of affairs in Kyrgyzstan punctured that myth. The current attitude appears to me at least to be more realpolitik than the past, which claimed to be realpolitik.

Thought-provoking stuff.

Hey, speaking of energy and security, let me re-point you to Natural Security, which I’ve been working my way through in my copious (ha, ha) spare time. I can’t overstate the relationship of our internal energy policy to both our capabilities abroad and at home. It’s why I’m disappointed both that Lindsey Graham walked away from the climate bill, and that Congress/White House aren’t using this bloody oil spill to railroad some efficiency measures and renewables through to legislation. I mean, seriously, as terrible as this spill is, it’s also an ideal platform to achieve some base-level energy austerity mechanisms. Way to waste a disaster, politicians.

Difficult difficult lemon difficult

Posted in united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 13 June 2010

Over the weekend, on the recommendation of Jason Sigger, I watched In the Loop, a biting political satire of the political relationship between the US and the UK contextualized through the eve of declaration of war. Satire is at its very best when it identifies the very real flaws in the thing it mocks, and In the Loop succeeds on nearly every front–from the miscommunication between departments to the backbiting and sabotage to the framing of information in the best possible light.

Though the film centers around pressing a case for war without having real, solid cause, the realities of war are divorced from nearly every character–they have the power to play with the future with stakes that never take into account the people whose lives those decisions will effect. The one line that cautions is Lt Gen Miller’s: “This is the problem with civilians wanting to go to war. Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go again unless you absolutely fucking have to. It’s like France.” His counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clark, rightly points out that he is removed himself from the realities of war, but it is the only reality check in the otherwise head-spinning politics of it all.

I highly recommend this–the humour was superb, the satire spot-on, and it manages to find the balance between godawfulness and humanity very well.

Government in a Box

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense by Karaka on 9 June 2010

Perhaps I’m beating an old drum here, but weren’t we supposed to see a civilian ramp-up in Afghanistan, oh, last year? From the NYT:

Instead, the emphasis has been placed on strengthening provincial reconstruction teams, once run by Canadians, with American employees — from the embassy, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture — in six crucial districts around Kandahar.

The Kandahar civilian operation increased to 110 Americans from 8 last year, with 50 more on their way this summer, United States officials say. They are providing subsidized seeds and tools, carrying out cash-for-work programs and even hiring employees for Afghan government offices here.

The program for agricultural vouchers alone has been given a quarter of a billion dollars to spend in southern Afghanistan, $90 million of that in Kandahar. “It’s huge,” said one official. “We’ve employed 40,000 people in cash for work.”

The idea, said Frank Ruggiero, the senior United States Embassy official in the south, is to make sure “the government at the most basic level, the district level, is able to provide some services so that people who are sitting on the fence are able to say, well, the government has something to offer.”

From this GAO report issued last month:

In addition to the ongoing expansion of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, the United States has also significantly increased its civilian presence in Afghanistan. State’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy identifies additional civilian expertise as a key element of stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Overall, the total U.S. government civilian presence grew from about 360 in January 2009 to approximately 1,000 as of March 2010, including an increase of about 200 civilians since December 2009. According to State’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy, the United States anticipates increasing civilian staffing by an additional 20 to 30 percent over the course of 2010. The strategy also identifies expanded civilian presence in Afghan ministries and outside of Kabul as a key initiative, and states that several hundred personnel are being assigned to more than 50 locations outside of Kabul.

I guess it’s the chicken-egg thing all over again. You need a secure environment to bring civilians into service, but civilians working on reconstruction projects helps establish security by helping to establish trust and services. Is it also a question of having enough civilians tapped to work in Afghanistan? At least, at the government level (rather than contracting)? I could use some data on that if anyone has a link.

Obama said, in March of last year:

At a time of economic crisis, it’s tempting to believe that we can shortchange this civilian effort. But make no mistake: Our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don’t invest in their future. And that’s why my budget includes indispensable investments in our State Department and foreign assistance programs. These investments relieve the burden on our troops. They contribute directly to security. They make the American people safer. And they save us an enormous amount of money in the long run — because it’s far cheaper to train a policeman to secure his or her own village than to help a farmer seed a crop — or to help a farmer seed a crop than it is to send our troops to fight tour after tour of duty with no transition to Afghan responsibility.

It’s been over a year, and while the number has nearly trebled, it’s still terrifically small. Especially compared to the number of troops. Where the expletive are the civilians?

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