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.

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The Sound of Swinging Upward

Posted in united states, us military by Karaka on 10 September 2010

A piece of good news going into the weekend:

A federal court in Riverside, California, ruled Thursday that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which bars gay men and lesbians from serving openly — is unconstitutional.

“Plaintiff has demonstrated it is entitled to the relief sought on behalf of its members, a judicial declaration that the don’t ask, don’t tell act violates the Fifth and First Amendments, and a permanent injunction barring its enforcement,” concluded U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips, a 1999 Clinton appointee.

The 85-page ruling came in a case filed by the group Log Cabin Republicans against the government and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.

“The act discriminates based on the content of the speech being regulated,” Phillips wrote. “It distinguishes between speech regarding sexual orientation, and inevitably, family relationships and daily activities, by and about gay and lesbian servicemembers, which is banned, and speech on those subjects by and about heterosexual servicemembers, which is permitted.”

But, she noted, “the sweeping reach of the restrictions on speech in the don’t ask, don’t tell act is far broader than is reasonably necessary to protect the substantial government interest at stake here.”

From CNN. Not unlike the Prop 8 overturn, there’s still a long road to travel on this. And again, it’s both a potentially good and very precarious thing that the ruling was made in federal court. On the one hand there’s nowhere to go but up; on the other, the stakes are high that if either case loses, it loses hard. Still, it’s hard not to feel hopeful.

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From Dawn to Dusk

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, pakistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 24 August 2010

Back from my stint at Attackerman. That was a good experience, if a little stressful–Spencer’s audience is a lot bigger than mine, and I hope I kept the fire going well enough in his stead with my compatriots.

For all the people (journalists) bemoaning the slow news days of August, I must say I don’t see it. Between the floods in Pakistan, the existential crises of Pakistan’s obstructionism in Afghanistan, the likely food shortage resulting from Russia’s non-stop drought/wildfire combo and Pakistan’s floods, plus the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the interesting philosophical questions that can arise from the withdrawal, it’s been a non-stop thought farm for me. Granted, it’s no McClusterfuck, but it hasn’t been a quiet month.

Speaking of the flooding, I keep coming back to stare at this picture:

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Simmon, NASA.

That kind of macro view really shows how massive the Indus has become, and how terrifying it is. (H/t Natural Security.) What a crummy Ramadan.

Remembered Heyday

Posted in iraq by Karaka on 19 August 2010

Captivating post in the NYT At War blog from Yasmine Mousa, highlighted as this week marks the nominal draw-down of US troops in Iraq.

While driving along 14th of Ramadan Street in Baghdad recently, I remembered that street’s heyday. It was a jubilant street, with an assortment of boutiques, cafes, and toy shops. I saw that some of the shops had been closed since the worst days of 2006 and 2007.

The driver frowned at my remark.

“You did not see what it was like during the years of anarchy,” he said. “It is a fiesta now. It is evening now, and look how crowded the streets are with pedestrians and cars. Back then it closed at noon and you did not see a bird in the highway, because snipers were on both sides of the street. It was a street of horror. We are blessed now.”

Over coffee, my friend’s face had gradually taken on a look of appalled horror. It is no surprise. She lives in a country where human life is sacred and cherished.

I think it is appropriately the Age of the Diplomat in Iraq from this point onward; but Mousa’s post suggests how far those civilians have yet to go.

Bargaining Chips

Another boring-but-informative (and potentially useful) link dump. Where are my words?

Soldiers smoked late one evening at Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Paktika Province.

Back to Reality

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 9 August 2010

Adam Weinsten has some good thought on Brad Manning over at Attackerman today. Also at ZIA, some of the data culled from the leak is graphically represented. I still think it’s a grey area, whether to utilize the information or not, but still interesting to see.

As I blogged at Attackerman this morning, Secretary Gates announced today some big cutbacks in the defense department budget–including the closing of JFCOM, which General Odierno was recently nominated to head. According to the Secdef, Odierno knew and was supportive of the decision (of course, he would have to be so publicly) but I wonder where he–and the many defense contractors who will be made redundant very soon–will eventually go.

Matt Gallagher at Kerplunk opined as to why the US needs to return to the draft.

Which brings me back to the Draft. I’ve become more and more convinced that a healthy republic needs conscription to keep it healthy and honest. The gulf discussed isn’t anyone’s fault, an unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force – but this gulf must be filled, unless we’re intent on recreating Legions loyal to their commanders over country. (An extreme example. We’re nowhere near there. Yet.) The Draft would be controversial, debated, and very likely protested. All good things in a properly functioning people’s government. Meanwhile, the benefits of such would be twofold:

1) The citizenry would actually hold their political leaders accountable, as they’re supposed to. Apathy being a republic/democracy’s worst enemy is not a new understanding, but it remains a poignant one…

2) Wars would become a collective undertaking by the nation as a whole, rather than an isolated segment of the population. This would prove beneficial to both society and to the military. The number of sons and daughters involved would greatly increase, thus increasing personal connections and a sense of engagement, thus increasing product output.

I shrunk this down a little, to avoid reproducing his post, but I will note that I’ve had a discussion about a draft with a friend of mine several times, and we were both a little surprised to discover that the both of us–liberal Portlanders that we are–support the draft. And not solely a military draft, but a civilian draft as well. The idea being that you gave a year, two years, in service to your country either in defense or administration. We never fully worked out the weedy parts of it, but I still find it an interesting idea, analogous to Americorps or the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Worth reading, even if (especially if) you disagree. You can also catch Matt on CSPAN Books here.

I wish I’d caught this live, but the New America Foundation hosted a roundtable on civilian casualties in Afghanistan last week.

Using recently declassified data from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Jacob Shapiro and a team of academic researchers have produced the first detailed analysis of the link between civilian casualties and violence directed against ISAF troops.

I’m about halfway through, and hopefully I’ll be able to watch the rest this week if work is even slightly more placid than it has been.

MoI’s post on organized crime in Iraq struck some real chords. The U.S. invasion in 2003 removed all restrictions upon Iraq’s gangs. First, before the U.S. attack Saddam released 30,000-100,000 criminals in October 2002. Second, the Americans invaded without enough troops to secure the country. Then the government collapsed, followed by the economy falling apart. Finally the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military. All of those factors together emboldened gangs, and the anarchic situation that Iraq found itself in created powerful incentives towards lawlessness to make a living.

Josh Keating and Mike Few ask What’s the Difference Between Combat and Noncombat Troops? in the FP Explainer; see Mike’s extended thoughts at SW Council. (That totally looks like Star Wars Council, doesn’t it?) I’m working on a brain dump, but life as I know is has still not fully returned to peaceable normal. But I have high hopes for tomorrow.

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.

And now I’m done.

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 27 July 2010

Shorter Fred Kaplan: “Hi n00bs. Welcome to the war in Afghanistan.”

Best section:

By contrast, there’s very little in the raw WikiLeaks documents—at least among those reprinted in the Times and the Guardian—that is at all inconsistent with official U.S. and NATO statements about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama and various allied leaders, as well as their top aides and commanders, have acknowledged and decried all of these nightmares—civilian casualties, corruption, Pakistani collusion, and more—openly and repeatedly.

These problems were, in fact, the main reasons behind the new strategy that Obama put in place in December 2009—after the period covered by all of the WikiLeaks documents, which date from 2004-09.

Yes. Thank you. See also Exum in the NYT.

And now I don’t really want to talk about this any more.

Document Dumping

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military by Karaka on 26 July 2010

Brian Platt at Canada-Afghanistan Blog has it by the nose:

A targeted leak, meant to disseminate information that needs to be brought to public attention, is one thing. Militaries all over the world have a sordid history of covering up scandals. There is certainly a time and a place for whistle-blowing.

But this was a senseless leak, an act of pure treason. A democratic country with an all-volunteer military operating in the field has a legitimate reason to keep action reports classified. To dump almost 100,000 reports into the public detailing what your fellow soldiers are doing is not principled, it’s dangerous and foolhardy, and I hope that everyone responsible for sending these reports to Wikileaks gets locked up for a long, long time.

The Taliban can now go online and read the secret files of the NATO soldiers allied against them. If you want a scandal, there it is.

And as Josh Foust put it at CJR:

You don’t need access to specialized knowledge of the war, or the histories of either country, or insight into the inner workings of the intelligence community to understand these things—you can learn it watching CNN.

Which brings us back to Assange, who seems to lack any sort of insight into the war or where it’s being fought; he just has his own ideology, which involves exposing secrets he thinks are immoral to keep. (There are secrets Assange will not leak onto the Internet—the identities of his sources, for example.) Just clicking at random in the Wikileaks War Diary reveals the names of Afghan sources you hope will not be targeted as a result of this leak: Simon Hermes, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; Mohammed Moubin, who met with the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction team in 2006; Gul Said, who was assisting the PRT near the American Base at Bagram. On and on it goes, name after name of “collaborators” with the U.S. military, name after name of people whose lives are now in direct danger.

The New Yorker had an in-depth profile of Julian Assange last month that provided insight into WL, its founder, and the agenda behind it all. On reading it, I understood more of what drives WL and Assange to release the information turned over to him–not that it makes me agree with that decision at all–but after yesterday’s document release, I’m more inclined to charge Assange with an egoistic drive for publishing these files more than any adherence to a vision or a belief system about making information public in order to drive a resulting agenda.

WL didn’t get the reaction it/he wanted from the publication of the ’07 civilian casualty video. So it upped the ante with these documents to press for action, or at least response, to the Afghan war in the manner Assange and his community view it. I don’t think they’ve ever thought of themselves as something other than an agenda-driven organization, and that agenda includes making public classified information and documents as well as presenting those documents with some editorialization to make them as damning as possible.

Paul McCleary correctly stated that “What the #wikileaks docs describe is war. People are only shocked because they hadn’t paid attention before — but this is how war looks.” That’s the traction that will come out of this. Shock, for the first half of this week’s newscycle, and then retreat from daily thought. Because the important things, about the ISI, about heat-seeking missiles, about civilian casualties, were largely either already known or inferred. And the only real thrust WL has is the scandal of the leak itself–but scandals have expiry dates. This won’t change policy, it won’t force ISAF’s hand, it won’t do anything in the long run but get WL name and Julian Assange’s picture in the papers for a brief moment in time.

The vision fails.

Wikileaks, Making Headlines Again

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 26 July 2010

In what will be news to no one who reads this blog, Wikileaks dumped 92k documents on the world at large related to the war in Afghanistan. Most of the initial commentary I’ve seen has less to do with the content of the documents–which isn’t really shocking or surprising to anyone who even lightly follows the war–and more to do with the ethical/practical results of a watershed leak. Is this, more than the previous Wikileaks story, a germinal moment in the development of new media? Or is it merely opportunism?

The best analysis I’ve read thus far (given that this just happened yesterday) comes from John McCreary’s Nightwatch, which I encourage you to read in its entirety as it’s a veteran intelligence analyst’s take on the information leaked, the interpretation of the documents from other sources, and an intelligence angle on the manner in which the information should be interpreted.

In today’s reports the new outlets did not reach the obvious conclusion that the increased use of manpads against US helicopters might have contributed to McChrystal’s decision to limit tactical air support because aircraft losses were mounting, mimicking the Soviet experience. In other words, the deaths of innocent Afghan civilians might have been less significant than the rising losses of US airframes. That possibility needs follow-up research.

92,201 reports are not the same as 92,201 facts. In the NightWatch/KGS materials on Intelligence as Evidence the central theme is that every field report must be subjected to six foundation tests and two argument tests, after a filtering process that identifies it as having potential value. None of the news outlets did any of that difficult, tedious work.

Thus, it is only partially accurate to assert the reports provide new insights into how “grim” the war is. Some provide local insights that need to be matched to other reports. Some are fabrications. Many are time sensitive, with no enduring value except as time capsules.

Much more at Nightwatch.

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