Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The farce of Pakistan's counterterrorist F-16s

This past weekend, the U.S. delivered to Pakistan the first three F-16s in an 18-plane foreign military sales purchase. The deal has gotten a lot of headlines as a visible example of the U.S. government's increasing willingness to support Pakistani military modernization in exchange for Islamabad's support in fighting terrorism on its northwest frontier. Some commentary on the subject appears today in the New York Times' At War blog.

Pakistanis are fascinated, if not obsessed, with F-16 fighter jets.

It is the best fighting aircraft in the fleet of the Pakistan air force, allowed to be flown by only the country’s best pilots. Video of F-16 fighter aircraft roaring through the skies figures prominently in the air force’s inspirational anthems.

The sale of F-16s to Pakistan was suspended in the 1990s as an indication of the deteriorating relationship between the countries.

A couple of years ago, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, who was then heading the media wing of the military, stressed in an interview that if America wanted to improve its image, it should expedite the delivery of F-16s.

It wasn’t just a simple wish of the military boys for their toys. The aircraft also serve as an effective diplomatic and public-relations tool.

The blog glosses over what really happened to interrupt the relationship: Pakistan developed a nuclear program. Pakistan already had 40 F-16s they'd purchased from the U.S., and had plans to buy a lot more. Then Islamabad's scientific adventurism not only put a halt to major planned materiel sales, but ended U.S.-Pakistan military-to-military contacts, including educational exchanges and other professional interactions.

This, of course, was kind of a problem when we showed up post-9/11 looking for pro-America senior officers in the Pakistani military. Previous generations had sent their best and brightest to study at the Command and General Staff College and senior service colleges, where they built personal relationships with their peers in the U.S. military.

What's that got to do with F-16s, you're wondering? Well, just like mil-to-mil contacts, materiel sales are a part of a broader, comprehensive relationship. These days everyone wants to talk about "building partner capacity," training and equipping our friends and allies to fight more capably so that we won't have to. But security cooperation -- that is, pretty much all the international contacts and activities executed by our Defense Department -- is bigger than capacity building: it also helps to build relationships and ensure access, and contributes to the broader goal (theoretically) of winning support for U.S. policies and actions.

Of course, that's not going to stop anyone from tossing out some lines about capacity, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and so on:

Officials say the aircraft will be used for precision strikes against militant hide-outs in the country’s tribal regions straddling the border with Afghanistan.

Sure they will!

Seriously, it's ok to talk about the other stuff, the access, the relationships, the confidence-building, the assuring of allies, the enhancement to regional security. And to be fair, Ambassador Patterson's statement pretty much covers that stuff, too:

The office of Anne W. Patterson, the United States ambassador in Islamabad, issued a statement Sunday calling the weekend induction of first three of the 18 F-16s ‘a historic milestone’ of relationship between Pakistan and the United States. It was, the statement said, “both a symbolic and tangible demonstration of our strong partnership and the U.S. intent to stand beside Pakistan over the long-term as an important ally and friend.”

Some of this stuff is just to make people feel good, and that's ok too. Now, as Madhu has noted many times, the link between intent and effect is a little bit obscure to us. We're not exactly sure how all the confidence-building and back-patting we do through exercises or materiel transfers or exchange programs really impacts state action.

But isn't it nice, when the balloon goes up, to be able to pick up the phone to the guy you sat next to at Leavenworth (the Fort, not the prison) for a year, and to be able to remind him of the close cooperative relationship your countries and militaries share?

The foundational flaw of our Afghanistan strategy, universally ignored by its proponents

Supporters of the current approach in Afghanistan seem to have settled on one primary rationale for the strategic necessity of this war: if we leave Afghanistan, it will again become a haven for terrorists to find sanctuary, train, and prepare to launch attacks against Americans. Leaving aside for a moment the reality that such a sanctuary already exists on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, let's consider the implications of this rationale.

If we start from the assumption that Afghanistan's territory must be controlled by someone who will deny sanctuary to terrorists (as George Packer, Ross Douthat, and John Nagl have all recently insisted it must), we're basically left with two options: control Afghanistan with U.S. forces, or build Afghan capacity to the level required for the host government and ANSF to execute this task with minimal support. Our purported current approach is to do the former in the near term, while simultaneously accomplishing the second for a transition of responsibility over the medium to long term.

Douthat rather disingenuously suggests that the administration "hasn't been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It's been choosing between two ways of staying": COIN and Biden's "CT-plus." This is a curious way of framing the options, and one wonders if Douthat believes that the limited U.S. presence in Iraq after this year similarly constitutes just another "way of staying" rather than a pretty significant departure. But I digress. Here's why Douthat thinks we're sticking around:
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.
And so how do we avoid leaving that vacuum? Through the COIN approach, Douthat suggests, "which seeks to lay the foundations for an Afghan state that's stable enough to survive without our support."

But it doesn't just have to survive, does it? It needs to be capable of denying its territory to terrorists. As we should all know by now, governments that are friendly to terror organizations aren't usually the problem -- it's governments that are too weak to do anything about those organizations that are the real trouble.

So if these are our worries -- the memory of 9/11, a base for CT operations, and "the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists" -- then any U.S. departure is going to be contingent on creating a government and security force that can secure our interests in these areas to the same degree that U.S. presence can, right?

Here's the thing: is there anyone who believes that the Afghan government will be capable of functioning in even the limited capacity required to deny sanctuary to those committed and confirmed terrorists who already exist within, say, the next decade?

If so, why?

As you'll no doubt have heard by now, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report yesterday on the status of international efforts to train ANSF. The report was not good: it concluded that the capability rating system being used by ISAF to evaluate ANSF "basically has not been a dependable system," seeing as "even top-rated Afghan units could not operate independently and that the ratings of many security forces overstated their actual capabilities." NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), the ISAF organization charged with the ANSF training mission, has since changed its metrics and overall rating system to try to get more useful data.

In his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, GEN Petraeus addressed the report and tried to "clarify" in a manner that downplayed the significance of SIGAR's conclusions. The old Capability Milestone (CM)-based system conveyed information about the levels of manning, equipping, and training of Afghan units; that is, the system that was being used for the first NINE YEARS OF THIS WAR was based on how well the Table of Organization and Equipment was filled out, or how many boxes you could check on a training plan. The CM system didn't tell you anything about the actual FIGHTING ABILITY of the unit being rated. (For metrics geeks, you could say this was a Measures of Performance-oriented rating system, rather than Measures of Effectiveness.) And apparently it took a SIGAR report for us to figure out that this wasn't a terribly effective mechanism.

But that's a bit of a digression, isn't it? Our rating system isn't exactly the point here -- the capability of the ANSF is what we should care about. And size, but in this context, size is really only significant as a factor in determining capability to accomplish a certain mission set or secure a defined end-state. So this becomes a sort of a math problem: can 400,000 ANSF (ANA + ANP) do the business, assuming we get to the target size within the expected time period?

Can 400,000 ANSF deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda? Can 400,000 ANSF ensure that America won't be attacked by individuals who train or plan their attacks from Afghan territory? (We already know they can't do anything about the AQ folks on the other side of the Hindu Kush, but again, we're going to leave that aside for now.) Can 400,000 ANSF do the job that 130,000 ISAF troops plus ~245,000 ANSF are currently doing? So, basically, what's the time frame on which we can expect ANSF to effect a one-for-one, straight-up capability match with the ISAF troops who will be departing the country?

Seriously: is there anyone who thinks this can be done in a decade?

And if not, then why is this our strategic concept? Why aren't we working on some other plan to mitigate the nearly certain shortfalls that will exist when U.S. troops pull chocks and head home?
Or perhaps the better question: why do we insist on repeating the tired and utterly unsubstantiated line that Afghanistan will be vital to U.S. national interests until its territory can be wholly secured against the presence of terrorists and militants?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Update on the purported political brilliance of the Petraeus pick

Here's a couple of U.S. Senators speaking yesterday about the selection:

Meanwhile, with Petraeus' confirmation hearing set to be held this week, [Sen. Lindsey] Graham said he wants the administration to clarify how hard-and-fast the withdrawal deadline is.

[Sen. Dianne] Feinstein said that if Petraeus asks for more time, "I would say give it to him."

That's one prominent senator from either side of the aisle suggesting that the timeline should be flexible, an opinion that in Feinstein's case, at least, seems to be predicated almost entirely on the fact that Petraeus is running the show now.

So if the president decides he wants to "finesse the 2011 deadline," he's got Petraeus' cred on the Hill to work with. If he decides he doesn't, then he's got Petraeus (and Gates, and Mullen) on the record in Johnathan Alter's book saying that he's not going to come back later and ask for more troops, that he's not going to try to flex the deadline, that he thinks significant progress can be made in 18 (now 12) months.

Politics is about options, and now the president's got all he wants.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hey Scions of Great American Newspaper Tradition, stop sucking so bad and embarrassing yourselves

Just last week we had James Risen carrying the Defense Department's jock with a silly war-justifying story about Afghan mineral wealth in the NYT. Then today Karen DeYoung drops a thinly-sourced and badly-headlined expose on how "Rolling Stone broke interview ground-rules with McChrystal, military officials say."

Of course, "military officials" will only "say" that anonymously. You know, "on background." To a reporter. Who won't print their names because of, well, you know, "ethics." (And to preserve access. [Speaking of, click that link. Did you know that Politico editors removed a line from an online story published yesterday that suggested Hastings, as a freelancer, might have been willing to print things that a beat reporter would have held back in order to preserve access? The editors say they did it to keep the story "tight and readable."])

"Many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [reporter Michael Hastings] a sense" of how McChrystal's team operated, according to a senior military official. The command's own review of events, the official said, gleaned "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made during a series of on-the-record and background interviews Hastings conducted with McChrystal and others.

The official, one of many subject to a Pentagon advisory not to discuss the situation without authorization, spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he was motivated by what he described as untrue claims made by Rolling Stone.

Two others with direct knowledge of the command's dealings with Hastings offered similar accounts.

You see, if "military officials" really wanted to denounce this story, they'd issue a press release through official channels. If anyone had really broken any kind of binding rules, you'd be sure the Department would tell everyone about it. But instead, you have the Washington fuckin' Post -- theoretically one of the two media organs best positioned to challenge the government's baseless assertions -- reporting exactly what the Department wants them to.

That makes Old Media 2/2 in the last two weeks.

I'm sure this has nothing to do with the Post feeling burned that someone else is #1 in the media-on-media meta-commentary this week.


Another COE...

The National Intrepid Center of Excellence just opened at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. It is a "state-of-the-art facility designed to provide leading edge services for advanced diagnostics and treatment for service members with psychological health issues and traumatic brain injuries."

I think this is great and I'm glad DoD is investing in this, if much later than they should have. But I'm sure glad I was never a patient at the National Intrepid Center of Crapulence - I heard that place sucks. We really need to work on our use of language here...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New comment system = McChrystal, old comment system = Petraeus

We briefly messed around with some external comment interface that made all of our lives awful for about an hour and a half. You may have experienced an interruption in service (/there may have been posts on which you couldn't comment). The problems should be fixed now. Comment away!

Firing officers who deserve it (or: I agree with Tom Ricks!!)

While reading it certainly violated my New Year's resolution, I thought Tom Ricks' op-ed in the Times was actually pretty good. After some cogent analysis on the events of the past day, he talks about an important issue: the Army doesn't fire enough people and really should do so more often. I imagine the Army's reluctance to do so stems from the old "zero defect" Army and how it destroyed morale up through the mid-1990s. And like most large institutions, their reaction to changing that culture was an over reaction. But the fact remains that bad officers (or officers promoted beyond their capabilities) don't get fired.

The other side of Ricks' argument, how failure to remove ineffective senior officers prevents talented junior officers from progressing, will become more of an issue as general officer careers are extended to 40 years. There are, after all, so many GO positions in the Army. If Iraq and Afghanistan are any indicators, too many senior officers are being kept on beyond their capabilities while extremely competent subordinates could easily replace them. This, too, will (and in some cases already has) caused morale problems in the middle ranks of the officer corps.

I would, however, be wary of anything like the anecdote that Ricks mentions about GEN Marshall promoting a major because he was doing a general's job. While there should probably be changes to the promotion system to streamline the advancement of our best officers, a system should still be used. Otherwise, there would be greater opportunity for abuses of patronage.

All in all, good work Tom.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why the unexpected Petraeus pick is incredibly savvy (UPDATED)

UPDATE: I have no idea why comments were disabled up until this point, but they're not anymore. We're trying out a new system, so let us know how you like it.

The news is in: McChrystal out, Petraeus in. There's tons of analysis out there already, so I'm not going to waste your time and mine by parroting the same sorts of things everyone's writing. But here's my brief take on why this is an inspired pick, from both the political and practical perspectives.

  1. If King David can't do it, no one can. The president tapped the one guy more tightly associated with our chosen operational approach than GEN McChrystal was. If Afghanistan goes bad, it will look like it was because of an impossible mission... not a bad plan. The White House can complain that the COINdinistas sold them a bill of goods, an they didn't know any better. The president has put himself under GEN Petraeus' flag; as afpakchannel noted on Twitter, P4 "would probably have to punch Joe Biden in the face before Obama would fire him." Daddy's home from work, and he's gonna take care of everything.
  2. The right has to shut the hell up. Republicans trip over themselves to compliment Petraeus, and none of them have the nads to publically question whether his success in Iraq is transferrable to other theaters. If the president sticks to his guns and his withdrawal timeline, or even reverses course and speeds up the drawdown, the right won't be able to suggest that he's sabotaging the effort or failing to support the troops. After all, he sent the number one guy!
  3. GEN Petraeus is already on the record with his commitment to the drawdown timeline. Jonathan Alter reported on a conversation where P4, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen all agree to the president's plan, and pledge not to come back for more troops in 18 months. GEN McChrystal did, too, but you'd expect the theater commander to say just about whatever he needed to to get his resources. GEN Petraeus has said he thinks it can be done, which insulates the president when it comes time to make the drawdown happen.


  1. We already know how GEN Petraeus does business. Look, there's always going to be a little bit of lag time while a new CG gets up to speed, especially in a coalition command the size and complexity of ISAF. Not too many people have ever done a job like that. P4 has. He's got a system, he's got a routine, he's got a way of doing business... and there are dozens, even hundreds of people who saw it up close.
  2. CENTCOM's regional responsibility will help keep Afghanistan in perspective. GEN Petraeus has spent his time in Tampa looking at how Afghanistan fits into a broader regional picture, both with regard to Pakistan and to wider central and south Asian security. This perspective will hopefully help mitigate against the theater commander's natural tendency to think that his war and his command is the only thing that matters, and to ignore the consequences of his efforts on the bigger picture. Petraeus is going to do his damnedest to succeed in Afghanistan, but we can reasonably hope that his definition of success will be bigger than just that country.
  3. There's no doubt about P4's COIN credentials. Whether you think it's good or bad, GEN Petraeus is the leading light of the COINdinista movement in today's American military. McChrystal could always be criticized as a door kicker, a special operator, a guy who "got it" because he had to, but didn't really get it. (Some have fairly criticized the outgoing COMISAF for trying to slap on the COIN template without really understanding the whys and wherefores. I don't know if this is true or not, but I do suspect that McChrystal's ideas about what was rhetorically necessary and what is tactically required were probably a touch out of synch.) You can't say that about Petraeus. If the execution of this COIN enterprise in Afghanistan fails, you can't say it's because of user error. So it's a win-win for critics and proponents: if we're successful, then great! If we're not, then it will demand a critical look at the failings of our doctrine and operational methods.

Like I wrote before, this is just a quick take. I know it's not exactly novel to say "Petraeus is a good pick!," but hopefully this helps illuminate why this is precisely so.

Do you agree?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I don't have much to add to this McChrystal thing

Surely you've heard the details by now: Rolling Stone publishes a profile of the "Runaway General," Washington justifiably freaks out, McChrystal apologizes, Secretary Gates admonishes him, and an Af-Pak meeting tomorrow at the White House will include at least one four-star participant who usually chimes in by VTC.

A lot of people are calling for GEN McChrystal to be fired. (I'm one of them.) Several others suggest that they don't know what all the fuss is about, or that firing the ISAF commander is too disruptive to consider.

Ex helpfully lays out the reasons why either COA is risky.

Read all that stuff if you want. Until tomorrow's meeting happens, there's not much to add.

The one thing I do want to note here is exactly why I think this is such a big deal, why the piece is so damning: it's not just a matter of what GEN McChrystal thinks or says or writes or feels about his superiors and civilian colleagues, but rather the command climate that he's fostered.

Leadership and command are not the same thing. Tactical leadership and strategic leadership are not the same thing. A platoon leader and the commander of an international coalition force have very, very different jobs.

All of this seems obvious, right? So why do I bother writing it? Because invariably someone's going to come along and tell me about how the only lieutenants who don't backtalk and stretch the truth with higher are the terrible ones. And fair enough. (Mike Few and Matt Gallagher have both made that point, and to the extent that I know anything at all about the subject, I'd agree with them.) But that's the difference between being a lieutenant and a four-star.

A theater-level command is not a football team. Us-against-them leadership, pitting your own staff and subordinates against the implacable bureaucratic/political enemy, is just not appropriate. It's been said a hundred times, but I'm going to say it again: unity of effort is absolutely essential to an operation like this one, both because of its scale (requiring coordination across dozens of coalition governments and militaries, as well as regional actors and most importantly, the Afghan government) and its nature (that is to say because a COIN effort requires even deeper multinational, interagency, and interservice coordination than a purely kinetic effort).

Whatever GEN McChrystal did or didn't say, it seems obvious from the overall tenor of the comments attributed to his staff and advisors that the general fostered an environment in which "our team" -- that is, the uniformed folks at ISAF -- faced opposition from all sides, from its political masters just as much as from the Taliban or the Karzai kleptocracy.

There's not an employed individual on this earth who feels completely unconstrained by higher, totally and absolutely permitted to do his job as he sees fit. Some people deal, and some don't. Some people just bitch a lot and get on with the job. It seems to me that GEN McChrystal probably falls into this latter category.

Unfortunately this attitude erodes that vital sense of unity of effort, and creates an atmosphere where the followers think they know better than the leaders. And if the COMISAF is so cynical about the administration's competence that his senior staff and closest aides feel comfortable mocking the civilian senior leadership of this country, then why should the American people, our coalition partners, or the Afghans themselves have any faith?

EDIT: I totally forgot the reason that I even thought to write this post. In running down the risks involved in replacing GEN McChrystal, Ex (and The Security Crank) notes that a third straight summer of churn at ISAF would almost certainly hamper the war effort. This is certainly true, and probably more true in this case than it would be normally: McChrystal has collected a sort of all-star team of hand-picked staff and advisors, and as one can easily see from the article, many of them are extremely loyal to the boss. Now don't get me wrong -- these guys are professionals, and it's their job to work for the new guy just the same as they worked for the old guy. But wouldn't the resentment about this particularly high-profile (theoretical) sacking be even more significant considering the circumstances? Wouldn't you be basically starting with a blank slate, seeing as ISAF HQ seems to basically be composed entirely of Papal True Believers?

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Reporter Plays Afghan Police Officer

I just finished reading this CSM story about a US filmmaker who pretends to be a cop and sets up a roadblock in Afghanistan. But, instead of soliciting bribes from people, he gives them money. The story explains that McClatchy reporters bought police uniforms and equipment ($13) and then set up the roadblock. Once there, they gave drivers $2 each and apologized for the fact that police officers normally take bribes. Some drivers refused. The story says that at the end, the reporters had about $8 left, which when the real cops asked for it, they gave them.

This strikes me as a pretty silly stunt and a useless one at that: doing this kind of thing is supposed to help how exactly? I really don't get what they hoped to accomplish. We know Afghan cops are corrupt, underpaid, that their work is dangerous, and that they suffer a disproportionate amount of casualties.

On a different note, for the duration of the World Cup, I've given up my French citizenship. Seriously--between the coach (incompetent and crazy) and the players (selfish idiots), they don't deserve to move to the next round.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Five Styker brigade soldiers charged with premeditated murder

The Army announced today that three more soldiers are being charged with murder in a series of civilian deaths in Afghanistan between January and March of this year, bringing the total number charged to five. Details are pretty sparse.

Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, Spc. Michael Wagnon and Spc. Adam Winfield were charged Tuesday evening with one count of murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to a news release issued today from the base. Each is accused in separate incidents.

The three men returned to Lewis-McChord on Monday and have been placed in pretrial confinement.

Five soldiers from the base are now accused in the deaths of Afghan civilians between January and May.

Spc. Jeremy Morlock was charged June 4 with three specifications of premeditated murder and one specification of assault. He’s being confined at the base.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 25, was charged in Kuwait on June 8 with three counts of premeditated murder and one specification of assault. The infantryman from Montana should be at Lewis-McChord within the next several days, the base reported. He was on his third deployment.

All five soldiers are assigned to B Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. They deployed to Afghanistan last July.
Here's the Joint Base Lewis-McChord press release (pdf).

"Separate incidents" is a really, really foreboding detail. Let's hope this doesn't turn out like the tale of 3/101, told by Raffi Khatchadourian in "The Kill Company."

5/2 SBCT, you may remember, is commanded by COL Harry Tunnell and sustained heavy casualties (though mostly in 1-17 Infantry, a different battalion than the one these soldiers come from) last fall in the Arghandab Valley.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Putting time on the Washington clock (UPDATED)

Today's New York Times brings us the not-so-new revelation that Afghanistan contains bountiful untapped mineral resources. You've no doubt seen this story by now, but I'm going to go ahead and excerpt at length just the same:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists.

The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Others have already reflected on the fact that this news doesn't exactly qualify as an unvarnished good: for one, it takes a lot of money and time to extract these resources, perhaps more money than you'd get from the sale of them. And on top of that, it's not like resource-rich and politically-poor countries have a really good track record with stability and nonviolence.

But the Pollyanna-ish suggestion that speculative, hypothetical mineral wealth will (/could) solve all of Afghanistan's problems isn't really what bothers me about all of this. What's most annoying is that this is exactly the sort of story we should've predicted back in the winter, not long after the President made the silly but politically essential decision to sell his "Afghan surge" decision to a reluctant majority by promising a totally unrealistic departure deadline.

Mark Ambinder and Blake Hounshell each speak to this point (to a greater and lesser degree, respectively): Hounshell says he's "skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle," while Ambinder writes that "[t]he way in which the story was presented... suggest[s] a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war." I'm inclined to agree with this latter characterization.

There's not a single serious person who thought that the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing troops home from Afghanistan was anything but a political determination; the administration can make noises about how it was essential to convince the Afghan government that it could not rely on American benificence forever and must take the lead in providing security for its own country, but no one buys it. (Check out the video from this panel at last week's CNAS Conference: from Barno to Crocker to Pillar to Tellis to Fontaine, not a single one of the speakers thinks that the deadline is realistic or operationally useful.)

And so the timing of all of this seems, as Ambinder wrote, to "engender some fairly acute skepticism." After all, Amb. Ryan Crocker's entire presentation at CNAS revolved around the assumption, the prerequisite, that for the next president to begin his term facing anything but certain disaster in Afghanistan, this administration will have to find a way to "finesse that July 2011 deadline." While progress in Afghan governance and security is obviously important to anyone's definition of "success" in that campaign, the one absolutely essential front in this war is the domestic political one. As Crocker said, the president needs to find a way to put more time on the DC clock, because the Afghanistan one ain't speeding up.

Which, when it comes right down to it, is some serious bullshit.

We all knew this war wouldn't be won in 18 months, even back in December. We all knew that to begin withdrawing troops at that point would imperil the entire effort, whatever we think about the necessity of the war or our broader chances of success. We all knew the president was bullshitting us then because Generals Petraeus and McChrystal convinced him that they could get enough done to change the optics of the war in that 18-month period, just like a gambler looking for one more bet on credit, certain he can't lose this cash that he doesn't have.

So now we're finessing that deadline, putting time on that DC clock, pushing stories that make another two or three or eight or 15 years in Afghanistan seem like steps towards the pot of lithium gold rather than a tragic extension of what has become a senseless waste of lives and money.

Almost makes you embarrassed for your government, if only for being so ham-handed.

EDIT: I should also note at least one small technical mistake in Ambinder's post that makes him sound a little more conspiracist than I feel comfortable with. Here's the entire sentence that I reproduced above in ellipsesed form:
The way in which the story was presented -- the on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less -- and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggests a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.
First of all, there's only one Commander in Chief, and it's the president. GEN Petraeus is the commander of CENTCOM, or alternatively, the commanding general. But that's not really the thing I wanted to draw attention to.

The second half of that bit -- "weird promotion" -- refers to a place in the article where Paul Brinkley is quoted. He's correctly identified in the article as a deputy undersecretary of defense, though it's sort of confusing, because they call him the "DUSD for Business," which doesn't really exist. Brinkley IS a deputy undersecretary of defense, though, and is the director of the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Ambinder seems to be under the impression that Brinkley is a deputy assistant secretary of defense, which is a lower-tier role in the bureaucracy, and that the article is promoting him to sort of increase his gravitas or something. But no, there's no shady journalistic promotion going on here.

UPDATE: Let me just tell you, I am shocked, SHOCKED!, to learn that there are people in the U.S. government who think that the July 2011 timeline is unrealistic.

Six months after President Obama decided to send more forces to Afghanistan, the halting progress in the war has crystallized longstanding tensions within the government over the viability of his plan to turn around the country and begin pulling out by July 2011.

Within the administration, the troubles in clearing out the Taliban from a second-tier region and the elusive loyalties of the Afghan president have prompted anxious discussions about whether the policy can work on the timetable the president has set. Even before the recent setbacks, the military was highly skeptical of setting a date to start withdrawing, but Mr. Obama insisted on it as a way to bring to conclusion a war now in its ninth year.

For now, the White House has decided to wait until a review, already scheduled for December, to assess whether the target date can still work. But officials are emphasizing that the July 2011 withdrawal start will be based on conditions in the country, and that the president has yet to decide how quickly troops will be pulled out.

Even if some troops do begin coming home then, the officials said that it may be a small number at first. Given that he has tripled the overall force since taking office, Mr. Obama could still end his term with more forces in Afghanistan than when he began it.

Don't worry, though -- they've been saying "contingent on conditions on the ground" all along!

UPDATE 2: And just for shits, here's the DoD press conference transcript with DUSD Brinkley and one of the fellas from the U.S. Geological Survey, in which they basically admit that there's no new data here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

CNAS action: it's FAAAAAAAAAANtastic!

(If you don't understand this post title, what the hell have you been watching on TV for the last 30 years?!)

This afternoon is CNAS' big annual blowout at the Willard in downtown DC. Along with Michele Flournoy, Exum, and the other usual suspects, 80% of the Ink Spots crew will be in attendance (or alternatively, 100% of the people who actually post at Ink Spots. BURN!). I'll be trying to tweet some updates (@InkSptsGulliver), though cell service is pretty terrible down in that basement.

Say hello if you see me. I look just like the dude in the tri-corner hat on my Twitter page.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, you can watch the whole thing on the internet here.

Best wishes and bon voyage to Tintin

Friend of the blog Wes Morgan, aka Tintin, is headed to Afghanistan tomorrow for a few months of embeds in Helmand, Kandahar, and Paktika with the Royal Marines and the 101st Airborne. (Geez, when I was in college I spent my summers in Quantico and Poland. Boring.)

He's looking for Kindle book selections to keep him busy, so chime in with comments if you've got any.

So spare a thought for Tintin over the next few months. He'll be over there taking a closer look while we sit here in comfortable chairs and bloviate. I'll see if he'll let me squeeze in some of his updates on here while he's gone, as I know people will surely be interested.

Tips for PowerPoint rangers, feminists, and other computer users (UPDATED TWICE)

Several months ago, I spent about ten minutes ranting to my girlfriend and another friend about a briefing I'd seen earlier in the day that was composed entirely IN COMIC SANS. The briefing was delivered by a four-star. A female four-star.

Let's be clear about something up front: I support women's equality, and more specifically opportunity for women in the military. I think it's tremendous (and long past time) that we have female officers succeeding at the highest levels of the armed forces. Furthermore, once you're a general officer, you can pretty much do whatever you want with your briefing slides as far as I'm concerned.

But honestly, if your mission in life was to do harm to the cause of women's advancement in the military, wouldn't you find the most senior uniformed female you could and have her give a BRIEFING IN COMIC SANS?

And let's even just ignore the whole gender/stereotype issue here and get something straight: comic sans sucks. Bad.

My girlfriend sent me this graphic this morning. It's apparently been making the rounds on the internet. I should be getting royalties.
UPDATE: Lil apprises me of the fact that there are people out there who are not typeface dorks (I actually own this t-shirt, and I don't give a damn about the University of Kansas) and will not immediately know what this is about. Go here.
UPDATE 2: Here's an awesome rejoinder from comic sans, as imagined by Mike Lacher in McSweeney's.
Listen up. I know the shit you've been saying behind my back. You think I'm stupid. You think I'm immature. You think I'm a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I'm Comic Sans, and I'm the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.
& c.

Check this out if you're in NYC (and also, GIVE TO SWJ)

SWJ has already covered this, but just in case you're stupid enough to read us and not them, see below.

(Speaking of which, DONATE TO SMALL WARS JOURNAL. Seriously. It's easy. They take PayPal. You can even set up a monthly donation. Here's a good equation to figure out how much you might want to give:
  1. Think about the number of hours you spend on SWJ every week
  2. Imagine you had to spend that time doing something else
  3. Now imagine that the "something else" is work
  4. How many extra cups of coffee would it take for you to get through that work every week?
  5. Multiply that number by two dollars
  6. Set up a monthly donation for that much money, times some reasonable number of months (I went with a year)

Ok, so I didn't actually use that system, or else I'd be giving a hell of a lot more than what I am. But you should. So DO IT.)

Back to the NYC thing: We got an email this week from Sterling Yee of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival -- which is taking place over the next two weeks at New York's Lincoln Center -- asking us to push out word to our readership. I have no problem doing this if only because I just finished reading War by Sebastian Junger, which documents the fifteen-month deployment of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley and is sort of the book companion to Restrepo. Can't wait to see it when it comes to DC. So here's their promotional flyer:

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns to New York, 10-24 June. This year we are proud to present two astounding documentaries that focus on the obstacles the Afghan citizens and US military face during times of war and rebuilding.

Camp Victory, Afghanistan - Drawing from nearly 300 hours of vérité footage shot between 2005 and 2008, Camp Victory, Afghanistan skillfully explores the reality of building a functioning Afghan military. We are delighted that filmmaker Carol Dysinger will be present for a discussion after the screenings. Find out more.

Restrepo - Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, Restrepo chronicles the deployment of a platoon of marines [actually, no, but close!] in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous postings in the US military. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you. We are delighted that filmmaker Tim Hetherington will be present for a discussion after the screenings. Find out more.

We think your colleagues and readers would be interested in these films because they touch upon issues facing not only Afghan society, but also the international community. With so much global attention on US involvement in Afghanistan – we hope that the films will teach and inspire New Yorkers to learn more about Afghanistan and become more active in their communities.

So go check it out. And if you do, I'll have two reasons to envy you New Yorkers next weekend: the film festival and the finals of the Churchill Cup (ok, it's in Jersey, but close enough)!

Also while you're at it, see Karaka Pend's review of War here (on SWJ, coincidentally).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Should we focus on building a good rail, road, and energy transit network in Afghanistan?

There's a new report by out of the SAIS (the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) Central Asia Caucasus Institute titled "The Key to Success in Afghanistan: A Modern Silk Road Strategy."

Basically, the report argues that building a good rail, road, and energy transit network, based on the old "Silk Road" is the key to sustainable peace because restoring Afghanistan's historic role in regional trade is the only way to develop the country's economy and thus provide long term resource streams for continued security.

The paper starts with an examination of current infrastructure and ongoing improvement projects. Judging these efforts insufficient, the authors argue that:

While the Modern Silk Road represents the best hope for the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan, two common misconceptions have been allowed to prevent the realization of this goal: namely, that the main reasons for Afghanistan‘s failure to breakthrough to rapid development are, first, the absence of security there and, second, its poor infrastructure (25).
They add that:

There is widespread consensus that the biggest obstacles to transcontinental trade are institutional, bureaucratic, and political. The most common of these obstacles are excessive duties imposed by governments, simple corruption on the part of border officials, and the failure of bordering states to cooperate to facilitate trade (26).

These barriers to trade therefore need to be dismantled and the authors recommend that the US take a leading role in encouraging and supporting Afghanistan and neighboring countries in doing so. The authors recommend starting with the road network, then propose improvements to the rail network and then focus on building Afghan capacity to transport energy. To guarantee success, they propose the appointment of a dedicated presidential envoy and corresponding interagency task force. Both would work within the US and with international partners.

This is a very general summary of course but I thought it was an interesting report. I'm not sure it's all that revolutionary and parts of it strike me as a bit simplistic. I'm also not sure I want a "Presidential Envoy for the Silk Road Strategy" (or whatever it would be called). What do you all think?

Friday, June 4, 2010

More on the future of the Armor Corps

This week saw a minor resurgence of the "death of Armor" motif through a paper on SWJ in response to COL Gentile. I found the discussion somewhat interesting if not really a rehash of the common themes to this topic between a number of SWJ regulars and fellow Spartan Brigade alumni. There was one comment that I think really sums up the danger facing the Armor Corps, from a great officer and commander who I had the honor of serving with at Fort Stewart, Mark Battjes. Here is most of his comment:

Do we have now in the Armor branch, or heavy portion of the Infantry branch, the junior leaders (SGTs, SSGs, SFCs, LTs, and CPTs) who know how to train to conduct heavy combined arms maneuver?

I worry less about whether we will be able to train 18-24 year olds to be able to hit targets with an M1 or M2. I worry far more about whether or not a SSG can develop a plan to train his section to not only shoot gunnery, but also conduct mounted maneuver.

My own experience as a company commander training a company to shoot gunnery for the first time without significant training experience in my formation (1 x SFC MG and only a handful of NCOs who had ever shot gunnery) is instructive. We got through it with brute force and ignorance, but it was a lot more painful than it should have been. The results are instructive as well. We qualified everyone on Table VIII reasonably well, but the Table XIIplatoon qualifications were much more difficult, primarily because none of the NCOs, and certainly not the LTs, had learned how to train to conduct mounted maneuver. They know how to train a squad to enter and clear a building or conduct a dismounted patrol.

Overall, I agree with the authors' point that the Armor corps will ultimately survive and thrive. However, it will require the active efforts of BN CDRs and S3/XOs with significant training experience to show a lot of young CPTs, LTs, and NCOs who are long on combat experience, but short on training experience, how to go about training a tank platoon or scout platoon. Somehow we have to rebuild the training capabilities of our junior leaders, something that we were very good at before we had to quickly train up for repeat combat tours.

I couldn't have put this better myself. As Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, this should probably be the number one focus of the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Time to end the "Treat Them Mean and Make Them Like It" Doctrine

President Obama has cancelled a trip to Australia, Indonesia, and Guam. Again. Granted, I am not an expert on strategic issues in the Pacific, but this strikes me as a really bad move. Twice now the White House has cancelled this visit to an important ally and a country with whom we've been trying to improve relations because of domestic issues.

I'm not sure why the President has adopted a "treat them mean and make them like it" approach with many of our allies - especially our closest allies with whom we're trying to get support from for a number of missions around the world (mainly Afghanistan). While Obama is still highly popular in Australia, snubbing an ally twice with whom we have a (limited) mutual defense agreement will not help in maintaining Australian support in Afghanistan. Like most U.S. relationships, bilateral relations more important to the other partner and not to the U.S. Australia seems very aware of this fact and concerned that they do much more for us than we do for them - much like what has been happing with the UK as of late.

The consequences of cancelling this trip will probably not include any significant changes to U.S.-Australian relations directly. But it could have an effect on Australian politics - PM Kevin Rudd is getting hammered in the polls because of his own domestic issues and stands to lose his job some time in the fall. I have no idea if it means that Labor gets a new leader or the Liberals actually ascend, but KRudd was hoping for a bump in his numbers by the visit. Well, that's not going to happen now. I'm not saying that it's in the President's interests to ensure continuity of power in other nations, but with yet another Japanese government transition, I don't think a revolving door of governments with our closest allies in the region is in our interests. Who knows what effects that a new Aussie government would have on the Trilateral Security Dialogue when we're still trying to figure out how things are going to work out with Japan. With all the current shenanigans on Korean Peninsula and tensions over Okinawa, etc., helping shore up the current Australian government seems to me to be in the U.S.'s best interests.

I guess this wouldn't rankle me as much if there were a better reason for the cancellation. I thought the first trip was rightfully cancelled as getting the health care bill through required Obama's personal touch. But the oil spill? Unless he intends to go to Louisiana and start scrubbing crude off of birds, I don't see how he couldn't oversee this operation from Air Force One or Canberra like he does from the White House. Especially from a guy who claimed he could walk and chew bubble gum at the same time - the President needs to be better balance his domestic and foreign policies. I think it's time we start treating our allies like we actually like them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

France to spend 300 Million Euros on training 12K African troops for peacekeeping (UPDATED)

At the 25th France-Africa summit, President Sarkozy announced that France would spend 300 million Euros to train 12,000 African troops for deployment to peacekeeping operations in Africa. He said the training would occur between now and 2012. Sorry all the links are in French--if you find something in English, I can update up here if you put it in the comments.

Now you might remember that back in 2004, at the G8 summit, the US had announced that it would train 75,000 peacekeepers, mostly from Africa, by 2010. GPOI (the Global Peace Operations Initiative), was supposed to be a G8 initiative and France and the UK had promised to help. As far as I know, that hadn't happened until now. Anyway, for the US, GPOI ended up costing about 90 million per year (if you want a breakdown on the numbers, Nina Serafino, from the Congressional Research Service has a nice chart here).

A couple questions: how does 300 million only pay for 12,000 troops to be trained--this seems way more expensive that US efforts (and don't get me started on how little the State Department knows about how well the training works or not)? Does anyone know how the training will be different? Does France plan on giving these troops a LOT more stuff than the US hands out as part of its own effort? Does that number include actually paying for these soldiers to fly to places and set up bases etc?

I understand that France sees providing this training as a way to decrease its own role in peacekeeping in Africa (which with ongoing withdrawal from Chad/CAR and a much small presence in Ivory Coast is already down a lot). Sarkozy also said the troops could help combat piracy (though how 300M gets you anywhere in terms of naval capacity I'm not sure). Anyway, given France's need for decreasing its deficit (and bailing out Greece...) what does this look like to all of you?

UPDATE: Gulliver reminds me that GPOI was renewed for another five years and that the initial effort exceeded the 75K goals and reached 85K instead. Friends at GAO who work on GPOI point out that GPOI hasn't been able to figure out how much impact the training has had on the performance of deployed troops.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fast-roping 101 (stolen from about 30 different people on Twitter) (UPDATED)

Off the top of my head, h/t to Chris Albon, Herb Carmen, and Exum.

Awesome. (Ex: "Too soon?")

UPDATE: Schmedlap is, of course, totally right about this:
I'm not real keen on making fun of the [Israeli] troops. I don't think they had much say in the matter and they actually did everything right. It takes a lot of balls to fastrope into an angry mob, knowing that you will likely get your ass kicked, and to respond first with non-lethal weapons and only escalate to lethal force after getting an ass-whooping. What went wrong was not the fault of those troops. What went wrong occurred above the tactical level ... Mock the decision makers, not the guys whose asses were left flapping in the wind (literally).
I can't disagree with any of that. And I hope no one got the impression that we're trying to make light of what happened to these dudes, though I suppose that's pretty obviously what the graphic looks like it's doing.

More than anything, I think the reason this causes a chuckle is that it underlines the absurdity of the situation in which these Israeli troops found themselves. It's an illustration of the timeless military maxim "shit rolls downhill" -- some poor bastard is left hanging on a rope because his government decided to "man up."

That said, Schmedlap is 100% right.

The blog is dead. Long live the blog!

Steve Coll is calling it quits on Think Tank for a while so as to work on a new book. He's got an interesting final-for-now post up today about the lessons he's learned about using this format, and you should take a look at the whole thing. I'll just reproduce my favorite bit, which is Coll's closing:
Some problems that I half-expected that also turned out to be true: 1) Writing fast about serious subjects because they are in the news, without doing a lot of reporting first, can produce crap. 2) Even the better instances of that sub-genre are still not very satisfying over time to the author. There are a few transcendent deadline essayists born from time to time (Murray Kempton, Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, half the sports columnists of the last three decades) and many other very good ones, including a number blogging on this site, but the rest of us might not wish to be tempted by blogging freedom to emulate them if we can instead spend our time travelling, reporting, researching in archives, or writing books in our attics. This is just a blog post, however; I am free to revise my thinking in an hour, or whenever I revive Think Tank (as I intend to do), and presumably no one will notice.
Emphasis here is mine.

I think we all need to be cautious of the temptation to be first with the news, first with the analysis, fastest, most comprehensive, most poignant and polished and comprehensive all at the same time.

Insane defense spending-related stat of the day

According to Paul Lockhart's so-far excellent book The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, in Frederick the Great's (early mid-18th c.) Prussia "[n]early 80 percent of the state budget was earmarked for the use of the army."

For reference, the U.S. is spending something like 20 percent of total outlays on defense. According to the CBO's Montly Budget Review [pdf] for May 2010, defense totaled $396B of just under $2T in USG outlays through April of this year.

Don't forget, we have a navy, air force, and Marine Corps, and are the "underwriters of global security." (In case you did forget, you can remind yourself with the 2010 NSS. Or not.) Prussia was the tenth-largest state in Europe in territorial size, and had the 13th-largest population on the continent.