Friday, October 10, 2008

Listen to the Military

October 10, 2008, 7:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m.

Which Do You Want First, the Bad News
or the Bad News?

To help get your mind off of the coming global depression, let's take a look at Afghanistan. [Photo credit: European Pressphoto Agency; as reproduced in New York Times, October 9, 2008; "Zabiullah Majahid, front, of the Taliban, led his group in the mountains of Helmand Province."]

Once again we are learning that, as I put it to President Lyndon Johnson with regard to Vietnam, "You can't play basketball on a football field."

Once again we are learning why I am only half joking when I say we need "military control of the civilians, rather than a government in which civilians dictate to the military."

Once again we are learning that the bumper sticker's observation -- "whatever is the question, war is not the answer" -- while overly simplistic, is right more often than it is wrong.

There are many differences between Vietnam, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But as important as it may be to recognize and respond to those differences, it is equally important not to ignore their similarities.

It is very difficult to "play war" when:

o You are only the latest in a long line of outside invader/occupiers (most of whom have been no more successful than you are about to be)

o The "enemy" is not a "country" in the sense we normally think of it, but an area where borders are both porous and disputed and central governments may be corrupt, weak (or engaged in civil war)

o You don't understand the country -- its people, tribal loyalties, history, culture, geography, and most importantly, language

o There are no "front lines" or battlefields (in the WWII sense) -- territory gained at considerable cost can easily and quickly be lost

o The "enemy" refuses to wear easily identifiable uniforms, dresses and looks like your "allies" in the fight, and can easily fade into the local population

o The loyalty of your supporters is thin, and shifts with who's paying them and their (understandable) urgent sense of personal survival

o The resulting "collateral damage" (innocent civilian deaths and injuries) are counterproductive in "winning hearts and minds" and actually contribute to the increased recruitment of terrorists

o Genuine local economic and infrastructure needs -- roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, water and electricity -- go unattended, and are made worse, by military action and the resulting shift to a drug-based economy
These are but my instincts and observations. But they have often turned out to have been later echoed by military officers and others who really do have some credentials, experience, and on-the-scene observations.

That is now happening once again.

No, I am not singing "we ain't goin' to study war no more," or saying that there is no role for conventional military action, that we should become a neutral isolationist nation, or that we should eliminate the Defense Department's budget (although there is some evidence we could improve our national security by cutting it by about one-third, and certainly by replacing the Bush Doctrine with the Powell Doctrine. For an explanation of the Powell Doctrine see, Nicholas Johnson, "War in Iraq: The Military Objections," February 27, 2003.).

What I am saying, in passing, is that the McCain Campaign (and some in the media) are doing no one a favor by using the language of WWII to describe the challenges we confront in the Middle East -- "war," "surge," "victory," "winning," and "the white flag of surrender." "Send in the Marines," "these colors don't run," "let's kick some butt," and "nuke 'em" are the very dangerous and costly (in terms of lives, burden on taxpayers, and loss of international reputation) rhetorical chants of elected officials and candidates who are either (a) not very well informed, or (b) devoid of the ethical and moral restraints that might challenge their belief that "there is nothing worth losing an election for."

But what I am mostly saying is not "listen to me" but "listen to our military." Not "follow them blindly," just listen and reflect.

Senator McCain says he wants a "surge" in Afghanistan. He believes the one in Iraq "worked" -- even though it did not bring about (a) the political solutions it was designed to make possible, or even (b) a permanent reduction in insurgency and civilian deaths. The Washington Post reports that he has said, "the same strategy that [Sen. Barack Obama] condemned in Iraq, that's going to have to be employed in Afghanistan."

By contrast, the Post reports, General David D. McKiernan, who led the Iraq invasion and has for four months headed the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, has

stated emphatically that no Iraq-style 'surge' of forces will end the conflict there. . . . "The word I don't use for Afghanistan is 'surge,'" . . ..

"Afghanistan is not Iraq," . . .. [It is] "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq." The country's mountainous terrain, rural population, poverty, illiteracy, 400 major tribal networks and history of civil war all make for unique challenges, he said.

McKiernan [says] what is required is a "sustained commitment" to a counterinsurgency effort that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution. . . .

Another facet of the Iraq strategy that McKiernan doubts can be duplicated in Afghanistan is the U.S. military's programs to recruit tribes to oppose insurgents. . . .

Tribal engagement in Afghanistan is also vital, McKiernan said, but . . . "I don't want the military to be engaging the tribes," he said. Given Afghanistan's complicated system of rival tribes and ethnic groups and the recent history of civil war, allying with the wrong tribe risks rekindling internecine conflict, he said. "It wouldn't take much to go back to a civil war." . . .

[T]he violence is more intense than he had anticipated . . .. The U.S. military death toll has risen to . . . a new annual high since the war began in 2001.

Attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan have escalated, . . .. An influx of foreign fighters across the border is bolstering the Taliban insurgency and has shown a "significant increase from what we saw this time last year," he said, pointing to intelligence that picked up fighters speaking Uzbek, Chechen, Arabic and other languages.

"We are in a very tough fight," he said. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."
Ann Scott Tyson, "Commander in Afghanistan Wants More Troops," Washington Post, October 2, 2008, p. A19; and see Eric Schmitt, "Joint Chiefs Chairman Is Gloomy on Afghanistan," New York Times, October 9, 2008 ("With security and economic conditions in Afghanistan already in dire straits, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that the situation there would probably only worsen next year. 'The trends across the board are not going in the right direction,' the chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters. 'I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.'”).

And McKiernan was saying it two months ago

"There is no magic number of soldiers that are needed on the ground to win this campaign," McKiernan said. "What we need is security of the people. We need governance. We need reconstruction and development." . . . McKiernan said, "There is a clear linkage between 'narco' trafficking and financing of the insurgency."
Barbara Starr, "'Surge' May Not be Enough in Afghanistan," Commander Says," CNN, August 8, 2008, 1:35 p.m. ET.

British Commander Agrees: "Taleban will never be defeated;" it's "neither feasible nor supportable"

The departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan . . . Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, whose troops have suffered severe casualties after six months of tough fighting . . . says he believes the Taleban will never be defeated.

He told The Times that in his opinion, a military victory over the Taleban was “neither feasible nor supportable”. . . .

The brigadier’s grim prognosis follows a leaked cable by Fran├žois Fitou, the deputy French Ambassador in Kabul, claiming that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador, had told him the strategy for Afghanistan was “doomed to failure” [and that] “the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the Government has lost all trust.” He said . . . “we should tell them [the U.S.] that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one. The American strategy is doomed to fail.” . . .

Brigadier Carleton-Smith . . . indicated that the only way forward was to find a political solution that would include the Taleban. . . . Efforts are being focused on the so-called “tier-two” and “tier-three” Taleban, who are perceived to be less ideologically intransigent.

The brigadier said that in the areas where the Government had no control, the Afghan population was “vulnerable to a shifting coalition of Taleban, mad mullahs and marauding militias.” . . .

He said that there had been a government vacuum for 30 years, . . ..
Tom Coghlan in Kabul and Michael Evans, "We can't defeat Taleban, says Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith," The [London] Times, October 6, 2008.

U.S. Army Literally Re-Writes the Book: Mission "Development, Reconstruction and Humanitarian"

The U.S. Army on Monday released a new field manual that for the first time gives nation-building the same top priority as major combat operations in conflicts involving fragile states.

The Stability Operations Field Manual, derived from the Army's experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, provides commanders and other Army personnel with a guide for supporting broader U.S. government efforts to deliver development, reconstruction and humanitarian aid in war-torn nations.

Army officials described the document as a roadmap from conflict to peace. . . .

The manual mirrors a U.S. defense strategy released in July that says military operations should play a supporting role for "soft power" initiatives to undermine militancy by promoting economic, political and social development in vulnerable corners of the world.

"The greatest threats to our national security will not come from emerging ambitious states but from nations unable or unwilling to meet the basic needs and aspirations of their people," the new Army manual states. . . .
"Army issues new manual for nation-building," Reuters, October 6, 2008, 4:44 p.m. ET

Nor are these kinds of judgments limited to the military generals.

British ambassador in Kabul: "The presence -- especially the military presence -- of the coalition is part of the problem, not the solution."

The British ambassador in Kabul thinks the war in Afghanistan is as good as lost and that current US military and economic strategy there is destined to fail . . ..

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the UK diplomat involved, is also alleged to have said that the only practical long-term solution was for the West to support "an acceptable dictator" to unite the fractured country.

The diplomatic bombshell . . . came on the same day that the senior American military commander in Afghanistan called on NATO to provide more troops . . . in a counterinsurgency battle he said could get worse before it gets better.

The general's downbeat assessment also coincides with a fresh report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed dismay that attacks on aid workers have risen in 2008 despite the presence of more allied troops than at any time since the US-led invasion in 2001. . . .

Cowper-Coles [is quoted as saying]: "The current situation is bad. The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption and the government has lost all trust. . . .

"[T]he insurrection, while incapable of winning a military victory, nevertheless has the capacity to make life increasingly difficult, including in the capital.

"The presence -- especially the military presence -- of the coalition is part of the problem, not the solution. The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them. In doing so, they are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis." . . .

Cowper-Coles, 53, was also quoted as saying that while Britain had no alternative to supporting the United States, the Americans should be told to change strategy.

Reinforcing the military presence against the Taliban insurrection would be counter-productive, he said, and allied governments should start preparing public opinion to accept that the only realistic solution for Afghanistan was to be ruled by "an acceptable dictator."
Ian Bruce, "War in Afghanistan Lost, Says UK Diplomat in Leaked Report," The [Glasgow, Scotland] Herald, October 2, 2008; and see Charles Bremner in Paris and Michael Evans, "British Envoy Says Mission in Afghanistan is Doomed, According to Leaked Memo," The [London] Times, October 2, 2008.

National Intelligence Estimate: Afghanistan in "Downward Spiral" Due to "Lack of Leadership" from Bush Administration

A draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there, according to American officials familiar with the document.

The classified report finds that the breakdown in central authority in Afghanistan has been accelerated by rampant corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai and by an increase in violence from militants who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan. . . .

Its conclusions represent a harsh verdict on decision-making in the Bush administration, which in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States made Afghanistan the central focus of a global campaign against terrorism.

Beyond the cross-border attacks launched by militants in neighboring Pakistan, the intelligence report asserts that many of Afghanistan's most vexing problems are of the country's own making, the officials said. . . .

[I]t also laid out in stark terms what it described as the destabilizing impact of the booming heroin trade, which by some estimates accounts for 50 percent of Afghanistan's economy. . . .

Inside the government, reports issued by the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two years have chronicled the worsening violence and rampant corruption inside Afghanistan, and some in the agency say they believe that it has taken the White House too long to respond to the warnings . . . .a "lack of leadership" both at the White House and in European capitals where commitments to rebuild Afghanistan after 2001 have never been met. . . .

The assessment on Afghanistan is the first since the Taliban regained strength there beginning in 2006 and launched an offensive that has allowed them to seize large swaths of territory. . . .

Senior American commanders have recently been blunt in their assessment of the security trends in the country. "In large parts of Afghanistan, we don't see progress," General David McKiernan, the top American officer in Afghanistan, told reporters last week. "We're into a very tough counterinsurgency fight and will be for some time."

It is not just American officials who offer a grim prognosis. A French diplomatic cable leaked to a French newspaper last week quoted the British ambassador to Afghanistan as forecasting that the NATO-led mission there would fail.

"The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust," the British envoy, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was quoted as telling the French deputy ambassador to Kabul, who wrote the cable.
Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Report Warns of Crisis in Afghanistan," International Herald Tribune, October 9, 2008.

America's interests and role in the world involve a lot more than the overwhelming application of military force. The military itself knows this. Why don't the politicians?

It's time we learned from our wisest military leaders -- and then took up our own responsibilities to let our elected and other officials know how we feel.

What has been attributed to Ghandi is still true: "When the people will lead, their leaders will follow."

Let's lead.

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