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Archive for July, 2009

I have argued over and again in this blog that the United States must stand up and take moral responsibility for its actions in Iraq, even if it means an open-ended military commitment in an increasingly hostile environment.

Even so, I have to admit I find it extremely hard to disagree with Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team chief Col. Timothy Reese, when he concludes, in his now-public, painfully honest internal memo, that — I’m paraphrasing — Iraq is a toxic swamp, that the U.S. has done all it can to dry it, and that the sooner American troops go home the better for everybody.

What is most shocking about Reese’s memo is not its unflinching depiction of the rotting corpse that is the Iraqi state, but the way he describes U.S. forces as basically prisoners of a security agreement their own commander-in-chief negotiated:

It is clear that the 30 Jun milestone does not represent one small step in a long series of gradual steps on the path the US withdrawal, but as Maliki has termed it, a ‘great victory’ over the Americans and fundamental change in our relationship.  The recent impact of this mentality on military operations is evident:

1.    Iraqi Ground Forces Command (IGFC) unilateral restrictions on US forces that violate the most basic aspects of the SA

2.    BOC unilateral restrictions that violate the most basic aspects of the SA

3.    International Zone incidents in the last week where ISF forces have resorted to shows of force to get their way at Entry Control Points (ECP) including the forcible takeover of ECP 1 on 4 July

4.    Sudden coolness to advisors and CDRs, lack of invitations to meetings,

5.    Widespread partnership problems reported in other areas such as ISF confronting US forces at TCPs in the city of Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq.

6.    ISF units are far less likely to want to conduct combined combat operations with US forces, to go after targets the US considers high value, etc.

7.    The Iraqi legal system in the Rusafa side of Baghdad has demonstrated a recent willingness to release individuals originally detained by the US for attacks on the US.

If this is true — and I have no reason to doubt it –, there really isn’t much the U.S. can do but to prepare for an orderly departure. Without political leverage, and with its military stripped of its right to fight, America is of no use to Iraq. I can only hope Reese’s talk of “victory” is in jest, because victory this isn’t, it is an utter failure on all fronts. Not only will Iraq not be stable, it will not be a democracy, and it most certainly will not be a friend of America.

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For those eager to use civilian casualties as a metric of progress in Afghanistan, the news isn’t good. According to UNAMA’s newly-released mid-year bulletin, Afghan civilians continue to die violently in ever increasing numbers. The gist:

In the first six months of 2009, UNAMA recorded 1013 civilian deaths, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007 (see graph #1 below). This represents an increase of 24% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008. Both Anti-Government Elements and pro-government forces are responsible for the increase in civilian casualties. UNAMA Human Right’s figures indicate that more civilians are being killed by AGEs than by PGF. In the first six months of 2009, 59% of civilians were killed by AGEs and 30.5% by PGF. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when PGF were responsible for 41% and AGEs for 46% of civilian deaths.

I guess the silver lining for those looking for one is that ISAF and its American partners killed fewer non-combatants, which in the terminology of the CNAS whiz-kids probably translates into “better pop security”. But I wonder if it really makes much of a difference to the locals whether 300 or 250 of their loved ones perished at the hands of foreigners. Also, at the risk of sounding cynical, it might be worth pointing out that these numbers, while tragic, are still minuscule compared to Iraq — not mention, say, Somalia, Congo, or Darfur.

In short, civilian casualties remain a non-issue in this war, and we should be ever thankful for it.

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Two bright guys go to Afghanistan. One comes back with bad news: If this is all we’ve got, we’re gonna lose. The other comes back with… blabber.

I’m a great fan of Abu Muqawama, and I don’t mean to pick on Exum, but why is it that this up-and-coming hotshot COINdinista has nothing meaningful to say about Afghanistan after spending five weeks in the country, when an old war-horse like Anthony Cordesman comes back from the same trip clear-headed and straight-shootin’?

Let’s compare. Here’s Exum on whether the international coalition has enough resources to hold the ground it takes:

‘I think you’ve got two problems there. One is a conceptual problem and one is a resource problem. Nowhere that I went was I able to get a really coherent definition of what it means to hold and what it means to build, and how you do that. And I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut operationally on how we do those things. So first off, I think there’s some confusion as far as what that means.’

How about a simple “yes” or “no”? Here’s Cordesman:

‘[...] If we somehow believe that a civilian surge of 700 people and tailoring our force posture to the views of a completely different set of strategic priorities, this is going to win, the answer is no, it’s going to lose.’

Okay, so what about the operation itself? Should we have any confidence in ISAF? Exum:

I was tremendously impressed by the quality of the men and women working for General McChrystal at ISAF. [...] General McChrystal understands population-centric COIN. Forget all that nonsense about a guy with decades of direct-action special operations experience not being mentally limber enough to adapt to protecting the population. [...] McChrystal is not inclined to draw attention to his storied history as a special operator. But when he tells you that it’s impossible to kill your way out of this war, you believe him — because Lord knows, he’s tried.

So The Pope is awesome, but what about this Eye-Saf thing? Here’s Cordesman:

There are outstanding people in every civil organization and military component. Many take serious risks in the field. However, the practical reality is a disorganized mess. The impact of years of inadequate resources, stovepipes rather than unity of effort, a lack of realistic goals and measures of effectiveness, a focus on post conflict reconstruction in mid-war, and a failure to come to grips with the limits and corruption of the Afghan government have taken their toll.

What should be an integrated civil-military effort focused on winning the war in the field is instead a dysfunctional, wasteful mess focused in Kabul and crippled by bureaucratic divisions, Afghan power brokering, national caveats and tensions, and a critical lack of resources at every level.

I don’t always agree with Cordesman, but at least he doesn’t turn into a fawning idiot when put in the same room with a general he digs.

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In an interview with WPR’s Judah Grunstein, Andrew Exum responds to criticism that civilian casualties are a dead metric in Afghanistan:

I think that the population is not being kinetically targeted in the same way it was in Iraq, but what that misses is a silent war of fear and intimidation. Let me sketch this out for you: The fall of Kandahar is not going to look like the Taliban rolling down the streets in tanks. The fall of Kandahar is going to look like the Taliban steadily making ground with a campaign of fear and intimidation, and creating an environment in which the Afghan government can’t operate in Kandahar, and Kandahar eventually becomes ideologically inhospitable to the government of Afghanistan, never mind Coalition forces. So first off, the population may not be targeted kinetically in the way that it was in Iraq, but it’s certainly being targeted.

Very well. But that’s not what Exum and his co-authors wrote in their much-discussed CNAS paper, Triage. Instead, they explicitly talked about casualties:

To be sure, violence will rise in Afghanistan over the next year—no matter what the United States and its allies do. What matters, though, is who is dying. And here a particular lesson may be directly imported from the U.S. experience in Iraq. In 2007, during the Baghdad security operations commonly referred to as ‘the surge,’ U.S. casualties actually increased sharply. What U.S. planners were looking for, however, was not a drop in U.S. casualties—or even a drop in Iraqi security force casualties—but a drop in Iraqi civilian casualties.

And in a sidebar titled “Key Metrics over the Next 12 Months”:

Civilian Casualties: A decrease in civilian casualties—whether caused by the United States, coalition, Afghan forces, or the Taliban—will indicate a genuine improvement in security. Conversely, a rise in civilian deaths will imply deterioration in the security situation.

Now Exum is saying they didn’t actually mean dead Afghans? Dude, make up your mind.

Like I’ve said, shielding the population from the Taleban should indeed be the top priority, but… Hell, I’ll just quote myself:

You should do it, and you can do it; it’s just that there’s no meaningful way to measure your success when dealing with intangibles like ‘support’ or ‘opposition’ — unless you count opinion polls, but I’m guessing they’re not concrete enough for Exum et al.

In other words, Kandahar may fall the way Exum says, but there is no way for the metric-loving U.S. military to measure it. I mean, it’s not like we’ll go, “Oh crap, look at the charts, the Taleban scared the bejesus out of another 1,379 Kandaharis this month, but let’s try and counter-intimidate at least 20 percent by October”.

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Since I started covering Afghanistan 20 years ago, I have rarely felt as pessimistic as I do now. I have seen friends and acquaintances perish in the neverending war, and now it seems this black hole of a country is sucking in the rest of us. Sure, it is a black hole of our own making, but that only adds the burden of collective guilt on top of everything else.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself entertaining surprisingly positive thoughts. The war might be going to hell, but regardless of how it ends, some good things will come out of it. Among them:

  • The Europeans’ newly-found resolve to fight a war. We’re all pacifists on this side of the pond, but sometimes war is necessary, and when that happens, there is no time to dilly-dally. The Germans and the French, and slowly the Scandinavians, too, are coming around to accept this inevitability. So while the fighting near Kunduz certainly isn’t good, the fact that there is fighting is excellent news. And while I’m the last to advocate the “Follow Every Single Taliban and Kill Him” style of counterinsurgency, there’s something to be said for violently defending what you were sent in to defend.
  • The bursting of the COIN bubble. Ironically, the more difficult the fight in Afghanistan becomes, the more Iraq will seem like a fluke. This is good. American analysts and the U.S. military have already wasted valuable months trying to transplant whatever they think made the Surge a success into unfertile soil that will not support this alien life-form. As long as headlines like “Marines Find Afghan Insurgents Bolder Than Iraqi Insurgents” keep popping up, we know there will be no progress. Armies always fight the previous war, and often they still manage to win, but sometimes there is very little time to snap out of the stupor, and that time has passed in Afghanistan. So if getting our asses kicked will teach us to never again rely on just one strategy du jour and instead treat every conflict as unique and every tactical innovation as essentially non-replicable, so much for the better.

Related: Exum talks strategy on Charlie Rose, but “Gulliver” at Ink Spots is having none of it. Ripping good fun!

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Things haven’t been going well in Kunduz lately, and now they’re no longer looking good in Mazar-e-Sharif, either. Finnish and Swedish ISAF troops deployed in the city came under fire twice last week; they have also been hit by suicide bombers and IEDs.

Incredibly, the Finnish government still insists we’re not at war. When an analyst suggested as much in a Helsingin Sanomat op-ed last week, both Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb and Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies took issue, calling such talk “irresponsible”. Häkämies repeated the usual horseshit about the Finnish contingent in Afghanistan being part of a “United Nations operation”. By the same logic, of course, the Iraq war, too, could be called a UN operation, but who am I to nitpick.

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Funny how Afghanistan affects people. Josh Foust came back pessimistic as ever. For the inimitable Andrew Exum, however, the place apparently was an eye-opener of a different sort.

Exum fought in Afghanistan in 2002, but since returning from his latest civilian sojourn, the normally witty and sarcastic Abu Muqawama has turned into a walking billboard for Gen. McChrystal and his new command. We learn, for example, that McChrystal is much like Robert E. Lee, in that his “directions to allied troops with respect to civilian casualties are both morally correct and operationally wise”. Exum is “tremendously impressed by the quality of the men and women working for General McChrystal at ISAF”. And of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency skills he has this to say:

General McChrystal understands population-centric COIN. Forget all that nonsense about a guy with decades of direct-action special operations experience not being mentally limber enough to adapt to protecting the population. About five minutes into a discussion of civilian casualties in my first week in Kabul, I watched McChrystal stand up and spell out for his staff in explicit terms exactly why killing civilians makes one operationally ineffective in an environment like Afghanistan. McChrystal is not inclined to draw attention to his storied history as a special operator. But when he tells you that it’s impossible to kill your way out of this war, you believe him — because Lord knows, he’s tried.

Phew, talk about a man crush.

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