Tag: bob woodward

Eliot Cohen’s Key to Victory: Shut Up

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by John Hopkins’ SAIS professor Eliot Cohen arguing – via a series of fictional statements – that the Obama team’s decision to speak with Bob Woodward is likely to have a devastating impact on our ability to win in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The technique is too cute by half. I could just as easily come up with a series of quotes by people who believe that the costs of the war in Afghanistan far exceed the benefits. (e.g. The widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, upon reading the Woodward excerpts, bursts into tears. “Why have we chosen to fight a war that Gen. Petraeus admits we will likely never win, and which our children and grandchildren will be fighting?”)

By the same token, Cohen employs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu to make his case that Obama is weak. How hard would it be to make up fictional statements by two other heads of state – say, by allies who have pulled out of Afghanistan, or are preparing to – that they are encouraged to see that someone in the U.S. government recognizes that the war in Afghanistan is a gross misallocation of resources and is looking for ways to refocus counterterrorism efforts, and away from a decades-long nation-building mission that is likely to fail? Not hard.

But I refuse to play Cohen’s game according to his rules. Better to focus on the flaws of his underlying argument – to the extent that there is one – that the reason we aren’t winning this/these war/wars is because the president’s aides are talking out of school. If they just shut up, and did what the generals said (some of whom, by the way, must also be talking to Woodward) we’d be on the road to victory.

Please.

As with an earlier Afghanistan story that began with a few ill-considered remarks to a reporter, we shouldn’t be focused on the fact that people talk off the record. That is the story that Cohen and other war-hawks tell. The more important story is that the Afghan strategy is fatally hamstrung by 1) an unreliable local partner, a necessary ingredient for any successful counterinsurgency campaign; 2) a profound lack of trust between the Afghan people and the American/NATO counterinsurgents; and 3) a complete mismatch between the ends sought and the resources (time, money, troops) available.

I have no idea how Cohen responds to points one and two. Those two problems are not unique to Afghanistan, and the absence of those two conditions has doomed many other counterinsurgency missions.

As for number three, Cohen might believe that talking about victory will convince the American people that they should back the military’s preferred strategy, which OMB said would cost $889 billion over the next 10 years (on top of the $250+ billion already spent), as the best possible use of money that we do not have. Indeed, Cohen has apparently convinced himself that the American people would be anxious to spend another ten or twenty years bogged down in a distant land trying to rebuild roads and schools, if only the president talked about it more often. Cohen might even believe, contrary to all evidence, as well as basic common sense, that the U.S. government is capable of creating a functioning nation state in Afghanistan, and that it constitutes a vital U.S. national interest to make that happen.

In short, Eliot Cohen believes that President Obama shouldn’t question how the Afghan mission aligns with our vital security interests, or even if it is achievable. He’d rather that he just shut up, believe in it – really believe –and back the generals.

I disagree. Where Cohen scorns (via proxies spouting imagined off-the-record quotes) internal administration deliberations as dangerously misguided, I am perversely encouraged that the president seems at least willing to ask hard questions, and that some of his advisers understand the utter futility of the current enterprise.

Of course, I’d be even happier if President Obama did what past presidents have done: determine the strategy, give the order, and expect the military to carry it out. And if the military leaders that he has won’t do it, he can find others. There are lots of them.

‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’

Earlier this year, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that the Obama administration authorized the CIA to kill American-born, Yemeni-based Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Several people I admire and respect—and who are far more versed in the legal aspects of the “war on terror”—have already weighed in on whether the U.S. Government is authorized to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad, so I defer to those experts.

But what’s interesting is that the U.S. Government has killed “many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders” in Pakistan’s tribal areas dating all the way back to the Bush administration, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

Jeff Stein over at WaPo’s SpyTalk writes that according to Woodward, on November 12, 2008, then-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden disclosed the killings to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New York. At the meeting, Zardari allegedly said, “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

It now appears that two human rights groups are challenging the legality of the Obama Justice Department’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad. Will these groups now do the same with former Bush officials, too?

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.

Woodward’s Narrative

The New York Times reports that the book, Obama’s Wars, by longtime Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that is scheduled for publication next week, depicts an administration completely at odds over the war in Afghanistan.

According to Woodward, the president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this.” He implored his advisers at one meeting, “I want an exit strategy,” and he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

It’s unfortunate that the policy debate over Afghanistan will be further spun into a left-vs.-right issue. After all, there are growing, if nascent, signs that some on the political right have reservations about our continued military involvement in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), who earned an 80 percent favorable rating from the American Conservative Union, was a GOP co-sponsor to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) resolution to force the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In March, Congressman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) came to the Cato Institute and explained why “there is nothing conservative about the war in Afghanistan.”

And as Cato founder Ed Crane wrote last year in the pages of the LA Times:

Republicans should take this opportunity to return to their traditional non-interventionist roots, and throw their neoconservative wing under the bus and forcefully oppose the war in Afghanistan. The Republicans have a chance at this moment to reclaim the mantle of the party of non-intervention — in your health care, in your wallet, in your lifestyle, and in the affairs of other nations.

I am not a conservative, and neither are many of my Cato colleagues. But these comments are intended to highlight that leaving Afghanistan is far beyond Left vs. Right. In fact, many conservatives used to deride nation-building as a utopian venture that had little to do with the nation’s real interests. In the case of Afghanistan, troops are being deployed to prop up a regime Washington doesn’t trust, for goals our president can’t define. There is a principled case to be made that a prolonged nation-building occupation is weakening our country militarily and economically. It’s a question of scarce resources and limiting the power of government. The immense price tag for war in Afghanistan can no longer be swept under the carpet or dismissed as an issue owned by peaceniks and pacifists, much less “the Democratic Party.”

Pottery Barn Rule, Take 27

Last week, Iraq’s independent electoral commission disqualified 511 candidates – most of them Sunnis – from running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Today’s Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden is hurrying off to Baghdad to try to convince the Iraqis to change their minds. U.S. troop withdrawals were supposed to accelerate after the elections were held and a new government seated. But the elections have already been postponed at least once, and the administration is worried that the obvious bias against Sunnis could stoke sectarian tensions.

“U.S. officials are in a precarious position,” the Post story explains:

They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered – a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs – and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.

If that weren’t difficult enough, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be pressuring the Iraqis, and Prime Minister Maliki and his crew don’t want to appear to have been pressured. As a senior administration official told the Post:

“[N]o one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists” and no Iraqi decision-maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.

It is times like these when I am reminded of Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule. Never mind that he never publicly invoked that precise metaphor. Never mind that Pottery Barn has no rule. The point is that the average person understands the simple premise: you break it, you own it.

But what Powell actually told President George W. Bush in August 2002, if Bob Woodward’s reconstruction of the event is to be trusted, is actually more insightful and telling than the shorthand version. And it is particularly a propos with respect to the most-recent election kerfuffle.

“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems. You’ll own it all.”

We “own” the Iraqis without wanting to appear to own them. We are responsible for the behavior of the government that we put into power, but without the leverage (or inclination) to compel that government to do as we see fit. And we – all Americans, but especially the troops still stuck in that country – pay the price when they behave in ways harmful to our strategic interests. 

As the teenagers might say, “Good luck with that.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment in Afghanistan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, veteran newsman Bob Woodward recounts a recent meeting between National Security Advisor James Jones and a few dozen Marine officers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson. 

The subject on everyone’s mind: force levels. Saying that he was “a little light,” Nicholson hinted that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.

Of course he doesn’t. One senior military commander confided, in Woodward’s telling, ”that there would need to be more than 100,000 troops to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.”

So, Nicholson and other commanders were asking: Can we expect to receive additional troops in Afghanistan any time soon?

Jones’s answer: don’t bet on it.

The retired Marine Corps general reminded his audience in Helmand that Obama has approved two increases already. Going beyond merely an endorsement of the outgoing Bush admiministration’s decision to more than double the force in Afghanistan, Obama accepted the recommendation of his advisers to send an additional 17,000, and then shortly thereafter another 4,000.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops,…if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF – which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”

Nicholson and his colonels – all or nearly all veterans of Iraq – seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Nicholson and his Marines should be concerned. But so should all Americans. The men and women in our military have been given a mission that is highly dependent upon a very large number of troops, and they don’t have a very large number of troops. The clear, hold and build strategy is dangerous and difficult – even when you have the troop levels that the military’s doctrine recommends: 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous population. In a country the size of Afghanistan (with an estimated population of 33 million), that wouldn’t be 100,000 troops, that would be 660,000 troops.

Pacifying all of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible with one half that number of troops. It is foolhardy to even attempt such a mission with less than a sixth that many.

So, what gives? (Or, as the military folks might say, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?”)

It is doubtful that anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill honestly believes that 70,000 U.S. troops can turn Afghanistan into a central Asian version of Alabama – or even Algeria, for that matter. They might reasonably object that they aren’t trying to pacify the whole country, but rather the most restive provinces in the south and east. Perhaps barely 10 million people live there (which my calculator says would require a force of 200,000). Besides, they might go on, the 20 per 1,000 figure is just a guideline, just a rule-of-thumb. Some missions have succeeded with fewer than that ratio of troops, just as other missions have failed with troop ratios in excess of 20 : 1,000.

These seem to be nothing more than thin rationalizations. They reflect the fact that the American public would not support an open-ended mission in Afghanistan that would occupy essentially all of our Marine and Army personnel for many years. The “70,000 troops for who knows how long” is a political statement. They are pursuing a strategy shaped by focus groups and polls, rather than by doctrine and common sense.

No, that is not an argument for more troops. It is not an argument for ignoring public sentiment. It is an argument for a different mission.

The public’s growing ambivalence about the war in Afghanistan reflects a well-placed broader skepticism about population-centric counterinsurgency that are heavily dependent upon very large concentrations of troops staying in country for a very long period of time. Americans don’t support such missions, because the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. And they likely never will. They are equally skeptical of COIN’s intellectual cousin, ambitious nation-building projects.

And if I’m right, and if no one actually believes that killing suspected Taliban, destroying fields of poppies, building roads and bridges,  establishing judicial standards and training Afghan police is actually going to work, then, well,….

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

The mission in Afghanistan, especially the troop increases, appear more and more as face-saving gestures. A show of wanting to do something, even if policymakers doubt that it will actually succeed. It is a delaying action, a postponing of the inevitable, a kicking the can down the road.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that a miracle happens. I hope that the Taliban disappears. That Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and every other bad guy I can name winds up dead on an Afghan battlefield. Tomorrow, preferably. I hope that all Afghans (girls and boys) get an education and earn a decent living. I hope that Hamid Karzai learns how to govern, Afghan judges learn how to judge, and that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police quickly learn how to defend their own country.

In short, I hope that the people who are crafting our Afghan strategy know something that I don’t.

I fear, however, that the deaths and grievous injuries endured by our military personnel during this interim period, which may run for years or even decades, as we seek “peace with honor” or “a decent interval” (or pick your own favorite Vietnam cliche), will weigh heavily on the consciences of policy makers if, in the end, they have merely burdened these men and women with an impossible task.

Ask Robert McNamara how that feels.

McChrystal and Direct Action

Fred Kaplan and the New York Times say that the decision to replace General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stan McChrystal as the principle US commander in Afghanistan is another step in the COINification of the Pentagon under Robert Gates. They say we’ve replaced a conventional warfare guy with an unconventional warfare guy.

That’s too simple. McChrystal is known for his mastery of the sharp or kinetic end of the counterinsurgency mission. The command he headed from 2003 to 2008 – Joint Special Operations Command – is essentially the operational component of Special Operations Command, which has really become a fifth service. JSOC organizes special operations missions in war zones.  According to many officers, JSOC has also become enraptured with direct action. That means using intelligence from various sources to plan raids, often kicking down doors in the dead of night, interrogating people to generate more intelligence, doing it again immediately, and eventually capturing or killing insurgent leaders with the intelligence gleaned. 

Bob Woodward’s latest book argues that JSOC’s role in employing these tactics in Iraq was crucial to the supposed success of the surge. But some informed observers beg to differ, arguing that standard counterinsurgency tactics and the contributions of Iraqis themselves mattered far more.  Some complain that JSOC’s aggressive tactics and limited coordination with those in the regular chain of command undermined pacification efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the (recently released!) book on the post Cold War evolution of the US military that I co-edited, Colin Jackson and Austin Long have a chapter discussing the politics of special operations command. They argue that the direct action theory of victory in counterinsurgency is a close relative to the air force’s theory of decapitation, which says you can defeat a nation by attacking its leaders from the air.  They explain that direct action has long been the favored tactic of secret or “black” SOF organizations like Delta Force, but that the wars made it the dominant mission in SOCOM as a whole, crowding traditional “white” counterinsurgency missions like population protection, force training, and civil affairs. To them, that is a problem, because the direct action theory of victory is badly flawed.  You can’t kill your way to victory in these sorts of wars, they argue. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, I’d add, where distance and poor roads make the exploitation of intelligence far more time-consuming.

I don’t know to what extent McChrystal shares the black SOF worldview. He would probably say that direct action is just part of the toolkit.  It is possible, however, that his appointment reflects a decision to downplay nation-building in Afghanistan and focus more on killing raids and training Afghan soldiers.

It is also interesting to speculate about what Michael Vickers (the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities) had to say about this. Vickers – a key advisor to Gates and a carry-over from the Bush administration – is said to be skeptical about troop surges in counterinsurgency, preferring to train local forces.

According to Greg Grant of DoD Buzz:

In a speech before a defense industry gathering last month, Vickers said he foresees a shift over time from the manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to more “distributed operations across the world,” relying on close to 100 small teams of special operations forces to hunt down terrorist networks, part of a “global radical Islamist insurgency.”

I don’t like the across the world part, but if this appointment means more limited objectives in Afghanistan, it’s good news.

A final note on McChrystal: he reportedly runs many miles a day, sleeps only a few hours, and avoids eating until evening to avoid sluggishness. Apparently the iron-man thing goes over well with Rangers, but I think commanders, whose job is mostly thinking, should get a good night’s sleep and three square.