Tag: david petraeus

Fred Kaplan on David Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

I have a new blog post up at US News and World Report discussing Fred Kaplan’s latest book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a terrific book about a very important subject. 

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred at Cato in a few weeks. I’ve been a Kaplan fan for nearly two decades, since I first read his classic, The Wizards of Armageddon. I also thoroughly enjoyed Daydream Believers, about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. It is an honor to be able to personally welcome him to Cato.

I’m particularly interested in the subject of his latest book: counterinsurgency (COIN). The discussion at Cato, which will also feature comments by Janine Davidson and Spencer Ackerman, hearkens back to several others that I’ve hosted or participated in. 

One in particular sticks out. Back in 2006, Cato published a paper on the American way of war by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. I thought the paper was outstanding at the time, and, upon rereading it this week, I was struck by how much of what Jeff observed overlaps with a discussion about COIN that Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 (the focus of my blog post at US News). He couldn’t know this at the time he was writing, of course, but it just so happens that many of Jeff’s questions and concerns about COIN were shared by many others within the national security establishment, including those who Gen. Petraeus invited to vet the COIN manual. (Those interested in the subject might also want to watch or listen to the event that we hosted with Jeff, Tom Ricks, and Conrad Crane, one of the principle authors of the COIN manual, FM 3-24.) 

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure in entering small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. Most such wars…do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation…. 

If this analysis is correct, the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake…. 

Avoidance of such conflicts means abandonment of regime-change wars that saddle the United States with responsibility for establishing political stability and state building, tasks that have rarely commanded public or congressional enthusiasm. 

Other elements of the discussion re: COIN were echoed in a paper that I coauthored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky in 2008: 

The problem with counterinsurgency warfare is not that its theory of victory is illogical. If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of foreign powers. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal…. 

Another reason Americans will struggle to master counterinsurgency doctrine is that it requires a foreign policy at odds with our national character… 

Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense. 

In The Insurgents, Fred Kaplan, summarizing a set of questions and comments from those who reviewed the COIN manual before it was published, asks “whether counterinsurgency was even possible? The question,” Kaplan writes, “had two parts. Was the U.S. Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?” 

I think we know the answer now, and we could have known it in 2006, before the Iraq surge, or in 2008, well before the Afghan surge. Instead, we chose to believe the opposite of what history and logic taught us. 

What do we have to show for it?

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

Top General Weighs In

Oh, no, not that general. I’m talking about Eisenhower, as quoted in the June 16, 1952 issue of Quick magazine.

Asked what he thought about “compulsory health insurance,” Ike came out “against submitting our lives toward a control that would lead inevitably to socialism.” Now we get to find out if Ike was right.

 

Topics:

U.S. Taxpayers Subsidize Afghan Insurgents

Less than a week after President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and proclaimed, “We broke the Taliban’s momentum,” the chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees offered a candid assessment of the U.S. mission. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), alongside Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I think we’d both say that what we found is that the Taliban is stronger.” Their observations are the type of unvarnished truth that our military and civilian leaders typically avoid. U.S. and NATO officials meeting in Chicago later this month should take heed, especially since American taxpayer dollars are helping to fund the insurgents we’re fighting.

In a not-much publicized report last August from the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, researchers found that after the illegal opium trade, the largest source of funding for the insurgency was U.S. contracting dollars. It found that Afghan companies under the Host Nation Trucking program use private security contractors who then turn around and pay insurgents and warlords who control the roads we must use. Although the Commission on Wartime Contracting report did not mention how much was funneled to the insurgency, a similar protection racket was also uncovered a couple of years ago.

Task Force 2010, assembled by General David Petraeus, examined the connections between insurgents and criminal networks on the one hand and Afghan companies and their subcontractors for transportation, construction, and other services on the other. The task force estimated that $360 million in U.S. tax dollars ended up in the hands of insurgents and other “malign actors,” including criminals, warlords, and power-brokers.

The $360 million “represents a fraction of the $31 billion in active U.S. contracts that the task force reviewed,” Associated Press reporters Deb Riechmann and Richard Lardner explained. As Brussels-based International Crisis Group observed in a depressingly frank June 2011 report:

Insecurity and the inflow of billions of dollars in international assistance has failed to significantly strengthen the state’s capacity to provide security or basic services and has instead, by progressively fusing the interests of political gatekeepers and insurgent commanders, provided new opportunities for criminals and insurgents to expand their influence inside the government. The economy as a result is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen.

Is it any wonder why pouring massive piles of cash into a broken and war-ravaged system resulted in failure? Those who follow the news from Afghanistan will see how rent-seeking inadvertently strengthens that country’s twin evils: corruption and insecurity. As journalist Douglas A. Wissing writes in his eye-opening new book, Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, in addition to foreign development advisers preoccupied with their own career advancement, development money itself was not countering the insurgency but rather paying for it. Combined with an enemy whose strategy was always about exhaustion, the result has been catastrophic.

Wissing writes, “I learned that the linkage between third-world development and US national security that foreign-aid lobbyists peddled to American policymakers was a faith-based doctrine with almost no foundation in research.” Year after year, the American public was spoon-fed government reports that lacked honesty about why our top-down security and development programs were constantly failing. Buildings were poorly constructed. Projects were bereft of proper oversight. Schools were built without teachers to staff them. Road construction contracts financed insurgent racketeering operations.

The undistorted evidence of a European-based think tank, a bipartisan congressional commission, and a report from military experts, assembled by the war’s former commander, leads to one conclusion: the war is inadvertently throwing American taxpayer dollars at insurgents killing American troops. What about this self-aggrandizing system is making Americans safer? Moreover, what about the safety of the Afghans whom planners in Washington swore to protect from the Taliban? In spite of the tripling of U.S. troops since 2008, a recent report by the U.N. mission concluded that 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose.

As Feinstein said to CNN on Sunday, “The Taliban has a shadow system of governors in many provinces. They’ve gone up north. They’ve gone to the east. Attacks are up.” After over a decade of inadvertently funding the enemy and alienating the local people, Americans should not be surprised with such a dire outcome. If anything, they should be surprised that their elected leaders are finally telling the truth.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Rovner on the CIA and Afghanistan

Joshua Rovner has a thoughtful post up at The National Interest’s The Skeptics today, and it reminded me to plug Josh’s book, and the event that we are hosting with him, Paul Pillar, and Mark Lowenthal on Monday, October 31st. It should be a terrific discussion. Details here.

Rovner’s blog post fits directly with the themes addressed in the book, but it also touches on something that I wrote about several months ago: would the appointment of David Petraeus as CIA Director subtly affect the agency’s assessment of progress—or lack thereof—in Afghanistan? Josh nicely summarizes the relevant concerns as Petraeus prepared to assume his new duties:

Petraeus was the public champion of the counterinsurgency doctrine that he claimed was necessary to defeat the Taliban and deliver stability to Afghanistan. How could he protect the objectivity of CIA analyses when he had such an obvious conflict of interest? Would he faithfully transmit analysts’ conclusions to policymakers, even if they implicitly criticized his approach to the war?

Petraeus addressed these concerns during his Senate confirmation hearings in June. “My goal has always been to ‘speak truth to power,’” he said, “and I will strive to do that as Director of the CIA.”

Rovner then explains what happened next, beginning last Thursday with Kim Dozier’s story for the AP that described a change in CIA analysis of Afghanistan that incorporated more information from military commanders on the ground. Citing a senior intelligence official, the story explained that ”Critics of the change say allowing the military more pushback will have a chilling effect on the analysts’ ability to give the war a failing grade.” Another “intelligence official expressed concern that this would institutionalize the former general’s habit when in Afghanistan of challenging the CIA’s unflattering conclusions.”

CIA officials denounced the report the following day, and Petraeus responded with a memorandum to all CIA employees on the AP story which, he said, “presents an inaccurate picture of my thoughts on the CIA’s Afghanistan analysis.” The change was made before Petraeus assumed duties as director, the memo explains, and it “will in no way undermine the objectivity of DI analysis on the war in Afghanistan. We will still ‘call it like we see it,’ but now with even better ground truth.”

The original story, and the CIA and Petraeus’s responses to it, have an air of “he said, she said” about them. Perhaps this was an honest attempt to improve the quality of intelligence from Afghanistan? Perhaps it was intended to shape the outcome in a more positive direction? Who knows? Rovner hones in on the essential question:

Take Petraeus at his word, accept his promises that he will not let vested interests affect his management decisions, and assume that the shift in the assessment process is not an attempt to manipulate intelligence. Is it still a good idea?

There is obvious value in incorporating military views into intelligence products. Field commanders can offer uniquely detailed views on the nature of the conflict. Continued fighting allows them to monitor enemy tactics as well as changes in the enemy’s level of effort. Their interaction with civilians also allows them to gauge public sentiment, at least at the local level. Done well, military assessments can paint a vivid portrait of the overall course of the war.

But assessments are not always done well. One reason is that they are inherently narrow. This is not to criticize: troops operating in a small area inevitably see the war through a soda straw. Nonetheless, they might conclude that trends in their own area are representative of larger trends throughout the country. Avoiding this problem requires methodical efforts to aggregate micro-level military perspectives into macro-level analyses while remaining cognizant of the serious analytical dangers involved.

Rovner concludes:

Accurate and timely intelligence will be critical as the Obama administration reconsiders what kinds of political outcomes are possible with a stripped-down force in Afghanistan. Integrating military views might lead to more comprehensive CIA assessments, but it might lead to more confusion if bad metrics are included for the sake of keeping estimates current. Hopefully the dust-up over the AP report will remind CIA officials to remain on guard against politicization, and to make sure that the changes in the assessment process do not lead to false optimism.

Read the whole thing here. And register for the event here.

Has President Obama Given up on Changing U.S. Foreign Policy?

Today in Politico I have an op-ed titled “How Washington changed Obama.” In the piece, I argue that the recent appointments of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA, combined with revelations in the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, suggest that President Obama has given up on changing U.S. foreign and defense policy:

Panetta is a dubious choice to fulfill Obama’s recent pledge to trim military spending. Any secretary charged with realizing that pledge would need extraordinary credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom are determined to continue raining money on the Pentagon regardless of the nation’s parlous fiscal position. Despite having once been a Republican, Panetta ran for Congress as Democrat and has served prominently in Democratic administrations. He is unlikely to craft the pragmatic consensus needed to give the Pentagon a haircut.

Petraeus’s nomination poses a different problem. He has spent the past decade focused— at the behest of his commanders in chief —  on what we used to call the “global war on terrorism.” But is U.S. nation-building in the Muslim world the most important national security and intelligence problem we face today?

[…]

The U.S. desperately needs to change its focus. We account for roughly half the world’s military spending, yet we feel terribly insecure. We infantilize our allies so that they won’t pay to defend themselves and instead allow us to do it for them. We stumble into small- and medium-sized foreign quagmires the way many people eat breakfast — frequently and without much thought.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.

Appointment of Panetta and Petraeus Signals More of the Same

The report that Leon Panetta will be appointed Secretary of Defense, and Gen. David Petraeus will become the new CIA director, does not come as a huge surprise. But I worry that President Obama’s decision to fill these positions from within his administration signals an unwillingness to rethink U.S. foreign policy. Such a reevaluation is desperately needed.

Leon Panetta brings some experience in national security affairs to DoD, including his stints at CIA and on Capitol Hill, and as a member of the Iraq Study Group. His more relevant experience, however, may be as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. Bob Gates effectively shielded the Pentagon from spending cuts, but that merely postponed the reckoning that Panetta will have to confront.

Considerable cuts, beyond even the $400 billion-over-12-year target that President Obama announced earlier this month, will require a fundamental rethinking of the military’s role, something that Gates was unwilling to do. It remains to be seen whether Panetta will tackle this challenge, or whether he will defer to others within the administration.

A new role for the military and the United States would shed unnecessary missions, and relieve some of the burdens on our troops. In all likelihood, such a change must be directed from the Oval Office, not the Pentagon.

The appointment of Petraeus to head the CIA is puzzling. I worry that the appointment of a military officer to lead a civilian agency raises questions about Obama’s faith in senior leaders from within the CIA who might have moved into the top role.

The agency has questioned some of the rosier predictions of impending success in Afghanistan, and I hope that Petraeus’s move to Langley doesn’t result in a change of those candid assessments. More generally, Petraeus has focused nearly all of his energies over the past nine years trying to perfect the U.S. military’s ability to fight wars that most Americans now wisely oppose. His insights into future opportunities and challenges is unclear. We should be putting these wars that sap our nation’s strength and undermine our security in the country’s rearview mirror. Instead, Petraeus appears committed to a long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, and others like it.