Tag: Pakistan

Overcommitted in Afghanistan

Saturday’s Washington Post ran a story titled “Lawmakers Push for a New Afghan Strategy.” Notably, the number of conservative policymakers looking for a change is growing significantly, as evidenced by the comments of the former governor of Utah (and possible presidential candidate), Republican John Huntsman and Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) on CNN yesterday.

If they would like a serious proposal that would bring our level of commitment in line with our interests in Afghanistan, they should have a look at this just-released paper [.pdf] by Joshua Rovner of the U.S. Naval War College and Austin Long of Columbia University. Rovner and Long take aim at the two central justifications for the present strategy–fear of “safe havens” and concerns over instability in Afghanistan putting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs–and judge that the current strategy has little to do with those objectives. Instead, they propose a significant change in strategy that would secure our vital interests in that nation at a cost more commensurate with our interests.

One thing that policymakers should know about the issue is that public opinion is resoundingly in favor of withdrawal, not staying the current course indefinitely. As Rovner and Long point out, a March Washington Post poll showed that 73 percent of Americans thought that the United States should “withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer” (although only 39 percent expected that Washington would do so).

Increasing numbers of Republicans seem to be recognizing that the mainstream neoconservative view that we need to stay in numbers in Afghanistan forever is out of step with both sound strategic judgment and public opinion. In a recent House vote on withdrawing from Afghanistan, the number of Republicans voting yes tripled from the last vote on the question (although still a low figure).

If policymakers want to know the responsible way to a more solvent strategy in Afghanistan, they should give the Rovner/Long paper a read. Or they can send staff to our event on the paper here at Cato June 29, featuring Rovner, my colleague Malou Innocent, Joshua Foust of the American Security Project, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

The tendency to treat Osama bin Laden’s killing as national holiday akin to V-E day is both understandable and unfortunate. Everyone with a sense of justice appreciates the death of mass murderers, particularly the terrorist sort. But celebrating as if we killed Hitler or won a war plays into al Qaeda’s self-serving myth. Paul Pillar put it well:

An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin’s narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States.

We should also avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But the fact that Sunday’s events do not serve pro-war arguments does not show logically, the correctness of the anti-war position, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget.  That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

4. Bin Laden’s leadership of al Qaeda. The Washington Times insists that finding communication equipment among bin Laden’s effects shows that he was actually running not only al Qaeda central but also its affiliates. They offer little evidence for that conclusion. The fact that bin Laden communicated does not mean that he commanded. There is little reason to suppose that he could control the far flung and disparate entities that use the name al Qaeda, whatever his intent. The National Journal, meanwhile, makes similar assumptions about bin Laden’s operational control in reporting that American authorities expect “a treasure trove of intelligence” to come from bin Laden’s hideout, in the form of thumb drives, hard drives and papers. Even if bin Laden was still capable of providing substantial intelligence on his associates, it is unlikely that he left it sitting around to be gathered. A guy that survived for over a decade while being hunted by various enemies probably knows enough to regularly destroy documents and files. Maybe he got sloppy, but certainly we should not expect to quickly roll up much of the remaining al Qaeda central leadership based on this event.

5. Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda. Prior to bin Laden’s death we knew that Pakistan was not as dedicated to hunting al Qaeda as it could have been. It was reasonable to guess that elements of its security and intelligence apparatus either tolerated (if only by looking the other way) or actively supported al Qaeda members. Today the same is true. That bin Laden was living under the nose of the Pakistani military does not show that he was its official guest. And if bin Laden had the help of some Pakistani intelligence or military personnel, it does not follow that many higher-ups were complicit. Pakistan is a factionalized society with weak civilian control of security agencies. It is hard to know who knows what about what or where lies the line between active complicity and unwillingness to look for things one is not eager to find. To be clear, I am not arguing that no Pakistani official is guilty of harboring bin Laden. The point is rather than no new degree of guilt has become obvious since Sunday. Like number four, this issue should be become clearer as more information comes to light.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Wednesday Links

  • Osama bin Laden’s death gives us a chance to end what might have become an era of permanent emergency and perpetual war.
  • The Cold War ended–what are we doing in Korea?
  • Two cheers for President Obama for ending eight (well, three) tax breaks to oil companies.
  • Does Osama bin Laden’s death mean an end to U.S.-Pakistan relations?
  • Please join us next Tuesday, May 10 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for a Cato Book Forum on America’s Allies and War: Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by University of Mary Washington political scientist Jason W. Davidson. Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Georgetown University international relations professor Charles Kupchan will join Professor Davidson in a discussion of the book and its themes, particularly U.S. relations with NATO allies, moderated by Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble. Complimentary registration is required of all attendees by Monday, May 9 at noon Eastern. We hope you can join us in person, but we encourage you to watch online if you cannot attend personally.

Tuesday Links

  • “Given America’s large-scale, long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, another chapter remains unfinished.”
  • It doesn’t make a lot of sense to refer to a government whose intelligence service assists military efforts by al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan as an ‘ally.’”
  • “Terrorists are not superhuman.”
  • “Physicians must either make up for this shortfall by shifting costs to those patients with insurance — meaning those of us with insurance pay more — or treat patients at a loss.”
  • Is America in a libertarian moment?


After bin Laden

As Chris Preble noted early Monday morning, Osama bin Laden is dead. In addition to celebrating V-OBL Day, we should take a moment to reflect on wars of the last decade and the civil liberties we have sacrificed since September 11, 2001. Malou Innocent makes the case for reconsidering our foreign policy, and Jim Harper asks if he can have his airport back. We lay out these thoughts in more detail in this Cato video, After bin Laden.

The phrase “after bin Laden” has a nice ring to it. Cato held counterterrorism conferences in 2009 and 2010, and there’s more Cato work on counterterrorism and homeland security here.

Monday Links

The Current Wisdom: Overplaying the Human Contribution to Recent Weather Extremes

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

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 The recent publication of two articles in Nature magazine proclaiming a link to rainfall extremes (and flooding) to global warming, added to the heat in Russia and the floods in Pakistan in the summer of 2010, and the back-to-back cold and snowy winters in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, have gotten a lot of public attention.  This includes a recent hearing in the House of Representatives, despite its Republican majority.  Tying weather extremes to global warming, or using them as “proof” that warming doesn’t exist (see: snowstorms), is a popular rhetorical flourish by politicos of all stripes.  

The hearing struck many as quite odd, inasmuch as it is much clearer than apocalyptic global warming that the House is going to pass meaningless legislation commanding the EPA to cease and desist from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  “Meaningless” means that it surely will not become law.  Even on the long-shot probability that it passes the Senate, the President will surely veto, and there are nowhere near enough votes to override such an action.

Perhaps “wolf!” has been cried yet again.  A string of soon-to-be-published papers in the scientific literature finds that despite all hue and cry about global warming and recent extreme weather events, natural climate variability is to blame.

Where to start?  How about last summer’s Russian heat wave?

The Russian heat wave (and to some degree the floods in Pakistan) have been linked to the same large-scale, stationary weather system, called an atmospheric “blocking” pattern. When the atmosphere is “blocked” it means that it stays in the same configuration for period of several weeks (or more) and keeps delivering the same weather to the same area for what can seem like an eternity to people in the way.  Capitalizing on the misery in Russia and Pakistan, atmospheric blocking was added to the list of things that were supposed to be “consistent with” anthropogenically stimulated global warming which already, of course included heat waves and floods. And thus the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 became part of global warming lore.

But then a funny thing happened – scientists with a working knowledge of atmospheric dynamics started to review the situation and found scant evidence for global warming.

The first chink in the armor came back in the fall of 2010, when scientists from the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented the results of their preliminary investigation on the web , and concluded that “[d]espite this strong evidence for a warming planet, greenhouse gas forcing fails to explain the 2010 heat wave over western Russia. The natural process of atmospheric blocking, and the climate impacts induced by such blocking, are the principal cause for this heat wave.”

The PSD folks have now followed this up with a new peer-reviewed article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that rejects the global warming explanation. The paper is titled “Was There a Basis for Anticipating the 2010 Russian Heat Wave?” Turns out that there wasn’t.

To prove this, the research team, led by PSD’s Randall Dole, first reviewed the observed temperature history of the region affected by the heat wave (western Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Baltic nations). To start, they looked at the recent antecedent conditions: “Despite record warm globally-averaged surface temperatures over the first six months of 2010, Moscow experienced an unusually cold winter and a relatively mild but variable spring, providing no hint of the record heat yet to come.” Nothing there.

Then they looked at the long-term temperature record: “The July surface temperatures for the region impacted by the 2010 Russian heat wave shows no significant warming trend over the prior 130-year period from 1880 to 2009…. A linear trend calculation yields a total temperature change over the 130 years of -0.1°C (with a range of 0 to -0.4°C over the four data sets [they examined]).” There’s not a hint of a build-up to a big heat wave.

And as to the behavior of temperature extremes: “There is also no clear indication of a trend toward increasing warm extremes. The prior 10 warmest Julys are distributed across the entire period and exhibit only modest clustering earlier in this decade, in the 1980s and in the 1930s…. This behavior differs substantially from globally averaged annual temperatures, for which eleven of the last twelve years ending in 2006 rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record since 1850….”

With regard any indication that “global” warming was pushing temperatures higher in Russia and thus helped to fuel the extreme heat last summer, Dole et al. say this: “With no significant long-term trend in western Russia July surface temperatures detected over the period 1880-2009, mean regional temperature changes are thus very unlikely to have contributed substantially to the magnitude of the 2010 Russian heat wave.”

Next the PSD folks looked to see if the existing larger-scale antecedent conditions, fed into climate models would produce the atmospheric circulation patterns (i.e. blocking) that gave rise to the heat wave.  The tested “predictors” included patterns of sea surface temperature and arctic ice coverage, which most people feel have been subject to some human influence.  No relationship: “These findings suggest that the blocking and heat wave were not primarily a forced response to specific boundary conditions during 2010.”

In fact, the climate models exhibited no predilection for projecting increases in the frequency of atmospheric blocking patterns over the region as greenhouse gas concentrations increased. Just the opposite: “Results using very high-resolution climate models suggest that the number of Euro-Atlantic blocking events will decrease by the latter half of the 21st century.”

At this point, Dole and colleagues had about exhausted all lines of inquiry and summed things up:

 Our analysis points to a primarily natural cause for the Russian heat wave. This event appears to be mainly due to internal atmospheric dynamical processes that produced and maintained an intense and long-lived blocking event. Results from prior studies suggest that it is likely that the intensity of the heat wave was further increased by regional land surface feedbacks. The absence of long-term trends in regional mean temperatures and variability together with the model results indicate that it is very unlikely that warming attributable to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations contributed substantially to the magnitude of this heat wave.

Can’t be much clearer than that.

But that was last summer. What about the past two winters? Both were very cold in the eastern U.S. with record snows events and/or totals scattered about the country.

Cold, snow, and global warming? On Christmas Day 2010, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Judah Cohen, a long-range forecaster for the private forecasting firm Atmospheric and Environmental Research, outlining his theory as to how late summer Arctic ice declines lead to more fall snow cover across Siberia which in turn induces atmospheric circulation patterns to favor snowstorms along the East Coast of the U.S. Just last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a news conference where they handed out a press release  headlined “Climate Change Makes Major Snowstorms Likely.” In that release, Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, laid out his theory as to how the loss of Arctic sea ice is helping to provide more moisture to fuel winter snowstorms across the U.S. as well as altering atmospheric circulation patterns into a preferred state for big snowstorms. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters chimed in with “Heavy snowstorms are not inconsistent with a warming planet.”

As is the wont for this Wisdom, let’s go back to the scientific literature.

Another soon-to-be released paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters describes the results of using the seasonal weather prediction model from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) to help untangle the causes of the unusual atmospheric circulation patterns that gave rise to the harsh winter of 2009-2010 on both sides of the Atlantic. A team of ECMWF scientists led by Thomas Jung went back and did experiments changing initial conditions that were fed into the ECMWF model and then assessed how well the model simulated the known weather patterns of the winter of 2009-2010. The different set of initial conditions was selected so as to test all the pet theories behind the origins of the harsh winter.  Jung et al. describe their investigations this way: “Here, the origin and predictability of the unusual winter of 2009/10 are explored through numerical experimentation with the ECMWF Monthly forecasting system. More specifically, the role of anomalies in sea surface temperature (SST) and sea ice, the tropical atmospheric circulation, the stratospheric polar vortex, solar insolation and near surface temperature (proxy for snow cover) are examined.”

Here is what they found after running their series of experiments.

Arctic sea ice and sea surface temperature anomalies.  These are often associated with global warming caused by people. Finding:  “These results suggest that neither SST nor sea ice anomalies explain the negative phase of the NAO during the 2009/10 winter.”

(NAO are the commonly used initials for the North Atlantic Oscillation – and atmospheric circulation pattern that can act to influence winter weather in the eastern U.S. and western Europe. A negative phase of the NAO is associated with cold and stormy weather and during the winter of 2009-10, the NAO value was the lowest ever observed.)

A global warming-induced weakening stratospheric (upper-atmosphere) jetstream. “Like for the other experiments, these stratospheric relaxation experiments fail to reproduce the magnitude of the observed NAO anomaly.”

Siberian snow cover.  “The resulting [upper air patterns] show little resemblance with the observations…. The implied weak role of snow cover anomalies is consistent with other research….”

Solar variability.  “The experiments carried out in this study suggest that the impact of anomalously low incoming [ultraviolet] radiation on the tropospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region are very small… suggesting that the unusually low solar activity contributed little, if any, to the observed NAO anomaly during the 2009/10 winter.”

Ok then, well what did cause the unusual weather patterns during the 2009-10 winter?

The results of this study, therefore, increase the likelihood that both the development and persistence of negative NAO phase resulted from internal atmospheric dynamical processes.

Translation: Random variability.

To drive this finding home, here’s another soon-to-be-released paper (D’Arrigo et al., 2001) that uses tree ring-based reconstructions of atmospheric circulation patterns and finds a similar set of conditions (including a negative NAO value second only to the 2009-10 winter) was responsible for the historically harsh winter of 1783-84 in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, which  was widely noted by historians. It followed the stupendous eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki the previous summer. The frigid and snowy winter conditions have been blamed on the volcano. In fact, Benjamin Franklin even commented as much.

But in their new study, Roseanne D’Arrigo and colleagues conclude that the harshness of that winter primarily was the result of anomalous atmospheric circulation patterns that closely resembled those observed during the winter of 2009-10, and that the previous summer’s volcanic eruption played a far less prominent role:

Our results suggest that Franklin and others may have been mistaken in attributing winter conditions in 1783-4 mainly to Laki or another eruption, rather than unforced variability.

Similarly, conditions during the 2009-10 winter likely resulted from natural [atmospheric] variability, not tied to greenhouse gas forcing… Evidence thus suggests that these winters were linked to the rare but natural occurrence of negative NAO and El Niño events.

The point is that natural variability can and does produce extreme events on every time scale, from days (e.g., individual storms), weeks (e.g., the Russian heat wave), months (e.g., the winter of 2009-10), decades (e.g., the lack of global warming since 1998), centuries (e.g., the Little Ice Age), millennia (e.g., the cycle of major Ice Ages), and eons (e.g., snowball earth).

Folks would do well to keep this in mind next time global warming is being posited for the weather disaster du jour. Almost assuredly, it is all hype and little might.

Too bad these results weren’t given a “hearing” in the House!

References:

D’Arrigo, R., et al., 2011. The anomalous winter of 1783-1784: Was the Laki eruption or an analog of the 2009–2010 winter to blame? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Dole, R., et al., 2011. Was there a basis for anticipating the 2010 Russian heat wave? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Jung et al., 2011. Origin and predictability of the extreme negative NAO winter of 2009/10. Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Min, S-K., et al., 2011. Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes. Nature, 470, 378-381.

Pall, P., et al., 2011. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000. Nature, 470, 382-386.