Tag: Security

President Obama to Announce Troop Increase in Afghanistan

afghanistan mapThere are two things that President Obama’s plan won’t do: win the war, or end the war.

While all Americans hope that the mission in Afghanistan will turn out well, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine says that stabilizing a country the size of Afghanistan would require far more troops than the most wild-eyed hawk has proposed: about 600,000 troops. An additional 30 to 40,000 troops isn’t just a case of too little, too late; it holds almost no prospect of winning the war. Accordingly, this likely won’t be the last prime-time address in which the president proposes sending many more troops to Afghanistan; my greatest fear is that this is only the first of many.

But we shouldn’t just commit still more troops. President Obama should have recognized that the goals he set forth in March went too far. A better strategic review would have revisited our core objectives and assumptions. It would have focused on a narrower set of achievable objectives that are directly connected to vital U.S. security interests—chiefly disrupting al Qaeda’s ability to do harm—and that would have left the rebuilding of Afghanistan to Afghans, not Americans. President Obama’s national security team seems not to have even considered this course. Instead, the administration focused on repackaging the same grandiose strategy.

Secretary of Defense Gates fixed on the dilemma several weeks ago when he pondered aloud: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?”

It turns out you can’t. The president’s decision to deepen our commitment to Afghanistan while simultaneously promising an exit is ultimately absurd on its face.

I’d be surprised if any foreign policy analyst would bet his or her next paycheck that this is going to work. I wouldn’t.

Who Reads the Readers?

This is a reminder, citizen: Only cranks worry about vastly increased governmental power to gather transactional data about Americans’ online behavior. Why, just last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) informed us that there has not been any “demonstrated or recent abuse” of such authority by means of National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to obtain many telecommunications records without court order. I mean, the last Inspector General report finding widespread and systemic abuse of those came out, like, over a year ago! And as defenders of expanded NSL powers often remind us, similar records can often be obtained by grand jury subpoena.

Subpoenas like, for instance, the one issued last year seeking the complete traffic logs of the left-wing site Indymedia for a particular day. According to tech journo Declan McCullah:

It instructed [System administrator Kristina] Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

The sweeping request came with a gag order prohibiting Clair from talking about it. (As a constitutional matter, courts have found that recipients of such orders must at least be allowed to discuss them with attorneys in order to seek advise about their legality, but the subpoena contained no notice of that fact.) Justice Department officials tell McCullagh that the request was never reviewed directly by the Attorney General, as is normally required when information is sought from a press organization. Clair did tell attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and  when they wrote to U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison questioning the propriety of the request, it was promptly withdrawn. EFF’s Kevin Bankston explains the legal problems with the subpoena at length.

Perhaps ironically, the targeting of Indymedia, which is about as far left as news sites get, may finally hep the populist right to the perils of the burgeoning surveillance state. It seems to have piqued Glenn Beck’s interest, and McCullagh went on Lou Dobbs’ show to talk about the story. Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.  This always struck me as both incoherent and a tragic waste of paranoia. Now that we’ve had a rather public reminder that such powers can be used to compile databases of people with politically unorthodox browsing habits, perhaps Beck—who seems to be something of an amateur historian—will take some time to delve into the story of COINTELPRO and other related projects our intelligence community busied itself with before we established an architecture of surveillance oversight in the late ’70s.

You know, the one we’ve spent the past eight years dismantling.

Cause for Alarm in Iraq, or Just a Ripple?

Najim Abed al-Jabouri, former mayor of Tal Afar, has a piece in the Times that seems like cause for alarm:

Both the military and the police remain heavily politicized. The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. Members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.

The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

More recently, the Iraqi Awakening Conference, a tribal-centric political party based in Anbar Province (where Sunni tribesmen, the so-called Sons of Iraq, turned against the insurgency during the surge) has gained influence over the Seventh Iraq Army Division, which was heavily involved in recruiting Sunnis to maintain security in 2006.

Hadi Mizban/Associated PressHadi Mizban/Associated Press

Now, via Spencer Ackerman, we find out that there may be support for al-Jabouri’s fear that “these political schisms are partly responsible for coordinated terrorist attacks like those on Sunday or the so-called Bloody Wednesday bombings of Aug. 19, which killed more than 100.”  61 Iraqi army and police officers were just arrested in connection with Sunday’s blasts, part of the effects of which you see over there on the side of the post.

Al-Jabouri writes ominously that

in a little more than two years, the United States drawdown of forces will be complete.  In that time, the Iraqi security forces can go further in the direction of ethno-sectarianism, or they can find a new nationalism.  True, the status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit. But deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable. The better alternative is to reform and gain the confidence of Iraqis. The people will trust the security forces if they are seen as impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties, and if they embody the diversity and tolerance that we Iraqis have long claimed to be a defining characteristic.

President Bush was making a good point in 2005 when he said on al Arabiya that “the future of Iraq depends upon Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character – the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging.” I think this overall point is right and fundamentally unanswered, at least according to al-Jabouri.  Barbara Walter, one of the leading academics studying civil wars, wrote in August that Iraq would likely melt down if U.S. troops left, worrying about what she called “the settlement dilemma”:

Combatants who end their civil war in a compromise settlement – such as the agreement to share power in Iraq – almost always return to war unless a third party is there to help them enforce the terms. That’s because agreements leave combatants, especially weaker combatants, vulnerable to exploitation once they disarm, demobilize and prepare for peace. In the absence of third-party enforcement, the weaker side is better off trying to fight for full control of the state now, rather than accepting an agreement that would leave it open to abuse in the future.

Finally, al-Jabouri’s “better alternative” seems to amount to praying for a miracle.  It’s not clear what can make Iraqis come to perceive sectarian security forces as “impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties,” and fundamentally national rather than sub-national.  (Perhaps I was suckered once again by Bill Kristol when he told me in January of this year that George W. Bush’s greatest achievement was “winning the war in Iraq.”)

Given the enduring sectarianism and the relative weakness of Iraqi nationalism al-Jabouri describes, it could be interesting or even scary to see what hatches out of the egg we’ve been perched atop for the last six and a half years.

Update: I neglected to include a link to Nir Rosen’s detailed Boston Review piece on the changing nature of inter- and intra-sectarian political allegiances in Iraq.  It’s definitely worth reading, for people interested in the issue.

1,000 Troops = $1 Billion/Year

There is a useful math lesson buried near the end of Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung’s widely discussed story on an Afghan war game that the Obama administration is using to weigh the costs and risks of competing strategies.

One question being debated is whether more U.S. troops would improve the performance of the Afghan government by providing an important check on corruption and the drug trade, or would they stunt the growth of the Afghan government as U.S. troops and civilians take on more tasks that Afghans might better perform themselves. Another factor is cost. The Pentagon has budgeted about $65 billion to maintain a force of about 68,000 troops, meaning that each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would cost about $1 billion a year.

I haven’t seen this figure before, and it is based upon a back-of-the-envelope calculation that might be undone by economies of scale. It is not obvious, for example, that the first 1,000 troops would cost the same as the last 1,000. Still, it is a reasonable estimate that is apparently being used inside of the Obama administration.

Accepting the number as basically accurate, the question then turns to “Is it worth it?” That can only be answered by weighing the opportunity costs.

If the Obama administration goes along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, and therefore chooses to spend additional money on this mission, the administration is saying, in effect, that an expanded troop presence will do more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than if the money had been spent on countless other missions and programs ostensibly directed to the same purpose.

Count me a skeptic. There is considerable evidence that a large-scale and open-ended troop presence is counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, there have been a number of highly effective counterterrorism programs that cost far, far less than even $1 billion a year. The proponents of a huge troop increase in Afghanistan obviously disagree, and thus implicitly claim that $40 billion is money well spent (for reference, the entire Dept. of Homeland Security budget for FY 2010 will total $42.8 billion).

Let the advocates for a larger troop presence attempt to make that case. At least now we have a tangible measure for weighing competing options. Thanks to Jaffe and DeYoung for shedding some light on a previously under-reported statistic.

Hubris in Afghanistan

I don’t regularly read the Guardian, but when I do it is usually because someone else has called attention to Simon Jenkins’ latest column. Such is the case today. After reading this, I’m adding him to my Google reader subscriptions.

This graf pertaining to “Why are we in Afghanistan?” really stood out for me:

The excuse that we are preventing another 9/11 is ludicrously thin. That event, whose plotting and training were in Europe and America, will cause the US to spend what Congress puts at a staggering $1.3 trillion in wars and related security by 2019. And still no one has arrested Bin Laden. It must be the most extravagant punitive expedition to the Asian mainland since Agamemnon set off for Troy.

For the many people whose sense of history doesn’t extend much before the last winner of “American Idol”, that reference won’t register. For the people who understand the reference, and who nonetheless would persist in this open-ended nation-building folly, I defy them to prove Jenkins wrong.

Why the Obama Administration Is All Over the Map on Afghanistan

Hey Rajiv Chandrasekaran, what the heck happened back in March when Obama decided to send 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan and started telling everyone we needed a more expansive approach there?

Everyone, save Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, agreed that the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban…


To senior military commanders, the [implications were] unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency. (emphasis mine)

This sort of thing is almost enough to make you feel for the COIN clique. Barack Obama fancies himself a foreign-policy thinker, and his national-security staff no doubt think highly of their strategic vision and would like to advance the idea that Democratic administrations make better foreign-policy decisions than Republican administrations. But when Obama and his administration come out in March and say “yes, we’d like a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan,” and then send McChrystal over to do an assessment of what a COIN mission would need in terms of resources, it’s just absurd for them flutter six months later that “well, we didn’t know what we were getting into!  They didn’t tell us it was going to be long and hard and costly!”

We’ve been having a discussion on counterinsurgency – indeed we’ve been doing counterinsurgency – for the last few years.  There are lots of us who think that COIN in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand. My view is that COIN more generally is an intellectually insular doctrine purveyed by a cadre of scholar-practitioners who’ve either situated the doctrine in an absurd strategic context [.pdf] or else failed even to attempt to situate the approach inside any larger strategy.

But to be fair to them, they’ve been pretty candid about how hard counterinsurgency is. It’s just ridiculous for the administration to protest that they didn’t know it was going to be so expensive. The policy outcome the Obama administration produced was simply to throw more resources at the problem without bothering to think carefully about the connections between strategy, doctrine, and resources. Not encouraging.

Tuesday Links

  • Why Congress should not renew the PATRIOT Act’s “lone wolf” provision.