Tag: war in afghanistan

Iraq Drawdown: What Took So Long?

President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will meet the August 31 deadline for removing combat troops from Iraq is welcome news. It is encouraging that the president remains on track to end the war in Iraq as he promised to do.

The president should continue this progress and adhere to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and remove the 50,000 troops that will remain in Iraq by the end of 2011. Although political and security uncertainties remain, these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for an open-ended presence.

Such a policy reversal would be neither warranted nor wise. An expeditious military withdrawal from Iraq, and a handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. The war in Iraq has already consumed far too much blood and treasure, and our troops are straining under the burdens of repeated foreign deployments.

It appears that President Obama will keep his promise to end the war in Iraq, and bring all the troops home from that shattered land. His decision to dramatically expand the war in Afghanistan, however, signals an unwillingness to truly change the course of U.S. foreign policy in a direction that advances U.S. security, and at far less cost than our current strategy. The war in Iraq was, and still is, a great tragedy. It would be more tragic still if the President and his senior advisers fail to heed the lesson that attempts at nation-building are costly and counterproductive.

The Politics of WikiLeaks

In publishing a massive trove of government documents on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has done a useful thing. And because it often publishes information that is embarrassing to government, rather than dangerous to it, WikiLeaks is a good thing for democracy.

I say that to prevent the criticism below from getting me labeled as part of an effort to silence WikiLeaks or distract from the news it generates.

For starters – and this is more about the media than WikiLeaks – there’s the fact that thus far there is little new here. As we saw last week with the Washington Post’s Top Secret America blockbuster, the media fetishizes secret information, even when it merely elaborates on stories we’ve already heard.

My problem with WikiLeaks is its practice of stamping its politics on its leaked documents. For example, in April, when it released that gruesome video of U.S. Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq enthusiastically killing civilians that they mistook for insurgents, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” despite the obvious efforts of the pilots to comply with the rules of engagement.

Now rather than simply put its documents on the web and let people draw their own conclusions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a self-congratulatory press conference where he declares “it is our experience that courage is contagious” and compares the document release not just to the leak of Pentagon Papers but to the opening of the Stasi archive in East Germany. Certainly U.S. forces in Afghanistan have committed war crimes (it would be hard to run a war of this scale and avoid them completely) and spun the war’s progress. If these documents reveal more of those doings, that’s a good thing. But even the harshest critic of the war’s conduct ought to be able distinguish it from the activities of a Stalinist secret police force. I bet that the Stasi, faced with a similar leak problem, would have found a way to plug it by now.

Grandiosity is also evident in Assange’s recent response to transparency advocate Steve Aftergood’s critique of WikiLeaks seeming lack of privacy standards. In one paragraph, Assange irrelevantly brags that he spoke before European parliamentarians, asserts that “WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law,” announces its opposition to “plutocrats and cashed-up special interests” (not secrecy?), and then claims to have inspired Senate legislation to make Congressional Research Service reports public, even though bills to that effect predate his organization’s existence by nearly a decade.

In the future maybe we can get Wikileaks’ product without its commentary.

DADT Debate

Last week military analyst Stuart Koehl had a piece at the Weekly Standard opposing the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). I wrote a response, and he posted a rebuttal. I recommend reading those pages before continuing here.

Koehl first makes the point that he was writing about “combat effectiveness” and I only addressed “readiness.” His point being that readiness is a black and white evaluation on paper – is the unit up on personnel and equipment, and have they completed necessary training prior to entering the fight? Combat effectiveness is only measured when the bullets start flying, and then in subjective terms. In response to this, I would simply reiterate everything I said in my initial response and replace “readiness” with “combat effectiveness.” We are both discussing personnel issues that impact morale and unit cohesion, and these are the intangibles that make readiness translate into combat effectiveness. My responses on the specifics below bear that out.

British and Israeli Experiences

Koehl continues to claim that the success of the British and Israeli militaries with gays serving openly does not translate into a combat effective American force where DADT has ended. I will address this on several fronts.

First, Koehl says that the British and Israeli armies have not experienced a sustained High Intensity Conflict (HIC) in recent decades, and that the Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) experience they have is not indicative of what their combat effectiveness would be in a HIC environment. For the uninitiated, HIC would be a conflict between two nation-states with uniformed armies, and LIC is all of the stuff going on now – counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and the like.

Before I get to the HIC/LIC differentiation Koehl makes, it is worth noting that we know exactly what the United States would do with regard to gays serving in the military in HIC, since we saw it in World War II. Gays served honorably throughout the war (which wasn’t all HIC, plenty of partisans fighting around the world) while their comrades suspected or knew of their sexual orientation, and were then discharged at high rates afterward.

With regard to success in LIC not translating to success in HIC, I think Koehl gets it exactly backwards. From a personnel standpoint, HIC is a lot less stressful on the force than LIC. Taking on a uniformed force in a stand-up fight that is resolved relatively quickly is less of a test of combat effectiveness than a long counterinsurgency campaign against an enemy that melts back into the population. Compare the British experience in the Falklands with their involvement in Afghanistan. Compare the Israeli incursion into Gaza in Operation Cast Lead (a high-intensity phase of an otherwise low-intensity conflict) with their occupation of Lebanon. Compare the initial invasion of Iraq to the subsequent counterinsurgency.

When you are restructuring your force to provide more “dwell time” between deployments, that is a sign that you are coming close to, as Koehl puts it, “stress[ing] combat units to the breaking point.” To say that gays may serve openly without ill effect in LIC, but that we should hold off changing our policy because we may someday have World War III against China and her allies, is ignoring the fact that combat effectiveness is tested in both low- and high-intensity conflicts and more in the wars we are fighting than in the ones we could hypothetically fight.

Koehl also dismisses the British and Israeli experience due to their smaller militaries. In terms of raw numbers, they are smaller than ours, but the per-capita rates defeat this argument. Yes, the British armed forces are smaller in absolute terms, but proportionally are only about a quarter smaller than the American military (overall population of 61 million versus 307 million). With Israel, it flips the other way. A nation of 7.3 million with over 175,000 active service members (and twice that in the reserves) has a much higher per-capita ratio of service members to the total population. Dismissing them as a “commuter” force is unpersuasive as well. When you are deployed, other soldiers’ significant others may just be a photo on the wall. When your military is fighting on home field, you will see more of your comrades’ personal lives.

Women in Combat

Koehl devotes part of his original article making a parallel between keeping DADT and excluding women from combat arms positions. He says that there will always be a small percentage of women who can equal men in the physical demands of combat, and the only reason to exclude them from combat units is the undesirable influence eros will have on combat effectiveness.

Once again, I think this is completely backwards.

First, we may be excluding women from combat arms branches, but we are certainly not excluding them from combat. The lack of a front line means that all units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan can come under sudden attack. Women are rising to the occasion. Take this combat medic who received the Silver Star for braving enemy fire to save members of her unit. Or this military policewoman who responded to an ambush by clearing two trenches and killing three insurgents in close combat. Women are serving with distinction and the units they serve in do not show reduced combat effectiveness by virtue of their presence.

Second, I think that the exclusion of women from the most physically demanding branches is appropriate and constitutional. While some women can max their physical fitness test and generally keep up with the boys, adding women to light infantry units does not make sense unless they can keep pace in the one area where women are particularly disadvantaged – moving under a heavy load. Paratrooper planning weights for combat remain around 145 lbs. Integrating women means that your battlefield calculus for foot movement is seriously impacted – can you maintain your desired rate of movement given combat load, terrain, weather, and visibility? If the answer to this is no, then integrating women in those units is a mistake. There is a serious argument that we put too much gear on the average soldier, but it’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon.

Women coming to the infantry would have to take the physical fitness test under male standards and road march without slowing down the unit. Would the military hold true to that standard if women were allowed in the combat arms? No. Is it discriminatory not to allow them in those branches? Yes. But I strongly believe that it would pass constitutional muster under the intermediate-level scrutiny used for gender-based discrimination claims.

Conclusion

Koehl admits that gays “have served in every army in every war since we began recording the history of warfare.” If that is the case, and if we can change policy without impacting American readiness – and yes, combat effectiveness – as the British and Israeli experiences show, then resistance to ending DADT seems less a matter of national security and more a political football.

Ending DADT, Again

Stuart Koehl has a piece at The Weekly Standard against ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). He presents a comprehensive set of arguments based on readiness, that ending DADT will hurt the effectiveness of the force.

I disagree, and it’s worth pointing out that he is quick to dismiss the fact that other first-rate militaries have allowed gays to serve without damaging readiness. As he puts it:

But history provides plenty of evidence that homosexuality does undermine unit cohesion.  The current practices of other armies are an experiment in progress, which should not overturn empirically proven policies.  There are also significant differences between those armies and the United States military.  The first is scale—the entire British army is barely the size of the Marine Corps, while the Israeli army is very small unless fully mobilized.  Neither the British nor the Israeli armies undertake extended overseas deployments of the length or scale of the U.S. military; Israeli army is very much a “commuter” force, with most troops living at home unless serving in the field—which is only an hour or so from home.  As a result, neither has any experience with homosexuals serving in the field for extended periods.  Finally, neither the British nor the Israeli armies have experienced anything approaching an extended, high-intensity war, so neither has any idea what effect homosexuals in the ranks might have on combat effectiveness.

Israel certainly has experience with an extended, high-intensity war. Since its birth it has faced the threat of invasion and terrorism, and the forecast for the last few decades has been scattered machine-gun fire with a chance of rockets by mid-afternoon.

Except for the United States, Britain remains the largest donor of forces to Afghanistan (now America’s longest war), according to the ISAF website. This excellent dispatch from Michael Yon portrays them as a first-rate force. There’s even a female combat medic on patrol with Yon. I see no difference between American and British experiences in Afghanistan to support Koehl’s claim.

Setting aside the official policy, American commanders have historically looked the other way during war to allow gays to serve in their units. As I said in this post:

Sergeant Darren Manzella served as a combat medic, and his chain of command investigated the claim that he was gay. Manzella provided pictures and video of him with his boyfriend, but found “no evidence of homosexuality.”

The story makes clear that Manzella gave them plenty evidence of homosexuality, but it didn’t make any sense to get rid of a good soldier in a critical field when he wanted to continue serving and there was a war going on.

Gays are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am certain that many of their brothers and sisters in arms suspect or know that they are gay, and don’t care. Ending DADT will not harm military readiness.

Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

The Economist is featuring an online debate this week around the proposition “This house believes that the war in Afghanistan is winnable.” John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security agrees. Peter Galbraith takes the opposing view.

The organizers of the event invited me to contribute my two cents. Excerpts of my essay (“Featured Guest,” on the right side of the page) are posted below:

The appropriate question is not whether the war is winnable. If we define victory narrowly, if we are willing to apply the resources necessary to have a reasonable chance of success, and if we have capable and credible partners, then of course the war is winnable. Any war is winnable under these conditions.

None of these conditions exist in Afghanistan, however. Our mission is too broadly construed. Our resources are constrained. The patience of the American people has worn thin. And our Afghan partners are unreliable and unpopular with their own people.

Given this, the better question is whether the resources that we have already ploughed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere. They most certainly could be.

[…]

America and its allies must narrow their focus in Afghanistan. Rather than asking if the war is winnable, we should ask instead if the war is worth winning. And we should look for alternative approaches that do not require us to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive and stable electoral democracy.

If we start from the proposition that victory is all that matters, we are setting ourselves up for ruin. We can expect an endless series of calls to plough still more resources—more troops, more civilian experts and more money, much more money—into Afghanistan. Such demands demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the public’s tolerance for an open-ended mission with ill-defined goals.

More importantly, a disdain for a focused strategy that balances ends, ways and means betrays an inability to think strategically about the range of challenges facing America today. After having already spent more than eight and a half years in Afghanistan, pursuing a win-at-all-costs strategy only weakens our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world.

The other guest contributor is Bruce Riedel from Brookings. He had a hand in shaping the Obama administration’s strategy, and therefore is a reliable “yes” vote for continuing the war.

Sentiment so far has been running nearly three to one against the proposition. Most of the comments reject the premise, and a few doubt U.S./NATO’s intentions. Nagl has at least one more bite at the apple to turn things around, but the prospects don’t look good. The key weaknesses in the pro-war position are the lack of credible local partners in Afghanistan, and the uncooperative (and, often, counterproductive) role played by Pakistan. Nagl focuses chiefly on the former, and Riedel on the latter; they ultimately fail, however, to offer credible solutions to either problem.

We all hope that things turn around in Afghanistan, and soon. But, as Galbraith points out, hope is not a strategy. I’m among those actively searching for an alternative definition of ”winning” that does not envision tens of thousands of U.S. troops being in Afghanistan for another eight (or 80) years.

Conservatives and Afghanistan

Tomorrow, the Cato Institute will be holding a half-day conference titled, “Escalate or Withdraw? Conservatives and the War in Afghanistan.”

One of the many speakers at tomorrow’s conference will be Rep. John Duncan (R-TN). On the House floor this week, he explained why “there is nothing conservative about the war in Afghanistan.”

Watch:

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a conservative, and neither are many of my Cato colleagues. This event is intended to highlight that leaving Afghanistan is far beyond Left vs. Right, and that anti-war sentiment is not “owned by peaceniks and pacifists.”

You can come to the event, or watch it live online.

Monday Links

  • An overview of the many hurdles the health care bill still faces in the House.
  • Will conservatives ultimately oppose the war in Afghanistan? Join us for a lively discussion this Thursday at Cato featuring Joe Scarborough, Grover Norquist, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and more. Registration free. Will be broadcast online live Thursday at the link.