Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Telling and Fighting

There is a popular argument that, what with two wars underway, this is no time to rock the military by abolishing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and letting homosexuals serve openly. That’s basically what the secretary of defense says.

This post by Stephen Walt reminded me that the opposite is true: that wars are an opportunity to change dumb personnel policies. The end of war in Iraq will deprive advocates of equality in military service of one of their best arguments: restrictions on who the military can employ undermine the effort to win. And the best advocates for the change are current and former service members making that point.

Rachel Maddow had a good segment the other day on the topic. Her guests were a gay, Arabic-speaking lieutenant who is being booted out of the Army National Guard for coming out, and former rear admiral and now Pennslyvania congressman Joe Sestak, who is co-sponsoring legislation to change the law.

I predict that allowing gays to serve openly will be like allowing women on navy ships or even gay marriage. Lots of people fight it. Then it happens, it’s no big deal, and everyone forgets what they were so upset about.

Haass: Defining ‘Success’ Down

Richard Haass’s op ed in today’s Post is worth a read. Sure, it amounts to a well-placed advertisement for his new book, War of Necessity, War of Choice. And it’s not like Haass, current president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and former director of policy planning at the State Department, lacks for exposure. But while I would quibble with his characterization of the first Gulf War as “necessary”, it is refreshing for a man so firmly fixed in the foreign policy establishment to focus not on the United States’ supposed capacity for refashioning the global order, but rather on the limits of our power.

He urges President Obama to resist the impulse to expand our objectives in Afghanistan, and should not dedicate far more resources to the effort if we appear to be falling short of a few modest goals. He wisely counsels that the United States is unlikely to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment or North Korea to give up its weapons, and we should therefore focus on the more essential and achievable tasks of intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and pressure on North Korea (in concert with China) to prevent material and technology from being diverted to others.

He concludes:

Some will argue that defining success down is defeatist. And certainly, one can imagine an Afghanistan or an Iraq that becomes a Jeffersonian democracy and an Iran or a North Korea that gets out of the nuclear business. But such outcomes are improbable at best and more likely fantasy. Moreover, far greater involvement and investment would still fail to bring them about.

The alternatives are outcomes that are good enough and commensurate with interests and costs. The moment calls for defining success down. The United States is stretched economically and militarily. Better partial success we can afford than expensive failures we cannot.

Les Gelb, CFR’s former president, makes similar arguments in his latest book, Power Rules.

Few people in Washington rise through the ranks by talking about what we can’t or shouldn’t do, which partly explains why the voices of restraint are almost always drowned out by the vocal few calling for action. (For more on this point, see Steve Walt’s recent commentary at FP.com and Justin Logan’s observations on this blog.)

At the end of the day, therefore, I’m not convinced that Haass or Gelb, or anyone else, can consistently prevail with their judicious counsel to not act. Haass was on the inside when the second Bush administration was spoiling for a fight with Saddam Hussein, and neither he nor Colin Powell was able to stop that disastrous war. (Haass told NPR’s Robert Siegel yesterday that he was only 60 percent opposed to the war, so it is not even clear that he tried that hard to stop it.)

As I explain in my book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free, because even sensible people who are strongly opposed to foreign military intervention will often lose the intellectual battles within the executive branch, we should return to the Founders’ prescription that the war powers be controlled by the people, through the Congress, not the president. We also need to understand before we go to war how a particular military mission advances U.S. national security, and that our men and women in uniform have been given a clear and achievable objective.

If we were to get away from the dangerous and counterproductive notion that the United States is – and should forever be – the world’s policeman, we could maintain a much smaller military. It would be designed to defend vital U.S. interests, not to fight other people’s wars, and build other people’s countries. And this smaller, focused military would constrain the president’s propensity to do something, and make it easier for him to turn aside the interminable requests for U.S. assistance.

All states, even enormously powerful ones, need to make choices. Haass makes this point eloquently, and I welcome his important contribution to the debate.

White House Czar Calls for End to ‘War on Drugs’

This morning in The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

…Gil Kerlikowske, the new White House drug czar, signaled Wednesday his openness to rethinking the government’s approach to fighting drug use.

Mr. Kerlikowske’s comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate – and likely more controversial – stance on the nation’s drug problems.

The Obama administration is likely to deal with drugs as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment’s role growing relative to incarceration, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

Well, that’s at least a modest step in the right direction. However, I want to see how policies change (if they do) under the Obama administration. A change in terminology won’t mean much if the authorities still routinely throw people in jail for violating drug laws.

As for the international war on drugs, everyone in the Washington area is welcome to join us this Friday on Capitol Hill to discuss the consequences of the war on drugs abroad.

Former FBI Agent: Torture Sucks. Don’t Do It.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings produced an ugly picture of the role torture played in interrogating Al Qaeda leaders. The testimony of former FBI agent Ali Soufan shows how traditional intelligence techniques worked on Abu Zubaydah and “enhanced” techniques did nothing to advance national security interests:

Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location. We were both very familiar with Abu Zubaydah and have successfully interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence.

We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM’s role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.)

Soufan then recounts a tug-of-war between the interrogators and the contractors brought in to apply the third degree. The intelligence and law enforcement professionals struggled to reestablish rapport with Zubaydah after each iteration of harsh interrogation tactics.

The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.

We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were not only inferior to traditional interrogation techniques, they proved counterproductive. The use of illegal techniques resurrected the “wall” between the CIA and the FBI with regard to these detainees. This prevented FBI experts who knew more about Al Qaeda than anyone else in the government from questioning them. Plus, as Soufan recounts, coercive techniques make detainees tell you what you want to hear, whether it is true or not. As Jesse Ventura says, “you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”

Torture did not advance the work of picking apart Al Qaeda, it disrupted it.

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.

McKiernan’s Out, McChrystal’s In

General David McKiernan, top American commander in Afghanistan, will be replaced by former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

According to the New York Times, Department of Defense officials said McKiernan had been removed primarily because “he had brought too conventional an approach to the challenge.”

Does a change at the top signal a shift in tactics? I would hope, but probably not.

In the past couple weeks U.S. air strikes have killed scores of innocent civilians. In response, White House National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones said the air strikes would continue.

By the day I’m growing more pessimistic about our ability to effect a better outcome in Afghanistan than what would exist in absence of our efforts. Every measure is taken to limit civilian casualties. But the accidental killing of civilians by U.S. air patrols fuels resentment against the presence of the U.S.-led coalition. The problem I see is simple: the collateral damage unleashed from air strikes make the Taliban appear to be a force against injustice and consequently undermine the very security Western forces are attempting to provide. Ergo, why remain?

In the “more of the same” war in Afghanistan, according to the LA Times, “The Pentagon also is considering a radical shift in deployment cycles, assigning key leaders and planners to Afghanistan for as long as five years.” (emphasis mine)

As my good friend and fellow libertarian Anthony Gregory says about Barack Obama versus George W. Bush: “Same big stick, just more soft-spoken.”