September 22, 2010 10:07AM

Woodward’s Narrative

The New York Times reports that the book, Obama’s Wars, by longtime Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that is scheduled for publication next week, depicts an administration completely at odds over the war in Afghanistan.


According to Woodward, the president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this.” He implored his advisers at one meeting, “I want an exit strategy,” and he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”


It’s unfortunate that the policy debate over Afghanistan will be further spun into a left-vs.-right issue. After all, there are growing, if nascent, signs that some on the political right have reservations about our continued military involvement in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Congressman Tim Johnson (R‑Ill.), who earned an 80 percent favorable rating from the American Conservative Union, was a GOP co‐​sponsor to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D‑Ohio) resolution to force the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In March, Congressman John Duncan (R‑Tenn.) came to the Cato Institute and explained why “there is nothing conservative about the war in Afghanistan.”


And as Cato founder Ed Crane wrote last year in the pages of the LA Times:

Republicans should take this opportunity to return to their traditional non‐​interventionist roots, and throw their neoconservative wing under the bus and forcefully oppose the war in Afghanistan. The Republicans have a chance at this moment to reclaim the mantle of the party of non‐​intervention — in your health care, in your wallet, in your lifestyle, and in the affairs of other nations.

I am not a conservative, and neither are many of my Cato colleagues. But these comments are intended to highlight that leaving Afghanistan is far beyond Left vs. Right. In fact, many conservatives used to deride nation‐​building as a utopian venture that had little to do with the nation’s real interests. In the case of Afghanistan, troops are being deployed to prop up a regime Washington doesn’t trust, for goals our president can’t define. There is a principled case to be made that a prolonged nation‐​building occupation is weakening our country militarily and economically. It’s a question of scarce resources and limiting the power of government. The immense price tag for war in Afghanistan can no longer be swept under the carpet or dismissed as an issue owned by peaceniks and pacifists, much less “the Democratic Party.”

August 4, 2010 1:21PM

Collateral Murder, Indeed

I finally found the time to go through the WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Diary entries containing accounts of my 2004 tour in Afghanistan (my third tour; appropriate bio and disclaimer can be found here).


I am underwhelmed. I am not sure what Julian Assange thought the release of these documents would tell people about the war in Afghanistan, beyond the fact that people are shooting at each other and that, generally speaking, war is Hell. If I identified the entries associated with my service in Afghanistan, you would read summaries of the firefights and rocket attacks that my unit faced, with metrics of rounds fired and received and associated casualties.


Parallel to Noah Schachtman’s excellent write‐​up contrasting his experiences while embedded with Marines in Helmand Province versus what WikiLeaks provides, you would have little visibility on the actual maneuver of troops, the relationship that they have with the populace, and the effectiveness of Afghan forces. Reading WikiLeaks alone would give you a picture of the Afghan War that falls short of what you can get from normal press outlets.


This skewed portrait of our policy comes at no small price. The identification of our intelligence contacts and sources is sure to put their lives in danger, as Steve Coll and (more importantly) Taliban spokesmen point out.


Unfortunately, Assange has taken Afghan War policy as an acceptable loss as well, no matter how you define it. Whether you support a COIN‐​centric approach, a reduced footprint in Afghanistan, a counterterrorism model, or even letting the CIA run the war, this is a disaster. This release of information is actually more damaging to downsizing strategies, since we will end up leaning on tribal alliances and intelligence assets more, not less.


Assange is facilitating the deaths of our intelligence contacts because he believes that the benefits outweigh the cost of their lives. That’s mighty rich, coming from a guy who labeled a 2007 case of mistaken identity in Iraq that resulted in the death of civilians as “collateral murder.” In that case, helicopter pilots misidentified a reporter’s zoom lens as the tail end of an RPG launcher, but armed men were in the reporters’ entourage that may have independently met the criteria for using force under the rules of engagement.


That’s (possibly) a mistake in the distinction of combatants, not an intentional approval of the loss of innocent life that is deemed acceptable in proportion to the direct military advantage anticipated. The latter is the definition of collateral damage, and Assange seems to have no problem with asserting his moral judgment in this realm.


Collateral murder, indeed.

August 2, 2010 12:58PM

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.

July 26, 2010 2:54PM

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.

June 15, 2010 5:09PM

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.

May 20, 2010 9:52AM

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.

Read the rest of this post »