Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Lowry and Interrogation

Veronique de Rugy put up a post at The Corner referencing Rich Lowry’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and my response. Rich has since responded.

With regard to the apprehension of Uzair Paracha, an Al Qaeda facilitator in New York, it seems likely that the apprehension of Majid Khan in Pakistan four days after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s (KSM) apprehension came from material picked up with KSM and not from interrogation. The key here is that when Majid Khan was in Pakistan, Paracha was pretending to be Majid Khan in communications with immigration officials. Detective work was probably what brought this guy under the microscope.

However, I’m willing to lay that aside because, as Rich points out, there is probably more to the story that shouldn’t be declassified. As I said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, we cannot end this argument until we have declassified all of the dead ends we pursued, which has some serious strategic drawbacks. The CIA recently asserted in court that it cannot reveal any more without compromising sources and methods.

Rich also says that my preferred method of interrogation is “dangling the promise of reduced sentences.”

This is not my preferred method, but it is one that ought to be available to interrogators. Under the Army Field Manual, an interrogator cannot promise anything in the court system. As Matthew Alexander points out in his book, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court has the death penalty attached to almost all of what we consider “material support of terrorism.” I am saying that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an effective tool if a lesser included offense is on the table so that the first to squeal gets a few years and the others get the noose.

But let’s not discount the lawful interrogation techniques. When I attended SERE, the psychological techniques were far more compelling than the physical ones. We were all young and tough, but the mind tricks that turned brothers in arms against each other were downright disturbing.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

Afghanistan = Bottomless Pit of Massive Social Engineering

Obsidian Wings echoes my frustrations about the debate surrounding the war in Afghanistan. Publius notes, “The goal of preventing Taliban control isn’t a sufficient reason to stay.”

That analysis is absolutely right. As I mention in my forthcoming white paper (co-authored with TGC), Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, the resurrection of the Taliban’s fundamentalist regime doesn’t threaten America’s sovereignty or physical security. The Taliban is a guerilla-jihadi Pashtun-dominated movement with no international agenda or shadowy global mission. Even if their parochial fighters took over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory it is not compelling enough of a rationale to maintain an indefinite, large-scale military presence in the region, especially since our presence feeds the Pashtun insurgency we seek to defeat (as Publius also acknowledges) and our policies are pushing the conflict over the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan, further destabilizing its already shaky government.

Even if the Taliban were to reassert themselves amid a scaled down U.S. presence, it is not clear that the Taliban would again host al Qaeda. In The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright, staff writer for New Yorker magazine, found that before 9/11 the Taliban was divided over whether to shelter Osama bin Laden. The terrorist financier wanted to attack Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which, according to Wright, would have defied a pledge Taliban leader Mullah Omar made to Prince Turki al-Faisal, chief of Saudi intelligence (1977–2001), to keep bin Laden under control. The Taliban’s reluctance to host al Qaeda’s leader means it is not a foregone conclusion that the same group would provide shelter to the same organization whose protection led to their overthrow.

Moreover, America’s claim that the Taliban is its enemy seems less than coherent. After all, although some U.S. officials issued toothless and perfunctory condemnations of the Taliban when it controlled most of Afghanistan from September 1996 through October 2001, during that time the United States never once made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban despite knowing that it imposed a misogynistic, oppressive, and militant Islamic regime onto Afghans. For Washington to now pursue an uncompromising hostility toward the Taliban’s eye-for-an-eye brand of justice can be interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to cloak U.S. strategic ambitions in moralistic values.

On a side note, another conservative joins George Will for getting out of Afghanistan.

Turning Our Back on Torture

NRO’s Rich Lowry just weighed in on the torture debate with some false assumptions and already-debunked assertions. He says that the Obama administration turned its back on “life-saving intelligence-gathering” techniques.

In point of fact, the United States turned its back on “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT’s) a long time ago. American soldiers used waterboarding to gain intelligence in the Philippines occupation immediately after the Spanish-American War. The response? President Roosevelt, who led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, demanded that the soldiers employing the “water cure” be prosecuted. American soldiers who employed waterboarding in Vietnam were likewise court-martialed. A previous post at NRO’s The Corner makes this clear.

The bottom line? The Geneva Conventions apply to the modern battlefield, asymmetric or not. The Supreme Court said so in 2006, so a new memorandum from the OLC finding that the Geneva Conventions do not apply is out of the question. Re-authorizing EIT’s is a legal impossibility. While the Right tries to argue their efficacy in a partisan fight to prevent prosecution, this is an argument limited to a political rehabilitation, not a legal one.

Lowry also exaggerates the importance of corroborating information that Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (KSM) gave under EIT duress:

According to the IG report, KSM’s cooperation led to the arrest of a truck driver in the U.S. named Iyman Faris who was plotting attacks on New York landmarks; of a sleeper operative in New York named Saleh Almari; of an operative named Majid Khan who had easy entree into the U.S.; and of two Pakistani businessmen whom KSM “planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States.”

“Saleh Almari” appears to be Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. I’ve written extensively about al-Marri, who was apprehended in December, 2001, long before KSM was in custody. Here is the indictment.

As Peter Bergen points out, Iyman Faris won’t make the terrorist all-star list any time soon. “In 2002 he researched the feasibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge by using a blowtorch, an enterprise akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker.”

Bergen also sheds some light on the collars of Majid Khan and the Parachas (the “two Pakistani businessmen”):

The Parachas are a father-and-son team; the former, arrested in Thailand in the summer of 2003, is being held at Guantánamo and has yet to face trial, while his son was convicted in 2005 of providing “material support” to al Qaeda.

Majid Khan was arrested in Pakistan only four days after KSM was captured, suggesting that this lead came not from interrogations but from KSM’s computers and cell phones that were picked up when he was captured.

The only valid criticism that Lowry levels is with regard to the limitation of the new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Task Force, but not in the way you might think. While limiting interrogations to the techniques in the Army Field Manual keeps brutality off the table, certain law enforcement techniques such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma are valid and ought to be used. Terrorist networks are more like crime syndicates than an infantry battalion in organization; if promises of reduced sentences can get terrorists to talk about their comrades then by all means use them.

George Will Says It’s Time to Leave Afghanistan

Conservative columnist George Will wants out of the war in Afghanistan.  And his recommendation is getting some notice.  Reports Mike Allen in Politico:

George F. Will, the elite conservative commentator, is calling for U.S. ground troops to leave Afghanistan in his latest column.

“[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters,” Will writes.

President Obama ordered a total of 21,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan in February and March, and casualties have mounted as the forces began confronting the Taliban more aggressively. August saw the highest monthly death toll for the U.S. since the invasion in 2001, the second record month in a row.

Will’s prescription – in which he recalls Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870 - seems certain to split Republicans. He is a favorite of fiscal conservatives. The more hawkish right can be expected to attack his conclusion as foolhardy, short-sighted and naïve, potentially making the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The columnist’s startling recommendation surfaced on the same day that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, sent an assessment up his chain of command recommending what he called “a revised implementation strategy.” In a statement, McChrystal also called for “commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”

With a liberal Democrat having become president and made Afghanistan his war, and George Will leading the charge, might conservative Republicans rediscover their inner anti-war feelings?

Why Is Marijuana Still Illegal?

According to Rasmussen Reports, a majority of Americans believe that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana:

Pot or not, that is the question.

Fifty-one percent (51%) of American adults say alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Just 19% disagree and say pot is worse.

But 25% say both are equally dangerous. Just two percent (2%) say neither is dangerous.

Younger adults are more likely than their elders to view alcohol as the more dangerous of the two.

Fifty-three percent (53%) of women say alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, compared to 48% of men. Men by a two-to-one margin over women say pot is riskier, but women are more inclined to say both are dangerous.

Unmarried adults are more critical of alcohol than those who are married. Those with children at home think alcohol is more dangerous than those without kids living with them.

So why are pot users still being tossed into jail?

There are lots of good reasons why people shouldn’t use drugs.  But making drug use illegal only compounds the social consequences, turning a moral and health problem into a legal and criminal problem.  The result is the worst of both worlds:  all of the problems of drug use plus all of the problems of prohibition.  Unfortunately, those consequences flow overseas, further undermining fragile societies such as Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico and ultimately American security objectives as well.

It’s time to call off the Drug War.