Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.

Pakistan Troops Pour into Swat Valley

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani troops have taken the fight to militants in the Swat valley, ending a three month truce between the government and Taliban forces.

As I argued in the Washington Times almost a year ago, Pakistani government peace deals with militants have a tendency to collapse. Thus, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the latest “Shariah for peace deal” in Swat already begin to fray.

With this in mind, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must keep in mind the constraints Pakistani leaders are operating under. After 9/11, Pakistan was caught in an unenviable and contradictory position: the need to ally openly with the United States and the desire to discreetly preserve their militant assets as a hedge to Indian influence.

For example, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led large anti-US, anti-Muaharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities after the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. JUI and other influential Islamist organizations fiercely criticized Musharraf and the military for aligning with the United States and Pervez Musharraf himself was condemned within Pakistan for aligning with America in the war on terror. This dynamic has not gone away.

As I argue here, Pakistan’s six-decade rivalry with India is the biggest impediment to success in Afghanistan. It’s an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s military-dominated national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assist the powerful jihadist insurgency U.S. and NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan; Pakistan’s objective is to blunt the rising influence of their rapidly growing nemesis, India, which strongly supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime. Thus far, the United States has been unable to encourage Pakistan to ignore its traditional rival and ultimately, Pakistan’s civilian leaders and defense planners must determine if insurgents or India poses a greater threat.

Unfortunately, aerial drone strikes and other stop-gap measures do little to address the strategic drift between Washington and Islamabad. Unless President Obama can reassure hawks within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus that India no longer poses an existential threat to their country (a promise impossible to guarantee) then the U.S.-NATO stalemate in Afghanistan will persist.

Counterinsurgency or Counternarcotics?

This clip from NBC Nightly News shows a DEA raid in Afghanistan:

As I have said before, the quickest way to create an insurgent is to burn a man’s livelihood. This may be a competent counternarcotics tactic, but it is an epic failure as a counterinsurgency strategy. We can fight a war against the Taliban or we can fight the war on drugs, but we can’t do both in the same place at the same time.

Related thoughts from Doug Bandow here.

Amazing Coincidences

The coincidences that occur in Washington, D.C. are truly extraordinary.  According to the Washington Post:

The headquarters of Murtech, in a low-slung, bland building in a Glen Burnie business park, has its blinds drawn tight and few signs of life. On several days of visits, a handful of cars sit in the parking lot, and no trucks arrive at the 10 loading bays at the back of the building.

Yet last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services. With its long corridor of sparsely occupied offices and an unmanned reception area, Murtech’s most striking feature is its owner – Robert C. Murtha Jr., 49. He is the nephew of Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has significant sway over the Defense Department’s spending as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Robert Murtha said he is not at liberty to discuss in detail what his company does, but for four years it has subsisted on defense contracts, according to records and interviews. He said Murtech’s 17 employees “provide necessary logistical support” to Pentagon testing programs that focus on detecting chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, “and that’s about as far as I feel comfortable going.” Giving more details could provide important clues to terrorist plotters, he said.

Murtha said he does not advertise being the nephew of John Murtha and considers it “unfortunate” that some will unfairly assume Murtech received its federal contracts because of his uncle’s influence at the Pentagon.

“If we’re not doing our job well, we wouldn’t be doing our job,” he said. “I’m successful at the work I do because of the skill sets I have… . You don’t know how good someone is unless you work with them.”

A spokesman at Murtha’s office did not return calls seeking comment. The lawmaker, a former Marine, has said in the past that he is proud of his family’s service to the military and the government.

Over the years, John Murtha has proudly claimed credit for using his Appropriations Committee seat to steer hundreds of millions in Pentagon work to companies in his district, many of them fledgling enterprises run by campaign contributors. His influence also may be seen in the military improvements at the Johnstown airport that bears his name. The little-used commuter airport doubles as a wartime preparedness facility for the Pentagon after $30 million in improvements.

Murtha’s power has had beneficial effects within his family. His brother, Robert C. “Kit” Murtha, built a longtime lobbying practice around clients seeking defense funds through the Appropriations Committee and became one of the top members of KSA, a lobbying firm whose contractor clients often received multimillion-dollar earmarks directed through the committee chairman.

Of course there is no relationship between Rep. John Murtha’s position and the taxpayer money collected by his relatives.  Still, it is amazing how things like this just seem to happen when Capitol Hill gets involved.

Pakistan’s Critical Hour

I’m sympathetic to Ahmed Rashid’s arguments expressed in today’s Washington Post. The Pakistani journalist argues that President Obama’s plan to dedicate $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan in non-military spending “will also affect America’s image in Pakistan and the region.” However, I’m having trouble with his previous point: “The speed and conditions with which Congress provides emergency aid to Islamabad will affect the Pakistani government and army’s ability and will to resist the Taliban onslaught.”

For many years, the U.S. government has shoveled billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan (almost $20 billion since 9/11). Certainly in the tribal areas, non-military aid directed to education and comprehensive study programs can help to mitigate the spread of militancy among younger generations. But a coherent distribution mechanism must be in place or else no one in Pakistan will benefit. Given the problems of corruption and mismanagement afflicting the distribution of military aid, why should we expect the distribution of non-military aid to be more effective? Besides, there is very little Washington can do to “affect” Pakistan’s “will” to resist the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid, General Petraeus, and many others are correct to conclude that to be truly effective at combating internal insurgencies, Pakistan must re-orient its military away from conventional threats-such as India-and toward the low-intensity guerilla insurgency the army is presently ill-equipped and poorly trained to fight. But before Pakistan gains the capability to attack insurgents they must first find the willingness to do so.

With regards to the general alarm about militant incursions into valleys outside of Swat, this is certainly warranted. Militants have burned down or blown up over 200 schools, beheaded opponents, and forces tens of thousands to flee. But like I mentioned to my good friend and colleague, Ed Crane, the Taliban have no F-16s, no tanks and no means of taking over a country of 172 million people. India was certainly instrumental in the break up of Pakistan in 1971. But even India failed to conquer a large part of West Pakistan or takeover the country entirely. Granted, these militants are scary folks, but we need a bit of nuance on the whole “Pakistan is imploding” meme coursing through the Beltway. As I elaborate here, “Balkanization” of Pakistan, which I foresee as a distinct possibility, is much different then seeing the complete collapse of civilian and tribal administration.

Also, if America is worried about Pakistan’s imminent demise, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must understand that the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan threatens to further destabilize Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are not radical. But the spread of tribal militias in the northwest, tens of thousands of refugees (and certainly some militants) fleeing into major cities from aerial drone strikes, and widespread distrust of America’s intentions in the region, all place undue stress on a nation already divided, weak and fragile. As I argue in my recent policy analysis:

President Obama remains unequivocal in his commitment to continue airstrikes. But he and his policy planners must recognize that continuing airstrikes will undermine the authority of President Zardari, as well as Obama’s ability to coordinate policies effectively with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders. The president’s national security team must understand that the struggle against extremism would best be waged by bolstering Islamabad’s ability to compete with militants for political authority in FATA. If his administration simply increases attacks from pilotless drones, it will only push more wavering tribes further into the Taliban camp, continue his predecessor’s policy of dictation, rather than cooperation, and undermine the perception within the Pakistani body politic that Obama can change U.S. policy toward the Muslim world.

Aside from ceasing aerial drone strikes, another way to help America’s image is in the region is for prominent U.S. decision-makers to stop publicly speculating about the fate of their democracy, as Petraeus did last week. America has a history of sponsoring insurgents, financing coups, and funding internal dissidents against democratically-elected leaders. Regardless of intent, Washington is perceived as being blatantly manipulative and endorsing a military takeover when we make reckless statements like this.

Torture? No.

Charles Krauthammer’s recent column tells us that the wisdom of torture is undeniable. According to Krauthammer, there are two situations where torture is justified: the ticking time bomb scenario and when we capture high-ranking terrorists and conclude that giving them the third degree may save lives. Furthermore, it would be “imprudent” for anyone who would not use torture to be named the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), the military organization in charge of American forces in the Middle East.

The generals who have been in charge of CENTCOM and other national security officials disagree.

Here is a video of General Petraeus, current commander of Central Command, saying that American forces cannot resort to torturing prisoners:

The open letter Petraeus mentions in the video is available here. He admonishes our troops to treat prisoners humanely. “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemies.”

Former CENTCOM commanders Anthony Zinni and Joseph Hoar don’t endorse torture either, evidenced by their open letter (along with dozens of other former general officers) to Congress asking that the CIA abide by the Army interrogation manual.

Hoar and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak wrote separately to denounce torture:

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture – only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works – the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb.

So, once we sign off on the ticking time bomb scenario, the rationalization spreads to whenever we think it may save lives.  Sound familiar?

These former commanders are not alone.  Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, also had some words on the subject. “We can never retake the moral high ground when we claim the right to do unto others that which we would vehemently condemn if done to us.”

Malcolm Nance, former head of the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape course (where sailors are trained in resisting interrogation techniques, including waterboarding), seems to know a thing or two about the topic. “I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people.” He roundly denounces the use of waterboarding as wrong, ineffective, and counterproductive.  Just for the record, water actually enters the lungs of a waterboarding victim.  This is not simulated drowning, but controlled drowning. Read the whole thing.

Krauthammer’s column gives the impression that all national security experts support making torture our national policy. Wrong.