Commentary Magazine


Topic: Foreign Service

Where’s the Support for U.S. Civilians in Iraq?

In recent years there has been a welcome outpouring of love and admiration for American troops. It has been common to hear, “I may not support the war, but I support the troops.” A commendable sentiment, but why doesn’t it extend to civilians who have risked their necks in war zones?

I was struck by Jim Dwyer’s snarky New York Times column about my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Dan Senor, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. There are plenty of reasons for a liberal columnist to disagree with the conservative Senor on matters of policy, but Dwyer chooses instead to launch a very personal attack on Senor’s service in Iraq as chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during 15 tumultuous months from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2004. Dwyer sneers: “As Iraq was entering its bloodiest days, Mr. Senor was a prophet and cheerleader for the Bush administration, his daily messages seemingly disconnected from the country that was imploding outside the American headquarters in Baghdad, known as the Green Zone.”

Echoing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he goes on to describe the Green Zone “as heavily populated by Republican loyalists” — like Senor — “who brought little experience to the towering task of restoring Iraq to any semblance of normalcy after the invasion.”

Granted, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer and his senior aides, including Dan Senor, were not well-prepared for the task of governing Iraq. Nor did they have adequate resources for the task. But that was hardly their fault. Blame lay in the senior levels of the administration and the military, where there was an appalling lack of planning for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq operation. Troop numbers remained grossly inadequate despite Bremer’s pleas for more help.

Bremer & Co. made mistakes of their own (who wouldn’t?), but they were not wrong about everything or even most things. Some of their projects — a new Iraqi constitution, for example — have been standing the test of time. Some of the worst decisions — disbanding the Iraqi army and purging too many Baathists — seem to have been dictated from Washington. Whatever the details, there can be no doubt that Ambassador Bremer and his aides did the best they could in an extremely challenging, dangerous, chaotic environment.

Did Dan Senor put a positive gloss on events? Of course. That was his job. He was the official spokesman. Maybe Jim Dwyer would have preferred that he join the press corps in daily bemoaning Iraq’s woes, but that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to give the official CPA line, and in the process try to calm and improve the situation rather than simply pointing out the numerous deficiencies that were being (for the most part accurately) exposed by the news media.

To read Dwyer and others, you would think that being sent to Iraq was akin to an all-expenses paid holiday in the Bahamas. In fact, it was a dangerous assignment that was, with some heroic exceptions, for the most part avoided by experienced Foreign Service officers who generally opposed the decision to go to war. The largest group of people volunteering to go, aside from those in uniform, were a bunch of young conservative idealists like Senor. Their dedication and idealism reminds me of young liberals who were inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

Scott Erwin, a former Council colleague, was one of them. A onetime White House intern, he postponed his senior year in college to work for CPA — an assignment that ended on June 2, 2004, when he was shot four times in an ambush that killed two Iraqis who were in the same car. He survived but others didn’t. Even the Green Zone, while safer than the surrounding areas, was hardly a pocket of tranquility. It was a constant magnet for rocket and mortar attacks that frequently landed in the embassy parking lot and killed a number of employees over the years. It was generally safer to be on one of the giant Forward Operating Bases, where most Americans in Iraq, troops and contractors alike, were garrisoned.

We should be celebrating those who volunteered to serve in the Iraq war, whether they wore a uniform or not — not demeaning their service to score political points.

In recent years there has been a welcome outpouring of love and admiration for American troops. It has been common to hear, “I may not support the war, but I support the troops.” A commendable sentiment, but why doesn’t it extend to civilians who have risked their necks in war zones?

I was struck by Jim Dwyer’s snarky New York Times column about my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Dan Senor, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. There are plenty of reasons for a liberal columnist to disagree with the conservative Senor on matters of policy, but Dwyer chooses instead to launch a very personal attack on Senor’s service in Iraq as chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during 15 tumultuous months from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2004. Dwyer sneers: “As Iraq was entering its bloodiest days, Mr. Senor was a prophet and cheerleader for the Bush administration, his daily messages seemingly disconnected from the country that was imploding outside the American headquarters in Baghdad, known as the Green Zone.”

Echoing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he goes on to describe the Green Zone “as heavily populated by Republican loyalists” — like Senor — “who brought little experience to the towering task of restoring Iraq to any semblance of normalcy after the invasion.”

Granted, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer and his senior aides, including Dan Senor, were not well-prepared for the task of governing Iraq. Nor did they have adequate resources for the task. But that was hardly their fault. Blame lay in the senior levels of the administration and the military, where there was an appalling lack of planning for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq operation. Troop numbers remained grossly inadequate despite Bremer’s pleas for more help.

Bremer & Co. made mistakes of their own (who wouldn’t?), but they were not wrong about everything or even most things. Some of their projects — a new Iraqi constitution, for example — have been standing the test of time. Some of the worst decisions — disbanding the Iraqi army and purging too many Baathists — seem to have been dictated from Washington. Whatever the details, there can be no doubt that Ambassador Bremer and his aides did the best they could in an extremely challenging, dangerous, chaotic environment.

Did Dan Senor put a positive gloss on events? Of course. That was his job. He was the official spokesman. Maybe Jim Dwyer would have preferred that he join the press corps in daily bemoaning Iraq’s woes, but that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to give the official CPA line, and in the process try to calm and improve the situation rather than simply pointing out the numerous deficiencies that were being (for the most part accurately) exposed by the news media.

To read Dwyer and others, you would think that being sent to Iraq was akin to an all-expenses paid holiday in the Bahamas. In fact, it was a dangerous assignment that was, with some heroic exceptions, for the most part avoided by experienced Foreign Service officers who generally opposed the decision to go to war. The largest group of people volunteering to go, aside from those in uniform, were a bunch of young conservative idealists like Senor. Their dedication and idealism reminds me of young liberals who were inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

Scott Erwin, a former Council colleague, was one of them. A onetime White House intern, he postponed his senior year in college to work for CPA — an assignment that ended on June 2, 2004, when he was shot four times in an ambush that killed two Iraqis who were in the same car. He survived but others didn’t. Even the Green Zone, while safer than the surrounding areas, was hardly a pocket of tranquility. It was a constant magnet for rocket and mortar attacks that frequently landed in the embassy parking lot and killed a number of employees over the years. It was generally safer to be on one of the giant Forward Operating Bases, where most Americans in Iraq, troops and contractors alike, were garrisoned.

We should be celebrating those who volunteered to serve in the Iraq war, whether they wore a uniform or not — not demeaning their service to score political points.

Read Less

Times Off-Base on U.S. Airpower in Afghanistan

The New York Times has run a curious op-ed by a writer I’ve never heard of: Lara M. Dadkhah, who is identified simply as an “intelligence analyst” for some unnamed defense consulting firm and also apparently a current or recent grad student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (h/t Glenn Greenwald). In it, she repeats the standard canard heard from a handful of right-wingers who accuse Gen. Stanley McChrystal of putting his troops at undue risk by limiting their use of airpower.

This is a serious charge to make against one of the most respected generals in the Army, and one who has been closely associated with some of the most dangerous and risky special operations that the military carries out. Anyone who flings around this accusation better have some good evidence. But Dadkhah seriously undercuts her case with sweeping overgeneralizations.

She claims, for instance, that “air support to American and Afghan forces has been all but grounded by concerns about civilian casualties” and that “American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by ‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance.”

In the first place, she entirely neglects one of the key “strategic advantages of American air dominance” — namely, the ability to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield, which gives troops on the ground a huge advantage in terms of knowing where their enemies are. Other advantages of airpower that she neglects to mention are the ability to do aerial resupply and medivac. All three are vital to the conduct of operations, in fact probably more vital than the ability to call in air strikes. But even if you stick to kinetic strikes from the air, her evidence is weak. She writes:

While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military, close air support sorties, which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire, increased by just 27 percent during that same period

Even granting that those figures are accurate, what makes her think that they are the result of directives designed to limit air strikes? Might it not simply be a case of the troop presence growing faster than the number of aircraft they have available to support them? U.S. forces in Afghanistan have long been under-resourced in terms of air support simply because there were not enough aircraft to go around, and until last year Iraq had top priority. That is changing, but it is taking a while to build up Afghanistan’s primitive infrastructure to create runways and other facilities that can support a large number of aircraft. The task is all the more daunting because Afghanistan is much more spread out than Iraq, so aircraft have to be based all over the country to be available on-call within a few minutes of the start of a firefight. In fact, Dadkhah’s own figures suggest that there has been only a modest decline in the number of air strikes called in: “Pentagon data show that the percentage of sorties sent out that resulted in air strikes has also declined, albeit modestly, to 5.6 percent from 6 percent.”

Dadkhah is even more off-base when she denies the obvious: that sometimes excessive force can be harmful to mission accomplishment in a counterinsurgency. She writes: “So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim. ” No compelling data? Really? Perhaps she might examine the case of the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and in the process lost the war by turning the population against them. That is a mistake that McChrystal is wise not to repeat.

The New York Times has run a curious op-ed by a writer I’ve never heard of: Lara M. Dadkhah, who is identified simply as an “intelligence analyst” for some unnamed defense consulting firm and also apparently a current or recent grad student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (h/t Glenn Greenwald). In it, she repeats the standard canard heard from a handful of right-wingers who accuse Gen. Stanley McChrystal of putting his troops at undue risk by limiting their use of airpower.

This is a serious charge to make against one of the most respected generals in the Army, and one who has been closely associated with some of the most dangerous and risky special operations that the military carries out. Anyone who flings around this accusation better have some good evidence. But Dadkhah seriously undercuts her case with sweeping overgeneralizations.

She claims, for instance, that “air support to American and Afghan forces has been all but grounded by concerns about civilian casualties” and that “American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by ‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance.”

In the first place, she entirely neglects one of the key “strategic advantages of American air dominance” — namely, the ability to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield, which gives troops on the ground a huge advantage in terms of knowing where their enemies are. Other advantages of airpower that she neglects to mention are the ability to do aerial resupply and medivac. All three are vital to the conduct of operations, in fact probably more vital than the ability to call in air strikes. But even if you stick to kinetic strikes from the air, her evidence is weak. She writes:

While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military, close air support sorties, which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire, increased by just 27 percent during that same period

Even granting that those figures are accurate, what makes her think that they are the result of directives designed to limit air strikes? Might it not simply be a case of the troop presence growing faster than the number of aircraft they have available to support them? U.S. forces in Afghanistan have long been under-resourced in terms of air support simply because there were not enough aircraft to go around, and until last year Iraq had top priority. That is changing, but it is taking a while to build up Afghanistan’s primitive infrastructure to create runways and other facilities that can support a large number of aircraft. The task is all the more daunting because Afghanistan is much more spread out than Iraq, so aircraft have to be based all over the country to be available on-call within a few minutes of the start of a firefight. In fact, Dadkhah’s own figures suggest that there has been only a modest decline in the number of air strikes called in: “Pentagon data show that the percentage of sorties sent out that resulted in air strikes has also declined, albeit modestly, to 5.6 percent from 6 percent.”

Dadkhah is even more off-base when she denies the obvious: that sometimes excessive force can be harmful to mission accomplishment in a counterinsurgency. She writes: “So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim. ” No compelling data? Really? Perhaps she might examine the case of the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and in the process lost the war by turning the population against them. That is a mistake that McChrystal is wise not to repeat.

Read Less




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