Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kandahar

More Progress in Afghanistan

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

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We Are Winning in Afghanistan, Though Work Remains to Be Done

In the L.A. Times today, Pete Mansoor and I have an op-ed reporting on our recently completed trip to Afghanistan. (Mansoor is a retired army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq and now teaches history at Ohio State). In brief, our message is that we are now winning in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand and Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where we have focused most of our resources. But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times runs a fantastic article by Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak that quotes an unnamed mid-level Taliban commander conceding that “the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar — a message confirmed by local residents they spoke with. The article explains:

“The people are not happy with us,” the Taliban fighter said. “People gave us a place to stay for several years, but we did not provide them with anything except fighting. The situation is different now: the local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.”

NATO’s announcement that it would remain until a transfer to Afghan forces in 2014 has also convinced people that it will not withdraw quickly, he said.

“The Americans are more serious, and another thing that made people hopeful was when they said they would stay until 2014,” the Taliban commander said. “That has made people change their minds.”

Naturally, the article reports that the Taliban will plan to return to their old stomping grounds in the spring, but “in a dozen interviews, Afghan landowners, tribal elders and villagers said they believed that the Taliban could find it hard to return if American troops remained.”

That was exactly what Mansoor and I found. But isn’t there a danger that the insurgency, after setbacks in the south, will simply move to the north or east? That’s what another New York Times article claims.

Alissa Rubin reports from Kunduz in the north — an area garrisoned primarily by Germans — where she finds security conditions have deteriorated. No doubt that’s true, but there is scant chance that the Taliban could re-create strongholds in other parts of the country after being chased out of the south. That’s because the Taliban have essentially no appeal outside the Pashtun community, and there are few Pashtuns in the north or west. True, the Taliban have made some inroads among Pashtun pockets in those areas, but let’s not exaggerate. Most days, there are no reported attacks at all in the north or west. The Taliban may be spreading some fear and intimidation, but there is a natural limit on their appeal. The odds of their gaining support in the Tajik or Hazara communities are about as great as the odds of Hamas winning supporters in Jewish neighborhoods of Israel.

I do not, by any means, suggest that all the news from Afghanistan is great. As Mansoor and I note, governance and Pakistan sanctuaries remain difficult challenges, and the eastern part of the country — where there are a lot of Pashtuns — has not yet seen the kind of concerted counterinsurgency campaign that has taken place in the south. (There simply aren’t enough troops even now to pacify both south and east at the same time.) But overall, we are making great progress with the surge, which, after all, has only just been completed.

In the L.A. Times today, Pete Mansoor and I have an op-ed reporting on our recently completed trip to Afghanistan. (Mansoor is a retired army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq and now teaches history at Ohio State). In brief, our message is that we are now winning in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand and Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where we have focused most of our resources. But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times runs a fantastic article by Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak that quotes an unnamed mid-level Taliban commander conceding that “the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar — a message confirmed by local residents they spoke with. The article explains:

“The people are not happy with us,” the Taliban fighter said. “People gave us a place to stay for several years, but we did not provide them with anything except fighting. The situation is different now: the local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.”

NATO’s announcement that it would remain until a transfer to Afghan forces in 2014 has also convinced people that it will not withdraw quickly, he said.

“The Americans are more serious, and another thing that made people hopeful was when they said they would stay until 2014,” the Taliban commander said. “That has made people change their minds.”

Naturally, the article reports that the Taliban will plan to return to their old stomping grounds in the spring, but “in a dozen interviews, Afghan landowners, tribal elders and villagers said they believed that the Taliban could find it hard to return if American troops remained.”

That was exactly what Mansoor and I found. But isn’t there a danger that the insurgency, after setbacks in the south, will simply move to the north or east? That’s what another New York Times article claims.

Alissa Rubin reports from Kunduz in the north — an area garrisoned primarily by Germans — where she finds security conditions have deteriorated. No doubt that’s true, but there is scant chance that the Taliban could re-create strongholds in other parts of the country after being chased out of the south. That’s because the Taliban have essentially no appeal outside the Pashtun community, and there are few Pashtuns in the north or west. True, the Taliban have made some inroads among Pashtun pockets in those areas, but let’s not exaggerate. Most days, there are no reported attacks at all in the north or west. The Taliban may be spreading some fear and intimidation, but there is a natural limit on their appeal. The odds of their gaining support in the Tajik or Hazara communities are about as great as the odds of Hamas winning supporters in Jewish neighborhoods of Israel.

I do not, by any means, suggest that all the news from Afghanistan is great. As Mansoor and I note, governance and Pakistan sanctuaries remain difficult challenges, and the eastern part of the country — where there are a lot of Pashtuns — has not yet seen the kind of concerted counterinsurgency campaign that has taken place in the south. (There simply aren’t enough troops even now to pacify both south and east at the same time.) But overall, we are making great progress with the surge, which, after all, has only just been completed.

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Two Views on Afghanistan: Intel Agencies vs. the Military

Just a day ahead of the official release of the administration’s Afghanistan review, someone has leaked the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation — which apparently is less optimistic than the military’s view. As the New York Times notes, part of the discrepancy is due to “the longstanding cultural differences between intelligence analysts, whose job is to warn of potential bad news, and military commanders, who are trained to promote ‘can do’ optimism.”

There is also the highly significant fact that apparently the intelligence assessment is based on information received as of October 1 — i.e., 10 weeks ago. A lot has happened in that time, with U.S. forces continuing to solidify their hold in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, as I saw for myself last week. Judging Afghanistan based on what it looked like on October 1 hardly provides an accurate picture of where it is today — or where it is going.

According to the Times, the chief reason for gloom in the intel community assessment is the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan — “there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border,” the spooks claim. The military command — which I just visited — hardly disputes the problems created by Pakistan sanctuaries. The question is whether we can succeed even with Pakistan playing an unhelpful role. I believe we can, because  most insurgents come from the areas where they stage attacks; if we can do a better job of spreading security and addressing local grievances, the insurgents will find it hard to gain traction, notwithstanding all the support they may continue to get in Pakistan.

Just a day ahead of the official release of the administration’s Afghanistan review, someone has leaked the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation — which apparently is less optimistic than the military’s view. As the New York Times notes, part of the discrepancy is due to “the longstanding cultural differences between intelligence analysts, whose job is to warn of potential bad news, and military commanders, who are trained to promote ‘can do’ optimism.”

There is also the highly significant fact that apparently the intelligence assessment is based on information received as of October 1 — i.e., 10 weeks ago. A lot has happened in that time, with U.S. forces continuing to solidify their hold in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, as I saw for myself last week. Judging Afghanistan based on what it looked like on October 1 hardly provides an accurate picture of where it is today — or where it is going.

According to the Times, the chief reason for gloom in the intel community assessment is the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan — “there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border,” the spooks claim. The military command — which I just visited — hardly disputes the problems created by Pakistan sanctuaries. The question is whether we can succeed even with Pakistan playing an unhelpful role. I believe we can, because  most insurgents come from the areas where they stage attacks; if we can do a better job of spreading security and addressing local grievances, the insurgents will find it hard to gain traction, notwithstanding all the support they may continue to get in Pakistan.

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Turns for the Better in Afghanistan

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post‘s well-respected foreign correspondent, had a lengthy dispatch on Sunday about Nawa, a district in Helmand Province, that has largely (but not completely) been pacified by the Marines and their Afghan partners. He concedes that Nawa, which I have visited twice (and he has visited five times), is a remarkable success story: “It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly.” But he goes on to argue that “the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.”

I agree that the changes are fragile; not even the most starry-eyed optimist could possibly believe that the Taliban will be vanquished overnight. But I am less persuaded that what is transpiring in Nawa is unique. Chandrasekaran focuses on the high troop-to-population ratio, the large amount of economic aid poured in, and the competence shown both by Afghan security forces and by the district governor.

Granted, all that is true, but similarly favorable conditions exist, or are being created, in a number of other key districts being targeted by coalition forces. Sure, Nawa is doing well, but so too are Garmsir and Lashkar Gah in Helmand. Even Marjah, a notoriously difficult fight at the beginning of the year, has taken a turn for the better recently. Similar strategies are being employed with Kandahar, and although those operations aren’t as far along, they too are moving in the right direction.

No one would claim that all Afghanistan is going to become one big Nawa, but nor should Chandrasekaran suggest that it’s impossible for other parts of southern Afghanistan to take a Nawa-like turn for the better.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post‘s well-respected foreign correspondent, had a lengthy dispatch on Sunday about Nawa, a district in Helmand Province, that has largely (but not completely) been pacified by the Marines and their Afghan partners. He concedes that Nawa, which I have visited twice (and he has visited five times), is a remarkable success story: “It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly.” But he goes on to argue that “the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.”

I agree that the changes are fragile; not even the most starry-eyed optimist could possibly believe that the Taliban will be vanquished overnight. But I am less persuaded that what is transpiring in Nawa is unique. Chandrasekaran focuses on the high troop-to-population ratio, the large amount of economic aid poured in, and the competence shown both by Afghan security forces and by the district governor.

Granted, all that is true, but similarly favorable conditions exist, or are being created, in a number of other key districts being targeted by coalition forces. Sure, Nawa is doing well, but so too are Garmsir and Lashkar Gah in Helmand. Even Marjah, a notoriously difficult fight at the beginning of the year, has taken a turn for the better recently. Similar strategies are being employed with Kandahar, and although those operations aren’t as far along, they too are moving in the right direction.

No one would claim that all Afghanistan is going to become one big Nawa, but nor should Chandrasekaran suggest that it’s impossible for other parts of southern Afghanistan to take a Nawa-like turn for the better.

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The President Shouldn’t Listen to Counsels of Despair on Afghanistan

The best indication that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan: a sundry collection of “experts” is ready to raise the white flag. A motley crew of academics and journalists (including my frequent sparring partner Nir Rosen) has just released an open letter to President Obama claiming that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago” and that “operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are not going well.” Yet a few paragraphs later, the authors switch gears, writing, “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” So which is it: is the campaign failing, or is it suppressing the Taliban?

Having just visited Afghanistan, where I had the opportunity to visit Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others, I return convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban. Obviously, the Taliban have not given up the struggle, as witness, for example, the terrible suicide bombing of a new Afghan-American patrol base in Kandahar’s Zhare district — an attack that killed six American servicemen. But keep in mind that Zhare has for years been one of the Taliban’s strongholds. The fact that the Taliban are still able to carry out an occasional suicide bombing there is much less significant than the fact that the area is now dotted with American patrol bases. U.S. troops have in fact had considerable, though still incomplete, success in pushing the Taliban out of many of their southern redoubts.

Once progress on the ground is further along, it is likely that elements of the Taliban will be eager to stop fighting. At that point, peace talks may produce some results. But that time is not now. Which is why the authors of the open letter are so far off base when they call on President Obama “to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.” The open letter claims that the “Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate,” which is true in the sense that the Taliban are happy to negotiate the exit of international forces in the expectation that they will then take over the whole country and reimpose their fundamentalist dictatorship. But they have so far shown little willingness to negotiate on terms acceptable to most Afghans or to the international community, which has sponsored Afghanistan’s post-2001 experiment in democracy. In fact, when some elements of the Taliban leadership showed a willingness to make concessions, they were promptly locked up by the Pakistanis, who don’t want to see their proxies surrendering without their say-so.

The notion “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan” is simply delusional — at least for now. For talks to have any success, General Petraeus needs more time to pursue his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Thankfully, it appears as if he will get that time from the Obama administration — which is far too sensible to listen to the counsels of despair from this open letter.

The best indication that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan: a sundry collection of “experts” is ready to raise the white flag. A motley crew of academics and journalists (including my frequent sparring partner Nir Rosen) has just released an open letter to President Obama claiming that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago” and that “operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are not going well.” Yet a few paragraphs later, the authors switch gears, writing, “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” So which is it: is the campaign failing, or is it suppressing the Taliban?

Having just visited Afghanistan, where I had the opportunity to visit Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others, I return convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban. Obviously, the Taliban have not given up the struggle, as witness, for example, the terrible suicide bombing of a new Afghan-American patrol base in Kandahar’s Zhare district — an attack that killed six American servicemen. But keep in mind that Zhare has for years been one of the Taliban’s strongholds. The fact that the Taliban are still able to carry out an occasional suicide bombing there is much less significant than the fact that the area is now dotted with American patrol bases. U.S. troops have in fact had considerable, though still incomplete, success in pushing the Taliban out of many of their southern redoubts.

Once progress on the ground is further along, it is likely that elements of the Taliban will be eager to stop fighting. At that point, peace talks may produce some results. But that time is not now. Which is why the authors of the open letter are so far off base when they call on President Obama “to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.” The open letter claims that the “Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate,” which is true in the sense that the Taliban are happy to negotiate the exit of international forces in the expectation that they will then take over the whole country and reimpose their fundamentalist dictatorship. But they have so far shown little willingness to negotiate on terms acceptable to most Afghans or to the international community, which has sponsored Afghanistan’s post-2001 experiment in democracy. In fact, when some elements of the Taliban leadership showed a willingness to make concessions, they were promptly locked up by the Pakistanis, who don’t want to see their proxies surrendering without their say-so.

The notion “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan” is simply delusional — at least for now. For talks to have any success, General Petraeus needs more time to pursue his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Thankfully, it appears as if he will get that time from the Obama administration — which is far too sensible to listen to the counsels of despair from this open letter.

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U.S. Adopts Israeli Anti-Terror Tactics, but Waffles on Defending Israel’s Use of Them

One cable from the WikiLeaks trove raises a disturbing possibility: the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements could end up undermining America’s own war on terror.

Shortly before Israel announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction last year, Germany urged Washington to threaten that absent such a moratorium, the U.S. would refuse to block a UN Security Council vote on the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. U.S. officials correctly responded that this would be “counterproductive” but agreed to tell Israel “that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC” — thus implying that Washington might so threaten in the future. And last month, the U.S. indeed implicitly conditioned future efforts to block Goldstone on another settlement freeze.

Yet America has a vital interest of its own in burying Goldstone: facing many of the same military problems in its war on terror that Israel does, it has increasingly adopted many of the same tactics.

Last month, for example, the New York Times reported that in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region, “American forces are encountering empty homes and farm buildings left so heavily booby-trapped by Taliban insurgents that the Americans have been systematically destroying hundreds of them” in order “to reduce civilian and military casualties.” They even destroyed houses that weren’t booby-trapped because “searching empty houses was often too dangerous.” And as an Afghan official correctly noted, “It’s the insurgents and the enemy of the country that are to blame for this destruction, because they have planted mines in civilian houses and main roads everywhere.”

This is precisely what Israel did in its 2008-09 Gaza war, for the same reason: it found hundreds of booby-trapped houses, schools, even a zoo. But Goldstone, like the so-called human rights organizations, pooh-poohed this claim, accusing Israel of wantonly destroying civilian property in a deliberate effort to target civilians. Far from blaming Hamas for booby-trapping houses, they blamed Israel for destroying the traps.

The same goes for drone strikes on wanted terrorists — not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Yemen. Israel has used this tactic for years, also for the same reason: sometimes, it’s the only way to neutralize a dangerous terrorist short of a major ground operation with massive casualties on both sides. But aerial strikes can also produce unintended civilian casualties.

The U.S. recently defended this tactic to the UN Human Rights Council, stressing that targeted killings are “lawful, they constitute neither extrajudicial killing nor political assassination.”

But human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced similar Israeli strikes as “extrajudicial executions” even when there have been no civilian casualties. And the outcry has been much worse when there were. Just last year, for instance, a Spanish court considered indicting several senior Israeli officials over a 2002 strike on Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh that, due to flawed intelligence, also killed 14 other people. (The case was halted after Spain moved to amend its universal-jurisdiction law.)

In short, America’s own self-interest demands that it thwart legal assaults on Israeli counterterrorism tactics. Otherwise, it’s liable to find itself in the dock next.

One cable from the WikiLeaks trove raises a disturbing possibility: the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements could end up undermining America’s own war on terror.

Shortly before Israel announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction last year, Germany urged Washington to threaten that absent such a moratorium, the U.S. would refuse to block a UN Security Council vote on the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. U.S. officials correctly responded that this would be “counterproductive” but agreed to tell Israel “that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC” — thus implying that Washington might so threaten in the future. And last month, the U.S. indeed implicitly conditioned future efforts to block Goldstone on another settlement freeze.

Yet America has a vital interest of its own in burying Goldstone: facing many of the same military problems in its war on terror that Israel does, it has increasingly adopted many of the same tactics.

Last month, for example, the New York Times reported that in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region, “American forces are encountering empty homes and farm buildings left so heavily booby-trapped by Taliban insurgents that the Americans have been systematically destroying hundreds of them” in order “to reduce civilian and military casualties.” They even destroyed houses that weren’t booby-trapped because “searching empty houses was often too dangerous.” And as an Afghan official correctly noted, “It’s the insurgents and the enemy of the country that are to blame for this destruction, because they have planted mines in civilian houses and main roads everywhere.”

This is precisely what Israel did in its 2008-09 Gaza war, for the same reason: it found hundreds of booby-trapped houses, schools, even a zoo. But Goldstone, like the so-called human rights organizations, pooh-poohed this claim, accusing Israel of wantonly destroying civilian property in a deliberate effort to target civilians. Far from blaming Hamas for booby-trapping houses, they blamed Israel for destroying the traps.

The same goes for drone strikes on wanted terrorists — not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Yemen. Israel has used this tactic for years, also for the same reason: sometimes, it’s the only way to neutralize a dangerous terrorist short of a major ground operation with massive casualties on both sides. But aerial strikes can also produce unintended civilian casualties.

The U.S. recently defended this tactic to the UN Human Rights Council, stressing that targeted killings are “lawful, they constitute neither extrajudicial killing nor political assassination.”

But human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced similar Israeli strikes as “extrajudicial executions” even when there have been no civilian casualties. And the outcry has been much worse when there were. Just last year, for instance, a Spanish court considered indicting several senior Israeli officials over a 2002 strike on Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh that, due to flawed intelligence, also killed 14 other people. (The case was halted after Spain moved to amend its universal-jurisdiction law.)

In short, America’s own self-interest demands that it thwart legal assaults on Israeli counterterrorism tactics. Otherwise, it’s liable to find itself in the dock next.

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Step 1 in Negotiating with Taliban: Proof of “Taliban-ness”

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

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Good Works Plus Firepower Equals Effective Counterinsurgency

Among some Army traditionalists (and some ultra-hawkish conservatives), the knock on “population-centric” counterinsurgency — whose most prominent advocate is General David Petraeus — is that it is nothing more than “social work” that ignores the need to kill or capture the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as current events in Afghanistan demonstrate. Yes, Petraeus has put more emphasis on securing the population, improving governance, and decreasing corruption. But, no, he hasn’t ignored the imperative to hit the enemy and to hit him hard.

That should be clear from this Washington Post article reporting on a decision to send a company of M1 Abrams tanks to assist Marine infantrymen fighting in Helmand Province. Gen. David McKiernan, a previous NATO commander who ironically had a reputation for being overly conventional, had actually turned down a prior Marine request for heavy armor because he thought it would reek too much of the Red Army’s tactics. Now Petraeus has approved the dispatch of tanks that are needed to aid Marines who are in a tough fight in places like Sangin.

That should hardly be surprising, because Petraeus is overseeing an impressive increase in overall firepower. As the Post notes:

Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.

The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October – 1,000 total – than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges — a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past — to blast through minefields.

That is not a repudiation of counterinsurgency doctrine but a good example of how it is supposed to work: melding kinetic and non-kinetic operations into a seamless whole. While more troops are among the population, and doing more civil-action projects, they are also gaining the trust and confidence of the locals and learning the lay of the land. That allows them to use firepower far more effectively than in the past, when the U.S. relied on a “small footprint,” counterterrorism-focused strategy.

In years past, air strikes resulted in many civilian deaths because we had so few boots on the ground; that meant we did not have good intelligence about where exactly the enemy was hiding. Now U.S. troops are able to call in air strikes far more precisely, which is why the considerable increase in air strikes has not led to a corresponding increase in civilian casualties or to widespread accusations of brutality, such as were common when U.S. bombs were blamed for blowing up wedding parties.

What Petraeus realizes — and his critics seem to miss — is that effective counterinsurgency can’t rely on force alone or on good works alone. Both are necessary to defeat a tenacious foe and secure a scared populace.

Among some Army traditionalists (and some ultra-hawkish conservatives), the knock on “population-centric” counterinsurgency — whose most prominent advocate is General David Petraeus — is that it is nothing more than “social work” that ignores the need to kill or capture the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as current events in Afghanistan demonstrate. Yes, Petraeus has put more emphasis on securing the population, improving governance, and decreasing corruption. But, no, he hasn’t ignored the imperative to hit the enemy and to hit him hard.

That should be clear from this Washington Post article reporting on a decision to send a company of M1 Abrams tanks to assist Marine infantrymen fighting in Helmand Province. Gen. David McKiernan, a previous NATO commander who ironically had a reputation for being overly conventional, had actually turned down a prior Marine request for heavy armor because he thought it would reek too much of the Red Army’s tactics. Now Petraeus has approved the dispatch of tanks that are needed to aid Marines who are in a tough fight in places like Sangin.

That should hardly be surprising, because Petraeus is overseeing an impressive increase in overall firepower. As the Post notes:

Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.

The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October – 1,000 total – than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges — a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past — to blast through minefields.

That is not a repudiation of counterinsurgency doctrine but a good example of how it is supposed to work: melding kinetic and non-kinetic operations into a seamless whole. While more troops are among the population, and doing more civil-action projects, they are also gaining the trust and confidence of the locals and learning the lay of the land. That allows them to use firepower far more effectively than in the past, when the U.S. relied on a “small footprint,” counterterrorism-focused strategy.

In years past, air strikes resulted in many civilian deaths because we had so few boots on the ground; that meant we did not have good intelligence about where exactly the enemy was hiding. Now U.S. troops are able to call in air strikes far more precisely, which is why the considerable increase in air strikes has not led to a corresponding increase in civilian casualties or to widespread accusations of brutality, such as were common when U.S. bombs were blamed for blowing up wedding parties.

What Petraeus realizes — and his critics seem to miss — is that effective counterinsurgency can’t rely on force alone or on good works alone. Both are necessary to defeat a tenacious foe and secure a scared populace.

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The Times‘s Great War Correspondents

I often take issue with articles and columns in the New York Times, but it remains a great newspaper with many first-rate, fearless news-gatherers. One of them was severely wounded Saturday while accompanying U.S. troops in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar. Photographer Joao Silva stepped on a mine while on patrol. Thankfully, he survived. Medics administered immediate assistance, and he was evacuated by helicopter. Typical of his professionalism and dedication, he continued snapping pictures even after being hit. He will undergo his long-term recovery at Walter Reed hospital in Washington. (The story is here.)

Silva is hardly the only Times journalist who has placed himself in harm’s way in search of a story. Reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban last year and freed in a raid which killed his interpreter. Farrell only had to spend four days with his captors; his colleague David Rohde spent seven months in Taliban captivity before escaping.

Their self-sacrifice has not been in vain. For all the many problems of the Times, its war reporting has been outstanding, thanks to the efforts not only of the individuals mentioned above but also many others such as Michael Gordon, Dexter Filkins, C.J. Chivers, John Burns, Alissa Rubin, and Carlotta Gall. They have been fearless truth-gatherers and have generally described the wars they have covered fairly and accurately. Certainly in Iraq, they provided a better picture of what was happening than the hopelessly rosy-eyed descriptions generated by U.S. military commanders from 2003 to 2006. In Afghanistan, I have also found their reporting generally to be on the money.

I wish Silva a speedy recovery and hope his colleagues remain safe when they are on the front lines — as they often are.

I often take issue with articles and columns in the New York Times, but it remains a great newspaper with many first-rate, fearless news-gatherers. One of them was severely wounded Saturday while accompanying U.S. troops in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar. Photographer Joao Silva stepped on a mine while on patrol. Thankfully, he survived. Medics administered immediate assistance, and he was evacuated by helicopter. Typical of his professionalism and dedication, he continued snapping pictures even after being hit. He will undergo his long-term recovery at Walter Reed hospital in Washington. (The story is here.)

Silva is hardly the only Times journalist who has placed himself in harm’s way in search of a story. Reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban last year and freed in a raid which killed his interpreter. Farrell only had to spend four days with his captors; his colleague David Rohde spent seven months in Taliban captivity before escaping.

Their self-sacrifice has not been in vain. For all the many problems of the Times, its war reporting has been outstanding, thanks to the efforts not only of the individuals mentioned above but also many others such as Michael Gordon, Dexter Filkins, C.J. Chivers, John Burns, Alissa Rubin, and Carlotta Gall. They have been fearless truth-gatherers and have generally described the wars they have covered fairly and accurately. Certainly in Iraq, they provided a better picture of what was happening than the hopelessly rosy-eyed descriptions generated by U.S. military commanders from 2003 to 2006. In Afghanistan, I have also found their reporting generally to be on the money.

I wish Silva a speedy recovery and hope his colleagues remain safe when they are on the front lines — as they often are.

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No Time for Defeatism in Afghanistan

Today’s New York Times offers two competing narratives from Afghanistan — one of success, the other of failure. The front page features the most hopeful article I’ve seen out of Afghanistan in years, headlined, “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region.” Carlotta Gall reports that coalition operations are chasing the Taliban out of their strongholds around Kandahar:

A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base. ..

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

If true, this is amazingly good news. You wouldn’t know that anything positive was going on, however, from reading Nick Kristof’s op-ed column, which is full of typical gloom and doom. He claims that “President Obama’s decision to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan has resulted, with some exceptions, mostly in more dead Americans and Afghans alike.” Kristof suggests preemptively declaring defeat: “My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda. We also should push aggressively for a peace deal between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan.”

This is a pretty amazing sentiment considering that Kristof has been an ardent human-rights campaigner who has pushed for greater Western intervention to deal with ills ranging from the white-slave trade to ethnic cleansing. But in Afghanistan, he is happy to consign the people to the tender mercies of the Taliban. He seems to comfort himself by claiming that it’s still possible to run schools and other development projects even in Taliban-dominated areas — a dubious claim that was certainly not borne out during the years of Taliban rule (1996-2001), when they subjected the people of Afghanistan, and especially its women, to a regime of unparalleled barbarism.

Kristof’s prescriptions would make sense only if we had already fought and lost in Afghanistan. But with the last of the surge forces having arrived only last month, our outstanding troops have barely begun to fight. And as Carlotta Gall’s report makes clear, in areas where we are applying substantial combat power, we are making progress on the ground. This is no time for defeatism.

Today’s New York Times offers two competing narratives from Afghanistan — one of success, the other of failure. The front page features the most hopeful article I’ve seen out of Afghanistan in years, headlined, “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region.” Carlotta Gall reports that coalition operations are chasing the Taliban out of their strongholds around Kandahar:

A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base. ..

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

If true, this is amazingly good news. You wouldn’t know that anything positive was going on, however, from reading Nick Kristof’s op-ed column, which is full of typical gloom and doom. He claims that “President Obama’s decision to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan has resulted, with some exceptions, mostly in more dead Americans and Afghans alike.” Kristof suggests preemptively declaring defeat: “My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda. We also should push aggressively for a peace deal between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan.”

This is a pretty amazing sentiment considering that Kristof has been an ardent human-rights campaigner who has pushed for greater Western intervention to deal with ills ranging from the white-slave trade to ethnic cleansing. But in Afghanistan, he is happy to consign the people to the tender mercies of the Taliban. He seems to comfort himself by claiming that it’s still possible to run schools and other development projects even in Taliban-dominated areas — a dubious claim that was certainly not borne out during the years of Taliban rule (1996-2001), when they subjected the people of Afghanistan, and especially its women, to a regime of unparalleled barbarism.

Kristof’s prescriptions would make sense only if we had already fought and lost in Afghanistan. But with the last of the surge forces having arrived only last month, our outstanding troops have barely begun to fight. And as Carlotta Gall’s report makes clear, in areas where we are applying substantial combat power, we are making progress on the ground. This is no time for defeatism.

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The Limits of Technology in Counterinsurgency

The Washington Post has an interesting if depressing report on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd infantry division — the unit where five soldiers who are accused of killing several Afghan men “for sport” came from.

The Post notes that the brigade’s commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, was adamantly opposed to the prevailing counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes protecting the population. He believed in “counterguerrilla operations” along the lines of his brigade’s motto, “Strike and destroy.” He encouraged an aggressive attitude that resulted in many casualties — both among Afghans and among his own men. Some of those losses were no doubt inevitable, because the 5th Brigade was deployed to a heavily Taliban-infested area on the outskirts of Kandahar. But it is striking, and alarming, that the army allowed the deployment of this brigade to a vital area even when it was obvious to all, as far back as pre-deployment training, that Col. Tunnell was dangerously out of sync with the state-of-the-art thinking on how to fight counterinsurgency. The Washington Post article notes that Tunnell is not implicated in the atrocities allegedly committed by his men, but it raises legitimate questions about whether his overly aggressive attitude may have been at the root of some of the brigade’s problems.

That was certainly an issue in my mind when I visited Col. Tunnell and was briefed by him at his brigade operations center at Kandahar Air Field in October 2009. A related issue, which isn’t mentioned in the Post article, is Tunnell’s faith in technology. The Stryker brigades are among the most high-tech in the army, equipped with armored vehicles that are “networked” to provide a common “operating picture” of the battlefield. This can breed hubris among soldiers who think that their gee-whiz gadgets give them an insuperable advantage over a more primitive foe. That was certainly the case with Tunnell, who actually told me that all his sophisticated computer systems gave him a better picture of his area’s “human terrain” than that that possessed by the insurgents. I thought this was a pretty amazing statement considering that few if any of his soldiers spoke Pashto or understand anything about local customs — all of which was second nature to the Taliban.

The army has made great strides in counterinsurgency, but this shows clearly that it still has a way to go. It clearly has to do a better job of making sure that all those in such important combat commands have a better understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine — which includes a keen appreciation of the need for cultural knowledge and the limits of technology in this kind of fight.

The Washington Post has an interesting if depressing report on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd infantry division — the unit where five soldiers who are accused of killing several Afghan men “for sport” came from.

The Post notes that the brigade’s commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, was adamantly opposed to the prevailing counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes protecting the population. He believed in “counterguerrilla operations” along the lines of his brigade’s motto, “Strike and destroy.” He encouraged an aggressive attitude that resulted in many casualties — both among Afghans and among his own men. Some of those losses were no doubt inevitable, because the 5th Brigade was deployed to a heavily Taliban-infested area on the outskirts of Kandahar. But it is striking, and alarming, that the army allowed the deployment of this brigade to a vital area even when it was obvious to all, as far back as pre-deployment training, that Col. Tunnell was dangerously out of sync with the state-of-the-art thinking on how to fight counterinsurgency. The Washington Post article notes that Tunnell is not implicated in the atrocities allegedly committed by his men, but it raises legitimate questions about whether his overly aggressive attitude may have been at the root of some of the brigade’s problems.

That was certainly an issue in my mind when I visited Col. Tunnell and was briefed by him at his brigade operations center at Kandahar Air Field in October 2009. A related issue, which isn’t mentioned in the Post article, is Tunnell’s faith in technology. The Stryker brigades are among the most high-tech in the army, equipped with armored vehicles that are “networked” to provide a common “operating picture” of the battlefield. This can breed hubris among soldiers who think that their gee-whiz gadgets give them an insuperable advantage over a more primitive foe. That was certainly the case with Tunnell, who actually told me that all his sophisticated computer systems gave him a better picture of his area’s “human terrain” than that that possessed by the insurgents. I thought this was a pretty amazing statement considering that few if any of his soldiers spoke Pashto or understand anything about local customs — all of which was second nature to the Taliban.

The army has made great strides in counterinsurgency, but this shows clearly that it still has a way to go. It clearly has to do a better job of making sure that all those in such important combat commands have a better understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine — which includes a keen appreciation of the need for cultural knowledge and the limits of technology in this kind of fight.

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Afghanistan from the Ground

The Washington Post has a great report from the frontlines in Afghanistan, its reporter having spent some time with U.S. soldiers in the Arghandab Valley outside Kandahar. Their view — that they are making steady progress — stands in stark contrast to the defeatist rhetoric so pervasive in Washington: “They arrived two months ago in what was clearly Taliban land. Today it is contested land. To them, violence is a sign of progress: Now the Taliban has someone to fight.” As signs of progress, the local company commander, Capt. Mikel Resnick, points to:

… Soldiers have killed at least a dozen insurgents and suffered zero casualties. Open stores in Sarkari Bagh have quadrupled, and in towns that emptied at the sight of a U.S. soldier two months ago, children swarm and troops sit for tea, they said.

On the day of parliamentary elections in mid-September, a daisy-chain bomb planted in an alley regularly patrolled by soldiers seriously injured a child. But overall there was less violence than Resnick expected.

“We thought our area . . . was going to explode on election day,” Resnick said. “And it didn’t.”

Granted, this is a soda-straw view of the war; these troops have little awareness of what is going on in other parts of the country. And U.S. soldiers are programmed to be optimistic; sometimes over-optimistic. Yet the view from the ground is important as a counter-balance to the conventional wisdom being formed thousands of miles away by those who have never even visited Arghandab, much less spent months fighting there.

The Washington Post has a great report from the frontlines in Afghanistan, its reporter having spent some time with U.S. soldiers in the Arghandab Valley outside Kandahar. Their view — that they are making steady progress — stands in stark contrast to the defeatist rhetoric so pervasive in Washington: “They arrived two months ago in what was clearly Taliban land. Today it is contested land. To them, violence is a sign of progress: Now the Taliban has someone to fight.” As signs of progress, the local company commander, Capt. Mikel Resnick, points to:

… Soldiers have killed at least a dozen insurgents and suffered zero casualties. Open stores in Sarkari Bagh have quadrupled, and in towns that emptied at the sight of a U.S. soldier two months ago, children swarm and troops sit for tea, they said.

On the day of parliamentary elections in mid-September, a daisy-chain bomb planted in an alley regularly patrolled by soldiers seriously injured a child. But overall there was less violence than Resnick expected.

“We thought our area . . . was going to explode on election day,” Resnick said. “And it didn’t.”

Granted, this is a soda-straw view of the war; these troops have little awareness of what is going on in other parts of the country. And U.S. soldiers are programmed to be optimistic; sometimes over-optimistic. Yet the view from the ground is important as a counter-balance to the conventional wisdom being formed thousands of miles away by those who have never even visited Arghandab, much less spent months fighting there.

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How the U.S. Military Polices Its Own Ranks

Anyone who follows the U.S. Army, or the war in Afghanistan, cannot fail to be horrified by reports of atrocities committed by a few soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan. If news accounts are accurate, a few soldiers decided to randomly kill Afghan civilians for sport. “Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May,” the Washington Post writes, adding, “Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.”

Awful as they are, these atrocities sound mild by comparison with countless other war crimes. Hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in the My Lai massacre. Even greater numbers of Algerians were randomly gunned down by French forces during the Algerian War of Independence in retaliation for grisly attacks on French civilians. The Russians in Afghanistan made a practice of targeting the civilian population — for example, by distributing booby-trapped toys. This is no way meant to be a defense of a few sick soldiers who deserve to have the book thrown at them if half of what is alleged is true. But some sense of perspective is necessary insofar as the Taliban and others will no doubt exploit this case to paint all American soldiers as murderers and torturers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the conduct of U.S. forces is exemplary by any standard. Their respect for human rights and the laws of war is equaled by few, if any other, military forces thrown into the maelstrom of a vicious insurgency.

Clearly there was a big problem in the 5th Stryker Brigade — something that I saw for myself when I visited the unit last year in the field. I had no inkling of such murderous abuses but the brigade seemed to be off-track in terms of their tactical doctrine, concentrating on hunting down insurgents rather than on winning the trust of the people, and relying too much on high-tech gadgetry. In doctrinal terms, they were pursuing “counterguerrilla” rather than “counterinsurgent” operations.

But there has been no suggestion that the brigade’s leadership, or the army in general, countenanced anything like these abuses. In fact, as usual with such excesses, it was military investigators who uncovered the wrongdoing. Perhaps, as the account by the Washington Post suggests, the military did not respond fast enough to alarms raised by a soldier’s father; if so, that situation needs to be corrected. But once military investigators get on the track of incidents like these, they are normally relentless in building a prosecution — so much so that, sometimes, innocent soldiers get put in the dock. That, too, is to be regretted. But, in general, the U.S. armed forces take such misconduct with the seriousness it deserves — something that cannot be said of all, or even most, militaries, the Israel Defense Forces being a rare exception. Of course, neither the U.S. armed forces nor the IDF can expect any thanks for their scrupulousness about observing human rights; predictably, they get pilloried as monsters while far more monstrous forces (including the enemies they fight, whether the Taliban or Hezbollah) get a pass in global news coverage.

Anyone who follows the U.S. Army, or the war in Afghanistan, cannot fail to be horrified by reports of atrocities committed by a few soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan. If news accounts are accurate, a few soldiers decided to randomly kill Afghan civilians for sport. “Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May,” the Washington Post writes, adding, “Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.”

Awful as they are, these atrocities sound mild by comparison with countless other war crimes. Hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in the My Lai massacre. Even greater numbers of Algerians were randomly gunned down by French forces during the Algerian War of Independence in retaliation for grisly attacks on French civilians. The Russians in Afghanistan made a practice of targeting the civilian population — for example, by distributing booby-trapped toys. This is no way meant to be a defense of a few sick soldiers who deserve to have the book thrown at them if half of what is alleged is true. But some sense of perspective is necessary insofar as the Taliban and others will no doubt exploit this case to paint all American soldiers as murderers and torturers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the conduct of U.S. forces is exemplary by any standard. Their respect for human rights and the laws of war is equaled by few, if any other, military forces thrown into the maelstrom of a vicious insurgency.

Clearly there was a big problem in the 5th Stryker Brigade — something that I saw for myself when I visited the unit last year in the field. I had no inkling of such murderous abuses but the brigade seemed to be off-track in terms of their tactical doctrine, concentrating on hunting down insurgents rather than on winning the trust of the people, and relying too much on high-tech gadgetry. In doctrinal terms, they were pursuing “counterguerrilla” rather than “counterinsurgent” operations.

But there has been no suggestion that the brigade’s leadership, or the army in general, countenanced anything like these abuses. In fact, as usual with such excesses, it was military investigators who uncovered the wrongdoing. Perhaps, as the account by the Washington Post suggests, the military did not respond fast enough to alarms raised by a soldier’s father; if so, that situation needs to be corrected. But once military investigators get on the track of incidents like these, they are normally relentless in building a prosecution — so much so that, sometimes, innocent soldiers get put in the dock. That, too, is to be regretted. But, in general, the U.S. armed forces take such misconduct with the seriousness it deserves — something that cannot be said of all, or even most, militaries, the Israel Defense Forces being a rare exception. Of course, neither the U.S. armed forces nor the IDF can expect any thanks for their scrupulousness about observing human rights; predictably, they get pilloried as monsters while far more monstrous forces (including the enemies they fight, whether the Taliban or Hezbollah) get a pass in global news coverage.

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Why He Doesn’t Explain Why We Fight

Charles Krauthammer’s (I won’t say “must-read,” because all are) column today critiques both what Obama said on Tuesday (much discussion of deadlines) and what he did not. As to the latter, Krauthammer explains:

Where does America stand on the spreading threats to stability, decency and U.S. interests from the Horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush?

On this, not a word. Instead, Obama made a strange and clumsy segue into a pep talk on the economy. Rebuilding it, he declared, “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.” This in a speech ostensibly about the two wars he is directing. He could not have made more clear where his priorities lie, and how much he sees foreign policy — war policy — as subordinate to his domestic ambitions.

Unfortunately, what for Obama is a distraction is life or death for U.S. troops now on patrol in Kandahar province. Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does. Obama needs to accept the role. It’s not just the U.S. military, as [the New York Times‘s] Baker reports, that is “worried he is not fully invested in the cause.” Our allies, too, are experiencing doubt. And our enemies are drawing sustenance.

One can understand why Obama does not like to speak about a worldwide, amorphous war against jihadists. Many of the policies he has implemented are based on the premise that we are not engaged in a war to save our civilization. The Obama administration Mirandizes the Christmas Day  and the Times Square terrorists because these are “one-offs,” as Janet Napolitano put it. They offer KSM a public trial because they turn a blind eye to the impact such a trial would have on jihadists around the world. They excise “jihadist” and “Islamic fundamentalist” from their vocabulary because they imagine the war has nothing to do with ideology. (Al-Qaeda is an extremist group, but of what kind? Are they environmental or animal-rights activists who’ve gone over the edge — or murderers who kill in the name of Islam?)

Obama can’t talk about the struggle we are engaged in against Islamic fascists, because he doesn’t believe we’re in such a struggle. Or he pretends we’re not, because to acknowledge reality would make all his deadlines – and the announcement that his central task is the economy — seem ludicrous. And they are.

Charles Krauthammer’s (I won’t say “must-read,” because all are) column today critiques both what Obama said on Tuesday (much discussion of deadlines) and what he did not. As to the latter, Krauthammer explains:

Where does America stand on the spreading threats to stability, decency and U.S. interests from the Horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush?

On this, not a word. Instead, Obama made a strange and clumsy segue into a pep talk on the economy. Rebuilding it, he declared, “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.” This in a speech ostensibly about the two wars he is directing. He could not have made more clear where his priorities lie, and how much he sees foreign policy — war policy — as subordinate to his domestic ambitions.

Unfortunately, what for Obama is a distraction is life or death for U.S. troops now on patrol in Kandahar province. Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does. Obama needs to accept the role. It’s not just the U.S. military, as [the New York Times‘s] Baker reports, that is “worried he is not fully invested in the cause.” Our allies, too, are experiencing doubt. And our enemies are drawing sustenance.

One can understand why Obama does not like to speak about a worldwide, amorphous war against jihadists. Many of the policies he has implemented are based on the premise that we are not engaged in a war to save our civilization. The Obama administration Mirandizes the Christmas Day  and the Times Square terrorists because these are “one-offs,” as Janet Napolitano put it. They offer KSM a public trial because they turn a blind eye to the impact such a trial would have on jihadists around the world. They excise “jihadist” and “Islamic fundamentalist” from their vocabulary because they imagine the war has nothing to do with ideology. (Al-Qaeda is an extremist group, but of what kind? Are they environmental or animal-rights activists who’ve gone over the edge — or murderers who kill in the name of Islam?)

Obama can’t talk about the struggle we are engaged in against Islamic fascists, because he doesn’t believe we’re in such a struggle. Or he pretends we’re not, because to acknowledge reality would make all his deadlines – and the announcement that his central task is the economy — seem ludicrous. And they are.

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The Speech: About As Good As We Could Expect

I see some disagreement on the right about Obama’s Iraq speech, with Peter Robinson and Jennifer Rubin condemning it and Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz praising it. For what it’s worth, I’m with Bill and John on this one. I thought that this speech was about as good as we could expect from an opponent of the Iraq war — and better than Obama has done in the past. He even (for the first time?) held out an olive branch to his predecessor:

This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush.  It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset.  Yet no one can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.

OK, he didn’t say, “Bush’s surge won the war, and I regret opposing it,” which is what many of my conservative compatriots are waiting to hear. But nor did he say, “I believe that Bush lied us into a war we shouldn’t have fought,” which is what his liberal base longs to hear. Considering how strongly he opposed Bush and the decision to go to war, this was a nice grace note.

On a more substantive issue, I was cheered to hear him say, “Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” He also said, however, “Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.” While it’s a good message to send that the U.S. will keep its commitments, he might have added that we will leave by the end of next year “unless an agreement is reached with the government of Iraq to extend our presence.” Such an agreement will be vital to safeguarding Iraq’s future, and I would hope that Obama recognizes that. Even if he does, there is a case to be made for not lobbying publicly for such an agreement, because it will encourage Iraqi obstinacy in the negotiations, which is what happened during the run-up to the existing U.S.-Iraq accord.

There was only a brief mention of Afghanistan, but what he said was pretty good. He did not speak of a troop-withdrawal deadline. Instead he said that “next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure.” That the drawdown will be “conditions based” rather than adhere to an artificial timeline means that our troops will have a fighting chance to get the job done.

Finally, like Bill Kristol, I liked the ending of the speech, in which he linked today’s soldiers “with an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar.” It wasn’t exactly Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech — a masterpiece of giving thanks to the men and women in uniform — but it was a nice conclusion to a nice speech.

However good the words, the hard part is still ahead of us in Iraq, where no government has yet been formed and everyone is nervous about the American troop withdrawal. Obama will have to get more involved in managing Iraq’s future than he has been to date.

I see some disagreement on the right about Obama’s Iraq speech, with Peter Robinson and Jennifer Rubin condemning it and Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz praising it. For what it’s worth, I’m with Bill and John on this one. I thought that this speech was about as good as we could expect from an opponent of the Iraq war — and better than Obama has done in the past. He even (for the first time?) held out an olive branch to his predecessor:

This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush.  It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset.  Yet no one can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.

OK, he didn’t say, “Bush’s surge won the war, and I regret opposing it,” which is what many of my conservative compatriots are waiting to hear. But nor did he say, “I believe that Bush lied us into a war we shouldn’t have fought,” which is what his liberal base longs to hear. Considering how strongly he opposed Bush and the decision to go to war, this was a nice grace note.

On a more substantive issue, I was cheered to hear him say, “Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” He also said, however, “Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.” While it’s a good message to send that the U.S. will keep its commitments, he might have added that we will leave by the end of next year “unless an agreement is reached with the government of Iraq to extend our presence.” Such an agreement will be vital to safeguarding Iraq’s future, and I would hope that Obama recognizes that. Even if he does, there is a case to be made for not lobbying publicly for such an agreement, because it will encourage Iraqi obstinacy in the negotiations, which is what happened during the run-up to the existing U.S.-Iraq accord.

There was only a brief mention of Afghanistan, but what he said was pretty good. He did not speak of a troop-withdrawal deadline. Instead he said that “next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure.” That the drawdown will be “conditions based” rather than adhere to an artificial timeline means that our troops will have a fighting chance to get the job done.

Finally, like Bill Kristol, I liked the ending of the speech, in which he linked today’s soldiers “with an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar.” It wasn’t exactly Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech — a masterpiece of giving thanks to the men and women in uniform — but it was a nice conclusion to a nice speech.

However good the words, the hard part is still ahead of us in Iraq, where no government has yet been formed and everyone is nervous about the American troop withdrawal. Obama will have to get more involved in managing Iraq’s future than he has been to date.

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Petraeus on Afghanistan

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

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Afghanistan: Snapshots from the Morning Papers

This morning’s newspapers bring a slew of important and interesting articles about Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ongoing probe of the New Ansari Exchange, a leading “hawala” money-transfer company that has been linked to the Taliban, the drug trade, and corrupt Afghan officials. The article notes that an Afghan anti-corruption task force raided New Ansari’s Kabul office in January and seized all sorts of incriminating documents. President Karzai, whose friends and relatives are deeply implicated in these activities, is — of course — eager to quash the probe; but he hasn’t succeeded so far. One of the intriguing aspects of this issue is the vast number of links between the New Ansari Exchange and the Afghan United Bank — one of the country’s leading financial institutions. Haji Muhammad Jan is not only a founder of New Ansari but also the chairman of Afghan United Bank. The larger issue here is the rotten state of Afghanistan’s financial institutions. That is something that needs to be addressed by the coalition because, at the moment, hawalas and banks are important middlemen for corruption, narco-trafficking, and the insurgency. If the financial system can be cleaned up, that will go a long way toward defunding some of the most nefarious activities.

–The New York Times reports that the prospects of holding clean and fair parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for Sept. 18, are poor. Many of the same problems with ballot stuffing that marred the presidential election last year are expected to recur next month. As the Times notes, “already Western diplomats and observers are lowering expectations for the election, while Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic about the prospects for democracy.” It’s still not too late to postpone the balloting, which will only further discredit the Afghan government.

–Another New York Times article claims: “American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.” The article, in fact, suggests that it won’t be a hard case to make. It reports that President Obama has adopted a “two-year rule” — meaning that he will give U.S. troops in any particular location two years to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. The Times account continues:

The two-year clock, officials say, started in June 2009 when the first additional forces, more than 20,000 troops long requested by American commanders, arrived in Afghanistan. Those troops will have been in place for two years by next summer, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal under Mr. Obama’s plan.

In areas where operations began this year — like Marja, where results have been disappointing, and Kandahar, where American Special Operations forces are now conducting night raids to diminish the middle ranks of the Taliban — the two-year clock started later, and the work there could continue well into 2012.

This suggests that concerns on the right that our troops won’t have sufficient time to conduct counterinsurgency operations are unwarranted — two years should be enough time to stabilize most locations, provided that sufficient troops and resources be dedicated to the problem.

–Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that German forces based in northern Afghanistan are planning an offensive to drive back the Taliban, who have made inroads in the past two years. That’s good news, although it would be even better news if Berlin were to relax onerous restrictions on their troops. The Journal writes: “A German spokesman in Mazar-e-Sharif says that, until now, when German forces have cleared a village, they have typically entered in the morning and left before nightfall, allowing the Taliban to return at their leisure. The new battalions hope there will be adequate Afghan police to stay behind to protect against the insurgents’ return, German officials say.” I wouldn’t bet on the prospects of stability in newly cleared areas unless German troops are willing to stay behind with Afghan security forces.

These are all, to be sure, snapshots of a war in progress. They don’t add up to a complete picture. Indeed, it’s far too early to draw any broad conclusions. What these articles do show, however, is that, while Afghanistan faces serious problems, coalition forces are for the first time making a serious effort to address them and that, in all likelihood, they will have the time needed to make real progress.

This morning’s newspapers bring a slew of important and interesting articles about Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ongoing probe of the New Ansari Exchange, a leading “hawala” money-transfer company that has been linked to the Taliban, the drug trade, and corrupt Afghan officials. The article notes that an Afghan anti-corruption task force raided New Ansari’s Kabul office in January and seized all sorts of incriminating documents. President Karzai, whose friends and relatives are deeply implicated in these activities, is — of course — eager to quash the probe; but he hasn’t succeeded so far. One of the intriguing aspects of this issue is the vast number of links between the New Ansari Exchange and the Afghan United Bank — one of the country’s leading financial institutions. Haji Muhammad Jan is not only a founder of New Ansari but also the chairman of Afghan United Bank. The larger issue here is the rotten state of Afghanistan’s financial institutions. That is something that needs to be addressed by the coalition because, at the moment, hawalas and banks are important middlemen for corruption, narco-trafficking, and the insurgency. If the financial system can be cleaned up, that will go a long way toward defunding some of the most nefarious activities.

–The New York Times reports that the prospects of holding clean and fair parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for Sept. 18, are poor. Many of the same problems with ballot stuffing that marred the presidential election last year are expected to recur next month. As the Times notes, “already Western diplomats and observers are lowering expectations for the election, while Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic about the prospects for democracy.” It’s still not too late to postpone the balloting, which will only further discredit the Afghan government.

–Another New York Times article claims: “American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.” The article, in fact, suggests that it won’t be a hard case to make. It reports that President Obama has adopted a “two-year rule” — meaning that he will give U.S. troops in any particular location two years to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. The Times account continues:

The two-year clock, officials say, started in June 2009 when the first additional forces, more than 20,000 troops long requested by American commanders, arrived in Afghanistan. Those troops will have been in place for two years by next summer, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal under Mr. Obama’s plan.

In areas where operations began this year — like Marja, where results have been disappointing, and Kandahar, where American Special Operations forces are now conducting night raids to diminish the middle ranks of the Taliban — the two-year clock started later, and the work there could continue well into 2012.

This suggests that concerns on the right that our troops won’t have sufficient time to conduct counterinsurgency operations are unwarranted — two years should be enough time to stabilize most locations, provided that sufficient troops and resources be dedicated to the problem.

–Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that German forces based in northern Afghanistan are planning an offensive to drive back the Taliban, who have made inroads in the past two years. That’s good news, although it would be even better news if Berlin were to relax onerous restrictions on their troops. The Journal writes: “A German spokesman in Mazar-e-Sharif says that, until now, when German forces have cleared a village, they have typically entered in the morning and left before nightfall, allowing the Taliban to return at their leisure. The new battalions hope there will be adequate Afghan police to stay behind to protect against the insurgents’ return, German officials say.” I wouldn’t bet on the prospects of stability in newly cleared areas unless German troops are willing to stay behind with Afghan security forces.

These are all, to be sure, snapshots of a war in progress. They don’t add up to a complete picture. Indeed, it’s far too early to draw any broad conclusions. What these articles do show, however, is that, while Afghanistan faces serious problems, coalition forces are for the first time making a serious effort to address them and that, in all likelihood, they will have the time needed to make real progress.

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Petraeus Takes Charge

This report is promising:

[A]t least one senior White House official suggested using General McChrystal’s exit as an excuse for a housecleaning, according to senior officials. That was rejected as too disruptive during a military campaign that relies heavily on civilian support, these people said.

In recent days, other administration officials have begun floating the idea that Ambassador Eikenberry might be replaced by Ryan C. Crocker, the highly regarded former ambassador in Iraq who forged a close partnership with General Petraeus during the successful Iraq troop increase. Such a prospect is viewed as remote, given Mr. Crocker’s prestigious new post at Texas A&M University.

The problem, of course, is not merely that Holbrooke and Eikenberry have not gotten along with their own military leader — it’s that they’ve failed to do their core function, namely build a productive relationship with Hamid Karzai. It’s not surprising, then, but quite telling that the report reveals the degree to which Petraeus is now calling the shots:

General Petraeus is indisputably the key player, and he has wasted no time asserting his control. On a secure videoconference call last Saturday, a person familiar with the call said, General Petraeus threw his support behind a costly, and controversial, plan to install temporary generators to supply more electricity to Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold that is the next major American military target. Mr. Holbrooke and Ambassador Eikenberry swiftly assented.

It is at least a step in the right direction if Eikenberry and Holbrooke cease being impediments to progress. Now we just need civilian leaders who can contribute to success.

This report is promising:

[A]t least one senior White House official suggested using General McChrystal’s exit as an excuse for a housecleaning, according to senior officials. That was rejected as too disruptive during a military campaign that relies heavily on civilian support, these people said.

In recent days, other administration officials have begun floating the idea that Ambassador Eikenberry might be replaced by Ryan C. Crocker, the highly regarded former ambassador in Iraq who forged a close partnership with General Petraeus during the successful Iraq troop increase. Such a prospect is viewed as remote, given Mr. Crocker’s prestigious new post at Texas A&M University.

The problem, of course, is not merely that Holbrooke and Eikenberry have not gotten along with their own military leader — it’s that they’ve failed to do their core function, namely build a productive relationship with Hamid Karzai. It’s not surprising, then, but quite telling that the report reveals the degree to which Petraeus is now calling the shots:

General Petraeus is indisputably the key player, and he has wasted no time asserting his control. On a secure videoconference call last Saturday, a person familiar with the call said, General Petraeus threw his support behind a costly, and controversial, plan to install temporary generators to supply more electricity to Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold that is the next major American military target. Mr. Holbrooke and Ambassador Eikenberry swiftly assented.

It is at least a step in the right direction if Eikenberry and Holbrooke cease being impediments to progress. Now we just need civilian leaders who can contribute to success.

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All the News That Is Fit to Ignore

The New York Times editors, opining on the McChrystal interview, pronounce, “The Rolling Stone article doesn’t suggest any serious policy disagreements between the president and General McChrystal.” That’s a wee bit deceptive, perhaps part of an endless string of efforts to deflect blame from the president.

While not technically a “policy disagreement,” the interview — and the reason why McChrystal may be canned — centers on the allegation that the entire civilian operation is impeding the war effort. Technically, this is a personnel problem, not a policy disagreement, but it goes to the heart of Obama’s management of the war.

Moreover, while the interview sidesteps it (“We’re talking the antiwar hippie magazine,” as Maureen Dowd puts it.), there are certainly major policy disagreements between Obama and the military. Bill Kristol and Tom Donnelly explain:

The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration’s December Afghanistan strategy review.  Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last “surge” brigade won’t be deployed until November.

The shortage of time is also compounded by the shortage of forces.  McChrystal’s cardinal achievement to date has been the re-wiring of the dysfunctional ISAF structure, but it’s also required him to deploy forces in places such as Kunduz, north of Kabul but still a Pashtun area where the Taliban have been more active, because the German forces there are insufficient.

The Gray Lady’s editors seem to prefer to shelter Obama rather than to focus on the real import of the Rolling Stone interview, namely that the commander in chief is failing to do what is necessary to win the war. Instead, the editors blame McChrystal for what ails the Afghanistan operation:

Instead of answering questions about his media strategy, General McChrystal should be explaining what went wrong with his first major offensive in Marja and how he plans to do better in Kandahar. Instead of General McChrystal having to apologize to Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry, they all should be working a lot harder to come up with a plan for managing relations with Afghanistan’s deeply flawed president, Hamid Karzai.

Frankly, McChrystal is one of the few with an effective relationship with Karzai (even Rolling Stone got that point), and the offensive is failing because our troops have too few people and too little time. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a Times‘s op-ed.

The New York Times editors, opining on the McChrystal interview, pronounce, “The Rolling Stone article doesn’t suggest any serious policy disagreements between the president and General McChrystal.” That’s a wee bit deceptive, perhaps part of an endless string of efforts to deflect blame from the president.

While not technically a “policy disagreement,” the interview — and the reason why McChrystal may be canned — centers on the allegation that the entire civilian operation is impeding the war effort. Technically, this is a personnel problem, not a policy disagreement, but it goes to the heart of Obama’s management of the war.

Moreover, while the interview sidesteps it (“We’re talking the antiwar hippie magazine,” as Maureen Dowd puts it.), there are certainly major policy disagreements between Obama and the military. Bill Kristol and Tom Donnelly explain:

The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration’s December Afghanistan strategy review.  Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last “surge” brigade won’t be deployed until November.

The shortage of time is also compounded by the shortage of forces.  McChrystal’s cardinal achievement to date has been the re-wiring of the dysfunctional ISAF structure, but it’s also required him to deploy forces in places such as Kunduz, north of Kabul but still a Pashtun area where the Taliban have been more active, because the German forces there are insufficient.

The Gray Lady’s editors seem to prefer to shelter Obama rather than to focus on the real import of the Rolling Stone interview, namely that the commander in chief is failing to do what is necessary to win the war. Instead, the editors blame McChrystal for what ails the Afghanistan operation:

Instead of answering questions about his media strategy, General McChrystal should be explaining what went wrong with his first major offensive in Marja and how he plans to do better in Kandahar. Instead of General McChrystal having to apologize to Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry, they all should be working a lot harder to come up with a plan for managing relations with Afghanistan’s deeply flawed president, Hamid Karzai.

Frankly, McChrystal is one of the few with an effective relationship with Karzai (even Rolling Stone got that point), and the offensive is failing because our troops have too few people and too little time. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a Times‘s op-ed.

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The Missing Link: It’s Not McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

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