Commentary Magazine


Topic: Red Army

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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Wikileaks, Insignificant

The Pentagon Papers they’re not. The New York Times and the Guardian, among others, are touting the massive leak of 92,000 classified documents relating to the Afghanistan War, which was unearthed by the Wikileaks website. What bombshells do these secret memos contain? Pretty much none, if you are an even marginally attentive follower of the news.

In fact, the only new thing I learned from the documents was that the Taliban have attacked coalition aircraft with heat-seeking missiles. That is interesting to learn but not necessarily terribly alarming because, even with such missiles, the insurgents have not managed to take down many aircraft — certainly nothing like the toll that Stingers took on the Red Army in the 1980s.

As for the other “revelations,” here is the best the Times could do after weeks of examining the documents:

The documents … suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan. …

  • The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary.
  • Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.

Is it really news to anyone that Pakistan supports the Taliban? Or that Special Operations Forces and the CIA are conducting raids against the Taliban? If so, these must be the worst-kept secrets in the world. Senior U.S. officials have quite openly spoken about Pakistan’s role and about the Special Operations raids. As usual, comments on the CIA’s role have been more circumspect, but the agency’s involvement has been written about in numerous books and articles and not denied by senior officials.

Perhaps the biggest faux news here is that unmanned aerial vehicles sometimes “crash or collide.” This would come as a revelation, presumably, only to those who believe that military operations in wartime should achieve a standard of perfection unknown in any other human activity.

The Guardian, as befitting the more freewheeling (and less factual) culture of British journalism, tries harder to hype the findings, which, it claims, provide a “devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan.” Actually, the documents show no such thing. At most, they provide a ground-level view of difficulties the coalition experienced in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009.

Nobody denies that the war was being lost in that period; in fact, that was the rationale for the surge in forces orchestrated by the Bush and Obama administrations since 2008 — to turn around a failing war effort. The documents do not at all reflect on how the war is going now because they don’t cover this year. Even if they did, their usefulness would be highly limited: like most such reports, they provide a soda-straw view of events narrowly circumscribed by time and location. The fact that blunders and casualties occur in wartime should hardly be news; whether those blunders and casualties amount to a failing war effort or whether they are part of the fog and friction normal even in victory is more than the documents can tell us.

The Wikileakers should certainly be castigated for their cavalier treatment of classified documents, which may make our troops’ jobs harder and more dangerous. Their enablers in the mainstream media should also come in for censure. Whoever provided the information to them should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But at the same time, we should recognize this disclosure for what it is: an unsuccessful attempt to damage the war effort. I doubt that anyone will remember this episode a year from now; what will count, as always, will be the outcome on the battlefield. Win, and a thousand missteps are forgiven; lose, and even the biggest tactical victories fade into insignificance.

The Pentagon Papers they’re not. The New York Times and the Guardian, among others, are touting the massive leak of 92,000 classified documents relating to the Afghanistan War, which was unearthed by the Wikileaks website. What bombshells do these secret memos contain? Pretty much none, if you are an even marginally attentive follower of the news.

In fact, the only new thing I learned from the documents was that the Taliban have attacked coalition aircraft with heat-seeking missiles. That is interesting to learn but not necessarily terribly alarming because, even with such missiles, the insurgents have not managed to take down many aircraft — certainly nothing like the toll that Stingers took on the Red Army in the 1980s.

As for the other “revelations,” here is the best the Times could do after weeks of examining the documents:

The documents … suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan. …

  • The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary.
  • Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.

Is it really news to anyone that Pakistan supports the Taliban? Or that Special Operations Forces and the CIA are conducting raids against the Taliban? If so, these must be the worst-kept secrets in the world. Senior U.S. officials have quite openly spoken about Pakistan’s role and about the Special Operations raids. As usual, comments on the CIA’s role have been more circumspect, but the agency’s involvement has been written about in numerous books and articles and not denied by senior officials.

Perhaps the biggest faux news here is that unmanned aerial vehicles sometimes “crash or collide.” This would come as a revelation, presumably, only to those who believe that military operations in wartime should achieve a standard of perfection unknown in any other human activity.

The Guardian, as befitting the more freewheeling (and less factual) culture of British journalism, tries harder to hype the findings, which, it claims, provide a “devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan.” Actually, the documents show no such thing. At most, they provide a ground-level view of difficulties the coalition experienced in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009.

Nobody denies that the war was being lost in that period; in fact, that was the rationale for the surge in forces orchestrated by the Bush and Obama administrations since 2008 — to turn around a failing war effort. The documents do not at all reflect on how the war is going now because they don’t cover this year. Even if they did, their usefulness would be highly limited: like most such reports, they provide a soda-straw view of events narrowly circumscribed by time and location. The fact that blunders and casualties occur in wartime should hardly be news; whether those blunders and casualties amount to a failing war effort or whether they are part of the fog and friction normal even in victory is more than the documents can tell us.

The Wikileakers should certainly be castigated for their cavalier treatment of classified documents, which may make our troops’ jobs harder and more dangerous. Their enablers in the mainstream media should also come in for censure. Whoever provided the information to them should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But at the same time, we should recognize this disclosure for what it is: an unsuccessful attempt to damage the war effort. I doubt that anyone will remember this episode a year from now; what will count, as always, will be the outcome on the battlefield. Win, and a thousand missteps are forgiven; lose, and even the biggest tactical victories fade into insignificance.

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Obama’s Empty Nuclear Posturing

I find it hard to get excited about the Nuclear Posture Review released today by the Obama administration, in part because the relationship between “declaratory” nuclear policy and actual nuclear policy has always been tenuous at best. During the Cold War, the U.S. always reserved the right of first use of nuclear weapons, meaning that it if the Red Army rolled into Europe, we would supposedly nuke Moscow. What would have happened in an actual World War III is hard to know, but there is good reason to doubt that any U.S. president would have been the first to order nuclear escalation, whether the Russian hordes were crossing the Fulda Gap or not.

Likewise, today, for all the speculation going on about whether the U.S. will extend its nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors in case the Islamic Republic acquires nuclear weapons, there is good cause to doubt whether the U.S. (especially under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Barack Obama!) would really be prepared to incinerate Tehran in the event of Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia or even Israel.

Thus, I don’t attach much significance to the Obama administration’s narrowing the categories under which the U.S. would supposedly use nuclear weapons. As the Washington Post account notes:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

I suppose the administration gets credit for resisting liberal pressure to foreswear any first use of nukes, but, to my mind, any such policy, whether it remains on the books or not, is not terribly credible. It’s fine to keep a small nugget of deterrence alive by not formally burying it, but it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever using nukes unless it had first been attacked with WMD – meaning nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The Obama review says that countries that employ only biological or chemical weapons won’t be nuked unless they’re out of compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Actually, the administration is leaving even more wiggle room than that. According to the New York Times:

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

In short, the Obama policy isn’t that big of a change from the policy it inherited. It is, as the Washington Post has it, a “middle course.”

To my mind, the real test of our nonproliferation policy isn’t how we claim we will respond to hypothetical scenarios but rather what we do about actual current dangers. In regard to Iran – the world’s No. 1 proliferation threat – the auguries aren’t propitious, with the Financial Times reporting that a new round of sanctions won’t be on the UN Security Council agenda in April. Thus, Obama’s threats to hit Iran with tough sanctions if his entreaties to talk were rejected are increasingly being exposed as hollow. That kind of wishy-washiness is something that Iran and other rogue regimes understand. By comparison, the theoretical language contained in the Nuclear Posture Review seems more like, well, academic posturing.

I find it hard to get excited about the Nuclear Posture Review released today by the Obama administration, in part because the relationship between “declaratory” nuclear policy and actual nuclear policy has always been tenuous at best. During the Cold War, the U.S. always reserved the right of first use of nuclear weapons, meaning that it if the Red Army rolled into Europe, we would supposedly nuke Moscow. What would have happened in an actual World War III is hard to know, but there is good reason to doubt that any U.S. president would have been the first to order nuclear escalation, whether the Russian hordes were crossing the Fulda Gap or not.

Likewise, today, for all the speculation going on about whether the U.S. will extend its nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors in case the Islamic Republic acquires nuclear weapons, there is good cause to doubt whether the U.S. (especially under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Barack Obama!) would really be prepared to incinerate Tehran in the event of Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia or even Israel.

Thus, I don’t attach much significance to the Obama administration’s narrowing the categories under which the U.S. would supposedly use nuclear weapons. As the Washington Post account notes:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

I suppose the administration gets credit for resisting liberal pressure to foreswear any first use of nukes, but, to my mind, any such policy, whether it remains on the books or not, is not terribly credible. It’s fine to keep a small nugget of deterrence alive by not formally burying it, but it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever using nukes unless it had first been attacked with WMD – meaning nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The Obama review says that countries that employ only biological or chemical weapons won’t be nuked unless they’re out of compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Actually, the administration is leaving even more wiggle room than that. According to the New York Times:

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

In short, the Obama policy isn’t that big of a change from the policy it inherited. It is, as the Washington Post has it, a “middle course.”

To my mind, the real test of our nonproliferation policy isn’t how we claim we will respond to hypothetical scenarios but rather what we do about actual current dangers. In regard to Iran – the world’s No. 1 proliferation threat – the auguries aren’t propitious, with the Financial Times reporting that a new round of sanctions won’t be on the UN Security Council agenda in April. Thus, Obama’s threats to hit Iran with tough sanctions if his entreaties to talk were rejected are increasingly being exposed as hollow. That kind of wishy-washiness is something that Iran and other rogue regimes understand. By comparison, the theoretical language contained in the Nuclear Posture Review seems more like, well, academic posturing.

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Why We Will Not Make the Soviets’ Mistakes in Afghanistan

The Financial Times has interviewed veterans of the Red Army’s war in Afghanistan who argue that the American war effort will be a replay of their woes. Actually, their comments suggest the opposite. Here is how the FT describes Soviet tactics:

The Soviet 40th Army comprised 120,000 troops at the height of the war, and operations focused on manoeuvring helicopter-borne paratroopers on to mountains, to control high ground, and then moving tanks through the valleys. …

“The war, all 10 years of it, went in circles. We would come and they [the insurgents] would leave. Then we leave, and they would return,” Gen [Igor] Rodionov [commander of the 40th Army] said. …

“The 40th army was a highly armed and trained force. It answered every shot directed at them with 10 shots. They created many casualties among civilians.

“We would bomb a village because there were one or two Mujahideen there. Women and children would die and this created the insurgent movement. It was a classic partisan war.”

If these Red Army veterans think that NATO forces are repeating their mistakes, they haven’t been paying attention. The methods they describe are completely different from those being employed by General McChrystal. The reason he has requested more troops is so his forces don’t get into a pattern of entering areas and then leaving them. He wants to stay and provide population security. He has also imposed tight clamps on the use of firepower so our troops don’t cause the kind of collateral damage that can turn the population against them.

The whole mindset of the Red Army veterans is highly conventional — employing helicopter assault forces and tanks. That works against a conventional army; it doesn’t work against guerrillas. McChrystal realizes that, which is why he’s trying a different strategy — the same one that has been vindicated in counterinsurgencies from Malaya to, more recently, Colombia and Iraq. Anyone who offers a mindless Soviet analogy to suggest that we are doomed to failure in the supposed “graveyard of empires” — and I have heard many such arguments in the past few days — should ponder the profound differences between the Soviets’ tactics and those of NATO. There is no comparison.

The Financial Times has interviewed veterans of the Red Army’s war in Afghanistan who argue that the American war effort will be a replay of their woes. Actually, their comments suggest the opposite. Here is how the FT describes Soviet tactics:

The Soviet 40th Army comprised 120,000 troops at the height of the war, and operations focused on manoeuvring helicopter-borne paratroopers on to mountains, to control high ground, and then moving tanks through the valleys. …

“The war, all 10 years of it, went in circles. We would come and they [the insurgents] would leave. Then we leave, and they would return,” Gen [Igor] Rodionov [commander of the 40th Army] said. …

“The 40th army was a highly armed and trained force. It answered every shot directed at them with 10 shots. They created many casualties among civilians.

“We would bomb a village because there were one or two Mujahideen there. Women and children would die and this created the insurgent movement. It was a classic partisan war.”

If these Red Army veterans think that NATO forces are repeating their mistakes, they haven’t been paying attention. The methods they describe are completely different from those being employed by General McChrystal. The reason he has requested more troops is so his forces don’t get into a pattern of entering areas and then leaving them. He wants to stay and provide population security. He has also imposed tight clamps on the use of firepower so our troops don’t cause the kind of collateral damage that can turn the population against them.

The whole mindset of the Red Army veterans is highly conventional — employing helicopter assault forces and tanks. That works against a conventional army; it doesn’t work against guerrillas. McChrystal realizes that, which is why he’s trying a different strategy — the same one that has been vindicated in counterinsurgencies from Malaya to, more recently, Colombia and Iraq. Anyone who offers a mindless Soviet analogy to suggest that we are doomed to failure in the supposed “graveyard of empires” — and I have heard many such arguments in the past few days — should ponder the profound differences between the Soviets’ tactics and those of NATO. There is no comparison.

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Our Bases in Europe

To his credit, Bob Gates continues to unravel some of the misguided decisions made by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His latest decision, as noted in this article, is to stop the drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe.

Rumsfeld was determined to close down or downsize major U.S. bases on the continent that had been in existence for decades, principally in Italy and Germany. He had already reduced the U.S. troop presence to 43,000 from 62,000 two years ago, and he planned further cuts down to 24,000 by the end of next year. Gates has now stopped the exodus, and pledges to maintain U.S. troops at their current level in Europe. This comes on top of his welcome decisions to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq—both decisions that Rumsfeld should have made years ago.

The impetus for Rumsfeld’s base realignment plan was seemingly logical—the cold war was over and U.S. troops were no longer needed to defend Germany from the Red Army. But in practice what Rumsfeld envisioned didn’t make so much sense—moving most of the troops back to the U.S., and then having small numbers of them rotate for brief periods through new “lily pad” bases established in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and elsewhere, which lacked longterm housing for our forces.

The idea of creating new bases on the new frontiers of freedom makes sense. But moving the bulk of the U.S. troops to permanent bases in “CONUS” (the continental United States) made less sense. The transition would have been a costly one, with new quarters having to be built for the troops and the government having to pick up vast moving costs.

Other costs would have been geopolitical rather than financial: the shift called into question the U.S. commitment to Europe. It also put U.S. forces farther away from future trouble spots in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. (Germany, for all its disagreements with U.S. policy decisions, has never hindered the efficient movement by rail, sea, and air of U.S. troops from its soil to battlefields in the Middle East.)

Finally, there is a cultural cost involved: generations of American soldiers and their families generally have enjoyed living for a few years in Europe, and this has fostered closer trans-Atlantic cultural links. It is hard to see why it is good either for Europeans or Americans to have more troops consolidated on giant, dusty bases in the middle of Texas or other uncongenial spots back home.

To his credit, Bob Gates continues to unravel some of the misguided decisions made by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His latest decision, as noted in this article, is to stop the drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe.

Rumsfeld was determined to close down or downsize major U.S. bases on the continent that had been in existence for decades, principally in Italy and Germany. He had already reduced the U.S. troop presence to 43,000 from 62,000 two years ago, and he planned further cuts down to 24,000 by the end of next year. Gates has now stopped the exodus, and pledges to maintain U.S. troops at their current level in Europe. This comes on top of his welcome decisions to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq—both decisions that Rumsfeld should have made years ago.

The impetus for Rumsfeld’s base realignment plan was seemingly logical—the cold war was over and U.S. troops were no longer needed to defend Germany from the Red Army. But in practice what Rumsfeld envisioned didn’t make so much sense—moving most of the troops back to the U.S., and then having small numbers of them rotate for brief periods through new “lily pad” bases established in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and elsewhere, which lacked longterm housing for our forces.

The idea of creating new bases on the new frontiers of freedom makes sense. But moving the bulk of the U.S. troops to permanent bases in “CONUS” (the continental United States) made less sense. The transition would have been a costly one, with new quarters having to be built for the troops and the government having to pick up vast moving costs.

Other costs would have been geopolitical rather than financial: the shift called into question the U.S. commitment to Europe. It also put U.S. forces farther away from future trouble spots in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. (Germany, for all its disagreements with U.S. policy decisions, has never hindered the efficient movement by rail, sea, and air of U.S. troops from its soil to battlefields in the Middle East.)

Finally, there is a cultural cost involved: generations of American soldiers and their families generally have enjoyed living for a few years in Europe, and this has fostered closer trans-Atlantic cultural links. It is hard to see why it is good either for Europeans or Americans to have more troops consolidated on giant, dusty bases in the middle of Texas or other uncongenial spots back home.

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Hitler’s Record Collection?

It is ironic that just as the death of the distinguished Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is announced, the media here and abroad should broadcast news of the rediscovery of Hitler’s presumed “record collection.” Der Spiegel reported that the daughter of Lev Bezymensky (1920-2007), a World War II Soviet military intelligence officer, revealed some 100 records, which her father reportedly stole from the Berlin Reich chancellery in 1945, after the Red Army invasion. Readers may remember that the same Lev Bezymensky (his name transliterated as Bezymenski) authored the 1968 book The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives, in which Bezymensky claimed to have been present at Hitler’s autopsy. Bezymensky himself later admitted the claim was a lie. Toeing the line of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH, Bezymensky’s memoir of the autopsy was persuasively exposed as fraud in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.

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It is ironic that just as the death of the distinguished Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is announced, the media here and abroad should broadcast news of the rediscovery of Hitler’s presumed “record collection.” Der Spiegel reported that the daughter of Lev Bezymensky (1920-2007), a World War II Soviet military intelligence officer, revealed some 100 records, which her father reportedly stole from the Berlin Reich chancellery in 1945, after the Red Army invasion. Readers may remember that the same Lev Bezymensky (his name transliterated as Bezymenski) authored the 1968 book The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives, in which Bezymensky claimed to have been present at Hitler’s autopsy. Bezymensky himself later admitted the claim was a lie. Toeing the line of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH, Bezymensky’s memoir of the autopsy was persuasively exposed as fraud in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.

The London Times trumpeted the story about Hitler’s record collection with headlines like “Hitler’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ turn up in a dead Russian soldier’s attic” and “A cultivated taste that went for very best,” lauding the dictator’s musical acumen. This praise was based on information that the collection includes recordings by the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and pianist Artur Schnabel, an Austrian Jew, performing a Mozart sonata. These recordings are available on CD from Naxos, Pearl, and Music & Arts Records respectively; they are exceptional performances from a time when the choice of major musical repertory on disc was limited.

The London Times goes so far as to praise Hitler as a recordings connoisseur: “Hitler appeared to enjoy a good tune.” This sentiment echoes such mock kudos from Mel Brooks’s The Producers as “Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill.” Other media reports managed to find a moral to the story. A headline in the Australian proclaimed that “Hitler relaxed to music of Jews”; the article that followed suggested he was guilty of hypocrisy. The cellist Steven Isserlis claims in the Guardian that “racial rules could be stretched where the glory and comfort of supermen were concerned.”

Do we really need new reasons to despise Hitler? The hoopla surrounding this record collection rates as the most frivolous innovation in Third Reich studies since Lothar Machtan’s 2001 The Hidden Hitler claimed that Hitler was gay (an idea also advanced by The Producers). Even during the slow news days of summer, the media would do well to maintain a sense of the ridiculous, as well as a healthy suspicion of reports originating from deceased Soviet intelligence officers.

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Kristof Gets It Wrong (Again)

The opinion writers for the New York Times do not seem to have gotten the news that the troop surge is working. (For the latest indication, see this USA Today story reporting that “the number of truck bombs and other large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50 percent since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago.”) Columnist Nicholas Kristof writes today that “staggering on” in Iraq will only delay “the inevitable”—that is, our defeat.

Oddly enough he buttresses this argument with an analogy to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He argues that “the Soviets and the Afghans alike would have been far better off if the USSR had withdrawn earlier.”

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The opinion writers for the New York Times do not seem to have gotten the news that the troop surge is working. (For the latest indication, see this USA Today story reporting that “the number of truck bombs and other large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50 percent since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago.”) Columnist Nicholas Kristof writes today that “staggering on” in Iraq will only delay “the inevitable”—that is, our defeat.

Oddly enough he buttresses this argument with an analogy to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He argues that “the Soviets and the Afghans alike would have been far better off if the USSR had withdrawn earlier.”

We can, of course, quibble with the comparison between a foreign army’s trying to impose an atheist tyranny and a foreign army’s trying to strengthen the authority of a democratically elected government. Much of the Afghan population was mobilized to resist the Soviets, with the mujahideen fielding hundreds of thousands of fighters; in Iraq we face an enemy estimated to number no more than 20,000.

But the more important point here is that, objectively, the Soviet Union wasn’t better off after it withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. In fact, the Soviet Union ceased to exist shortly thereafter. Defeat in Afghanistan was widely seen, in retrospect, to have been one of the events precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also, of course, emboldened Islamist extremists, some of whom (e.g., the Chechen separatists) continue to commit terrorist acts against Russia. Many others continue to wage jihad around the world; al Qaeda, the central coordinating body for such attacks, was formed in Afghanistan immediately after the Soviet withdrawal.

Seen in this light, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, far from serving as an argument for a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, makes the opposite case: of the dangers of giving up the fight.

From the Soviet experience there is another important lesson that Kristof never mentions: the need to send enough troops. The Red Army never had more than 100,000 or so soldiers in Afghanistan, and most of them were tied up in large garrisons. This effectively ceded the countryside to the guerrillas and made it impossible to impose stability. The Soviets could mount offensives to kill some guerrillas, but as soon as they returned to base, the mujahideen would reassert their control. That is a mistake we have too often repeated in Iraq since 2003. It is only now that we have substantially increased our troop strength to 160,000, and have begun to carry out the kind of serious counterinsurgency campaign that the Russians never really attempted in Afghanistan.

Given the gains our troops are now making, it is folly to give up the fight, especially considering the serious consequences of defeat. The repercussions would hardly be ameliorated by Kristof’s suggestions to maintain a battalion (a mere 1,000 troops) in the Kurdish region, or to “push for progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.” (Is that why Shiites and Sunnis are killing each other in Iraq? Because they’re mad about the lack of “progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace”?)

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If George F. Kennan Met Osama bin Laden

“Did George Kennan know the best way to fight terror?” is the question asked by a New York Times op-ed today. My question in return is: why is so much that appears on the op-ed page of our leading newspaper so fatuous?

In 1947, writes Nicholas Thompson, the author of a forthcoming book about Kennan, the late American strategist published his famous article in Foreign Affairs under the byline of X, setting forth the strategy of containment. The Soviet challenge, as Kennan understood it, Thompson explains, was political and not military, and it required a political not a military response: “The United States should refrain from provoking Moscow, whether through confrontation or histrionics,” Thompson paraphrases. “Patience would lead to success.”

Alas, Thompson continues, containment was massively misinterpreted and militarized by American cold warriors and turned into an instrument of aggression and bellicosity. This in turn led into the horrors of the cold war:

We soon built up our forces to defend Western Europe, created NATO and engaged in a huge arms race. Eventually containment would mean soldiers in Vietnam and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the Soviet Union.

Has Thompson has given us a fair summary of Kennan’s position? In Foreign Affairs, after all, Kennan offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is impossible to read this as a call for pacifism or disengagement or even “patience”—try as Thompson might (and, in his later years, Kennan himself did). In fact, as I have argued in COMMENTARY, there were actually two George Kennans, the second of whom waged a life-long war against the writings of the first, grossly distorting his own ideas and the historical record along the way.

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“Did George Kennan know the best way to fight terror?” is the question asked by a New York Times op-ed today. My question in return is: why is so much that appears on the op-ed page of our leading newspaper so fatuous?

In 1947, writes Nicholas Thompson, the author of a forthcoming book about Kennan, the late American strategist published his famous article in Foreign Affairs under the byline of X, setting forth the strategy of containment. The Soviet challenge, as Kennan understood it, Thompson explains, was political and not military, and it required a political not a military response: “The United States should refrain from provoking Moscow, whether through confrontation or histrionics,” Thompson paraphrases. “Patience would lead to success.”

Alas, Thompson continues, containment was massively misinterpreted and militarized by American cold warriors and turned into an instrument of aggression and bellicosity. This in turn led into the horrors of the cold war:

We soon built up our forces to defend Western Europe, created NATO and engaged in a huge arms race. Eventually containment would mean soldiers in Vietnam and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the Soviet Union.

Has Thompson has given us a fair summary of Kennan’s position? In Foreign Affairs, after all, Kennan offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is impossible to read this as a call for pacifism or disengagement or even “patience”—try as Thompson might (and, in his later years, Kennan himself did). In fact, as I have argued in COMMENTARY, there were actually two George Kennans, the second of whom waged a life-long war against the writings of the first, grossly distorting his own ideas and the historical record along the way.

But what does any of this cold-war arcana have to do with terrorism?

Thompson acknowledges that today “we face vastly different challenges from those the nation confronted right after World War II.” Al-Qaeda cells plotting attacks with weapons of mass destruction are a far cry from the dangers posed by the Red Army and Communist insurrection. Nevertheless, claims Thompson, Kennan’s pacific version of containment—“the desired but never executed policy from 60 years ago—contains “profound wisdom” for our present circumstances. In particular, we should recognize that, as in the cold war, “[t]ime is on our side—particularly if we act in a way that doesn’t inflame our enemies’ pride and anger and win them new recruits.”

Thus, with respect to Pakistan, where we are spending $10 billion on military assistance and less than $1 billion on health, education, and the promotion of democracy, Kennan “would have wanted the numbers to be closer to the reverse.”

Kennan’s vision of counterterrorism would also involve

the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, an unambiguous renunciation of torture, and an abandonment of the notion that our legal and moral norms don’t apply to the current struggle. Kennan believed we gave our opponents a propaganda victory each time we acted in a manner unfitting of our ideals.

Whatever the merits and demerits of each of these proposals, invoking Kennan’s doctrine of containment in defense of them is both dishonest and illogical.

Even in the cold war itself, as Thompson himself admits, “We can’t know for sure how [Kennan’s] recommended, wholly political version of containment”—assuming he ever adumbrated such a vision—“would have fared.” In the event, and in the face of massive threats to the peace in places like Korea and Berlin, the “militarized” version of the doctrine was a necessity.

Toward the end of the cold war, moreover, it was only America’s willingness to engage in a military competition that enabled the West to prevail; even Thompson is compelled to admit that a “militant foreign policy” eventually helped “bring about the collapse of Soviet Communism.”

So how does it follow from the history of the cold war that we should now abandon military means in the struggle against al Qaeda and simply try to contain it? In fact, we tried something like that approach in the 1990’s, and on September 11, 2001, it led to one of the worst military disasters in American history.

That there are now voices telling us to abandon the military fight against Islamic terrorists and win by setting an example of moral rectitude shows only that there is no limit to the human desire to cut and run.

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