Commentary Magazine


Topic: Task Force

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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The Real Death Panel

Politico’s headline reads “Mammograms as political weapon.” A more accurate headline might have been “Mammogram Advisers Become ObamaCare Death Panel.” It was the pronouncement of that panel — which contained not a single oncologist or radiologist — that provided Americans with a vivid example of what happens when bureaucrats are given authority to insert themselves into health-care decisions previously made on a case-by-case basis by doctors. It has become a “weapon” only in the sense that facts are powerful things, still, in politics. The report explains:

“It resonates with 52 percent of the electorate,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “You can get yourself in a good bit of trouble being on the wrong side of the issue.” … “There’s sort of a ‘What?’ factor,” said Michael Dimock, a pollster for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. [T]his struck so many as pulling the rug under people.”

More precisely, it showed people just how the rug is going to get pulled out from many of us once we set in place a government-centric system administered by “effectiveness research” proponents — panels of gurus who turn out to be not really expert in the field but who operate under huge pressure to shave costs by chiseling on care.

The report bends over backward to paint this as some sort of bipartisan problem, as if Republicans are pushing for panels of bureaucrats to run health care. Politico intones that in Virginia, Creigh Deeds “ripped into his opponent for supposedly supporting a policy that would have let the state’s employers drop breast cancer screenings from health plans.” That would be the guy who lost by 20 points. And yes, Jon Corzine tried to use the issue, suggesting that Chris Christie wanted to limit mammograms too. Corzine lost.

What actually happened is that people got a taste of ObamaCare. It’s sent Democrats into a defensive crouch and emboldened Republicans to attack ObamaCare as a threat to Americans’ health. Both Carly Fiorina, who’s running for the Senate in California, and Mark Kirk of Illinois have had an overwhelming response by tying the mammogram-guideline backlash to the larger issue of ObamaCare. (A Kirk message explained, “This Task Force features prominently in the health care legislation being considered by the Senate, and its recommendations will carry tremendous weight under any government takeover of healthcare.”)

In a sense, the mammogram advisers did us all a favor. They reminded us of just how dangerous it can be to turn over your health care to the government.

Politico’s headline reads “Mammograms as political weapon.” A more accurate headline might have been “Mammogram Advisers Become ObamaCare Death Panel.” It was the pronouncement of that panel — which contained not a single oncologist or radiologist — that provided Americans with a vivid example of what happens when bureaucrats are given authority to insert themselves into health-care decisions previously made on a case-by-case basis by doctors. It has become a “weapon” only in the sense that facts are powerful things, still, in politics. The report explains:

“It resonates with 52 percent of the electorate,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “You can get yourself in a good bit of trouble being on the wrong side of the issue.” … “There’s sort of a ‘What?’ factor,” said Michael Dimock, a pollster for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. [T]his struck so many as pulling the rug under people.”

More precisely, it showed people just how the rug is going to get pulled out from many of us once we set in place a government-centric system administered by “effectiveness research” proponents — panels of gurus who turn out to be not really expert in the field but who operate under huge pressure to shave costs by chiseling on care.

The report bends over backward to paint this as some sort of bipartisan problem, as if Republicans are pushing for panels of bureaucrats to run health care. Politico intones that in Virginia, Creigh Deeds “ripped into his opponent for supposedly supporting a policy that would have let the state’s employers drop breast cancer screenings from health plans.” That would be the guy who lost by 20 points. And yes, Jon Corzine tried to use the issue, suggesting that Chris Christie wanted to limit mammograms too. Corzine lost.

What actually happened is that people got a taste of ObamaCare. It’s sent Democrats into a defensive crouch and emboldened Republicans to attack ObamaCare as a threat to Americans’ health. Both Carly Fiorina, who’s running for the Senate in California, and Mark Kirk of Illinois have had an overwhelming response by tying the mammogram-guideline backlash to the larger issue of ObamaCare. (A Kirk message explained, “This Task Force features prominently in the health care legislation being considered by the Senate, and its recommendations will carry tremendous weight under any government takeover of healthcare.”)

In a sense, the mammogram advisers did us all a favor. They reminded us of just how dangerous it can be to turn over your health care to the government.

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Behind the Wire

If you’re interested in reading more about Abdallah Saleh Ali Al Ajmi–the former Kuwaiti soldier who was captured in Afghanistan, then released from Guantanamo, and who apparently blew himself up as a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq–you can read his Wikipedia page here. His case obviously points out the need to continue incarcerating a lot of the current detainees, if not at Gitmo (which has become a public relations embarrassment, and will be closed before long, by either this President or his successor), then at some other facility.

It also points out another need: to conduct “counterinsurgency behind the wire” with these detainees, wherever they are held. That is something that Task Force 134, the coalition unit responsible for more than 20,000 detainees in Iraq, has been doing successfully for the past year under the leadership of Marine Major General Doug Stone. His methods include holding classes where moderate clerics explain to the detainees why they should not engage in violent jihadism. This is akin to cult deprogramming, and there is evidence that it is working.

Similar programs have been run in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Singapore, and other countries. It is imperative that terrorism detainees not simply be warehoused, because then prison can turn into a terrorism university. We need to use the time while they are under our control to try to rehabilitate them if possible. Of course a hard-core element can never be brought around and simply needs to be locked up indefinitely. But many of those who fall into terrorism actually have fairly shallow ideologies and, in the right environment, some of them can be converted away from the path of violence.

If you’re interested in reading more about Abdallah Saleh Ali Al Ajmi–the former Kuwaiti soldier who was captured in Afghanistan, then released from Guantanamo, and who apparently blew himself up as a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq–you can read his Wikipedia page here. His case obviously points out the need to continue incarcerating a lot of the current detainees, if not at Gitmo (which has become a public relations embarrassment, and will be closed before long, by either this President or his successor), then at some other facility.

It also points out another need: to conduct “counterinsurgency behind the wire” with these detainees, wherever they are held. That is something that Task Force 134, the coalition unit responsible for more than 20,000 detainees in Iraq, has been doing successfully for the past year under the leadership of Marine Major General Doug Stone. His methods include holding classes where moderate clerics explain to the detainees why they should not engage in violent jihadism. This is akin to cult deprogramming, and there is evidence that it is working.

Similar programs have been run in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Singapore, and other countries. It is imperative that terrorism detainees not simply be warehoused, because then prison can turn into a terrorism university. We need to use the time while they are under our control to try to rehabilitate them if possible. Of course a hard-core element can never be brought around and simply needs to be locked up indefinitely. But many of those who fall into terrorism actually have fairly shallow ideologies and, in the right environment, some of them can be converted away from the path of violence.

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Are Nuclear Weapons Boring?

In the cold war, they were certainly not. U.S. nuclear forces were almost continually on a state of high alert, with land- and submarine-based missile crews always preparing for imminent action and B-52 pilots readying to take off at a moment’s notice. The men and women involved in maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons were a uniquely important force, with a high sense of purpose and élan. They understood that their mission was strategic deterrence and that success at maintaining a state of readiness would help ensure that their terribly destructive weapons would never be used in anger.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. nuclear forces, including the units responsible for care of the weapons, have been reduced in size, there have been no modernization programs, and responsibility for nuclear forces has been dispersed throughout the Pentagon; there is no one command with overall authority over the weapons.

These factors helped to underpin the “Broken Arrow” episode of August 30, 2007, in which the Air Force essentially lost control of a handful of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, with a B-52 flying them across the country under the mistaken belief that the warheads were disarmed or carried conventional explosives.

The immediate cause of the incident was a breakdown of procedures at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. But a study by the Defense Science Board suggests that even if tight procedures are put back in place, the safe care and maintenance of these fearsome weapons is going to be a difficult long-term challenge. Since the end of the cold war, it reports,

there has been a marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear  mission. The decline in focus took place gradually as changes were made to policies, procedures, and processes. Now, when comparing the current level of focus to that of 1990, the aggregate change is dramatic. The Task Force and several of the senior DoD people interviewed believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable. The decline is characterized by embedding nuclear mission forces in non-nuclear organizations, markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise, and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission.

This is frightening stuff. And doubly frightening because there is no quick fix. The Defense Science Board has offered a whole series of recommendations designed to change the culture of U.S. nuclear forces and restore to them a sense of mission. But the inescapable truth is that with the end of the cold war, the primary task of U.S. nuclear forces is no longer deterrence but keeping accidents from happening within our own arsenal. This is an essential mission, but it is not a glorious one, and it will remain difficult to attract the most talented men and women in our armed forces into this branch of service. 

The problem is triply frightening because if U.S. nuclear forces are suffering from such difficulties, what is going on elsewhere in the world, in Russia, say, or in Pakistan?

In light of all this, I have a question for readers. Which of the following problems is most worrying?

1. Global warming.

2. The Bush administration’s alleged violations of FISA. 

3. Loose nuclear weapons.

 

In the cold war, they were certainly not. U.S. nuclear forces were almost continually on a state of high alert, with land- and submarine-based missile crews always preparing for imminent action and B-52 pilots readying to take off at a moment’s notice. The men and women involved in maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons were a uniquely important force, with a high sense of purpose and élan. They understood that their mission was strategic deterrence and that success at maintaining a state of readiness would help ensure that their terribly destructive weapons would never be used in anger.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. nuclear forces, including the units responsible for care of the weapons, have been reduced in size, there have been no modernization programs, and responsibility for nuclear forces has been dispersed throughout the Pentagon; there is no one command with overall authority over the weapons.

These factors helped to underpin the “Broken Arrow” episode of August 30, 2007, in which the Air Force essentially lost control of a handful of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, with a B-52 flying them across the country under the mistaken belief that the warheads were disarmed or carried conventional explosives.

The immediate cause of the incident was a breakdown of procedures at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. But a study by the Defense Science Board suggests that even if tight procedures are put back in place, the safe care and maintenance of these fearsome weapons is going to be a difficult long-term challenge. Since the end of the cold war, it reports,

there has been a marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear  mission. The decline in focus took place gradually as changes were made to policies, procedures, and processes. Now, when comparing the current level of focus to that of 1990, the aggregate change is dramatic. The Task Force and several of the senior DoD people interviewed believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable. The decline is characterized by embedding nuclear mission forces in non-nuclear organizations, markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise, and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission.

This is frightening stuff. And doubly frightening because there is no quick fix. The Defense Science Board has offered a whole series of recommendations designed to change the culture of U.S. nuclear forces and restore to them a sense of mission. But the inescapable truth is that with the end of the cold war, the primary task of U.S. nuclear forces is no longer deterrence but keeping accidents from happening within our own arsenal. This is an essential mission, but it is not a glorious one, and it will remain difficult to attract the most talented men and women in our armed forces into this branch of service. 

The problem is triply frightening because if U.S. nuclear forces are suffering from such difficulties, what is going on elsewhere in the world, in Russia, say, or in Pakistan?

In light of all this, I have a question for readers. Which of the following problems is most worrying?

1. Global warming.

2. The Bush administration’s alleged violations of FISA. 

3. Loose nuclear weapons.

 

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Dispatch from Task Force Justice

I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

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I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

Max,
Some notes below. I will include a few nonstandard items in the update. Apologize for the delay in response. Have been juggling missions, media, and other tasks over the last few days.

Asian World Cup Football: Did you see the CNN coverage live from FOB Justice of the Iraqi Soccer game? We threw a great party with all of our local nationals. You would have thought we were at an Army-Navy tailgate. We went downtown after the game and spoke to people on the street. Khadamiyah was absolutely nuts. Lots of fun and a cathartic experience for the Iraqis to see their team accomplish something across the sectarian divide. Hopefully, more good can come from the victory.

Immigration: A few days ago we said goodbye to “George” who is our first interpreter to get an invitation to the Embassy in Jordan. He will be a pioneer for many of our Iraqi interpreters who have applied for visas. We hope that he will not run into too much resistance and will get his visa. Stories from Jordan are not hopeful. One report said that Iraqis were getting turned around at the border if they said they were entering Jordan to go to the U.S. Embassy. George has a story about going to work for a Jordanian company that has a branch in Baghdad. He knows someone that made the recommendation for him. I have asked him to stay in touch with us, so we can track his progress and any pitfalls along the way. We gave him numerous gifts and a few certificates. I told him that his feedback could help shape U.S. policy. We also have one more interpreter who has his invitation approved. We have 22 total applications in the works. We have 59 interpreters on our base. Many have either chosen not to apply or have not met their year requirement. Many are spreading the word that we need some more interpreters, and telling about our success of getting interpreters approved for a trip to Jordan. We have also been pushing the refugee issue for families who don’t qualify under other provisions, like Iraqi Army leaders. Between the soccer party and our push to take care of our interpreters, I have seen hope in the eyes of our Iraqi colleagues. This initiative will be one of our proudest accomplishments. We will continue to use our success from TF [Task Force] Justice to sensitize other leaders to the subject.

Reconciliation: The MOI [Ministry of Interior] and other government leaders are very reluctant to endorse any initiative that empowers the local Sunni volunteers who are securing neighborhoods like Ameriyah. Ameriyah is like night and day now. One minute it was full-scale kinetic activity. Then our former enemies, Sunni insurgents from the “honorable resistance,” began asking for our assistance to drive al Qaeda out. They were immediately more effective than Americans in driving al Qaeda in Iraq from their neighborhoods. They only asked for U.S. support and coordination. They make no bones about their belief that we need to leave for our alliance to be successful beyond the defeat of al Qaeda. We recognize we may end up fighting these guys again if the GOI [Government of Iraq] doesn’t seize the window of opportunity that is now open. If the GOI can make reasonable gestures of reconciliation, like deputizing these volunteers as local police to secure their own neighborhoods, then we will have made huge strides. As always, the political line of operation is where we need the most help. We have had a steady stream of VIPs come to visit the volunteers. Everyone is pressuring the GOI. Lots of foot-dragging, mumbling, and playing with prayer beads. That being said, things have dramatically improved since the turning of Anbar province. We anticipate that the Shia government will demand repatriation of Shia families in some of these neighborhoods to demonstrate intent on behalf of the former insurgents. As long as each side continues in good faith, they will not undermine the process.

Militia Influence: On the other side of the fence, we have the militia. They are a tough nut to crack. I believe the economic line of operation will be the key to defeating the militia influence. We need to overcome the corruption and graft through vigorous, pragmatic economic policy that jump-starts latent industry and employment. Many of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are producing at minimal levels relative to Saddam days. These industries have the capacity to very quickly create jobs and generate productive capacity that spills across sectarian lines. The profit incentive will help drive Sunnis and Shia to collaborate together. As we create more jobs, militia recruiting pools will dry up. We need to create honorable alternatives that allow young, military-age males to provide for their families. The militia has their hands dug deepest into mob-like crime throughout the Shia communities, and most politicians can’t shed themselves of the militia influence (so a political approach is probably not feasible—just my opinion.) We must defeat the militia through economic means. I do have some hope that we might solve this Gordian knot, but it is far from undone. Paul Brinkley [the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation] and his group have the right approach, and are encouraging many in the SOEs to bring production back on line through smart application of grants and incentives. This has great potential, but will move with the lag associated with all fiscal economic policy. All other lines of operation must continue to buy time for economic progress to continue.

The Media: The fight is complex. The challenges are hard to boil down into 9-second sound bites or catchy headlines. However, we do spend a lot of time educating reporters, in addition to VIPs. We have a few die-hard reporters that travel to the fight and get a view from the ground on the challenges and opportunities facing our forces and the Iraqis. Most of the journalists I meet are tremendous professionals who make personal sacrifices to provide transparency in a society that needs media spotlights everywhere. The press is instrumental is helping keep the good people honest and the bad guys from committing even more egregious transgressions. Many of our media colleagues have brought attention to significant challenges like immigration, the need for diplomacy around the periphery of Iraq, detainee abuse, and other challenges. We need to encourage them and help them gain access to the stories that will shape human behavior in positive directions.

I hope this provides a brief glimpse into the complexities we face in western Baghdad. We have been very busy, but understand the need to get the word out.

Warm Regards,
Steve

Steven M. Miska
LTC, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

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Tame “Gators”

In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

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In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

All that ended after Abu Ghraib. “Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment,” Bowden writes. “The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators [the nickname for interrogators] were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Kyndra Rotunda, a former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who served at Guantanamo, offers further details on what sort of practices are no longer allowed. Interrogators cannot withhold detainees’ access to Qur’ans or any food or water. (All detainees receive their filling halal meals and their Qur’ans, no matter what they do.) They cannot stop piping in the call to prayer or refuse to tell detainees the direction of Mecca. They are even having a hard time using teams of shrinks (known as Behavior Science Consultation Teams) to monitor suspects for signs of duplicity.

In other words, in the rush to crack down on abuse, practices that would seem to stop well short of any reasonable definition of torture (the good cop/bad cop routine, for Pete’s sake!) have been jettisoned. Interrogators are left with a battery of approved techniques from the new army field manual on interrogation. As described by Bowden these include “’ego up,’ which involved flattery; ‘ego down,’ which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth.”

Bowden’s article describes how, in the hands of first-class interrogators, such “con games” could be used to elicit information from a couple of al-Qaeda operatives—information that led Task Force 145 to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. But one wonders how much information coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t getting because interrogators aren’t as skilled, or detainees as gullible, as those in “The Ploy.”

Even in the case chronicled by Bowden, one threat was used effectively to elicit information. He writes: “The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk.”

By now, any sentient detainee will know that Abu Ghraib has been shuttered (its replacement is Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) and that there is not much that their American captors can do to them. If they didn’t know that already (and all the smart ones do), they surely will after al Qaeda translates Bowden’s article and places it online as part of their training for handling captivity.

 

 

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The Military’s Media Problem

I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

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I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

The result of such caution is to cede the “information battlespace” to critics of the war and even to outright enemies such as Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al Sadr, who have shrewdly manipulated press coverage. General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to engage more actively in what are known as “information operations,” and he’s off to a good start. He is, for instance, taking reporters with him on tours of the battlefield. On Saturday he had a correspondent from the San Antonio newspaper along when he traveled to Baqubah. (I also accompanied him, as did Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.) But to be successful, Petraeus will have to get more officers to follow his example.

Some officers I met with earlier this week at Task Force Justice in the Khadimiya neighborhood of northwest Baghdad offered useful suggestions for what should be done: (1) require all battalions to set up a secure, comfortable room where reporters can stay and file stories; (2) contact media organizations to invite them to send embeds; (3) distribute lists of media contacts down to battalion and even company level and encourage officers to contact the press directly, bypassing the ponderous public-affairs bureaucracy; (4) grade battalion, brigade, and division commanders on how well they engage the press.

To this I would add one other idea: troops on the ground who see inaccurate reports about their operations should contact the media outlets in question and demand corrections—or take other steps to publicize the facts as they know them. In short: stop griping about the press in private and start doing something about it in public. That’s just what some military bloggers are already doing, but their activities are often frowned upon.

What the armed forces have to realize is that in today’s world engaging in information ops can no longer be a peripheral part of a military campaign. In a sense, the kinetic operations have come to be peripheral to the core struggle for hearts and minds in Iraq—and back home. If the armed forces don’t do a better job of waging this part of the struggle, they can lose the war, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

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Dr. Faust, My Cleaning Lady, and Me

This morning my cleaning lady E., expecting an affirmative response, asked me whether I was pleased by the appointment of a woman to the presidency of Harvard University (where I am a professor). A year ago her English was not good enough for such a question. College-educated in São Paolo, with what I believe was a major in government, she tells me a female president will be able to smooth over the troubles of the previous administration. Evidently, she perceives the ascendancy of Drew Gilpin Faust as a boost for her own chances of advancement in America. Apparently, Brazilian women gained fully equal legal rights only in 1988.

Just a day earlier I was reading Heather Mac Donald’s post at City Journal‘s Eye on the News, in which she remarks that “The feminist takeover of Harvard is imminent.” Her warning struck a nerve. When the Women’s Lib movement started up in America in the 1960′s, I predicted it would do as much damage here as Bolshevism had done in Russia. I felt almost vindicated in my fears when I watched the feminist culture of grievance at Harvard help to topple President Lawrence Summers (a controversy I wrote about in the pages of COMMENTARY)—who tried to pacify the aggrieved women by appointing none other than Drew Faust to head a Task Force on Women Faculty. That Task Force won a $50 million commitment to increase faculty “diversity efforts” at Harvard. In the past, the call for such “diversity” has been a code name for greater ideological conformism, since those appointed through it are expected to share the ideological premise that brought them the job.

My Portuguese is not up to E.’s English, so I cannot explain to her the difference between a woman and a Women’s Libber. She is still fighting the original feminist battle for equal rights and opportunity; I oppose the demand for preferential group advancement. But E. is keen, and she sees from my hesitation that I am not quite as inspired as she is by this appointment. We will watch events unfold at Harvard with unequal expectations.

This morning my cleaning lady E., expecting an affirmative response, asked me whether I was pleased by the appointment of a woman to the presidency of Harvard University (where I am a professor). A year ago her English was not good enough for such a question. College-educated in São Paolo, with what I believe was a major in government, she tells me a female president will be able to smooth over the troubles of the previous administration. Evidently, she perceives the ascendancy of Drew Gilpin Faust as a boost for her own chances of advancement in America. Apparently, Brazilian women gained fully equal legal rights only in 1988.

Just a day earlier I was reading Heather Mac Donald’s post at City Journal‘s Eye on the News, in which she remarks that “The feminist takeover of Harvard is imminent.” Her warning struck a nerve. When the Women’s Lib movement started up in America in the 1960′s, I predicted it would do as much damage here as Bolshevism had done in Russia. I felt almost vindicated in my fears when I watched the feminist culture of grievance at Harvard help to topple President Lawrence Summers (a controversy I wrote about in the pages of COMMENTARY)—who tried to pacify the aggrieved women by appointing none other than Drew Faust to head a Task Force on Women Faculty. That Task Force won a $50 million commitment to increase faculty “diversity efforts” at Harvard. In the past, the call for such “diversity” has been a code name for greater ideological conformism, since those appointed through it are expected to share the ideological premise that brought them the job.

My Portuguese is not up to E.’s English, so I cannot explain to her the difference between a woman and a Women’s Libber. She is still fighting the original feminist battle for equal rights and opportunity; I oppose the demand for preferential group advancement. But E. is keen, and she sees from my hesitation that I am not quite as inspired as she is by this appointment. We will watch events unfold at Harvard with unequal expectations.

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