Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. troops

The Post-2014 Outlook for Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins has an excellent article in the New Yorker on the post-2014 outlook for Afghanistan. The whole thing is worth reading, but to put the bottom line up front: Afghanistan is going to be in big trouble if the U.S. pulls out too many troops.

As Filkins notes, “Without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014—the Afghan Army could once again fracture along ethnic lines.” He writes:

Afghan and American officials believe that some precipitating event could prompt the country’s ethnic minorities to fall back into their enclaves in northern Afghanistan, taking large chunks of the Army and police forces with them. Another concern is that Jamiat officers within the Afghan Army could indeed try to mount a coup against Karzai or a successor. The most likely trigger for a coup, these officials say, would be a peace deal with the Taliban that would bring them into the government or even into the Army itself. Tajiks and other ethnic minorities would find this intolerable. Another scenario would most likely unfold after 2014: a series of dramatic military advances by the Taliban after the American pullout.

The result of such setbacks could be a revival of the bloody civil war that brought the Taliban to power in 1996. How to avoid that terrible outcome? Keep a substantial U.S. advisory and counterterrorism force past 2014. In this new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations, I argued, citing work done at the Center for a New American Security, that we need a force of 25,000 to 35,000 personnel, and the Filkins article amply backs up that judgment. He writes:

A force of fifteen thousand Americans would probably not be large enough to spread trainers and air controllers throughout the Afghan Army (and not throughout the police, who are at tiny checkpoints scattered around the country). “If they go below thirty thousand, it will be difficult for them to do any serious mentoring, and without the mentors they won’t call in airpower,” Giustozzi, the Italian researcher, said.

The question is whether anyone in Washington is paying attention. The politicos seem so determined to rush out of Afghanistan that few decision makers seem to be paying attention to what kind of country they will leave behind.

Dexter Filkins has an excellent article in the New Yorker on the post-2014 outlook for Afghanistan. The whole thing is worth reading, but to put the bottom line up front: Afghanistan is going to be in big trouble if the U.S. pulls out too many troops.

As Filkins notes, “Without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014—the Afghan Army could once again fracture along ethnic lines.” He writes:

Afghan and American officials believe that some precipitating event could prompt the country’s ethnic minorities to fall back into their enclaves in northern Afghanistan, taking large chunks of the Army and police forces with them. Another concern is that Jamiat officers within the Afghan Army could indeed try to mount a coup against Karzai or a successor. The most likely trigger for a coup, these officials say, would be a peace deal with the Taliban that would bring them into the government or even into the Army itself. Tajiks and other ethnic minorities would find this intolerable. Another scenario would most likely unfold after 2014: a series of dramatic military advances by the Taliban after the American pullout.

The result of such setbacks could be a revival of the bloody civil war that brought the Taliban to power in 1996. How to avoid that terrible outcome? Keep a substantial U.S. advisory and counterterrorism force past 2014. In this new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations, I argued, citing work done at the Center for a New American Security, that we need a force of 25,000 to 35,000 personnel, and the Filkins article amply backs up that judgment. He writes:

A force of fifteen thousand Americans would probably not be large enough to spread trainers and air controllers throughout the Afghan Army (and not throughout the police, who are at tiny checkpoints scattered around the country). “If they go below thirty thousand, it will be difficult for them to do any serious mentoring, and without the mentors they won’t call in airpower,” Giustozzi, the Italian researcher, said.

The question is whether anyone in Washington is paying attention. The politicos seem so determined to rush out of Afghanistan that few decision makers seem to be paying attention to what kind of country they will leave behind.

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U.S. Troops Needed in East Asia

For most Americans, World War II is distant history–a setting for adventure films such as “Captain America,” History Channel documentaries, and not much more. It is startling, then, to be reminded of the virulence of historical memory in Asia.

Only two years ago, there were substantial anti-Japanese protests in China. The ostensible cause was a  clash between Chinese fishing vessels and a Japanese patrol boat in the East China Sea, but it was really a revelation of the deep emotions that remain from the Japanese occupation of a large part of China during the 1930s-40s which included the infamous Rape of Nanking. Now in South Korea, a top national security official has had to resign because of his temerity in negotiating an accord with Japan to share intelligence over a mutual threat–North Korea.

You would think this pact between two pro-Western democracies would be a no-brainer, but as the New York Times account notes, “After the Lee government announced the deal last Thursday, accusations flew that the government was ‘pro-Japanese,’ a far worse charge in South Korea than being ‘pro-North Korean.’” Hatred of Japan is of course explained by the brutality of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which included the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Emotions remain raw in no small part because Japan, unlike Germany, still has trouble fully acknowledging the wrong it has done. I recall a few years ago visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo, whose museum continues to glorify the actions of Japan’s war criminals.

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For most Americans, World War II is distant history–a setting for adventure films such as “Captain America,” History Channel documentaries, and not much more. It is startling, then, to be reminded of the virulence of historical memory in Asia.

Only two years ago, there were substantial anti-Japanese protests in China. The ostensible cause was a  clash between Chinese fishing vessels and a Japanese patrol boat in the East China Sea, but it was really a revelation of the deep emotions that remain from the Japanese occupation of a large part of China during the 1930s-40s which included the infamous Rape of Nanking. Now in South Korea, a top national security official has had to resign because of his temerity in negotiating an accord with Japan to share intelligence over a mutual threat–North Korea.

You would think this pact between two pro-Western democracies would be a no-brainer, but as the New York Times account notes, “After the Lee government announced the deal last Thursday, accusations flew that the government was ‘pro-Japanese,’ a far worse charge in South Korea than being ‘pro-North Korean.’” Hatred of Japan is of course explained by the brutality of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which included the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Emotions remain raw in no small part because Japan, unlike Germany, still has trouble fully acknowledging the wrong it has done. I recall a few years ago visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo, whose museum continues to glorify the actions of Japan’s war criminals.

For the United States, this is a vexing challenge because it makes it more difficult to marshal the kind of united front among our allies we would like to see. As a practical matter, it may be easier to try to create a more multilateral security alliance in East Asia rather than trying to force countries such as Japan and South Korea into bilateral pacts that will be contentious among their populace.

The larger message, though, is about just how necessary America remains to preserving security in this region which will be the biggest source of wealth in the world in the 21st century. Too many Americans do not see the importance of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan, or other countries. They are, after all, wealthy and powerful. Why do they need American help? In large part because the U.S. remains the most trusted power in the region, and one that other countries depend on to keep the peace and to repress not-so-buried national rivalries. If we are unable to perform that role in the future because of Draconian cuts in our defense budget, the consequences for regional security and prosperity–and hence our own security and prosperity–will be dire.

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Flying Blind in Iraq and Afghanistan

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy makes an important point about Iraq in Foreign Policy: amid a worsening political and security situation, the U.S. has little awareness of what is actually going on. He points out:

At the height of the “surge,” the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 U.S. troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, U.S. embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement — hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 percent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.

This makes it hard for U.S. officials to even generate authoritative estimates of the numbers killed in terrorist attacks–much less to figure out what to do about this violence.

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Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy makes an important point about Iraq in Foreign Policy: amid a worsening political and security situation, the U.S. has little awareness of what is actually going on. He points out:

At the height of the “surge,” the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 U.S. troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, U.S. embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement — hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 percent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.

This makes it hard for U.S. officials to even generate authoritative estimates of the numbers killed in terrorist attacks–much less to figure out what to do about this violence.

This is all the more reason why the U.S. should not repeat this mistake in Afghanistan. If we pull out completely or almost completely after 2014, it will be impossible to keep mounting effective Special Operations raids on terrorist targets because we will lose the “situational awareness” to figure out which targets to hit and where and when. We will lose, too, the kind of political intelligence we need to try to steer Afghanistan’s turbulent politics in the right direction. That kind of knowledge can only come from a substantial on-the-ground footprint of intelligence collectors, who must in turn be embedded in a substantial security and logistics infrastructure. Pull out too many troops and the remainder will be flying blind–as we are now doing in Iraq.

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Iraq is Blowing Up

I take no joy from being proven right, but it appears that I–and other advocates of a continued American military presence in Iraq–were right to warn of the dangers of withdrawal. The Associated Press reports from Baghdad:

June was the second-deadliest month since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in mid-December as insurgents exploited the political struggles between the country’s ethnic and sectarian factions. More significant than the numbers was the fact that insurgents appeared able to sustain the level of violence over a longer period than usual. There was a major deadly bombing or shooting rampage almost every three days, many targeting Shiite pilgrims.

The violence has brought the weakness of Iraq’s security apparatus into sharp focus even as deepening political divisions dim the prospects that the country will emerge as a stable democracy after decades of war and dictatorship.

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I take no joy from being proven right, but it appears that I–and other advocates of a continued American military presence in Iraq–were right to warn of the dangers of withdrawal. The Associated Press reports from Baghdad:

June was the second-deadliest month since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in mid-December as insurgents exploited the political struggles between the country’s ethnic and sectarian factions. More significant than the numbers was the fact that insurgents appeared able to sustain the level of violence over a longer period than usual. There was a major deadly bombing or shooting rampage almost every three days, many targeting Shiite pilgrims.

The violence has brought the weakness of Iraq’s security apparatus into sharp focus even as deepening political divisions dim the prospects that the country will emerge as a stable democracy after decades of war and dictatorship.

Indeed, 50 more Iraqis died on Tuesday in a fresh round of bombings.

Not all is gloom and doom to be sure. The New York Times reports, for example, on the opening of new Western-style shopping malls in Baghdad. But with violence levels rising and with Prime Minister Maliki increasingly accumulating dictatorial powers–the two trends are related because the more the political system breaks down, the more likely it is that various parties will resort to violence–the outlook for Iraq is a good deal less bright than it was a year ago when it appeared likely there would be a residual American troop presence past 2011.

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America’s Missed Chance for Afghan Deal

The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

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The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

Can Chandrasekaran point to any actual signs the Taliban were ever likely to sign a peace deal? As he mentions in passing in his book, in 2010 Pakistan actually locked up the No. 2 Taliban official, Mullah Abdual Ghani Baradar, precisely because Islamabad feared he would be open to a negotiated settlement that could cause the Taliban to drift out of Pakistan’s control. More recently, the White House expressed willingness to release five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a “confidence-building” measure for peace talks. Nothing came of that deal.

The calculation of military commanders in Afghanistan was that as they ramped up pressure on the Taliban, there would be more defections from their ranks, which has indeed occurred, but that there would be no chance of reaching a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban–one that did not grant them so many concessions that the old Northern Alliance would recreate itself and launch a new civil war–until the insurgents had suffered significant battlefield defeats.

The insurgency has indeed suffered real defeats in southern Afghanistan, as even Chandrasekaran concedes, but the potential for meaningful negotiations has been to a large extent lost because of President Obama’s ill-advised move to set deadlines on America’s military involvement–first for the removal of surge troops and now for the removal of the bulk of other troops. Those deadlines have undermined the ability of our troops to have strategic effects and have undoubtedly made the Taliban less likely to negotiate in seriousness because they figure they can simply wait us out. That, rather than any snubs Holbrooke may have suffered, helps to account for the failure of peace talks.

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Is China Testing Weaponry in Afghanistan?

The General Accountability Office has released a report accusing Pakistan of blocking efforts to curb the smuggling of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) into Afghanistan:

IEDs are the top killer of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, according the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization. JIEDDO estimates that 83 percent of IEDs used in attacks on U.S. troops are made with fertilizers produced in Pakistan. IED attacks have increased slightly over the 12 months ending April 30, the most recent data available. There were 16,165 IED incidents over that period, a 2 percent increase.

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The General Accountability Office has released a report accusing Pakistan of blocking efforts to curb the smuggling of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) into Afghanistan:

IEDs are the top killer of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, according the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization. JIEDDO estimates that 83 percent of IEDs used in attacks on U.S. troops are made with fertilizers produced in Pakistan. IED attacks have increased slightly over the 12 months ending April 30, the most recent data available. There were 16,165 IED incidents over that period, a 2 percent increase.

While the majority of IEDs used in Afghanistan may be low-tech—made with fertilizers as JIEDDO notes—questions remain about the origins of other IEDs. Certainly, Iran has been smuggling weaponry to the Taliban. But, according to American servicemen deploying or recently deployed to Afghanistan, there is growing concern that China may be working with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to provide and perfect IEDs with the goal of testing new Chinese technology against American armor.

If so, the Obama administration, Governor Romney’s team, and even Tom Friedman might want to take pause to once again consider China’s trajectory and its future intentions.

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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

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Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

I was able to spend last week with a group of 40 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq at a Salute the Troops event at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. What struck me at the beginning was how young some of them looked and how candid they were about their experiences: what it was like to suffer the loss of legs or arms, or permanent control of bladder and bowels; what it felt like to inhale the fire from a suicide bomb or to step on an IED plate; and the sense of guilt some felt because they were unable to go back and continue fighting alongside their friends.

But, for the most part, they didn’t dwell on their injuries. They spent the week hanging out at poolside cabanas, at the hotel sports bar, playing poker and dancing at the nightclubs. They joked around with each other, talked about sports, and commiserated over military hospital bureaucracy.

The four-day event was organized by the Armed Forces Foundation and sponsored by Southwest Airlines, Omaha Steaks and the Palazzo Hotel (which also paid for my trip). Three other bloggers, VodkaPundit, BlackFive’s Bruce McQuain, and Kristle Helmuth, were also on the trip (and I highly recommend reading their coverage as well).

The annual event was the brainchild of AFF founder Patricia Driscoll and billionaire casino mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is someone even prominent politicians have a hard time securing meetings with, but he dropped by for dinner with the wounded warriors every night of the trip, often working the room on his motorized scooter.

“There’s one thing I know,” he told the group in a speech on Friday night. “When you volunteer, you don’t lead from behind. So you guys carry a sense of patriotism that is unbounded…You’re protecting us, and that’s something we can’t thank you enough [for].”

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I will share the stories of three of the wounded warriors I interviewed last week. I hope it will provide some insight into what they experienced in combat and what they’re struggling with and looking forward to as they transition out of military hospitals and return home.

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A Lieutenant Colonel’s Unfounded Accusations

I have previously blogged on the unfounded accusations being made by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, an army acquisitions officer who claims the entire high command in Afghanistan is guilty of lying because it sees progress, admittedly fragile and reversible, but progress nevertheless. He has been hailed as a great whistle-blower in the New York Times and the halls of Congress, but he is hardly that. Joe Collins, a retired army colonel who now teaches at the National War College, does a masterly job of dismantling Davis’s specious report called, “Dereliction of Duty II.” Collins writes:

I was prepared for a real critique and came away profoundly disappointed. Every veteran has an important story, but this work is a mess. It is not a successor piece to HR McMaster’s book on the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam, or Paul Yingling’s critique of U.S. generalship that appeared in Armed Forces Journal a few years back.

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I have previously blogged on the unfounded accusations being made by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, an army acquisitions officer who claims the entire high command in Afghanistan is guilty of lying because it sees progress, admittedly fragile and reversible, but progress nevertheless. He has been hailed as a great whistle-blower in the New York Times and the halls of Congress, but he is hardly that. Joe Collins, a retired army colonel who now teaches at the National War College, does a masterly job of dismantling Davis’s specious report called, “Dereliction of Duty II.” Collins writes:

I was prepared for a real critique and came away profoundly disappointed. Every veteran has an important story, but this work is a mess. It is not a successor piece to HR McMaster’s book on the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam, or Paul Yingling’s critique of U.S. generalship that appeared in Armed Forces Journal a few years back.

The entire Collins article is well-worth reading–especially if you hear more congressmen and anti-war critics praising Davis’s supposed truth-telling.

 

 

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Watch Sources on Afghanistan More Closely

Here is a follow-up to my earlier item on Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, the army reservist who spent some time last year traveling around Afghanistan helping to assess army equipment and has returned to write an article claiming senior commanders are lying when they say we are making progress.

This is hardly the first op-ed Davis has written. The others are collected on his own website, which suggests he is an aspiring blogger.

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Here is a follow-up to my earlier item on Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, the army reservist who spent some time last year traveling around Afghanistan helping to assess army equipment and has returned to write an article claiming senior commanders are lying when they say we are making progress.

This is hardly the first op-ed Davis has written. The others are collected on his own website, which suggests he is an aspiring blogger.

Part of what made the Armed Forces Journal article so interesting was that he suggested he was initially a supporter of the war but came away disillusioned. This was the third paragraph of his essay: “Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.”

But his own writings show this statement is highly disingenuous. All the way back in April 2009, Armed Forces Journal published an essay by then-Maj. Daniel Davis entitled “The Afghan Mistake: Sending More Troops Won’t Work.” In it, he argued:

Senior leaders, military experts and now President Barack Obama are arguing that we need to surge our troop level in Afghanistan to more than 60,000. We are told to be ready for hard fighting, that the Taliban has resurged and we must be prepared to continue fighting for years to come. But is a surge of troops in Afghanistan the best solution to this deteriorating situation? I argue that the answer is not simply “no,” but “absolutely no.”

As an alternative he suggested “that sometimes the most appropriate and effective military strategy the U.S. could pursue is to reject combat.” In other words, Davis was already predisposed to think the buildup of forces in Afghanistan was futile; it is hardly surprising what he saw merely reinforced his preconceptions.

The 2009 article also raises serious questions about his strategic judgment. He wrote that article at a time when the Taliban were making such rapid gains that Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned they could win within a year if the U.S. did not reinforce its forces. It remains a mystery how Davis’s preferred strategy of rejecting combat could possibly have been more effective than sending tens of thousands of troops to eject the Taliban from their strongholds.

That his judgments are highly dubious is only reinforced by reading another article on his website, published in the Washington Times on Dec. 14, 2007, called “A Third Way.” In it, he suggested an alternative to either “capitulation or war” with Iran. What alternative? He recommended to President Bush “that you announce a unilateral request for a cabinet-level dialogue with Iran; that you communicate a desire to have an open, unconditional conversation with their government to discuss issues of mutual concern.” This is pretty much the approach President Obama came into office with. He too thought that talks with Tehran could result in a breakthrough. Now he has been cruelly disabused of that illusion which many of us warned against at the time–but which Davis was a cheerleader for.

Is this really the man whose assessment of Afghanistan we should accept over the assessments of such storied leaders as David Petraeus and John Allen, who know far more than Davis does about the war in all its dimensions–and whose views of cautious optimism are reinforced by knowledgeable and experienced soldiers such as Major Fernando Lujan (whose work I have previously cited)? For opponents of the war, of course, any confirmation of their views is welcome, but they should look at the source a little more closely.

 

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Are We Losing the War in Afghanistan?

An Army lieutenant colonel named Daniel L. Davis is attracting a lot of attention for this essay he has just published in Armed Forces Journal suggesting that, contrary to what he views as the official line, our forces are losing the war in Afghanistan. Davis traveled extensively around Afghanistan last year on behalf of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force–designed to get troops the equipment they need–and came back dismayed by what he found. He claims he saw “the absence of success on virtually every level”:

I heard many stories of how insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base.

I saw little to no evidence the local governments were able to provide for the basic needs of the people. Some of the Afghan civilians I talked with said the people didn’t want to be connected to a predatory or incapable local government.

From time to time, I observed Afghan Security forces collude with the insurgency.

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An Army lieutenant colonel named Daniel L. Davis is attracting a lot of attention for this essay he has just published in Armed Forces Journal suggesting that, contrary to what he views as the official line, our forces are losing the war in Afghanistan. Davis traveled extensively around Afghanistan last year on behalf of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force–designed to get troops the equipment they need–and came back dismayed by what he found. He claims he saw “the absence of success on virtually every level”:

I heard many stories of how insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base.

I saw little to no evidence the local governments were able to provide for the basic needs of the people. Some of the Afghan civilians I talked with said the people didn’t want to be connected to a predatory or incapable local government.

From time to time, I observed Afghan Security forces collude with the insurgency.

He concludes with a not-so-veiled accusation that officers such as David Petraeus and his replacement, Gen. John Allen, who say we are making progress are not just misinformed but mendacious: “The American people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years. Simply telling the truth would be a good start.”

Whoa. It’s one thing to claim senior officers are wrong–but calling them liars is something else, especially given how strongly all military personnel feel about their personal sense of honor and duty to the country. Is Davis suggesting that only he has the guts to tell it like it is while everyone else is blind or dishonest? That’s quite a stretch.

In point of fact, the armed forces are a big, diverse organization, and it is to be expected there will be differences of opinion. The fact that Davis is pessimistic doesn’t surprise me. I have heard many pessimistic assessments over the years from military personnel who were serving in Afghanistan–just as I did in Iraq. In fact, I vividly recall visiting Iraq in early 2007 and finding many officers even in Gen. Petraeus’s own headquarters convinced the surge was hopeless and that it was too late to contain the bloodbath engulfing Iraq. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, the two senior officers in command, obviously disagreed. Did that make them con artists who were deceiving the American people and leading their troops to slaughter for no good reason (as moveon.org intimated)? Hardly. Turns out they actually had greater insight into the situation than did the naysayers.

It is too soon to say whether the naysayers will be vindicated in Afghanistan, but it is worth noting that Davis’s pessimistic views are hardly universally held among troops with combat experience on the ground. For a counterpoint see this New York Times op-ed entitled, “This War Can Still Be Won,” by Fernando Lujan, an Army Special Forces major who spent 14 months traveling all over Afghanistan. Unlike Davis, Lujan speaks Dari and spent considerable time actually embedded with Afghan military units. He saw many of the problems that Davis alludes to but came back convinced the Taliban are losing, U.S. troops are making real gains, and the Afghan armed forces are developing into a credible fighting force.

Is Lujan lying too? Is Davis the only honest man in the entire army?

In reality, there is a healthy difference of opinion in the armed forces, and those who are tempted to take either the pessimistic or the optimistic view at face value need to contemplate all the evidence on both sides. Having done so, and having visited Afghanistan repeatedly, I have come to the conclusion that Petraeus and Allen are right–there is real progress, but it is fragile and reversible. If we pull out too quickly, the gains that have been made will be for naught. And that points to the greatest cause for pessimism about the war’s course: not the lack of progress on the ground, as Davis claims, but the lack of resolution displayed by a White House that seems determined to withdraw our forces as quickly as possible.

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Beware Limitations of Special Ops Forces

In retrospect, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden–Operation Neptune Spear on May 2, 2011–may be viewed as a turning point in the Obama presidency. It bolstered the president’s standing on national security affairs and led him to listen less to the generals, who counseled him against a complete pullout in Iraq and a hasty drawdown in Afghanistan, and more to his own instincts, which, it seems safe to say, are far from hawkish. It has also led to the president’s current infatuation with Special Operations Forces, which recalls John F. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the Green Berets in the early 1960s and George W. Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s similar passion in the early 2000s after the overthrow of the Taliban.

In those earlier instances, both JFK and Bush wildly exaggerated what Special Operators could do. They could not by themselves win wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s no knock on our elite troops to say those challenges were too big to be solved by a few commandos. So too with Afghanistan  and similar challenges today: These wars will not be won by Delta Force and Seal Team Six.

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In retrospect, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden–Operation Neptune Spear on May 2, 2011–may be viewed as a turning point in the Obama presidency. It bolstered the president’s standing on national security affairs and led him to listen less to the generals, who counseled him against a complete pullout in Iraq and a hasty drawdown in Afghanistan, and more to his own instincts, which, it seems safe to say, are far from hawkish. It has also led to the president’s current infatuation with Special Operations Forces, which recalls John F. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the Green Berets in the early 1960s and George W. Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s similar passion in the early 2000s after the overthrow of the Taliban.

In those earlier instances, both JFK and Bush wildly exaggerated what Special Operators could do. They could not by themselves win wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s no knock on our elite troops to say those challenges were too big to be solved by a few commandos. So too with Afghanistan  and similar challenges today: These wars will not be won by Delta Force and Seal Team Six.

The kinds of direct-action strikes that these units carry out are an integral part of any comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy–but they cannot substitute for the absence of such a strategy. That was the mistake we made in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009. Now it seems Obama is making that mistake again, to judge from news reports the White House is planning to lean heavily on the Special Operations Forces as they withdraw regular troops from Afghanistan. This is not a way to defeat the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and other dangerous terrorists on the cheap–it is a way to lose the war while pretending you are doing something to win it.

In reality, if conditions deteriorate across Afghanistan, as they surely will if U.S. troops pull back as quickly as the administration envisions, Special Operations Forces will have trouble generating the intelligence to identify insurgent leaders. They will also have trouble finding safe areas from which to launch their raids. But the biggest problem of all is if insurgents control substantial territory it is relatively easy for them to regenerate themselves after decapitating strikes on their leaders–as both Hamas and Hezbollah have done after Israeli counter-terrorist strikes. Al-Qaeda Central has proven a better target for Special Operations raids and drone strikes precisely because it is so small and isolated; but larger insurgent groups will not be defeated by the removal of a few leaders.

The president needs to understand not only the capabilities but also the limitations of the Special Operations Forces. They cannot carry the main burden of a U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, especially not when they are being counted upon to do a lot more in the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and other hot spots that are in turmoil.

 

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Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan

Far be it for me to claim there is no problem with Afghan soldiers attacking coalition troops in Afghanistan. Obviously the problem is real—and so is the fallout. Witness French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s threat to pull French forces out of the country after four French soldiers were killed by an apparent Afghan soldier, or at least a gunman in an Afghan uniform. But the New York Times still appears to be overhyping the threat with its lead article this morning which proclaims:

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by the New York Times.

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Far be it for me to claim there is no problem with Afghan soldiers attacking coalition troops in Afghanistan. Obviously the problem is real—and so is the fallout. Witness French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s threat to pull French forces out of the country after four French soldiers were killed by an apparent Afghan soldier, or at least a gunman in an Afghan uniform. But the New York Times still appears to be overhyping the threat with its lead article this morning which proclaims:

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by the New York Times.

One has to read literally to the end of the article to find the details which make these claims less alarming than they appear at first blush. In the first place, that “classified coalition report” was not, apparently, a document issued by any U.S. or NATO headquarters. It was, according to the article, “prepared for a subordinate American command in eastern Afghanistan” (presumably Regional Command-East, but why not use the official title?) “by a behavioral scientist who surveyed 613 Afghan soldiers and police officers, 215 American soldiers and 30 Afghan interpreters who worked for the Americans.” In other words, this was one of countless documents prepared for various commands in Afghanistan by contractors and employees; it is not, as far as I can tell, an official statement of policy.

Which is not to deny that the problems outlined in the report, as summarized in the Times, are real—especially the lack of trust that too often characterizes relationships between U.S. and Afghan units. But such issues are hardly new; they were also prevalent in Iraq, and in both countries they can be addressed by better training (on both sides) and closer mentoring. Paradoxically, coalition soldiers are likely to be safer the closer they get to their Afghan counterparts—this builds bonds of trust that are the best protection anyone can have in this tribal society. By trying to hold Afghan soldiers at arm’s length—for example by walling off their compounds from U.S. bases or preventing them from carrying weapons on U.S. bases—coalition troops are actually increasing the risk to themselves because they send a clear message to their Afghan partners that they are not trusted.

Episodes of Afghan soldiers attacking their coalition partners certainly do much to fray trust, but it may be doubted this is quite as much of an epidemic as the Times claims. Deep in the article we read as follows:

The classified report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, when it was completed, at least 58 Western service members were killed in 26 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and the police nationwide. Most of those attacks have occurred since October 2009. This toll represented 6 percent of all hostile coalition deaths during that period, the report said.

Twenty-six attacks in four years works out to fewer than seven attacks a year. And the casualty total from these attacks has been inflated by one particularly grisly and unexpected outrage which occurred in April 2011 when an Afghan Air Force colonel killed eight U.S. officers and contractors in Kabul.

The larger picture, which goes unmentioned entirely in the article, is that coalition casualties are not only considerably lower in aggregate than in Iraq but are also declining. According to icasualties.org, 566 coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan last year, down considerably from the 711 killed in 2010—an achievement especially impressive because in the meantime the total number of coalition forces in Afghanistan had surged and they had moved into some of the Taliban’s toughest strongholds.

Again, I don’t mean to minimize the problem with “blue on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, but alarmist reports such as this one can give a skewed presentation of the on-the-ground reality.

 

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Innocent Iraqis Paying a Heavy Price

The most telling comment I’ve yet seen on the fresh atrocities that have unfolded across Iraq–where someone, presumably Sunni insurgents, set off bombs that killed at least 60 Shiites today–comes from a humble bus driver in Sadr City. He is quoted in the New York Times as follows:

“When politicians have a problem, the citizens are usually the ones who pay,” said Abu Sajad, a minibus driver who was near the attack in Sadr City. “This has happened before and continues to happen.”

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The most telling comment I’ve yet seen on the fresh atrocities that have unfolded across Iraq–where someone, presumably Sunni insurgents, set off bombs that killed at least 60 Shiites today–comes from a humble bus driver in Sadr City. He is quoted in the New York Times as follows:

“When politicians have a problem, the citizens are usually the ones who pay,” said Abu Sajad, a minibus driver who was near the attack in Sadr City. “This has happened before and continues to happen.”

Precisely right. It should hardly be surprising that at a time when Prime Minister Malaki is trying to prosecute one senior Sunni politician (Vice President Tariq al Hashemi) and remove another one from office (Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq), and when deputies of the Iraqiya party which is popular with Sunnis are boycotting parliament–it is hardly surprising that a time like this, Sunni insurgents are setting off bombs. There is a worrisome potential for the current crisis to spiral out of control because the shock absorbers that once provided a measure of stability in Iraqi politics–that would be American troops–are now gone.

It has not taken long for innocent Iraqis to pay a heavy price for President Obama’s failure to renew the treaty that would allow an American force to remain in Iraq post-2011. The price is only likely to rise in the coming months–and  the increased instability will exact a heavy toll not only on Iraq but also on American interests in this vital region.

 

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Obama’s Muddled Thinking on Afghanistan

The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.

What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle:

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The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.

What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle:

President Obama has already ordered the withdrawal by September of the 33,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan last year. “The big debate,” a Defense official said, is “can you come up with another number for what happens over the next 12 months” after that drawdown. “The argument will once again be the military saying let’s keep it at 68,000,” the number of troops who will remain in September, “and [Vice President] Biden saying let’s get it down to 20,000 really quickly, with the reality somewhere in between.”

Although Biden lost the argument over the surge in late 2009, officials said the internal administration balance has shifted toward a steeper glide path that would put the Afghans in charge sooner rather than later, in conjunction with a political settlement.

This is a fair description, I believe, of the president’s deeply muddled thinking on the future of Afghanistan. It suggests that he will make future decisions as he made decisions in the past: on a split-the-difference model. In 2010, he tacitly endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to pursue a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy but provided the minimal amount of resources required—only about 30,000 extra troops, which was at the “high risk” side of the options offered by McChrystal. This was in essence an attempt to compromise between McChrystal and Joe Biden, who advocated sending even fewer troops and pursuing a lesser, counterterrorism-focused mission. Then in June of this year, Obama ordered the premature withdrawal of those 30,000+ troops—they will be pulled out by September 2012, well ahead of the recommendations of military commanders. Now, with military commanders asking to keep at least 68,000 troops through 2014, President Obama seems set to draw down much faster than they recommend—although not to the extent advocated by the most strident anti-war voices.

You can see the political logic of what Obama is doing: He is trying to please both hawks and doves. Unfortunately, war is not a realm where half measures are likely to succeed. Adopting an ambitious strategy, as we’ve done in Afghanistan, but not resourcing it adequately, as Obama has also done, is a recipe for slow-motion failure. It is a high-risk strategy that is likely to get a lot of troops killed and for no good reason. Paradoxically, sending more troops would actually reduce casualties by making it easier to dominate the battlefield.

Not only does this make little sense strategically, it makes little sense politically: Obama will get just as much flak for keeping 50,000 troops in Afghanistan
as he would for 68,000. But the higher number provides a greater chance of success; more troops still would heighten our chances even more. If we are going to fight in Afghanistan, Obama needs to go “all in” as President Bush did during the surge in Iraq. He should not pin his hopes on peace talks which are unlikely to go anywhere.

 

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