Commentary Magazine


Topic: United States Army Special Forces

Friendly Fire

A Special Forces friend of mine once vowed that, if he were killed by “friendly fire,” he would come back from the grave and haunt any family members who dared to complain about the manner of his death. His point was that battle involves the risk of getting killed, and it doesn’t much matter whether the bullet was fired by your side or by the enemy. He didn’t want the kind of spectacle made of his death that has occurred over Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who, while serving as a Ranger in Afghanistan, was accidentally killed by fellow Rangers.

I thought of his comments as I read about the growing brouhaha over the tragic death of British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan. There are now rumors circulating that she may have been killed by a grenade tossed by a member of the American hostage-rescue force — presumably a Navy SEAL — and not by her captors. The British prime minister says that he finds this development to be “deeply distressing.” I can understand him being distressed by the fact that this selfless aid worker was kidnapped by brutal fanatics and that she died as a result. But does it make her death any worse if it was caused inadvertently by a rescuer than deliberately by a kidnapper? As far as I am concerned, whatever the case, moral culpability rests with the heartless fanatics who grabbed her. Period. End of story.

A Special Forces friend of mine once vowed that, if he were killed by “friendly fire,” he would come back from the grave and haunt any family members who dared to complain about the manner of his death. His point was that battle involves the risk of getting killed, and it doesn’t much matter whether the bullet was fired by your side or by the enemy. He didn’t want the kind of spectacle made of his death that has occurred over Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who, while serving as a Ranger in Afghanistan, was accidentally killed by fellow Rangers.

I thought of his comments as I read about the growing brouhaha over the tragic death of British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan. There are now rumors circulating that she may have been killed by a grenade tossed by a member of the American hostage-rescue force — presumably a Navy SEAL — and not by her captors. The British prime minister says that he finds this development to be “deeply distressing.” I can understand him being distressed by the fact that this selfless aid worker was kidnapped by brutal fanatics and that she died as a result. But does it make her death any worse if it was caused inadvertently by a rescuer than deliberately by a kidnapper? As far as I am concerned, whatever the case, moral culpability rests with the heartless fanatics who grabbed her. Period. End of story.

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Encumbered Female Marines

The New York Times has a fascinating story on how female Marines are making a contribution in Marja, a still dangerous district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. They are assigned to a “female engagement team,” which is designed to interact with Afghanistan’s women; turns out, they also do a good job of interacting with Afghanistan’s men, who sometimes open up more when confronted with women Marines than with their male counterparts.

But their deployment has run into legal problems because of the anachronistic and overly restrictive Pentagon rules on employing women in combat roles. They are technically forbidden from serving in infantry, armor, or Special Forces, but are nevertheless often in the field, sometimes under the legal fiction of being “attached to” (allowed) rather than “assigned to” (forbidden) a combat unit. The rules only allow women “temporary stays” at combat bases. So, the Times reports, “To fulfill the letter but hardly the spirit of the guidelines, the female Marines now travel from their combat outposts every six weeks for an overnight stay at a big base like Camp Leatherneck, then head back out the next morning.”

The commander of the female engagement team, Capt. Emily Naslund, thinks “the legal hoops are absurd when there are no front lines — and when members of her team are taking fire almost daily on foot patrols. ‘The current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting,’ she wrote to her parents, friends and this reporter in an e-mail after the legal review in July.”

Capt. Naslund is right. These old-fashioned rules from the Department of Defense need to be adjusted to conform with the “no front-lines” reality of today’s wars.

The New York Times has a fascinating story on how female Marines are making a contribution in Marja, a still dangerous district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. They are assigned to a “female engagement team,” which is designed to interact with Afghanistan’s women; turns out, they also do a good job of interacting with Afghanistan’s men, who sometimes open up more when confronted with women Marines than with their male counterparts.

But their deployment has run into legal problems because of the anachronistic and overly restrictive Pentagon rules on employing women in combat roles. They are technically forbidden from serving in infantry, armor, or Special Forces, but are nevertheless often in the field, sometimes under the legal fiction of being “attached to” (allowed) rather than “assigned to” (forbidden) a combat unit. The rules only allow women “temporary stays” at combat bases. So, the Times reports, “To fulfill the letter but hardly the spirit of the guidelines, the female Marines now travel from their combat outposts every six weeks for an overnight stay at a big base like Camp Leatherneck, then head back out the next morning.”

The commander of the female engagement team, Capt. Emily Naslund, thinks “the legal hoops are absurd when there are no front lines — and when members of her team are taking fire almost daily on foot patrols. ‘The current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting,’ she wrote to her parents, friends and this reporter in an e-mail after the legal review in July.”

Capt. Naslund is right. These old-fashioned rules from the Department of Defense need to be adjusted to conform with the “no front-lines” reality of today’s wars.

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Yemen and the Biden Strategy

One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:

Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.

Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.

Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.

The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.

The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.

What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.

We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.

One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:

Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.

Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.

Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.

The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.

The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.

What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.

We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.

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Stopping Iran’s Nuclear Program: The Think Tanks Speak Out

Two high-profile think-tanks, the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Oxford Research Group of London, have put out updates this summer to their earlier assessments (from 2008 and 2006, respectively) of the options for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Both of them conclude that, given the limitations of Israel’s military capabilities, the backlash from Iran in the event of an Israeli attack would outweigh the significance of the damage done to Iran’s nuclear program. Both assessments effectively assume there is no possibility of a U.S. attack. They ultimately draw different conclusions about what policies are suggested by their analyses. But it’s of equal importance, in July 2010, that their treatments of the factors in an Israeli strike are almost certainly outdated.

The Oxford Research Group (ORG) assessment builds up to the well-worn punch line that the world’s leaders need to redouble their efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which could inaugurate “the beginning of a prospect of a regional nuclear-free zone.” This is the paper’s principal policy recommendation; its alternative is accepting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and using that “as the start of a process of balanced regional denuclearization.” No serious justification is presented for either idea.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC’s) approach is more realistic, recognizing the exceptional threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. BPC urges on national leaders a three-track policy of unified diplomacy, sanctions, and a military build-up to show force and determination. The discussion of Iran’s imperviousness to nuclear deterrence (pp. 30-33) is particularly good; in general, I recommend the more analytically detailed BPC paper as a thinking aid over the terser ORG product. (The latter does have a useful section on the possibility of unexpected incidents provoked by Hezbollah, which could incite an exchange between Israel and Iran.)

I urge skepticism, however, in evaluating the main conclusion of each paper about Israel’s likely effectiveness in a military attack. Both assessments are pessimistic, but they appear to be based on outdated assumptions – two, in particular, that involve very basic perspectives. One is the idea that in attacking Iran, Israel’s sole objective would be to destroy as much of the nuclear program as possible. Although the ORG paper cautions against seeing a prospective attack on Iran in the same narrow light as the previous strikes on single sites in Iraq and Syria, the author tacitly adopts a view of the objective that is precisely that narrow. He assumes, for example, that Israel would prioritize attacking the offices and living quarters of scientists and technicians, on the theory that reconstituting that expertise would be especially time-consuming for Iran.

I disagree with that assumption. The BPC analysis seems to share it in the abstract, but I suspect that Israeli planners, knowing their force limitations, have moved beyond such linear thinking at this point. It would be a much higher-payoff approach to concentrate on taking out the senior ranks of the Revolutionary Guard, including the Pasdaran leadership and the paramilitary Qods Force. The most important nuclear sites – Natanz, Esfahan, Arak, key facilities in Tehran – would have to be struck, but given the IDF’s limits, it would pay off better to use scarce assets against the regime’s power base (and its ability to organize and command its military) than against its scientific experts.

The other assumption that may well be outdated is that, given the operational constraints on an Israeli air strike, the IDF could achieve only an unsatisfactory level of damage to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel now wields the same airborne-attack weapons the U.S. brought to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and would be far more effective with each attacking aircraft than the Coalition was against Iraq in 1991 (or the U.S. against Serbia in 1999). Meanwhile, Israel’s other options – extremely capable Special Forces, an advanced armed-drone program, and the ability to attack with ballistic missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles – are treated too dismissively in both the U.S. and European analyses. The truth is that we don’t have any state-of-the-art examples to go by in judging the probable effectiveness of this weapons combination. We are more likely to learn from a coordinated Israeli attack featuring these weapons than to see all our worst-case predictions borne out.

Writing off an Israeli attack as quixotic and operationally valueless is a political posture more than an expert conclusion. There is a cost-benefit boundary for the IDF, but it’s not the hardening of Iranian targets or the proliferation of uranium-enrichment sites: it’s whether Iran can implement a modern air-defense system, like the (for now) cancelled S-300. An effective air defense for Iran would inevitably increase the cost of an Israeli attack and reduce its success.

But for Israel’s security situation, every delay imposed on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has value. The U.S. should act on its own initiative rather than waiting to be driven to action by a fait accompli from Jerusalem; the BPC document’s perspective is realistic and helpful in that regard. No one, however, should entertain the theme that it’s too late now for an Israeli attack to achieve useful effects. For Israel – and for the U.S., with our much greater military capabilities – there are still options other than acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Two high-profile think-tanks, the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Oxford Research Group of London, have put out updates this summer to their earlier assessments (from 2008 and 2006, respectively) of the options for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Both of them conclude that, given the limitations of Israel’s military capabilities, the backlash from Iran in the event of an Israeli attack would outweigh the significance of the damage done to Iran’s nuclear program. Both assessments effectively assume there is no possibility of a U.S. attack. They ultimately draw different conclusions about what policies are suggested by their analyses. But it’s of equal importance, in July 2010, that their treatments of the factors in an Israeli strike are almost certainly outdated.

The Oxford Research Group (ORG) assessment builds up to the well-worn punch line that the world’s leaders need to redouble their efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which could inaugurate “the beginning of a prospect of a regional nuclear-free zone.” This is the paper’s principal policy recommendation; its alternative is accepting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and using that “as the start of a process of balanced regional denuclearization.” No serious justification is presented for either idea.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC’s) approach is more realistic, recognizing the exceptional threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. BPC urges on national leaders a three-track policy of unified diplomacy, sanctions, and a military build-up to show force and determination. The discussion of Iran’s imperviousness to nuclear deterrence (pp. 30-33) is particularly good; in general, I recommend the more analytically detailed BPC paper as a thinking aid over the terser ORG product. (The latter does have a useful section on the possibility of unexpected incidents provoked by Hezbollah, which could incite an exchange between Israel and Iran.)

I urge skepticism, however, in evaluating the main conclusion of each paper about Israel’s likely effectiveness in a military attack. Both assessments are pessimistic, but they appear to be based on outdated assumptions – two, in particular, that involve very basic perspectives. One is the idea that in attacking Iran, Israel’s sole objective would be to destroy as much of the nuclear program as possible. Although the ORG paper cautions against seeing a prospective attack on Iran in the same narrow light as the previous strikes on single sites in Iraq and Syria, the author tacitly adopts a view of the objective that is precisely that narrow. He assumes, for example, that Israel would prioritize attacking the offices and living quarters of scientists and technicians, on the theory that reconstituting that expertise would be especially time-consuming for Iran.

I disagree with that assumption. The BPC analysis seems to share it in the abstract, but I suspect that Israeli planners, knowing their force limitations, have moved beyond such linear thinking at this point. It would be a much higher-payoff approach to concentrate on taking out the senior ranks of the Revolutionary Guard, including the Pasdaran leadership and the paramilitary Qods Force. The most important nuclear sites – Natanz, Esfahan, Arak, key facilities in Tehran – would have to be struck, but given the IDF’s limits, it would pay off better to use scarce assets against the regime’s power base (and its ability to organize and command its military) than against its scientific experts.

The other assumption that may well be outdated is that, given the operational constraints on an Israeli air strike, the IDF could achieve only an unsatisfactory level of damage to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel now wields the same airborne-attack weapons the U.S. brought to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and would be far more effective with each attacking aircraft than the Coalition was against Iraq in 1991 (or the U.S. against Serbia in 1999). Meanwhile, Israel’s other options – extremely capable Special Forces, an advanced armed-drone program, and the ability to attack with ballistic missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles – are treated too dismissively in both the U.S. and European analyses. The truth is that we don’t have any state-of-the-art examples to go by in judging the probable effectiveness of this weapons combination. We are more likely to learn from a coordinated Israeli attack featuring these weapons than to see all our worst-case predictions borne out.

Writing off an Israeli attack as quixotic and operationally valueless is a political posture more than an expert conclusion. There is a cost-benefit boundary for the IDF, but it’s not the hardening of Iranian targets or the proliferation of uranium-enrichment sites: it’s whether Iran can implement a modern air-defense system, like the (for now) cancelled S-300. An effective air defense for Iran would inevitably increase the cost of an Israeli attack and reduce its success.

But for Israel’s security situation, every delay imposed on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has value. The U.S. should act on its own initiative rather than waiting to be driven to action by a fait accompli from Jerusalem; the BPC document’s perspective is realistic and helpful in that regard. No one, however, should entertain the theme that it’s too late now for an Israeli attack to achieve useful effects. For Israel – and for the U.S., with our much greater military capabilities – there are still options other than acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran.

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Why We Must Prevail in Afghanistan

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

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Our Best Ally in Afghanistan: the Taliban

The Washington Post has a pair of stories that illuminate both the challenges and the potential in the fight against the Taliban.

First the good news: in one part of Daikundi province in southern Afghanistan, the locals have risen up against the Taliban and pushed them out of town. The residents of the town of Gizab, about 100 miles north of Kandahar, got sick of the Taliban’s oppressive presence. Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes:

The spark for the rebellion was ignited in mid-April, after Lalay [a storekeeper with one name] received $24,000 in compensation payments from the Afghan government to distribute to the relatives of a dozen villagers — six of whom were members of his extended family — killed by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb. A Taliban commander told him to hand over the money, saying it was against Islam to accept funds from the government. “If it is haram” — forbidden — “for me, then it is haram for you,” Lalay recalled replying.

The insurgents did not relent. They detained his brother and then his father, a tribal leader in the village. It was then that Lalay decided to plot the revolt.

Before long, the villagers were in a full-fledged firefight against the Taliban. There aren’t many coalition troops in Daikundi, but they asked for help, and Australian and U.S. Special Operations soldiers answered the call. The revolt against the Taliban has since progressed:

Lalay’s force has now grown to 300 men. They conduct foot patrols and operate checkpoints in and around Gizab. The revolt also has spread to 14 neighboring villages, each of which has a 10-man defense squad.

The Special Forces detachment that had been based to the north has since moved to Gizab, where its members are training the local defenders and watching over them to prevent any other extrajudicial killings.

Insurgent attacks and intimidation have ceased. “There are still Talibs in the mountains, but they’re in hiding,” said Lalay, who wears a bandolier slung over the shoulder. “They don’t dare to come outside and fight us.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is the continuing sloth and ineffectiveness of the Afghan police charged with patrolling Kandahar. Post correspondent Ernesto Londono reports that American MPs are getting frustrated with the Afghans they are supposed to be mentoring. In a nutshell, they don’t want to patrol, but they do want to take bribes. Such frustrations are nothing new, of course; they recall the difficulties in Iraq in improving police and army performance. That process is just starting in Afghanistan and needs time to mature.

But as the revolt in Daikundi reminds us, our best ally is the Taliban. Their very heavy-handedness and repression alienates the population. The key is to be able to take advantage of that alienation by helping the Afghan people to secure themselves — something that growing numbers of American troops should be able to help with, just as they did in Iraq.

The Washington Post has a pair of stories that illuminate both the challenges and the potential in the fight against the Taliban.

First the good news: in one part of Daikundi province in southern Afghanistan, the locals have risen up against the Taliban and pushed them out of town. The residents of the town of Gizab, about 100 miles north of Kandahar, got sick of the Taliban’s oppressive presence. Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes:

The spark for the rebellion was ignited in mid-April, after Lalay [a storekeeper with one name] received $24,000 in compensation payments from the Afghan government to distribute to the relatives of a dozen villagers — six of whom were members of his extended family — killed by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb. A Taliban commander told him to hand over the money, saying it was against Islam to accept funds from the government. “If it is haram” — forbidden — “for me, then it is haram for you,” Lalay recalled replying.

The insurgents did not relent. They detained his brother and then his father, a tribal leader in the village. It was then that Lalay decided to plot the revolt.

Before long, the villagers were in a full-fledged firefight against the Taliban. There aren’t many coalition troops in Daikundi, but they asked for help, and Australian and U.S. Special Operations soldiers answered the call. The revolt against the Taliban has since progressed:

Lalay’s force has now grown to 300 men. They conduct foot patrols and operate checkpoints in and around Gizab. The revolt also has spread to 14 neighboring villages, each of which has a 10-man defense squad.

The Special Forces detachment that had been based to the north has since moved to Gizab, where its members are training the local defenders and watching over them to prevent any other extrajudicial killings.

Insurgent attacks and intimidation have ceased. “There are still Talibs in the mountains, but they’re in hiding,” said Lalay, who wears a bandolier slung over the shoulder. “They don’t dare to come outside and fight us.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is the continuing sloth and ineffectiveness of the Afghan police charged with patrolling Kandahar. Post correspondent Ernesto Londono reports that American MPs are getting frustrated with the Afghans they are supposed to be mentoring. In a nutshell, they don’t want to patrol, but they do want to take bribes. Such frustrations are nothing new, of course; they recall the difficulties in Iraq in improving police and army performance. That process is just starting in Afghanistan and needs time to mature.

But as the revolt in Daikundi reminds us, our best ally is the Taliban. Their very heavy-handedness and repression alienates the population. The key is to be able to take advantage of that alienation by helping the Afghan people to secure themselves — something that growing numbers of American troops should be able to help with, just as they did in Iraq.

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Extreme Opinions Regarding the Future of Our Military

Mark Helprin, meet John Arquilla. Helprin is a gifted novelist who, in his spare time, offers strategic commentary. Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term “net war” and has become an influential strategist. They have just published articles with diametrically opposing — and equally wrong-headed — messages.

Helprin in the Wall Street Journal bemoans our having “recalibrated the armed forces to deal with perhaps a division’s worth of fluid irregulars worldwide, thus granting China, Russia, and Iran military holidays in which to redirect the balance of power.” He thinks we are losing conventional-combat power and warns of dire consequences: “This year, the Air Force will keep 150 fighters in all of Europe, as at one time, while it declined but before it burned, Rome kept only a shadow of legions upon the Rhine and Danube.” Really? The U.S. will fall like the Roman Empire did because we don’t have enough fighter aircraft in Europe? Helprin thinks so, and demands that the F-22 production line be restarted, even though we have another ultra-modern aircraft, the F-35, in the pipeline. The large picture he misses is that we spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined; our edge can’t be taken for granted but it won’t disappear soon either.

Arquilla, by contrast, thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional. His preferred analogy is not to Rome but rather to World War I: “When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others.” Today, he argues in Foreign Policy, the U.S. Navy is spending too much on surface warfare ships “whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile”; the Army, on “a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead”; and the Air Force, on “extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years.”

His solution is a radical one: cut defense spending by 10 percent a year, declare “a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.),” and cut military manpower (more than 2 million serve today) by two thirds. “The model for military intervention,” he writes, “would be the 200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises.”

Give Arquilla props for “out of the box” thinking — as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The “Afghan model” he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troopers could help overthrow the Taliban but couldn’t keep them down. That requires dispatching lots of more troops, which is what President Obama is wisely doing today. Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk the “legacy weapons system,” which for years to come will give us an invaluable edge over potential adversaries. Helprin goes too far in the other direction, however, by focusing exclusively on the F-22 and its ilk while ignoring developments in robotics (more advanced unmanned aircraft) and the need for effective counterinsurgency forces.

As usual, between the two extremes they represent — extreme unconventionality and extreme conventionality — the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Mark Helprin, meet John Arquilla. Helprin is a gifted novelist who, in his spare time, offers strategic commentary. Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term “net war” and has become an influential strategist. They have just published articles with diametrically opposing — and equally wrong-headed — messages.

Helprin in the Wall Street Journal bemoans our having “recalibrated the armed forces to deal with perhaps a division’s worth of fluid irregulars worldwide, thus granting China, Russia, and Iran military holidays in which to redirect the balance of power.” He thinks we are losing conventional-combat power and warns of dire consequences: “This year, the Air Force will keep 150 fighters in all of Europe, as at one time, while it declined but before it burned, Rome kept only a shadow of legions upon the Rhine and Danube.” Really? The U.S. will fall like the Roman Empire did because we don’t have enough fighter aircraft in Europe? Helprin thinks so, and demands that the F-22 production line be restarted, even though we have another ultra-modern aircraft, the F-35, in the pipeline. The large picture he misses is that we spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined; our edge can’t be taken for granted but it won’t disappear soon either.

Arquilla, by contrast, thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional. His preferred analogy is not to Rome but rather to World War I: “When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others.” Today, he argues in Foreign Policy, the U.S. Navy is spending too much on surface warfare ships “whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile”; the Army, on “a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead”; and the Air Force, on “extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years.”

His solution is a radical one: cut defense spending by 10 percent a year, declare “a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.),” and cut military manpower (more than 2 million serve today) by two thirds. “The model for military intervention,” he writes, “would be the 200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises.”

Give Arquilla props for “out of the box” thinking — as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The “Afghan model” he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troopers could help overthrow the Taliban but couldn’t keep them down. That requires dispatching lots of more troops, which is what President Obama is wisely doing today. Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk the “legacy weapons system,” which for years to come will give us an invaluable edge over potential adversaries. Helprin goes too far in the other direction, however, by focusing exclusively on the F-22 and its ilk while ignoring developments in robotics (more advanced unmanned aircraft) and the need for effective counterinsurgency forces.

As usual, between the two extremes they represent — extreme unconventionality and extreme conventionality — the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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Hunting Heads

If Christmas Day airline bomber Umar Abdulmutallab had been identified by Special Forces in Yemen, rather than being detained in Detroit, he could well have been summarily killed in a drone strike instead of being read his rights. Such are the features of the Obama approach to the war on terror.

The AP has a story today outlining something that has been apparent for months: that President Obama is relying to a much greater degree than Bush did on standoff drone attacks against terrorists in Asia and the Middle East. The AP piece presents this as a fresh, successful strategy, one applauded by Pakistani officials and made possible by the drawdown in Iraq, which is freeing up drones and intelligence assets for use elsewhere. In the AP analysis, moreover, Obama’s choice to leave behind terms such as “radical Islam” and “Islamo-fascism” is amplifying his effectiveness by abetting a policy of reaching out to Islamic allies.

This is one way of looking at it – but it’s a narrative that omits important context. Obama’s strategy isn’t a matter of increasing our reliance on drone strikes while at the same time maintaining the politically comprehensive Bush approach to combating Islamist terrorism. It involves instead shifting our approach away from Bush’s indispensable political element – fostering liberalization, consensual government, and civil security in the Islamic world – toward an emphasis on simply killing individual terrorists. But Obama has also adopted this strategy in the context of a kid-gloves policy toward foreign terrorists who happen to fall, still alive, into the clutches of the U.S. justice system.

We might certainly call the latter factor an ethical paradox, or perhaps simply a double standard. In neither guise does the Obama policy come off as principled from any universalist ethical sense. A policy of what amounts to assassination overseas, coupled with legalist zealotry for the rights of the accused at home, can’t help looking like a cynical combination tinged with domestic-constituency tending and rank hypocrisy.

Terrible things are done in war, of course; and the terrorists being targeted in standoff attacks are known to be ringleaders, most with ghastly bombings on their rap sheets. But the “big picture” justification for this tactic, the mitigating strategic objective of promoting a “better peace” in the Islamic societies, is something Obama has been at pains to shed. This policy trend must at some point call into question the purpose of our campaign of force. I’ve written here and here about Obama’s turn away from the core Bush tenet of fighting terrorism by means of promoting civil outcomes abroad. Whether by excising the promotion of freedom and democracy from our national objectives, or by envisioning for Afghanistan a “less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence” than in Iraq, the Obama administration has backed off significantly from Bush’s policy of shaping conditions for the better overseas.

It bears repeating that Bush chose to go all-in on that policy – with the surge decision in late 2006 – because the lighter-footprint approach favored by Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t working. There is a real risk with the light-footprint strategy that using head-hunting tactics against terrorists will begin to look more and more like taking the worst kind of law-enforcement approach: one that dispenses with the inconvenient constraints of law. Indeed, a diligent UN official has already made this point about our drone strike campaign.

Minimizing our own “skin in the game” may seem like a prudent policy in the short run. But it will not be to our advantage over the long run if Afghans, Pakistanis, or Yemenis come to see us as having arrived not to foster a better future for them, but rather to use their territory as a sniper perch.

If Christmas Day airline bomber Umar Abdulmutallab had been identified by Special Forces in Yemen, rather than being detained in Detroit, he could well have been summarily killed in a drone strike instead of being read his rights. Such are the features of the Obama approach to the war on terror.

The AP has a story today outlining something that has been apparent for months: that President Obama is relying to a much greater degree than Bush did on standoff drone attacks against terrorists in Asia and the Middle East. The AP piece presents this as a fresh, successful strategy, one applauded by Pakistani officials and made possible by the drawdown in Iraq, which is freeing up drones and intelligence assets for use elsewhere. In the AP analysis, moreover, Obama’s choice to leave behind terms such as “radical Islam” and “Islamo-fascism” is amplifying his effectiveness by abetting a policy of reaching out to Islamic allies.

This is one way of looking at it – but it’s a narrative that omits important context. Obama’s strategy isn’t a matter of increasing our reliance on drone strikes while at the same time maintaining the politically comprehensive Bush approach to combating Islamist terrorism. It involves instead shifting our approach away from Bush’s indispensable political element – fostering liberalization, consensual government, and civil security in the Islamic world – toward an emphasis on simply killing individual terrorists. But Obama has also adopted this strategy in the context of a kid-gloves policy toward foreign terrorists who happen to fall, still alive, into the clutches of the U.S. justice system.

We might certainly call the latter factor an ethical paradox, or perhaps simply a double standard. In neither guise does the Obama policy come off as principled from any universalist ethical sense. A policy of what amounts to assassination overseas, coupled with legalist zealotry for the rights of the accused at home, can’t help looking like a cynical combination tinged with domestic-constituency tending and rank hypocrisy.

Terrible things are done in war, of course; and the terrorists being targeted in standoff attacks are known to be ringleaders, most with ghastly bombings on their rap sheets. But the “big picture” justification for this tactic, the mitigating strategic objective of promoting a “better peace” in the Islamic societies, is something Obama has been at pains to shed. This policy trend must at some point call into question the purpose of our campaign of force. I’ve written here and here about Obama’s turn away from the core Bush tenet of fighting terrorism by means of promoting civil outcomes abroad. Whether by excising the promotion of freedom and democracy from our national objectives, or by envisioning for Afghanistan a “less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence” than in Iraq, the Obama administration has backed off significantly from Bush’s policy of shaping conditions for the better overseas.

It bears repeating that Bush chose to go all-in on that policy – with the surge decision in late 2006 – because the lighter-footprint approach favored by Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t working. There is a real risk with the light-footprint strategy that using head-hunting tactics against terrorists will begin to look more and more like taking the worst kind of law-enforcement approach: one that dispenses with the inconvenient constraints of law. Indeed, a diligent UN official has already made this point about our drone strike campaign.

Minimizing our own “skin in the game” may seem like a prudent policy in the short run. But it will not be to our advantage over the long run if Afghans, Pakistanis, or Yemenis come to see us as having arrived not to foster a better future for them, but rather to use their territory as a sniper perch.

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? A Reasonable Compromise

I am hard-pressed to see why President Obama feels compelled to revisit the issue of gays in the military now. At the same time I am open to revising the policy — as are, I believe, many in service personnel, including some who supported the ban on gays when President Clinton first tried to lift it almost two decades ago. There are no good measurements of what service personnel are thinking but public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue. In 1993 only 43% favored lifting the ban on gays; now, according to Gallup, it’s 69% (including 58% of Republicans).

Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates are taking a reasonable step by announcing “that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties.” How much further the gay-rights policy should go is unclear. The key issue is not simply a matter of gay rights but also of military efficiency. To what extent would the good order of our armed services be upset by allowing gays to serve more openly than they currently do? In most situations I don’t believe doing so would be disruptive. It is certainly silly to be discharging Arabic linguists sitting in some Washington office just because they happen to be gay.

The vast majority of service personnel are stationed at giant bases, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Texas and North Carolina, where it is not hard to get privacy and where their jobs resemble those of civilian workers in many ways. Going to the bathroom involves, literally, a visit to the bathroom — not to a slit trench. Sexual issues are already raised on those bases by the presence of women. In fact the problem is more serious because women in heterosexual relationships have the potential to get pregnant — as some servicewomen do, thereby having to go home and creating a vacancy that has to be filled by someone else. There are also issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that need to be tightly policed — whether involving homosexuals or heterosexuals.

One of the adaptations the military has made is to allow women into most billets but not into tight-knit combat formations — nuclear submarine crews or infantry squads. They live in close quarters and often-unpleasant conditions where privacy is nonexistent and trust and esprit de corps are all-important. I remember discussing the issue last year with a Special Forces team deployed in the field and was struck by the unanimity of opinion against lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The special operators were horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale.

Special Forces is one of the areas in which women are still not allowed to serve even though most jobs in the military have been opened to them. Why not simply extend to gays the same policy applied to women? That is, let gays serve openly in most billets but not in a few combat designations. It seems like a reasonable compromise.

I am hard-pressed to see why President Obama feels compelled to revisit the issue of gays in the military now. At the same time I am open to revising the policy — as are, I believe, many in service personnel, including some who supported the ban on gays when President Clinton first tried to lift it almost two decades ago. There are no good measurements of what service personnel are thinking but public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue. In 1993 only 43% favored lifting the ban on gays; now, according to Gallup, it’s 69% (including 58% of Republicans).

Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates are taking a reasonable step by announcing “that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties.” How much further the gay-rights policy should go is unclear. The key issue is not simply a matter of gay rights but also of military efficiency. To what extent would the good order of our armed services be upset by allowing gays to serve more openly than they currently do? In most situations I don’t believe doing so would be disruptive. It is certainly silly to be discharging Arabic linguists sitting in some Washington office just because they happen to be gay.

The vast majority of service personnel are stationed at giant bases, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Texas and North Carolina, where it is not hard to get privacy and where their jobs resemble those of civilian workers in many ways. Going to the bathroom involves, literally, a visit to the bathroom — not to a slit trench. Sexual issues are already raised on those bases by the presence of women. In fact the problem is more serious because women in heterosexual relationships have the potential to get pregnant — as some servicewomen do, thereby having to go home and creating a vacancy that has to be filled by someone else. There are also issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that need to be tightly policed — whether involving homosexuals or heterosexuals.

One of the adaptations the military has made is to allow women into most billets but not into tight-knit combat formations — nuclear submarine crews or infantry squads. They live in close quarters and often-unpleasant conditions where privacy is nonexistent and trust and esprit de corps are all-important. I remember discussing the issue last year with a Special Forces team deployed in the field and was struck by the unanimity of opinion against lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The special operators were horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale.

Special Forces is one of the areas in which women are still not allowed to serve even though most jobs in the military have been opened to them. Why not simply extend to gays the same policy applied to women? That is, let gays serve openly in most billets but not in a few combat designations. It seems like a reasonable compromise.

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Yemen — the New “Good War”?

Yemen’s importance as a terrorist base appears to be growing. It is the place where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Nigerian airline bomber) was radicalized and where Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s spiritual guide, Anwar al-’Awlaki, lives. This chilling warning reads entirely plausible: “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, told FBI agents there were more just like him in Yemen who would strike soon.”

No doubt this will cause the usual chorus to chant that Afghanistan is the “wrong war” (remember when Iraq was the “wrong war” and Afghanistan was the “right one”?) and that we should really be focused on Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia–all those countries where we don’t currently have ground troops. This critique has a certain plausibility but it is not clear what its implications are. Those who make these arguments are not advocating that we invade Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia. So what, precisely, do they want us to do? Pretty much what we’re already doing: providing aid to the governments in question in fighting the jihadists while also conducting a few covert strikes of our own.

The question is whether drawing down in Afghanistan would make it easier or harder to prosecute the war on terrorism on other fronts. On the plus side, there is no denying that certain ISR assets (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) are tied up in Afghanistan (and Iraq) that could be useful elsewhere–although there are sharp limitations to how much intelligence gathering we can do over the sovereign territory of other states. But this marginal advantage is more than counterbalanced by the larger consequences of defeat in Afghanistan, which would have devastating implications not only for the poor people of Afghanistan but also for the wide struggle against violent extremism.

Having (in their own minds at least) already defeated one superpower in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and his confederates would be immeasurably boosted if they were able to claim that they had then defeated the sole remaining superpower too. Such a victory for the jihadists would undoubtedly help recruiting all over the world and make states like Pakistan and Yemen even less likely to cooperate with the United States because they would be in mortal fear of al Qaeda and other radical jihadists. A defeat for the Taliban in Afghanistan would by no means make the wider terrorist threat disappear but it would certainly decrease its magnitude. Assuming that the Karzai government can stabilize its control over Afghanistan, this will deny the terrorists a huge staging ground for attacks elsewhere. In the process of defeating the terrorists, we will also wind up killing or incarcerating a lot of them. It’s true that terrorists are replaceable, but still it will be a setback for them to lose so many hardened operatives–and not only in Afghanistan. One of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan. If we scuttle out of Afghanistan, it is doubtful that the government of Pakistan will extend the same kind of anti-terrorist cooperation we receive today.

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.

Yemen’s importance as a terrorist base appears to be growing. It is the place where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Nigerian airline bomber) was radicalized and where Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s spiritual guide, Anwar al-’Awlaki, lives. This chilling warning reads entirely plausible: “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, told FBI agents there were more just like him in Yemen who would strike soon.”

No doubt this will cause the usual chorus to chant that Afghanistan is the “wrong war” (remember when Iraq was the “wrong war” and Afghanistan was the “right one”?) and that we should really be focused on Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia–all those countries where we don’t currently have ground troops. This critique has a certain plausibility but it is not clear what its implications are. Those who make these arguments are not advocating that we invade Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia. So what, precisely, do they want us to do? Pretty much what we’re already doing: providing aid to the governments in question in fighting the jihadists while also conducting a few covert strikes of our own.

The question is whether drawing down in Afghanistan would make it easier or harder to prosecute the war on terrorism on other fronts. On the plus side, there is no denying that certain ISR assets (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) are tied up in Afghanistan (and Iraq) that could be useful elsewhere–although there are sharp limitations to how much intelligence gathering we can do over the sovereign territory of other states. But this marginal advantage is more than counterbalanced by the larger consequences of defeat in Afghanistan, which would have devastating implications not only for the poor people of Afghanistan but also for the wide struggle against violent extremism.

Having (in their own minds at least) already defeated one superpower in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and his confederates would be immeasurably boosted if they were able to claim that they had then defeated the sole remaining superpower too. Such a victory for the jihadists would undoubtedly help recruiting all over the world and make states like Pakistan and Yemen even less likely to cooperate with the United States because they would be in mortal fear of al Qaeda and other radical jihadists. A defeat for the Taliban in Afghanistan would by no means make the wider terrorist threat disappear but it would certainly decrease its magnitude. Assuming that the Karzai government can stabilize its control over Afghanistan, this will deny the terrorists a huge staging ground for attacks elsewhere. In the process of defeating the terrorists, we will also wind up killing or incarcerating a lot of them. It’s true that terrorists are replaceable, but still it will be a setback for them to lose so many hardened operatives–and not only in Afghanistan. One of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan. If we scuttle out of Afghanistan, it is doubtful that the government of Pakistan will extend the same kind of anti-terrorist cooperation we receive today.

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.

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Needed: Wartime Commander in Chief

If nothing else, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should remind us that the “war on terror” (oh, that now banished phrase!) was not dreamed up by some neocon conspiracy bent on curtailing Americans’ civil liberties and on colonizing poor defenseless countries. It is nothing but a simple, accurate description of the threat we face from Islamist extremists bent on mass murder to advance their deranged worldview.

It is not only luck that has kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11, aside from a few random nuts like the Beltway sniper (John Allen Muhammad) and the Fort Hood shooter (Major Malik Nadal Hasan). There has been no lack of larger plots against American targets here and abroad. A few, such as the attempted bombings by Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, have been foiled by a combination of bad planning on the part of the terrorists and active resistance by airline passengers. Many more plots, such as the attempt to blow up airliners flying across the Atlantic by using liquid explosives, have been defeated by active intelligence and law enforcement work. A vital contribution to that work has been made by the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 changes, which have made it easier to wiretap suspects, share intelligence, and (don’t forget) aggressively interrogate captured terrorists and keep them in custody even if they cannot be convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt in a civil court.

Unfortunately all too many people have drawn the wrong lesson from these post-9/11 successes, concluding that we are so safe that we can go back to the pre-9/11 status quo, back when we treated terrorism as a law-enforcement problem and nothing more. This has become the conventional wisdom of the mainstream, left-wing of the Democratic Party and a tiny, right-wing fringe of the Republican Party (Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan), which see the U.S. government as the biggest threat we face—not al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.

It would be unfair to say that President Obama has bought into this worldview. To his credit, he has continued an active program of using drones and Special Forces to assassinate terrorist kingpins from Pakistan to Somalia; has ramped up our military efforts in Afghanistan; and has continued an active program of intelligence and military cooperation designed to allow states such as Yemen and the Philippines to fight their own wars on terror. Moreover, he has signed off on wider wiretapping and intelligence-gathering authority than the ACLU is comfortable with. But there are certainly some worrisome trends evident from this administration, which insists on trying Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court, which has banned the use of all stress techniques in interrogation, and which continues releasing detainees from Guantanamo, many of whom go right back to the sorts of activities that got them interred in the first place. And let us not forget the president’s unwillingness to get tough with Iran, whose nuclear-weapons program could before long radically increase the chances of our allies’ suffering a nuclear terrorist attack.

Obama has actually been a little tougher on terrorism (and Iraq and Afghanistan) than his record as an ultra-liberal senator would have led us to expect; certainly a lot tougher than Michael Moore or his ilk would like him to be. But not perhaps as tough as the situation demands. If there is any good that comes out of the attempted bombing of the Detroit flight, or the Iranians’ rejections of his naive overtures, it is that he may finally shed some of his remaining illusions about the world and start acting more as a wartime commander in chief should.

If nothing else, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should remind us that the “war on terror” (oh, that now banished phrase!) was not dreamed up by some neocon conspiracy bent on curtailing Americans’ civil liberties and on colonizing poor defenseless countries. It is nothing but a simple, accurate description of the threat we face from Islamist extremists bent on mass murder to advance their deranged worldview.

It is not only luck that has kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11, aside from a few random nuts like the Beltway sniper (John Allen Muhammad) and the Fort Hood shooter (Major Malik Nadal Hasan). There has been no lack of larger plots against American targets here and abroad. A few, such as the attempted bombings by Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, have been foiled by a combination of bad planning on the part of the terrorists and active resistance by airline passengers. Many more plots, such as the attempt to blow up airliners flying across the Atlantic by using liquid explosives, have been defeated by active intelligence and law enforcement work. A vital contribution to that work has been made by the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 changes, which have made it easier to wiretap suspects, share intelligence, and (don’t forget) aggressively interrogate captured terrorists and keep them in custody even if they cannot be convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt in a civil court.

Unfortunately all too many people have drawn the wrong lesson from these post-9/11 successes, concluding that we are so safe that we can go back to the pre-9/11 status quo, back when we treated terrorism as a law-enforcement problem and nothing more. This has become the conventional wisdom of the mainstream, left-wing of the Democratic Party and a tiny, right-wing fringe of the Republican Party (Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan), which see the U.S. government as the biggest threat we face—not al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.

It would be unfair to say that President Obama has bought into this worldview. To his credit, he has continued an active program of using drones and Special Forces to assassinate terrorist kingpins from Pakistan to Somalia; has ramped up our military efforts in Afghanistan; and has continued an active program of intelligence and military cooperation designed to allow states such as Yemen and the Philippines to fight their own wars on terror. Moreover, he has signed off on wider wiretapping and intelligence-gathering authority than the ACLU is comfortable with. But there are certainly some worrisome trends evident from this administration, which insists on trying Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court, which has banned the use of all stress techniques in interrogation, and which continues releasing detainees from Guantanamo, many of whom go right back to the sorts of activities that got them interred in the first place. And let us not forget the president’s unwillingness to get tough with Iran, whose nuclear-weapons program could before long radically increase the chances of our allies’ suffering a nuclear terrorist attack.

Obama has actually been a little tougher on terrorism (and Iraq and Afghanistan) than his record as an ultra-liberal senator would have led us to expect; certainly a lot tougher than Michael Moore or his ilk would like him to be. But not perhaps as tough as the situation demands. If there is any good that comes out of the attempted bombing of the Detroit flight, or the Iranians’ rejections of his naive overtures, it is that he may finally shed some of his remaining illusions about the world and start acting more as a wartime commander in chief should.

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They Have to Win Anyway

Writing before Tuesday’s speech Rich Lowry observed:

In Obama’s long review, the fanciful suppositions of the war’s skeptics were systematically knocked down: No, the war couldn’t be waged from afar with drones and Special Forces; no, the Taliban couldn’t be considered a relatively harmless force; no, Afghanistan couldn’t slide into chaos without further destabilizing Pakistan.

The professionals, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Admiral Mullen, all lined up in favor of some form of the surge. Obama was left without any plausible reason to heed his deepest instincts.

Consequently, he finds himself in rough alignment with all the same hated people who conceived, executed, and supported the Iraq surge, and against the people who opposed it — and elected him.

And so we are embarked on a surge with a reluctant and obviously conflicted commander in chief. The essential policy, with a bit of unnecessary chiseling on the number of troops, is not far off the mark. But part of war strategy is stagecraft and convincing the enemies that they are on the losing side of history. Would the sheiks in Anbar have risked plenty for a “surge… but…” strategy in Iraq? Would al Qaeda’s recruits have dried up there had George W. Bush announced a commencement date for withdrawal in January 2007? We don’t know, and Bush declined to make his own job more difficult by fuzzing up his message. Obama couldn’t resist the urge to do just that.

We may prevail despite the president’s inner turmoil and half-hearted rhetoric. We may win despite the doubts he sowed about our willingness to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to prevail. All Americans should pray that we will, for the president got one thing right:

The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

In other words, it is not a fight amenable to off ramps and limited patience. It’s not going to be won trying to mollify the netroots because in doing so we would project equivocation and irresoluteness. Our military is the finest in the world, and given the resources and direction to accomplish a mission, there is a very good chance we will prevail. But our troops should have a commander in chief who makes their task easier and helps them in the task of undermining and intimidating the enemy. They don’t but will have to win anyway.

Writing before Tuesday’s speech Rich Lowry observed:

In Obama’s long review, the fanciful suppositions of the war’s skeptics were systematically knocked down: No, the war couldn’t be waged from afar with drones and Special Forces; no, the Taliban couldn’t be considered a relatively harmless force; no, Afghanistan couldn’t slide into chaos without further destabilizing Pakistan.

The professionals, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Admiral Mullen, all lined up in favor of some form of the surge. Obama was left without any plausible reason to heed his deepest instincts.

Consequently, he finds himself in rough alignment with all the same hated people who conceived, executed, and supported the Iraq surge, and against the people who opposed it — and elected him.

And so we are embarked on a surge with a reluctant and obviously conflicted commander in chief. The essential policy, with a bit of unnecessary chiseling on the number of troops, is not far off the mark. But part of war strategy is stagecraft and convincing the enemies that they are on the losing side of history. Would the sheiks in Anbar have risked plenty for a “surge… but…” strategy in Iraq? Would al Qaeda’s recruits have dried up there had George W. Bush announced a commencement date for withdrawal in January 2007? We don’t know, and Bush declined to make his own job more difficult by fuzzing up his message. Obama couldn’t resist the urge to do just that.

We may prevail despite the president’s inner turmoil and half-hearted rhetoric. We may win despite the doubts he sowed about our willingness to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to prevail. All Americans should pray that we will, for the president got one thing right:

The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

In other words, it is not a fight amenable to off ramps and limited patience. It’s not going to be won trying to mollify the netroots because in doing so we would project equivocation and irresoluteness. Our military is the finest in the world, and given the resources and direction to accomplish a mission, there is a very good chance we will prevail. But our troops should have a commander in chief who makes their task easier and helps them in the task of undermining and intimidating the enemy. They don’t but will have to win anyway.

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One Word from Obama Can Rejuvenate Troop Morale — “Victory”

I recently chatted with some U.S. Army Special Forces troops who had served last year in Afghanistan. Green Berets are usually gung-ho, but these guys seemed a bit worn down and pessimistic about the situation. They complained that Afghan troops aren’t willing to back them up in the hardest fights and praised instead the militiamen they hire to guard their own compounds — part of the tribal forces that the Special Forces (and CIA) have been using for years. Above all they talked of how little they could do in the vast landscape of Afghanistan. Special Forces deploy in 12-man A Teams, and when they were in Afghanistan, often they had little or no backup from other coalition forces. The “snake eaters” are super soldiers, but there is only so much that a dozen of them can do in such a hostile and punishing environment.

Listening to their conversation took me back to similar conversations I had with other U.S. troops about Iraq. From 2003 to 2007 I heard troops who were increasingly dispirited by the daunting challenge of trying to pacify Iraq without a good strategy or enough troops. All that changed in 2007, when the surge gave a newfound sense of purpose to the men and women on the ground while also convincing the Iraqis that the U.S. was out to win the war. That boost to morale was an important component of the surge’s success, and it is something that President Obama should keep in mind as he gets ready to announce his policy on Afghanistan.

If he sends substantially fewer troops than Gen. McChrystal wants, he risks perpetuating the sense of malaise reflected by these Green Berets, who knew that they were essentially fighting a holding action without the capacity to achieve decisive results. Obama had better use his televised talk to the nation not only to announce a robust reinforcement package but also to make clear that he expects the troops to defeat the Taliban — not to prepare the way for a rapid “exit strategy.” No one wants to risk his or her life to secure a more expeditious withdrawal. If we’re going to commit more troops — and we should — the only proper objective is victory. That is a word that has been missing so far from Obama’s vocabulary. I hope it is not MIA on Tuesday night.

I recently chatted with some U.S. Army Special Forces troops who had served last year in Afghanistan. Green Berets are usually gung-ho, but these guys seemed a bit worn down and pessimistic about the situation. They complained that Afghan troops aren’t willing to back them up in the hardest fights and praised instead the militiamen they hire to guard their own compounds — part of the tribal forces that the Special Forces (and CIA) have been using for years. Above all they talked of how little they could do in the vast landscape of Afghanistan. Special Forces deploy in 12-man A Teams, and when they were in Afghanistan, often they had little or no backup from other coalition forces. The “snake eaters” are super soldiers, but there is only so much that a dozen of them can do in such a hostile and punishing environment.

Listening to their conversation took me back to similar conversations I had with other U.S. troops about Iraq. From 2003 to 2007 I heard troops who were increasingly dispirited by the daunting challenge of trying to pacify Iraq without a good strategy or enough troops. All that changed in 2007, when the surge gave a newfound sense of purpose to the men and women on the ground while also convincing the Iraqis that the U.S. was out to win the war. That boost to morale was an important component of the surge’s success, and it is something that President Obama should keep in mind as he gets ready to announce his policy on Afghanistan.

If he sends substantially fewer troops than Gen. McChrystal wants, he risks perpetuating the sense of malaise reflected by these Green Berets, who knew that they were essentially fighting a holding action without the capacity to achieve decisive results. Obama had better use his televised talk to the nation not only to announce a robust reinforcement package but also to make clear that he expects the troops to defeat the Taliban — not to prepare the way for a rapid “exit strategy.” No one wants to risk his or her life to secure a more expeditious withdrawal. If we’re going to commit more troops — and we should — the only proper objective is victory. That is a word that has been missing so far from Obama’s vocabulary. I hope it is not MIA on Tuesday night.

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Proper Promotions

An unusual amount of interest has attended the army’s latest promotion list to brigadier general because of a perception that, up until recently, the army was still operating a peacetime personnel system even in wartime. There seemed to be little correlation between battlefield success in Iraq or Afghanistan and the promotion process. Some outstanding officers, such as Colonels H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor, had been passed over by previous boards even though they were integral to the greater success we’ve been having in Iraq. (Mansoor got tired of the whole process and decided to accept a tenured professor’s job teaching military history at Ohio State–a great consolation prize.)

But now, reports the Washington Post, McMaster and some other battle-tested leaders–including Colonel Sean McFarland, who engineered the amazing turnaround in Ramadi, and Colonel Ken Tovo, who has distinguished himself over multiple tours as a Special Forces officer in Iraq–will get overdue promotions to brigadier general. These promotions–if in fact they actually occur; the Army has said nothing publicly yet–will be the result of an unusual decision by the Army chief of staff George Casey and Army Secretary Peter Geren to ask David Petraeus to take a brief break from his duties in Iraq to chair the promotion board. Other officers with considerable Iraq experience on the board included Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, who has headed the Joint Special Operations Command (home of our Tier 1 commandos), and Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served two tours in Iraq.

The (rumored) decisions of this promotion board mean that some of the army’s great innovators in counterinsurgency are being put into influential positions where they will be able to shape the future course of the armed forces. That’s good news not only for these officers and their families, but also for everyone who worries about whether our military can adapt to the challenges ahead.

An unusual amount of interest has attended the army’s latest promotion list to brigadier general because of a perception that, up until recently, the army was still operating a peacetime personnel system even in wartime. There seemed to be little correlation between battlefield success in Iraq or Afghanistan and the promotion process. Some outstanding officers, such as Colonels H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor, had been passed over by previous boards even though they were integral to the greater success we’ve been having in Iraq. (Mansoor got tired of the whole process and decided to accept a tenured professor’s job teaching military history at Ohio State–a great consolation prize.)

But now, reports the Washington Post, McMaster and some other battle-tested leaders–including Colonel Sean McFarland, who engineered the amazing turnaround in Ramadi, and Colonel Ken Tovo, who has distinguished himself over multiple tours as a Special Forces officer in Iraq–will get overdue promotions to brigadier general. These promotions–if in fact they actually occur; the Army has said nothing publicly yet–will be the result of an unusual decision by the Army chief of staff George Casey and Army Secretary Peter Geren to ask David Petraeus to take a brief break from his duties in Iraq to chair the promotion board. Other officers with considerable Iraq experience on the board included Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, who has headed the Joint Special Operations Command (home of our Tier 1 commandos), and Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served two tours in Iraq.

The (rumored) decisions of this promotion board mean that some of the army’s great innovators in counterinsurgency are being put into influential positions where they will be able to shape the future course of the armed forces. That’s good news not only for these officers and their families, but also for everyone who worries about whether our military can adapt to the challenges ahead.

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Bring Back the OSS?

We’ve frequently criticized the performance of the intelligence community in this space. Criticism is easy, especially when things as bad they are. But criticism of something so vital to our security can only take one so far. At some point, one has to turn and look for solutions. That’s where I run into trouble.

When thinking about institutions so complicated, so secretive, so self-protective, so entangled with Congress, so impervious to genuine reform, it becomes difficult to conceive of a plan that would be radical enough and also politically feasible.

Presumably, one approach would be build some new and highly functional institutions from scratch to accomplish narrowly tailored purposes — like fighting terrorists.

My friend Max Boot has been giving the matter some serious thought and that is the direction he has proposed.  In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he presented the bold idea of resurrecting the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)  “that was created in 1942 to gather and analyze intelligence as well as to conduct low-intensity warfare behind enemy lines in occupied Europe and Asia.”

OSS was disbanded after World War II; both the Green Berets and the CIA trace their lineage to this august ancestor. My proposal is to re-create OSS by bringing together under one roof not only Army Special Forces, civil-affairs, and psy-ops but also the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division, which has always been a bit of a bureaucratic orphan at Langley (and which is staffed largely by Special Operations veterans). This could be a joint civil-military agency under the combined oversight of the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, like the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency. It would bring together in one place all of the key skill sets needed to wage the softer side of the war on terror. Like SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], it would have access to military personnel and assets; but like the CIA’s Special Activities Division, its operations would contain a higher degree of “covertness,” flexibility, and “deniability” than those carried out by the uniformed military.

Max is not only a super-smart guy, he’s also an influential one: lately, he’s been whispering into the ear of one of the candidates for the presidency of the United States.

This if from a speech by that candidate:

I would also set up a new civil-military agency patterned after the Office of Strategic Services in World War II. A modern-day OSS could draw together unconventional warfare, civil-affairs, paramilitary and psychological-warfare specialists from the military together with covert-action operators from our intelligence agencies and experts in anthropology, advertising, foreign cultures, and numerous other disciplines from inside and outside government. In the spirit of the original OSS, this would be a small, nimble, can-do organization that would fight terrorist subversion across the world and in cyberspace. It could take risks that our bureaucracies today are afraid to take – risks such as infiltrating agents who lack diplomatic cover into terrorist organizations. It could even lead in the front-line efforts to rebuild failed states. A cadre of such undercover operatives would allow us to gain the intelligence on terrorist activities that we don’t get today from our high-tech surveillance systems and from a CIA clandestine service that works almost entirely out of our embassies abroad.

Does this sound familiar?

The question of the day is: which candidate has embraced Max Boot’s proposal: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain?

The second question of the day: will meaningful intelligence reform ever come about or will it take a second September 11 to get rid of the clowns?

We’ve frequently criticized the performance of the intelligence community in this space. Criticism is easy, especially when things as bad they are. But criticism of something so vital to our security can only take one so far. At some point, one has to turn and look for solutions. That’s where I run into trouble.

When thinking about institutions so complicated, so secretive, so self-protective, so entangled with Congress, so impervious to genuine reform, it becomes difficult to conceive of a plan that would be radical enough and also politically feasible.

Presumably, one approach would be build some new and highly functional institutions from scratch to accomplish narrowly tailored purposes — like fighting terrorists.

My friend Max Boot has been giving the matter some serious thought and that is the direction he has proposed.  In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he presented the bold idea of resurrecting the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)  “that was created in 1942 to gather and analyze intelligence as well as to conduct low-intensity warfare behind enemy lines in occupied Europe and Asia.”

OSS was disbanded after World War II; both the Green Berets and the CIA trace their lineage to this august ancestor. My proposal is to re-create OSS by bringing together under one roof not only Army Special Forces, civil-affairs, and psy-ops but also the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division, which has always been a bit of a bureaucratic orphan at Langley (and which is staffed largely by Special Operations veterans). This could be a joint civil-military agency under the combined oversight of the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, like the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency. It would bring together in one place all of the key skill sets needed to wage the softer side of the war on terror. Like SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], it would have access to military personnel and assets; but like the CIA’s Special Activities Division, its operations would contain a higher degree of “covertness,” flexibility, and “deniability” than those carried out by the uniformed military.

Max is not only a super-smart guy, he’s also an influential one: lately, he’s been whispering into the ear of one of the candidates for the presidency of the United States.

This if from a speech by that candidate:

I would also set up a new civil-military agency patterned after the Office of Strategic Services in World War II. A modern-day OSS could draw together unconventional warfare, civil-affairs, paramilitary and psychological-warfare specialists from the military together with covert-action operators from our intelligence agencies and experts in anthropology, advertising, foreign cultures, and numerous other disciplines from inside and outside government. In the spirit of the original OSS, this would be a small, nimble, can-do organization that would fight terrorist subversion across the world and in cyberspace. It could take risks that our bureaucracies today are afraid to take – risks such as infiltrating agents who lack diplomatic cover into terrorist organizations. It could even lead in the front-line efforts to rebuild failed states. A cadre of such undercover operatives would allow us to gain the intelligence on terrorist activities that we don’t get today from our high-tech surveillance systems and from a CIA clandestine service that works almost entirely out of our embassies abroad.

Does this sound familiar?

The question of the day is: which candidate has embraced Max Boot’s proposal: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain?

The second question of the day: will meaningful intelligence reform ever come about or will it take a second September 11 to get rid of the clowns?

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I . . . Agree with Michael Scheuer

Gabriel Schoenfeld has done a masterly job of dissecting the bizarre world view of retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer. But today Scheuer has actually written an article that I for the most part agree with. It’s called “Break Out the Shock and Awe,” and in it he cautions against the notion that “the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.” Only conventional forces, he argues, can deliver a lasting victory.

The reality is a little more complex. When they have skilled allied forces to fight alongside, American special operators can in fact deliver outsize results. That’s what happened in El Salvador in the 1980′s, when 55 Special Forces trainers helped defeat a communist insurgency. But in the absence of large, competent, conventional forces-and they have been notably lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq during most of the time we have fought there-special operators cannot magically defeat our enemies.

But even when delivering generally sound analysis, Scheuer goes astray. He writes:

Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant — books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Dwight Eisenhower — will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.

I cannot speak for everyone at The Weekly Standard, COMMENTARY, or National Review, but off the top of my head (and speaking as the author of a book that is on the reading lists of both the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations) I am hard put to think of any contributors to those publications who in fact “preach such nonsense as gospel.” Quite the reverse. Those publications have been supporting a surge of troops in Iraq precisely on the theory that special operators can’t do it alone.

Along with many of my “brethren” such as Fred Kagan, I have repeatedly warned against the special operations fallacy. For instance, in my Commentary article “How Not to Get Out of Iraq,” I wrote

If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.

The major proponents of a commando-centric approach to fighting terrorists are not, in fact, to be found on the Right, especially now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer at the Pentagon. They are primarily Democrats.  Some advocate this approach out of sheer ignorance; others do so out of political expediency.  All want to convince themselves that we can pull most of our troops out of Iraq and still keep Al Qaeda at bay. Scheuer would be well advised to aim his rhetorical fire a bit more carefully.

Gabriel Schoenfeld has done a masterly job of dissecting the bizarre world view of retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer. But today Scheuer has actually written an article that I for the most part agree with. It’s called “Break Out the Shock and Awe,” and in it he cautions against the notion that “the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.” Only conventional forces, he argues, can deliver a lasting victory.

The reality is a little more complex. When they have skilled allied forces to fight alongside, American special operators can in fact deliver outsize results. That’s what happened in El Salvador in the 1980′s, when 55 Special Forces trainers helped defeat a communist insurgency. But in the absence of large, competent, conventional forces-and they have been notably lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq during most of the time we have fought there-special operators cannot magically defeat our enemies.

But even when delivering generally sound analysis, Scheuer goes astray. He writes:

Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant — books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Dwight Eisenhower — will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.

I cannot speak for everyone at The Weekly Standard, COMMENTARY, or National Review, but off the top of my head (and speaking as the author of a book that is on the reading lists of both the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations) I am hard put to think of any contributors to those publications who in fact “preach such nonsense as gospel.” Quite the reverse. Those publications have been supporting a surge of troops in Iraq precisely on the theory that special operators can’t do it alone.

Along with many of my “brethren” such as Fred Kagan, I have repeatedly warned against the special operations fallacy. For instance, in my Commentary article “How Not to Get Out of Iraq,” I wrote

If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.

The major proponents of a commando-centric approach to fighting terrorists are not, in fact, to be found on the Right, especially now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer at the Pentagon. They are primarily Democrats.  Some advocate this approach out of sheer ignorance; others do so out of political expediency.  All want to convince themselves that we can pull most of our troops out of Iraq and still keep Al Qaeda at bay. Scheuer would be well advised to aim his rhetorical fire a bit more carefully.

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More on Mercenaries

Since I have been defending, in recent days, the general idea of using mercenaries—even while calling for greater oversight of what they are actually doing in Iraq—I have often heard from skeptics that it is somehow “un-American” to rely on hired hands to do your fighting. Often cited is the fact that Americans have long hated the Hessians (actually, they came from all over Germany, not just from Hesse-Kassel) hired by the British to fight the American rebellion that began in 1776.

Well, of course, any nation will hate foreign troops who fight particularly hard and even viciously, as the “Hessians” did. But that’s hardly an argument against employing them. Quite the contrary. In fact, the U.S. has a long tradition of celebrated mercenaries. Here is a partial list:

• The privateers who harassed British shipping during both the War of Independence and the War of 1812.

• John Paul Jones, who, after the American Revolution, was an admiral in the Russian navy.

• The Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, two of the most celebrated foreigners who helped the Continental Army fight for independence.

• The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which provided intelligence for the Union, and personal protection for President Lincoln, during the Civil War.

• Various Native American allies, who provided invaluable help in battles ranging from Jamestown to Wounded Knee.

• The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of the French air force composed of Americans in World War I.

• Douglas MacArthur, who in the 1930′s, after stepping down as Army chief of staff, became a field marshal in the Philippines armed forces.

• The Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots led by Claire Chennault, who flew on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek in World War II.

• The Eagle Squadron, a unit of the Royal Air Force composed of American pilots in World War II.

• The Montagnards, the tribesmen who were recruited and organized into an armed force by the CIA and Army Special Forces to fight the Communists during the Vietnam War.

Mercenaries all, and yet they are all heroes of American history. Why is it impossible to imagine that mercenaries today could be equally useful, and sometimes even heroic?

 

Since I have been defending, in recent days, the general idea of using mercenaries—even while calling for greater oversight of what they are actually doing in Iraq—I have often heard from skeptics that it is somehow “un-American” to rely on hired hands to do your fighting. Often cited is the fact that Americans have long hated the Hessians (actually, they came from all over Germany, not just from Hesse-Kassel) hired by the British to fight the American rebellion that began in 1776.

Well, of course, any nation will hate foreign troops who fight particularly hard and even viciously, as the “Hessians” did. But that’s hardly an argument against employing them. Quite the contrary. In fact, the U.S. has a long tradition of celebrated mercenaries. Here is a partial list:

• The privateers who harassed British shipping during both the War of Independence and the War of 1812.

• John Paul Jones, who, after the American Revolution, was an admiral in the Russian navy.

• The Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, two of the most celebrated foreigners who helped the Continental Army fight for independence.

• The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which provided intelligence for the Union, and personal protection for President Lincoln, during the Civil War.

• Various Native American allies, who provided invaluable help in battles ranging from Jamestown to Wounded Knee.

• The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of the French air force composed of Americans in World War I.

• Douglas MacArthur, who in the 1930′s, after stepping down as Army chief of staff, became a field marshal in the Philippines armed forces.

• The Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots led by Claire Chennault, who flew on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek in World War II.

• The Eagle Squadron, a unit of the Royal Air Force composed of American pilots in World War II.

• The Montagnards, the tribesmen who were recruited and organized into an armed force by the CIA and Army Special Forces to fight the Communists during the Vietnam War.

Mercenaries all, and yet they are all heroes of American history. Why is it impossible to imagine that mercenaries today could be equally useful, and sometimes even heroic?

 

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Rejecting Nagl

I’ve blogged before about Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea to create an Advisor Corps within the army that would focus on producing training teams to work with foreign militaries.

I thought Nagl made a convincing case for such an unorthodox approach, and he certainly knows what he is talking about: He is in charge of a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains advisors for Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has concluded, based on that experience, that the current training and manning system for advisory teams is too haphazard and too small to meet all of our national security needs.

Not surprisingly, the army doesn’t see it that way. The newsletter Inside the Pentagon reported on September 13th that the army has officially decided, in the words of a public affairs officer, “that is not the way to go.” The army would prefer building cookie-cutter Brigade Combat Teams and relying on a small number of Special Forces to specialize in the training mission. This decision comes, by the way, in the face of copious evidence that there are not nearly enough Green Berets to meet all the demands thrown their way.

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I’ve blogged before about Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s idea to create an Advisor Corps within the army that would focus on producing training teams to work with foreign militaries.

I thought Nagl made a convincing case for such an unorthodox approach, and he certainly knows what he is talking about: He is in charge of a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains advisors for Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has concluded, based on that experience, that the current training and manning system for advisory teams is too haphazard and too small to meet all of our national security needs.

Not surprisingly, the army doesn’t see it that way. The newsletter Inside the Pentagon reported on September 13th that the army has officially decided, in the words of a public affairs officer, “that is not the way to go.” The army would prefer building cookie-cutter Brigade Combat Teams and relying on a small number of Special Forces to specialize in the training mission. This decision comes, by the way, in the face of copious evidence that there are not nearly enough Green Berets to meet all the demands thrown their way.

There are certainly good arguments that can be made against Nagl’s proposal. But my suspicion is that the army’s view is simply the default position of a lumbering bureaucracy averse to new thinking—even when it comes from within its own ranks. (Perhaps especially when it comes from within its own ranks.)

The larger problem here is the difficulty that the armed services have in assimilating and rewarding brainy officers like Nagl (author of a much-cited book on counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam) who don’t fit the standard mold. Others in that category include a pair of Ph.D. colonels—H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor—who have both earned stellar reputations not only in the academy, but also on the battlefield. But they are both in danger of not being promoted to general. Mavericks like them deserve support from the outside—especially on Capitol Hill—to help transform the military in spite of itself.

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Correcting the GAO

The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

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The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

Max,

We disagree with the methodology the GAO uses to calculate its statistics, and we told them so during their short visit here last month. As you note, the GAO statistics differ considerably from the data we have for the same periods.

The statistics we use come from MNF-I [Multi-National Forces Iraq] databases which are a carefully managed collection of both Iraqi and Coalition reports. We strive to be rigorous in our data collection and checking, so much so that the analysts from CIA and DIA who worked on the National Intelligence Estimate, after spending three days poring over our methodology and data, announced that MNF-I numbers are the most accurate and would be used for the August 2007 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iraq. We do use Iraqi data that is verified by our forces. And we also continue to update/reverify data after the receipt of “first reports” (which are, as you know, generally wrong) and subsequent reports. The death toll in the recent truck bombings against the Yezidi villages in northwest Iraq, for example, when verified by our Special Forces teams after the dust literally settled, was a good bit lower than original accounts reported, and we thus adjusted that report downward. Sometimes, as in many Baghdad bombings, the first reports are low and we adjust the numbers upward in subsequent days. Some statistics we are tracking follow:

-Throughout all of Iraq, since the height of the ethno-sectarian violence in December 2006 until the end of August 2007, the overall number of civilian casualties (killed and wounded) has dropped 71 percent. Just counting civilian deaths, by any means, the numbers are even more dramatic, with a 74 percent drop since December 2006.

-Ethno-sectarian deaths (e.g., AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] bombing Kurds or Shi’a Arabs or Turkmen or Yezidis, etc., or JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada al-Sadr] killing of Sunnis, etc.) in all of Iraq are down to less than one half of levels at the height of the violence last December.

-Attacks of any type in Anbar Province have gone from a high in October 2006 of more than 1350 per month to fewer than 250 per month now.

-The number of ammunition and explosive caches found has risen from a total of 2726 in 2006 to over 4350 this year (through the end of August).

-Overall incidents of violence against any target (ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], CF [Coalition Forces], civilian) in Iraq are down from a high of 1700 per week when we started the surge of operations in mid-June 2007 to fewer than 960 per week now. Overall incidents have declined in eight of the past eleven weeks. Last week’s number of incidents was the lowest in over a year.

-High profile attacks (car bomb, suicide car bomb, and suicide vest attacks) nationwide are down from a high in March 2007 of more than 170 per month to 88 in August.

-Since the intent of the surge was to secure Baghdad, which is the political heart of Iraq, here are some statistics focused on the ten security districts that comprise Baghdad from December 2006 to the end of August 2007:

-Car bomb attacks: 44 in December 2006, nineteen in August 2007 for a 57 percent drop.

-All IED’s [improvised explosive devices]: 240 in December 2006, 203 in August 2007 for a 15 percent drop.

-Explosive belts (Suicide vests): two in December 2006, zero in August 2007.

-Mortar and Rocket Attacks: 139 in December 2006, 98 in August 2007 for a 29 percent drop.

-Dead civilians (not just ethno-sectarian violence, but all categories): 2193 in December 2006, 575 in August 2007 for a 74 percent drop.

-Wounded civilians: 876 in December 2006, 302 in August 2007 for a 66 percent drop.

-Dead Iraqi security forces: 44 in December 2006, twenty in August 2007 for a 45 percent drop.

-Wounded Iraqi security forces: 136 in December 2006, 61 in August 2007 for a 55 percent drop.

-575 dead in Baghdad in August from all causes is still excessively high and we continue to work to drive down the violence. Nonetheless, by all of these measures there has been progress in bringing greater security to Baghdad.

Our methodology and numbers have been scrubbed thoroughly by the intelligence community and declared by the intel community the best available measures and data. We carefully examine both Coalition and Host Nation reports to ensure we have the most inclusive data available. Iraqi reports come from a variety of official governmental sources including the National Operations Center, the Baghdad Operational Command, the National Joint Operations Center, and Joint Security Stations. Unfortunately, the media and other agencies often use suspect data provided by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which is less rigorous and perhaps also motivated by a sectarian agenda.

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“The Road Home”

I confess that I don’t usually read the editorials in the New York Times. They tend to be full of high-minded imprecations to observe liberal principles. They seldom contain anything new or interesting. Sunday’s editorial, “The Road Home,” was different. It was, depending on your view, either more admirable or more appalling than what the Times and other critics of the Iraq war usually say.

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I confess that I don’t usually read the editorials in the New York Times. They tend to be full of high-minded imprecations to observe liberal principles. They seldom contain anything new or interesting. Sunday’s editorial, “The Road Home,” was different. It was, depending on your view, either more admirable or more appalling than what the Times and other critics of the Iraq war usually say.

The usual line is that we should get out of Iraq ASAP, but don’t worry, everything will be OK; without American interference, the Iraqis will get their act together and live happily ever after. I exaggerate slightly, but not much. The Times editorialists dispose of this fantasy:

It is possible, we suppose, that announcing a firm withdrawal date might finally focus Iraq’s political leaders and neighboring governments on reality. Ideally, it could spur Iraqi politicians to take the steps toward national reconciliation that they have endlessly discussed but refused to act on.

But it is foolish to count on that, as some Democratic proponents of withdrawal have done.

The Times doesn’t try to put lipstick on this pig. It is brutally candid in acknowledging the likely result of an American bug-out:

Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.

Kudos to the Times for its honesty. But what makes this editorial appalling is that, even after acknowledging the worst, the Times still calls for a pell-mell scramble to leave, suggesting that almost all U.S. forces could be out of Iraq in as little as six months. All that would be left would be aircraft and Special Forces positioned around Iraq proper, perhaps in the Kurdish region or in Kuwait or Qatar “to stage effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq.”

It is hard to know why the editorial board thinks this option would work, given the Times’s own scoop, published the very same day that the editorial appeared, detailing how, in 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug on a planned raid to capture senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas. If even Rumsfeld, who was hardly known for observing diplomatic niceties, feared to make such a bold move, what are the odds that in the future, decision makers will approve a steady flow of raids into a hostile Iraq? Not very great. And as I have previously pointed out on Contentions, even if such raids were approved, a few Special Forces operatives could not prevent al Qaeda from consolidating its grip on major portions of the country, as it did recently in Baqubah.

So why does the Times favor a withdrawal in spite of the serious consequences? The editorial argues:

The political leaders Washington has backed are incapable of putting national interests ahead of sectarian score settling. The security forces Washington has trained behave more like partisan militias. Additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.

This is the counsel of despair, and it is at odds with the situation on the ground. What we are actually seeing is that the political situation is improving at the grassroots level, with tribal leaders increasingly allying themselves with the coalition and the government of Iraq. Iraqi troops are also fighting much better, and though sectarian infiltration remains a problem (especially in the National Police), an increasing number of Iraqi army units are displaying conspicuous bravery and competence. And it’s simply wrong to say that military forces in Baghdad haven’t changed anything. Sectarian murders in the capital are 50 percent below the pre-surge level. The surge has the potential to change the situation on the ground even more positively if General David Petraeus is given a chance to implement his plans—a chance that the Times would like to deny him. And damn the consequences.

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