Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. military

The Army’s Language Problem

A decade of war has reinforced to the U.S. Army the importance of cultural awareness. Senior flag officers and junior enlisted men and women have all heard presentations about Islam, and basic elements of Iraqi and Afghan culture. True, discussing the confluence of theology and terrorism remains largely taboo in the politically correct U.S. military, but few troops deploy without knowing basic information about Islam and cultural sensitivities. The notable exception was Gen. Janis Karpinski, whose unit embarrassed the United States at Abu Ghraib; she dismissed cultural awareness as below her and irrelevant to her mission.

Foreign language acquisition remains a problem. Paul Wolfowitz deserves credit when deputy secretary of defense for focusing military attention not only on cultural awareness, but also on the poor state of language acquisition among American servicemen. When I work in Germany, or among Bosnian, Romanian, or Polish troops, there are few that do not speak fluently a second language; few American servicemen do, however, except for many Hispanic soldiers or those from elsewhere who are first-generation immigrants. In recent years, the situation has improved, but only slightly. Senior officers will be the first to admit that the Army and the Marines still have a long way to go.

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A decade of war has reinforced to the U.S. Army the importance of cultural awareness. Senior flag officers and junior enlisted men and women have all heard presentations about Islam, and basic elements of Iraqi and Afghan culture. True, discussing the confluence of theology and terrorism remains largely taboo in the politically correct U.S. military, but few troops deploy without knowing basic information about Islam and cultural sensitivities. The notable exception was Gen. Janis Karpinski, whose unit embarrassed the United States at Abu Ghraib; she dismissed cultural awareness as below her and irrelevant to her mission.

Foreign language acquisition remains a problem. Paul Wolfowitz deserves credit when deputy secretary of defense for focusing military attention not only on cultural awareness, but also on the poor state of language acquisition among American servicemen. When I work in Germany, or among Bosnian, Romanian, or Polish troops, there are few that do not speak fluently a second language; few American servicemen do, however, except for many Hispanic soldiers or those from elsewhere who are first-generation immigrants. In recent years, the situation has improved, but only slightly. Senior officers will be the first to admit that the Army and the Marines still have a long way to go.

Some of the criticism directed toward the U.S. military for alleged cultural mishaps has been unwarranted. For example, many (not all) of the allegations that American male troops patted down and searched Iraqi women were false: When troops wear full battle rattle, it’s hard to tell males from females and so Iraqis—and some American journalists—just got carried away with assumptions. Criticism about American raids on mosques was also often unwarranted. Rather than simply treat mosques as inviolate sacred space off-limits to American forces, critics of American raids would be far better off questioning why some mosques became safe havens for terrorists or storage depots for weapons. When push comes to shove, force protection of American troops must always come first.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has assembled all-female engagement teams to meet and work with Afghan women who oppose the Taliban but whose culture and religious practice would not allow them to interact with any unit which incorporated males.

The cultural mishaps which have occurred—burning the Quran at Bagram, for example—are inexcusable and they were punished promptly. Still, they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. Likewise, abusing the bodies of Taliban fighters was an empty crisis: Americans seemed more outraged than Afghans. There is no evidence that any sought revenge because of the behavior of the few troops who desecrated Taliban bodies.

Still, there is one major problem which no level of the Army or Pentagon appears ready to address: foul language. It would sound like a silly complaint if it was not so corrosive to our mission and responsible at times for kinetic backlash. Especially among younger troops and out-in-the-field, every tenth word seems to be “sh-t” or especially creative constructions revolving around “f-ck.” Afghans may not understand English and even those that do will have a poor grasp of idiom, but all understand foul language. While not all “Green on Blue” violence is the result of cultural affront, some is. Likewise, I recently heard of a case in eastern Afghanistan where, watching women carrying heavy loads in the fields, one American soldier exclaimed, “Will you look at how much those f-cking women can carry!” Three days later, tribal leaders lodged a protest complaining that Americans had suggested that Afghan women working in the fields were sexually loose. In certain societies, honor matters. Americans are not the only guilty party. The Canadians had an incident in Somalia two decades ago in which a similar young private exclaimed to a Somali standing guard duty with him outside a meeting, “Boy is your sheikh pig-headed.” The young Somali understood two words: “Sheikh” and “Pig” and four Canadians died over the next couple days because of the misunderstanding.

Before his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus often spoke about how every soldier was also a diplomat. He was right. Few American diplomats emerge anymore from behind the blast walls which fence in American embassies in trouble spots, and so the face of the United States is the soldier. While we might be the strongest country on earth, we are still guests in the countries in which our troops deploy, and so it is imperative to act as guests instead of occupiers. There are few employers in the United States who would let employees interacting with the public swear non-stop.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Political correctness is nonsense, but this isn’t about political correctness. Not only do we pay consequences in our battle to win hearts and minds, but so long as the military also serves as important job training for those entering at the lowest ranks, it does a disservice by tolerating this lack of professionalism. It may be an uphill battle and, admittedly, there are greater battles which must be won. Language may be a detail, but we ignore such details are our peril.

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Will Congress Take Military into the 1970s?

Sequestration—the $500 billion automatic budget cuts to Defense, which will be triggered if Congress cannot reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion as per the Budget Control Act of 2011—is a looming disaster. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to already scheduled budget cutbacks.

Owen Graham, a brilliant young scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has penned an important article in the Charlotte Observer outlining just what is at stake:

According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sequestration would also eliminate a leg of the nuclear Triad, deliver a heavy blow to U.S. missile defenses, and eliminate next-generation fighter and bomber programs. The findings of the House Armed Services Committee were just as bleak: the smallest Air Force in its history; the smallest Navy since before World War I; and the smallest ground force since before World War II…

The reality is it is far from balanced. Military is less than one-fifth of the federal budget and absorbs fully 50 percent of the sequester. Meanwhile, 70 percent of entitlement spending, the key driver of the debt crisis, is exempt from the impact of the cuts.

Sequestration—the $500 billion automatic budget cuts to Defense, which will be triggered if Congress cannot reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion as per the Budget Control Act of 2011—is a looming disaster. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to already scheduled budget cutbacks.

Owen Graham, a brilliant young scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has penned an important article in the Charlotte Observer outlining just what is at stake:

According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sequestration would also eliminate a leg of the nuclear Triad, deliver a heavy blow to U.S. missile defenses, and eliminate next-generation fighter and bomber programs. The findings of the House Armed Services Committee were just as bleak: the smallest Air Force in its history; the smallest Navy since before World War I; and the smallest ground force since before World War II…

The reality is it is far from balanced. Military is less than one-fifth of the federal budget and absorbs fully 50 percent of the sequester. Meanwhile, 70 percent of entitlement spending, the key driver of the debt crisis, is exempt from the impact of the cuts.

Admiral James “Ace” Lyons observed wryly at a roundtable a few weeks ago that already the U.S. Navy has fewer ships under his command than he had at his disposal when he was in charge of the Pacific Command under Jimmy Carter. Obama’s talk of a pivot toward Asia is just empty talk; his priorities suggest a willingness to cede Asia.

If entitlements are cutback, we know what will happen: the economy will expand and charities and faith communities will pick up the slack; the government will still care for the most needy. If the U.S. ability to project its power is reduced to beneath even Carter administration standards, then the world in which we function will be far different. This may be the Obama administration’s goal. After all, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Cliff May notes, the scariest statement to which the mainstream media has given short shift was his promise to then-Russian President Medvedev to pursue even more devastating cutbacks once he no longer has to stand for election.

There will be no savings: When enemies perceive the United States as weak, they act. And—be they Russia, North Korea, China, or Iran—the United States has no shortage of adversaries.

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A Vacuum Recognized Is Not a Vacuum Filled

The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

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The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

It’s a nice thought, and it certainly would be the responsible thing to do. But there’s no reason to pretend this will happen. France just excused their pro-Western president from his duties to replace him with the leader of the French socialists, and absent conditions threatening a localized catastrophe–think Libya–it’s difficult to imagine the French increasing their role in defense of the West.

As for Germany, the country was greeted with Nazi catcalls for simply trying to maintain leverage over the conditions of bailing out failing European economies and saving the euro–just imagine what Europe’s reaction would be if Germany so much as hinted at becoming the continent’s new military power. It’s a nonstarter.

And what about Britain? As Max wrote here a couple weeks ago, British defense cuts will pare down the standing army to its lowest level in a century, and its diplomatic influence will wane accordingly. Hammond focused his remarks on, in his words, “the European NATO powers.” This is telling–and unfortunate. As Josh Rogin reported after the U.S.-hosted NATO summit in May:

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world’s premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

So the crisis in Europe had the opposite effect from what Hammond is suggesting; rather than retrench and build the West’s military alliance, everyone was too busy chewing his fingernails to get any work done.

This is not to say there are no reasons for caution on enlarging NATO. It’s that no progress was even attempted. And countries developing or experimenting with democratic laws and norms don’t usually tread water–they should be helped forward so they don’t fall back. NATO membership action plans can often be useful in this regard, as Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Rogin:

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as “Toma the Gravedigger” to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

The West is not always to blame. Often a country slipping back toward authoritarianism and corruption poses a chicken-or-egg question: Was Ukraine rejected by the West, or did they choose to reject the West (or orchestrate their rejection by the West)? But the underlying point is valid, and we cannot continue brushing off countries and expecting them not to take a hint. (Georgia, for example, has contributed more to the Afghanistan mission than some NATO countries.)

Now would be a great time to expand the Western alliance. Until that happens, Europe and NATO will continue to recede from the world stage, and Hammond’s good advice will be unceremoniously ignored.

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Empowering Afghan Militias is No Solution

In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

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In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

In Afghanistan, as well, the same generals have pursued the same short-term strategy. Against the backdrop of a lackluster central government, they have built up local militias to fight the Taliban. This has understandably infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who condemns any government or military organ which is outside the control of his family. Alas, if there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is that anyone who defects to work with the Americans can just as easily defect to fight Americans. No one should ever count on ideological loyalty in the region. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. It is a matter of principle, just not the same one which guides American troops. Americans condemn flip-flopping in politicians and consider switching sides in war treason. For Afghans, however, top priority is the family. If switching sides better protects one’s family, then there is nothing shameful in it. Perhaps the best case in point is Karzai himself. During the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher wanted to pass messages to the Taliban, the Taliban representative to which he would turn was none other than… Hamid Karzai.

Against this backdrop, the announcement that one of the Afghan Local Police militias formed, equipped, and trained by the Americans has defected to the Taliban should not surprise. No Afghan believes that the United States remains committed to remain in Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Pact recently signed was short on specifics, and financial commitments are meaningless without congressional agreement.

Here, history can be a guide. President Obama and the generals are, ironically, following the same strategy pursued by the Soviet Union. In the run-up to the Soviet withdrawal, the Red Army trained and equipped a number of local militias. With the Soviet Union on its way out of the country, each defected or dissolved in time. Building militias to substitute for progress at the national political level is not only akin to applying a band aid to a deep wound, but is also guaranteed to worsen the infection down the line.

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The American Commitment in Afghanistan

There seems to be a popular notion in Washington that it will be possible to dramatically reduce, or even remove, the conventional U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, while maintaining a substantial diplomatic-intelligence-Special Operations contingent to buttress the Afghan security forces and target high-level terrorists. How has that idea worked out in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal? Not so well.

We already know the U.S. embassy is having to dramatically scale back its ambitious plans for 16,000 or so personnel (mainly contractors but including a couple of thousand career employees) to take some of the slack from the U.S. military mission which ended at the beginning of this year. Now the CIA is following suit, withdrawing some 60 percent of the personnel from its giant station in Iraq even though numerous threats—from al-Qaeda in Iraq to Iranian agents—remain very much alive. Here is how the Wall Street Journal, which broke this news, explains the U.S. shift:

Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.”

But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official….

“Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

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There seems to be a popular notion in Washington that it will be possible to dramatically reduce, or even remove, the conventional U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, while maintaining a substantial diplomatic-intelligence-Special Operations contingent to buttress the Afghan security forces and target high-level terrorists. How has that idea worked out in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal? Not so well.

We already know the U.S. embassy is having to dramatically scale back its ambitious plans for 16,000 or so personnel (mainly contractors but including a couple of thousand career employees) to take some of the slack from the U.S. military mission which ended at the beginning of this year. Now the CIA is following suit, withdrawing some 60 percent of the personnel from its giant station in Iraq even though numerous threats—from al-Qaeda in Iraq to Iranian agents—remain very much alive. Here is how the Wall Street Journal, which broke this news, explains the U.S. shift:

Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.”

But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official….

“Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

In other words, if the larger U.S. conventional military mission is pared down to zero or close to zero, there is scant possibility of leaving behind a robust Special Operations-intelligence-and diplomatic presence—and our ability to do harm to our enemies greatly declines. That is the lesson of Iraq, and it is a lesson that policymakers should keep in mind as they mull over the future of the American commitment in Afghanistan.

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Partisan Gridlock Could “Devastate” Troops

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

Moreover, the contingency funds are also used to support Afghan security forces. A 15 percent cut in their ranks—soon to be 350,000—could result in the layoff of 52,000 soldiers and police. That is a huge number and could tilt the balance of power in favor of the Taliban in critical areas even as Afghan security forces are being asked to step into the lead. One consequence would be that the remaining U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be in greater danger and could suffer higher casualties.

It is hard to imagine a more ill-advised idea than cutting funds for troops in combat—yet that is what will happen unless Congress can somehow agree on an alternative before Dec. 31. That seems increasingly unlikely to happen, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems intent on extracting big tax increases from Republicans in return for turning off the sequester. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, therefore, has the potential to “devastate” our fighting men and women even as they are on the frontlines.

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Brothers Get a Second Chance

When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

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When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

But James did end up making it. I met both him and John at an event for wounded warriors in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At first it was hard to believe they were brothers. John, 25, is broad-shouldered and expressive, barreling from one emotion to the other and dominating the conversation. James, 24, spends a lot of time sitting back and listening to his older brother talk. He’s wiry and has a neck tattoo (music notes) and wears a t-shirt advertising some hardcore metal band. His left leg was amputated, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. The first time I saw the resemblance was when they laughed – both tilt their heads back slightly and open their mouths into half-moon smiles. That, and when they finished each other’s sentences.

James was leading a foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. He doesn’t remember much after the blast, except for his platoon sergeant yelling “lay on your stomach” and one of his friends calling out for him.

“All I hear is my buddy,” said James. “He’s just screaming out, ‘where are you buddy?’ and I’m screaming out ‘I’m here!’ That’s it.”

There is a lot James doesn’t remember because he was barely conscious for the first two months after his injury. Even when he began talking and asking for his family, his recollection of their visits is hazy.

“I was hallucinating so much,” he said. “I was thinking people were in the ceiling.” He said sometimes he saw Taliban up there.

Though John had joined the Army first, he was still anxious when his younger brother decided to follow him into it two years later.

“He’s always been the crazy one,” explained John. When they were kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it would snow five or six feet, John said his younger brother was always the one who wanted to jump off the cliff in the backyard. “I said ‘if you jump, I’m not going after you.’ He took a running start and off he went.”

James always landed fine. But Afghanistan was different.

“A lot of people look at me and think ‘oh, you just lost a leg, it’s not that big of a deal,’” James told me. “I have worse injuries than it looks like.”

Because of his injuries, James has to wear colostomy and urostomy bags. “I can’t use the bathroom. That sucks,” he said bluntly. “A lot of guys I see…they lose two legs, but they don’t have as bad an injury as I do. I’d rather have that any day.”

When James left the hospital, he was given a Purple Heart for his valor and extraordinary sacrifice. But his brother, John, was appalled by the medal. “For me, he deserves so much more than a Purple Heart,” he said. “I started looking at it, and I thought, man, this isn’t worth it.”

James has a more subdued take on the honor.

“Medals don’t mean much to me, I was just doing my job,” he told me. “What means more to me is that I’m still alive. I have a second chance to do what I want.”

What he wants to do is music – anything involving it. James plays guitar and piano, and his favorite genre is underground metal. He plans to go to college for it, and wants to end up working somewhere in the industry.

“It’s just something I’ve always had a passion for,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, honestly.”

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Meet Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead

At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

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At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

I met Trent last week, at a Salute the Troops event sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At around 5’5″ and lean, he doesn’t match the image of the stereotypical burly Marine. He has a heavy Alabama accent, and does a great impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the movie Sling Blade. He also has a prosthetic leg, though his one complaint is that he can’t wear boots with it.

Trent had no legal will when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2010. He’d joined the Marines right out of high school the year before, and, as he says, “I didn’t really have anything.” So when he got there, he just took out a notebook and wrote his parents a letter:

“Hey Mom and Dad, I just want you to know I love you. And if you’re reading this and I’m not there, I want you to know that you all did an awesome job raising me. I couldn’t complain about anything.”

He told me that this mentality of preparing for death is common among new Marines.

“It’s always a constant thought that the next step you’re going to take is going to be your last,” he said. “Because I guess if you believe that and really believe and wholeheartedly accept that fact that you’re not going to make it, it makes it a whole lot easier.”

Fortunately, Trent’s letter never had to be sent. But three months later, he did suffer a severe hit on a foot patrol when he stepped on a six-pound IED.

“Once the ringing stopped…I was kind of confused as to why I was laying on the ground,” he recalled. “The adrenaline lasted just a few seconds and then the pain started setting in.”

Initially, he didn’t realize his right leg below the knee was destroyed in the blast. He tried to tell the other guys he could walk it off. But that was obviously out of the question. To keep him calm and get him onto the medical chopper, his squad leader told him that he’d only lost a couple of toes. The IED had blown off Trent’s right foot and mangled his shin and calf. He had a broken arm, an abrasion on his eyelid and 50 percent hearing loss in one ear.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in Germany. “I see my left foot sticking up, but nothing sticking up on my right side.”

His initial thought?  “I thought it was kind of badass, to be honest,” he said.

The more difficult part, Trent added, was seeing the worry and stress of his parents, who he’s very close to. Another challenge of coming home with an injury was dealing with the guilt of not being in Afghanistan to help his guys as they finished the remaining three months of their deployment.

“The hardest part had to be because my guys were still there and still going to be there for another three months — hearing about other guys getting injured and killed,” Trent explained. “‘Why did I only lose one leg and I’m still alive?’ That kind of guilt. ‘Why am I so privileged?’”

These are questions Trent said he’s asked himself a lot. But he’s also trying to plan the next step of his life. He’s interning at a Texas company that designs outdoor water features, and is planning to start college soon for graphic design. So far, Trent says he hasn’t run into the employment challenges that many young veterans have. “There’s so many opportunities it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve walked into stores with shorts on and had people say ‘Are you a combat wounded veteran? Here’s my card, here’s what I do.’…It’s crazy the support we have right now.”

I asked Trent if he feels that his sacrifice was for something good, and he pauses for a moment.

“I believe in fighting for the country and all that. All the cookie cutter statements and everything,” he said. “But really, just like I’ve more or less surrounded myself with such good-hearted people. I can say I’ve been fighting for my country but, really, I feel like I’m fighting for family.”

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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Ignoring CENTCOM on Iran

When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

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When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

The same fundamental clash, where the president’s electoral considerations are in tension with his underlying instincts and the result is an incoherent policy, are playing out on Iran. Again, one is tempted to suspect symptomatically, the advice and judgments of military commanders in the field are getting ignored.

Monday the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake exposed strong disagreements between Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, and various figures in the administration. Last January Mattis wanted to respond to Iranian naval provocations by moving a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf. He was rebuffed. The incident seems to be a microcosm of broader differences between Mattis and the Obama White House on Iran:

The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran… Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s…

The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate. While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record.

That bit about developing nuclear weapons undermines the administration’s coordinated media campaign and leakfest on Iran, which is designed to preemptively scapegoat Israel for overreacting and getting Americans killed. It appears to be one of many places where the generals in the field disagree with the president. Given the ineptitude with which this White House has handled Iraq and Afghanistan, the dynamic is far from encouraging.

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“Afghan Good Enough”

Earlier today, I blogged about the revelation in the New York Times that, in the words of one of the president’s advisers, in Afghanistan, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.” Meaning that the military wanted to pursue a wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy and Obama didn’t.

This has been accompanied by numerous leaks about how the administration was redefining success downward, the mantra being the condescending formulation,”Afghan good enough.” The president’s own national security adviser told reporters on the record: “The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world.” (Does that mean that “impeded” safe havens would be ok?)

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Earlier today, I blogged about the revelation in the New York Times that, in the words of one of the president’s advisers, in Afghanistan, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.” Meaning that the military wanted to pursue a wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy and Obama didn’t.

This has been accompanied by numerous leaks about how the administration was redefining success downward, the mantra being the condescending formulation,”Afghan good enough.” The president’s own national security adviser told reporters on the record: “The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world.” (Does that mean that “impeded” safe havens would be ok?)

All of this is worth keeping in mind if you take the trouble to read the official Chicago Summit Declaration issued by all the heads of state attending the NATO summit. Look at paragraphs 8 and 9 in particular:

8. We reiterate the importance Allies attach to seeing tangible progress by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding its commitments made at the Bonn Conference on 5 December 2011 to a democratic society, based on the rule of law and good governance, including progress in the fight against corruption, where the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the equality of men and women and the active participation of both in Afghan society, are respected.  …

9. We also underscore the importance of our shared understanding with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding the full participation of all Afghan women in the reconstruction, political, peace and reconciliation processes in Afghanistan and the need to respect the institutional arrangements protecting their rights. We recognize also the need for the protection of children from the damaging effects of armed conflict.

So which is it: Are we committed to minimal goals, primarily focused on leaving Afghanistan as quickly as possible and not leaving behind “unimpeded” al-Qaeda safe havens, or are we committed to establishing “the rule of law and good governance,” including guaranteeing the rights “of all Afghan women”? This discrepancy is hard to understand or explain. It can only mean one thing: Either the president isn’t leveling with us when he says we will pursue minimalist goals or he isn’t leveling with us when he signs a summit declaration that commits us to maximalist goals.

If the armed forces are confused about what our mission is, they are not alone. It is hard to see any clarity from such conflicting statements of our aims.

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“Military All In But Obama Wasn’t”

Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

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Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

Then Sanger writes that “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The critical decisions about drawing down troops—with 32,000 departing by the end of September 2012—were apparently made by political aides in the White House without consulting General Petraeus in Afghanistan or other generals or, until the very end, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton.

This is breathtaking. Commanders on the ground and senior officials at the Department of Defense are not always right, and their recommendations do not always have to be followed by a president. But the commander-in-chief at least has an obligation to solicit their views and take them into careful consideration. Apparently Obama didn’t do that because he wanted to avoid the leaks that attended his previous decision-making process on Afghanistan in the fall of 2009. So he decided to end the surge in September 2012, which Sanger erroneously describes as “after the summer fighting season” (the fighting season actually lasts until late October or early November) and accurately describes as “before the election.” Meaning, of course, our presidential election.

This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics—namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge—about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.

Rest assured that if George W. Bush had so nakedly put his own political calculations front and center in making national security policy, he would have been flayed by the news media. Indeed, he was flayed for the “Mission Accomplished” banner and for supposedly invoking 9/11 for partisan advantage—and, most ironically of all, for supposedly disregarding the advice of senior generals by sending too few troops to Iraq. But Obama, it seems, is getting a pass for not even bothering to consult the very generals he appointed.

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GOP Seeks to Avert Defense Cuts

I applaud House Republicans for voting to suspend the sequester which threatens to decimate military spending and replacing it with cuts to social welfare programs. But the Republican leadership knows their legislation has little chance of passage in the Senate. They are simply hoping to set the stage for negotiations later this year that would at least suspend the first stage of the sequester which could cut another $500 billion or so from the defense budget on top of $450 billion or cuts already set in motion last summer.

The question is whether those negotiations will succeed. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the answer is yes, but I join Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute in being skeptical of that consensus. She points out that there is no intrinsic reason to think Democrats and Republicans, who couldn’t agree on alternative spending cuts or revenue increases until now, will suddenly find some way to sing “Kumbaya” after the election–especially when the composition of Congress will be exactly what it is today. And there are many reasons to expect that an attempt to stop sequestration will not be a high priority item for Congress also grappling with expiring tax cuts and the need to raise the debt ceiling once again.

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I applaud House Republicans for voting to suspend the sequester which threatens to decimate military spending and replacing it with cuts to social welfare programs. But the Republican leadership knows their legislation has little chance of passage in the Senate. They are simply hoping to set the stage for negotiations later this year that would at least suspend the first stage of the sequester which could cut another $500 billion or so from the defense budget on top of $450 billion or cuts already set in motion last summer.

The question is whether those negotiations will succeed. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the answer is yes, but I join Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute in being skeptical of that consensus. She points out that there is no intrinsic reason to think Democrats and Republicans, who couldn’t agree on alternative spending cuts or revenue increases until now, will suddenly find some way to sing “Kumbaya” after the election–especially when the composition of Congress will be exactly what it is today. And there are many reasons to expect that an attempt to stop sequestration will not be a high priority item for Congress also grappling with expiring tax cuts and the need to raise the debt ceiling once again.

As the sequestration cuts fall disproportionately on defense (half the cuts slash defense spending even though it’s less than 20 percent of the overall federal budget), Democrats have every reason to sit back and allow the cuts to hit–unless Republicans cave on higher taxes, which they are unlikely to do. Thus, the odds grow of a “perfect storm” that will devastate the defense budget.

I am in the process of touring West Coast military installations–I was just in San Diego where I met with Navy SEALs and toured an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, a Navy aviation maintenance plant, and Camp Pendleton, the West Coast home of the Marine Corps. Everywhere I saw what I have come to expect when visiting our military installations–superbly trained and motivated men and women doing incredible, often dangerous, and usually unheralded work to defend our republic. It  would be a tragedy not only for the U.S. but for the entire world if this first-class military, developed over decades and committed to expanding and preserving freedom around the globe, were to be wrecked overnight through a lack of political will in Congress. But that, alas, appears to be increasingly likely.

 

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Fighting for Obama and Country

As Peter pointed out yesterday, “In 2004, when it was politically convenient for him, Obama argued that his religious faith dictated that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Now his faith dictates the opposite. What has changed during the last eight years isn’t the Golden Rule or the words and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible; it is what is most politically expedient for a certain politician from Chicago.”

So, it seems that, at least in Obama’s mind, the whole moral basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition serves at the pleasure of the president.

But consider what he also said in his statement: “When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage…”

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As Peter pointed out yesterday, “In 2004, when it was politically convenient for him, Obama argued that his religious faith dictated that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Now his faith dictates the opposite. What has changed during the last eight years isn’t the Golden Rule or the words and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible; it is what is most politically expedient for a certain politician from Chicago.”

So, it seems that, at least in Obama’s mind, the whole moral basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition serves at the pleasure of the president.

But consider what he also said in his statement: “When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage…”

Fighting on his behalf? Excuse me? British soldiers fight for Queen and country, but American soldiers fight for the people, who have been sovereign here since a well-known disagreement with the Queen’s great great great great grandfather .

Is there no limit to President Obama’s self-regard? Well, at least he still confines himself to the first person singular rather than employing the first person plural that Mark Twain thought should be used by “kings, editors, and people with tape worms.”

 

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A Case for Tactical Prisoner Releases

I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

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I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

We do not have the full story of prisoner releases in Afghanistan, but based on the evidence presented in the Post article, the program appears to be modeled on the one in Iraq–and to be based, as in Iraq, on a hard-headed calculation by local commanders of what incentives they need to offer to local tribes and factions to come over to the government’s side. The only release actually described in the Post article involved a local leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in Wardak province whose followers had agreed to start fighting against the Taliban–another insurgent faction. This was precisely the type of “split the insurgency” mentality that made possible the success of the surge in Iraq. Under those circumstances, it would seem reasonable to release a HiG leader as a reward for his cooperation against our mutual enemies.

This type of release, made in return for real cooperation on the ground, is very different from the deal being contemplated by the Obama administration for the release of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in return, it would seem, for nothing more than a willingness of the Taliban to engage in peace talks. That would appear to be a one-sided exchange which would signal weakness to our enemies who are far from defeated–and very different from the type of tactical prisoner releases that make sense when erstwhile enemies are prepared to switch sides or stop fighting.

 

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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Grisly Pics Will Put U.S. Troops in Jeopardy

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–“impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–“impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

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Rep. Ryan Wrong to Question Generals?

The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

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The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

This, from a pundit who just published a book this week premised on the idea the U.S. needs to shrink national defense – and who also has no military experience. Maybe not the best time to be throwing stones.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey disputed Ryan’s remarks, and said he stood by his support for the defense cuts:

“There’s a difference between having someone say they don’t believe what you said versus … calling us, collectively, liars,” Gen. Dempsey told reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft after a four-day visit to Latin America.  ”My response is: I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Gen. Dempsey said the budget “was a collaborative effort” among the top officers of the military branches as well as combat leaders.

It didn’t sound like Ryan was calling the generals liars or questioning their integrity, but simply acknowledging that they work at the behest and under the authority of the Commander in Chief. And that could limit what they feel they can say publicly.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who has served in the Pentagon, defends Ryan’s comments:

Why is the brass signing off on this? Well, that’s their job. I know well how this works. I saw it first hand serving in the Pentagon. The Constitution establishes civilian supremacy over the military. The president is commander in chief. He defines strategic requirements, so the way he gets the military leaders to agree is simple: He just lowers the bar of expectations. He dumbs down the requirements.

So when Congress asks the brass, “Do you have enough?” They have no choice but to answer “yes.” It is like telling marathoner who has not had time to train that he only has to run a 5-K race. Sure, he’s ready—unless he actually has to run a marathon.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the military rubber-stamps the president’s budget. Nor should we be surprised when Congress questions them. That is the job of the Congress.

That doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t make a mistake here. His comment was still poorly-worded, giving his opponents fodder to attack him and distract from the issue. He also put military leaders in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to defend their previous statements on budget cuts to the media. But his broader argument wasn’t necessarily inaccurate.

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Support Grows for Afghan Pullout

It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.

The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.

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It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.

The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.

That, incidentally, was initially agreed upon as a deadline for transitioning lead security responsibility to Afghan forces but seems to have been transformed into a deadline for pulling most NATO forces out altogether, leaving the Afghans more or less on their own. Oh, and at the same time, it is probable the the U.S. will reduce funding for the Afghan Security Forces, forcing a considerable reduction in their ranks and further imperiling their ability to grapple on their own with an insurgency with safe havens in Pakistan.

It is little wonder under such circumstances that support for the war effort is falling precipitously among Republicans. Newt Gingrich has already said that we should leave because victory is unobtainable under current conditions; Rick Santorum seems to be moving in the same direction. Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, remains stalwart, but Republican voters, who have been staunchly supportive of the war effort for years, are now evenly split over whether the war is worth fighting and doubts are evident among Republican lawmakers in Washington. More and more Republicans no doubt figure that, if President Obama isn’t serious about winning the war, then why risk more American lives?

It is an understandable impulse and one that the White House will find itself increasingly unable to dispel because it seems more determined to leave than to attain an acceptable outcome. This scuttle for the exits is covered in fig-leafs labeled “Special Operations,” “advisory teams,” and “peace talks.” But none of these options can possibly succeed if we pull out the bulk of our troops before they have done more to stabilize the south and east where the Taliban and Haqqani Network are the strongest–and that now appears to be all but certain.

 

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The Afghan Massacre and the U.S. Mission

The actions of a U.S. army staff sergeant who went door-to-door in a village in the district of Panjwai outside Kandahar, killing nine children and seven adults, are heinous, horrific, and inexplicable–as many expressions of pure evil often are. If the facts are as reported, he will no doubt be dealt with by the efficient U.S. military justice system; he will be lucky to avoid the death penalty. It is hard to say anything else about this terrible event with any certainty. It is likely to impair the U.S. mission in Afghanistan–and will certainly make it harder to win the trust of the villagers whose friends and neighbors were just massacred–but how much damage it will do remains unclear. So far, the expression of outrage in Afghanistan has been muted–more so than after the Koran burnings. It should count for something that the sergeant’s actions were in no way sanctioned by the high command; in fact it was a U.S. unit that captured him and American prosecutors and judges who will bring him to justice. Even Seymour Hersh will have a hard time depicting these abhorrent acts as expressions of official American policy.

It would be a tragedy if some of the collateral damage from this rampage were to fall on the Village Stability Platform of which the sergeant was a part. This is a program run by the Special Forces, with help from some conventional soldiers (such as the sergeant), to stand up an auxiliary security force known as the Afghan Local Police in various locations around Afghanistan where there is not a major presence of U.S. troops. I have visited a couple of these sites duringthe past couple of years and have found them making real progress though also facing real challenges, primarily having to do with the need to understand local dynamics and not inadvertently empower the wrong actors when security forces are set up.

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The actions of a U.S. army staff sergeant who went door-to-door in a village in the district of Panjwai outside Kandahar, killing nine children and seven adults, are heinous, horrific, and inexplicable–as many expressions of pure evil often are. If the facts are as reported, he will no doubt be dealt with by the efficient U.S. military justice system; he will be lucky to avoid the death penalty. It is hard to say anything else about this terrible event with any certainty. It is likely to impair the U.S. mission in Afghanistan–and will certainly make it harder to win the trust of the villagers whose friends and neighbors were just massacred–but how much damage it will do remains unclear. So far, the expression of outrage in Afghanistan has been muted–more so than after the Koran burnings. It should count for something that the sergeant’s actions were in no way sanctioned by the high command; in fact it was a U.S. unit that captured him and American prosecutors and judges who will bring him to justice. Even Seymour Hersh will have a hard time depicting these abhorrent acts as expressions of official American policy.

It would be a tragedy if some of the collateral damage from this rampage were to fall on the Village Stability Platform of which the sergeant was a part. This is a program run by the Special Forces, with help from some conventional soldiers (such as the sergeant), to stand up an auxiliary security force known as the Afghan Local Police in various locations around Afghanistan where there is not a major presence of U.S. troops. I have visited a couple of these sites duringthe past couple of years and have found them making real progress though also facing real challenges, primarily having to do with the need to understand local dynamics and not inadvertently empower the wrong actors when security forces are set up.

But done right, the Village Stability Platform and the associated Afghan Local Police program have the potential to be major “force multipliers” by creating a lot of problems for the Taliban for relatively little expenditure of U.S. resources. Indeed, this is potentially a model program as U.S. conventional units draw down–although, in dangerous and unstable areas, there is no substitute for the presence of substantial ground-combat forces.

One of the characteristics that makes this program so effective is that it puts small groups of U.S. soldiers in close proximity to Afghan civilians. That allows them to build bonds of trust–bonds which, in at least one place, have just been done grave damage by the actions of an apparent psychotic in uniform. His crimes should not, however, lead to a condemnation of the large program or of the broader counterinsurgency effort. It is only by taking risks–including the risk which no one had considered: of unleashing an American psychopath on innocent villagers–that U.S. troops can drive the Taliban out of their strongholds.

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