Marisa Porges has a forceful op-ed in today's NYT making the case for beefing up the capture component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Read the whole thing:
At the moment, the United States has nowhere to hold and interrogate newly captured terrorists. America just handed over control of its detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a significant step toward transferring security operations to Afghans. And while Guantánamo Bay remains home to nearly 170 men that the United States believes are still a threat, no captured terrorist has been transferred there since August 2008. Yet in the past four years, drone strikes and airstrikes targeting Al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have increased dramatically.
Since 2010, there have been about 2,000 such strikes in Pakistan alone, with hundreds more in Yemen and North Africa. Meanwhile, only one alleged terrorist outside of Afghanistan — a Somali named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame — was captured, held and interrogated. He was later flown to New York to stand trial.
The fact that the United States now has nowhere to hold a terrorist — and no policy to deal with him once captured — means that a dangerous suspect might very well be let go. At present, there is no standard course of action approved by the president and relevant government agencies for what to do in the days and months following capture.
This situation creates disturbing incentives for troops on the battlefield. It encourages soldiers and policy makers in Washington to opt for the “five-cent solution” — a bullet. Rather than shooting people, we should be exercising due process, and bringing transnational terrorists to justice. That’s an approach that would help America maintain the moral high ground in the ongoing fight against Al Qaeda.
That there needs to be more human intelligence collection in U.S. CT is beyond dispute. So too are the issues currently wracking American detention policy. Warsame, for example, spent a good deal of time onboard the USS Boxer, which Spencer Ackerman fairly described as a "floating Gitmo" when put to this use. But that's not the worst of it. Warsame was lucky enough to make it to a U.S. courtroom, but as Jeremy Scahill has documented, Somalia's NSA and the CIA run some dreadful sounding facilities where not just fighters found in Somalia, but alleged terrorists from Kenya face interrogation and detention. If U.S. detention policy ultimately ends up relying on building Bagrams and Guantanamos across AFRICOM and CENTCOM, or else employing the U.S. Navy to this end, counterterrorism with a human face might not turn out all it's cracked up to be.
But even leaving aside navigating the legal and logistical issue of where to put terrorists once we capture them - an issue that Porges readily acknowledges - there is an issue of how to bring back warm bodies from where we currently have drones buzzing overhead. This is a critical question, because the means the U.S. employs to capture terrorists and suspected terrorists will have a great impact on the costs, benefits, and relative merits and demerits of capturing HVTs as opposed to the current targeted killing campaign.
In Afghanistan, the massive conventional presence of U.S. forces was and still is a significant enabler for capture operations. Afghanistan's infamous night raids, now under the control of the Afghan military or specialized CIA-trained elements, are a prime example. Yet many familiar issues emerged. Civilians resented property damage, casualties, mistaken targets, lack of transparency or accountable due process, and increasing the role of the ANSF may not have significantly improved the situation.
In many respects though, Afghan night raids are easy. Special operations enjoy significant legal and operational freedom of movement. Large amounts of on-the-ground intelligence and conventional forces enable better targeting and mitigate the risks of raids. Try to pick up targets in, say, Somalia, and things get much harder. JSOC raids into that country required air and naval fire support, while the enabling conventional force in question was the Ethiopian military, which did not do much to win Somali hearts or minds. Penetrating Somalia has required a patchwork of often unsavory partner military forces, militia proxies, private contractors, and covert operations. While America has learned much from 1993's most infamous attempt to conduct HVT capture, its foes in Somalia continue to pose stiff security challenges - though fortunately Shabaab seems to be losing ground.
In Yemen, the U.S. has a number of options for conducting capture operations, none of them particularly appealing. It can rely on Yemen's government and U.S.-trained troops, whose political loyalty and human rights credentials are not great. Though drone strikes are destructive, so are smash-and-grab expeditions into ungoverned or hostile space, particularly with a partner state's less, well, delicate touch (this is the country that named its counterinsurgency against the Houthis Operation Scorched Earth, after all). While we should always remember that U.S. airstrikes - manned or unmanned - rely on significant theater basing and local covert ground presence, capture missions would likely increase the footprint of U.S. operations. In Yemen, geography is favorable enough to allow sea-based raiding, but maintaining raids at the tempo of drone strikes would likely mean a vastly expanded U.S. military presence in the area. Or else it might rely on the Yemeni government, the prisons of which helped radicalize an earlier generation of al Qaeda.
In Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, too, we see similarly pressing problems. As C. Christine Fair rightfully points out, it's been Pakistani conventional offensives (which would provide the presumed enabling element for an increased tempo of capture raids) that have done the most damage and displacement to the region's population. A law enforcement approach's outlook is bleak because the entire region, whether the U.S. likes it or not, falls under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, a colonial piece of legislation which makes playing by host rules and occupying the moral high ground an ethical gymnastics act. While Pakistan is willing to tolerate, to some extent, drone strikes on its soil, will it be so willing to replace them with more cross-border activity from JSOC, the CIA-trained Counterterrorism Pursuit Team, or let the U.S. direct its own security forces to a degree amenable to U.S. interests?
In areas where government capacity is strong and politically pliant, using the FBI to capture terrorist suspects will likely remain viable. When the U.S. tried to capture the 1993 CIA headquarter shooter, Aimal Kasi, the FBI worked with the Pakistani government to render him to the U.S. But they could not capture him until he entered Punjab province, and even then the U.S. initially hid the extent of Pakistani government involvement due to the controversy of the extradition. This was one arrest in 1997 - conducting arrests and renditions at a high tempo today simultaneously demands a much larger host government role while straining the political space for it to participate.
All this said, on balance the U.S. still must reorient its HVT program towards collecting HUMINT. For pragmatic and ethical reasons, the U.S. also must do something to fix the current legal and logistical morass of its detention policy. Yet assessing the proper role of capturing terrorists, and the likely degree of practical and moral surplus derived from it, demands a frank assessment about the demands of substituting captures for kills, and the capacity and willpower of the U.S. to undertake such operations. Even with the legal problems sorted out, and a system of prisons without the lingering insidious reputation of Guantanamo, Bagram, or CIA black sites, we still have the matter of kicking down the doors of suspected terrorists in well-armed and unfriendly neighborhoods and spiriting them away to a host or foreign prison. This is a process that will still likely get civilians killed, families unjustly torn apart, and put armed men and military hardware in places where they are not wanted. Dealing in such generalities, it is extremely hard to say whether this would appear, to the broader population, more moral, more desirable, or less encouraging of radicalism than drone strikes, in part because it is already so difficult to accurately measure very much about drone strikes in these regions to begin with.
Just look at the Phoenix Program, the massive effort to capture suspected foes in Vietnam to dismantle VC infrastructure. As William Rosenau and Austin Long explain in their invaluable report on its relevance for modern operations, the Phoenix Program unduly gained a lasting reputation as an "assassination" campaign of marauding "death squads" - a reputation so widespread that even President Nixon thought this was what the CIA-handled Provincial Reconnaissance Units were really aiming for. Whether using local governments, proxy forces, special operations, or some other element, snatching somebody from their home at night at gunpoint is a risky proposition for seeking political kudos. Particularly when placed alongside host governments that engage in disappearing opponents, brutal methods of counterinsurgency, and generally repressive practices, the perceptual and counter-radicalization benefits of a similar-tempo capture campaign might rapidly wane.
Doubtlessly, expecting all of this from an op-ed is a curmudgeon's (and a blogger's) game, but shifting the frame somewhat is necessary from a policy perspective. We must at least broach the question of what kind of force commitments and operational guidelines we need to effectively conduct a capture campaign is essential, as well as when and where we ought to employ such means. While it's undeniable the HUMINT value of capture operations are higher, the costs of undertaking them may well reduce or even eliminate the presumed ancillary benefits.
One of the preemiment problems with the way that guerrilla warfare is discussed is the almost commonplace idea that it is a fundamentally different type of war, requiring fundamentally different interpretive and operational methods. Last weekend's spectacular assault on Camp Bastion should disabuse everyone of that notion. The assault on the heavily fortified airbase demonstrates an Taliban special operations capability that has yielded strategic effect. Since the 2008 Kabul Serena Hotel attack, the Taliban (likely guided by their Pakistani patrons) have developed a capability for complex, high-risk assaults that now seems to have taken center stage. The war of position has hardened, as swathes of the country remain in the hands of either Mullah Omar or the Haqqani Network and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) continues what has been a problematic effort to consolidate their gains in the south. The Taliban are now using special operations to bolster the political effect of their territorial holdings and make their mark on Afghanistan's new politics.
James Kiras, a historian of special operations, writes that special operations are "unconventional actions against enemy vulnerabilities in a sustained campaign, undertaken by specially designated units, to enable conventional operations and/or resolve economically politico-military problems at the operational or strategic level that are difficult or impossible to accomplish with conventional forces alone." Special operations generate cumulative moral or material attrition on the opponent in conjunction with conventional forces. Both moral and material vectors are vulnerabilities for the United States and its Afghan ally. Seven percent of the Marine Corps' overall Harrier fleet went up in smoke, and each high-risk assault in a Afghan urban center and targeted killing of an Afghan official adds to the perception of Taliban will and capability. While the Taliban special operations community may not look much like the Anglo-American model of special operations honed in World War II, it is still capable of formidable feats. The raid on the heavily fortified and geographically remote Camp Bastion required solid operational planning skills and intelligence prepartion of the battlefield. As Jeffrey Dressler argues, the complexity of the operation suggests planning and direction from Pakistan's intelligence services.
Under Kiras' model, special operations and regular forces both produce effects to support a political end. That end, as the transition process nears, is political position in Afghanistan's new order. There is nothing particularly unique about that kind of warfare. In major conventional wars after World War II, operations frequently were designed to bolster an overall political position rather than lead to decisive victory. The ending phases of the Korean and Vietnam wars both were marked by intense battles to gain a favorable position before the cease-fire. North Korea has repeatedly utilized a range of conventional and unconventional military tools for brinksmanship over the last few decades, and seems to be expanding its special operations and information warfare capabilities. Special operations, which utilize specially trained and tasked men to undertake difficult missions, are ideal for achieving strategic effect under such political conditions.
The idea that the Taliban could field a special operations capability and deploy it in a manner consistent with historical campaigns is not shocking when one considers that they originally gained political power in Afghanistan through mobile warfare to seize territory in the mid-90s. This required combined arms coordination, operational logistics, and command--all helped by generous Pakistani support. They lost political control through the similarly successful Northern Alliance prosecution of maneuver operations, which leveraged combat power to convince both Taliban elites and rank-and-file to change sides. Force destruction and the seizing of territory certainly can certainly achieve strategic ends all on their own (think Napoleon's most glorious campaigns) but the political element of war is paramount in every mode of warfare. The problem is not that Afghanistan is a uniquely political kind of war--all wars are---but that we forget that strategy involves the use of battle to generate political currency. The opening gambit of the current civil war cycle was, after all, a Soviet direct action raid to decapitate and destroy the Hafizullah Amin regime.
The Taliban are unlikely to use special operations to achieve anything that dramatic. However threatening their recent exploits may be, one concrete lesson of special operations history is that pinpoint raids do not obviate the need to painstakingly eliminate the opponent's ability and will to resist. The culminating point will be reached if the Taliban's reliance on special operations gets too far removed from what their main forces achieve. There are many people in Afghanistan and the wider region with a vested interest in seeing that the Taliban do not return to power, and a hard force-on-force fight looms. But Camp Bastion has demonstrated that Taliban special operations are nonetheless an important threat.
When over a dozen insurgents attacked Camp Bastion’s airfield with explosive vests, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly truck-borne mortars, they inflicted the greatest loss on VMA-211 since December 8, 1941, when the unit – then designated VMF-211 – lost twelve aircraft during Japan’s opening assault on Wake Island. The eight Harriers destroyed or damaged in Afghanistan, though, recalled a type of attack the U.S. dealt with many times in theaters from Indochina to Puerto Rico.
My co-blogger Adam helpfully pointed to this RAND study on ground attacks on military airfields, which, chronicling them from 1940-1992, noted that relatively unsophisticated and lightly-equipped forces were able to destroy 2000 aircraft during this time period. While hostile air attacks on U.S. airbases (excepting, of course, missile threats) look relatively unlikely in the near term, determined ground attackers, acting either as part of regular or irregular forces, have used a variety of small arms, light artillery, and assorted other man-portable weaponry to disrupt air operations.
Whether in full-blown theaters of war such as Afghanistan or less-active and more secure theaters of conflict, America’s large military bases are an attractive target. Their potential vulnerability to ground assault makes such attacks provides a badly-needed recourse for those facing America’s massive aerial firepower. Particularly as the U.S. turns away from large-footprint ground wars and their associated operational risks and political costs, U.S. bases provisioning air support for partner forces, hosting intelligence and advisory personnel, and providing “lilypads” for Special Operations Forces and clandestine capabilities may become increasingly important, especially if maintenance and cost issues end up degrading the readiness of America’s surface-borne aerial assets.
The 2009 Camp Chapman attack, along with this one, provides another important reminder about the multifarious potential vulnerabilities in such a “low footprint” strategy. In that case, a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide vest, killing several intelligence personnel at a facility heavily involved in servicing targets for airstrikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though his objective may have been killing personnel rather than airframes, it demonstrates the continued vulnerability of American bases.
Particularly as the U.S. embraces a model where it provides support and standoff firepower to a local force doing the bulk of the ground fighting, it will be particularly vulnerable to insider threats and beholden to the reliability (both in competency and loyalty) of foreign forces. Exposed forward facilities in America’s “secret wars,” from Lima Site 85 to today, will become increasingly attractive targets. Even U.S. conventional opponents may try to exploit such sapper tactics in order to strike against American airbases (such attacks might feature prominently in the outbreak of large-scale hostilities between the United States and an opponent with sophisticated irregular capabilities, such as Iran).
While the attacks on Camps Chapman and Bastion may be less likely in a theater where a country’s population is less mobilized (and its insurgency far less battle-tested) U.S. presence than it is in Afghanistan, the fact that groups such as Puerto Rico’s violent Machetero separatists could conduct similar operations against a base on U.S. soil is a warning against complacency. If America wants to scale-down its forward presence and power projection footprint, it will need to focus more energy and attention on force protection. Attacks on such facilities target capabilities that are relatively difficult for the U.S. to sustain in the face of concerted attrition. While limiting one’s presence in a country to those necessary to operate and support missions providing aerial and naval firepower, advisory roles, intelligence gathering, special operations, and civilian roles such as those the State Department fills certainly will certainly not generate as many casualties as those an occupying counterinsurgency force generates, the loss of aircraft, highly-trained Special Operations personnel, or diplomats can dramatically set back U.S. operations in a context of limited resources and multiple theaters of operation.
Not only that, but attacks on such critical facilities can create significant escalatory effects and political pressures. While we may now associate the supporting and advisory missions of these bases with the political dénouement of U.S. involvement in a conflict, effective strikes on U.S. aircraft, naval vessels, and vulnerable facilities unleash political fallout that might undermine the determination of policymakers to effectively tame the scope and scale of a U.S. “secret war” or limited conflict. The notion that a lack of “boots on the ground” means American lives and security are at little risk is fallacious. Any kind of sustained U.S. military presence will generate potential targets for enemy attack, and the U.S. will need to find ways to effectively conduct force protection missions in such environments if these sorts of activities are to be tactically and operationally viable.
If I wrote a blog post each time something I read annoyed me, I would obviously blog more frequently. Two things that I have noticed over the past few days, though, deserve especial mention this morning.
1. If you study conflict and conflicts long enough, you will either gain invaluable perspective over your peers or lose your perspective entirely. By the end of his career, for example, the late John Keegan, who once wrote this masterpiece which forever changed the way military historians write history, was writing silly things like, "Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning." (Step forward, Hew Strachan.)
Robert Fisk has his defenders and his detractors. I have never been accused of being the former, though I re-read a lot of his reporting for The Times in the 1980s as part of my doctoral work and came away impressed by his earlier work. Fisk has been accused by his peers of being a fabulist, and today he writes columns for the Independent. He once bragged to me, after I questioned the veracity of one particular column, that his editors never question what he writes. I'll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing. Of late, meanwhile, Fisk has been the target of some pretty withering satire.
Fisk's column today is the result of what happens when an observer of conflict loses all moral perspective. Fisk does not excuse any atrocities or crimes. No, he does the opposite. For Fisk, all crimes of war are now for all intents and purposes equal, and all armies at war are criminal. This is a valid perspective, I guess, in that one could make a moral argument in its favor. But unlike this, it doesn't tell me anything useful about what is taking place in Syria. If all acts of wars are crimes and they are all equal, I don't need Robert Fisk's first-hand observations, do I? They don't tell me anything of substance.
Among his peers, Fisk is arguably the least popular journalist covering either conflict or the Middle East today. That's probably because in addition to the alleged fabulism and lack of any useful perspective, in Fisk's narrative of conflict and conflicts, there is only room for one truly good man: and that man's name is always "Robert Fisk."
2. I finished Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War this weekend -- yes, I realize that reads exactly how Robert Fisk might begin one of his columns -- and a few things struck me:
a. The successful Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Gaul took eight years.
b. The enemies against which Rome fought were not a unitary actor, and neither were Rome's allies.
c. Rome's allies one summer were often Rome's enemies by winter. And visa versa.
But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:
d. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.
e. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.
With Caesar's commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant's lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford -- who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers -- has never served in Afghanistan.
The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.
This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.
Not to be confused with the Miles Davis song or dearly departed Philly eatery, green-on-blue violence is confounding U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and -- together with the 2,000th U.S. casualty -- has thrust the war back into the headlines here in the United States. I spoke about the killings this morning on public radio and wrote my final column for World Politics Review on the subject.*
These attacks are similar to the epidemic of military suicides in that we can discern an obvious pattern, but it remains difficult to determine what, precisely, is causing the problem. Once you dig deeply into each incident, they begin to seem sui generis -- each prompted by a unique set of circumstances. That makes them arguably more difficult to address than Taliban infiltration, which is a counter-intelligence problem for which we have some precedent. If these attacks instead represent a structural erosion in the relationship between coalition and Afghan forces, that's a lot tougher to fix.
A few things worth noting in addition to what I argued today in my column:
1. The United States may be in its eleventh year in Afghanistan, but a lot of soldiers and officers are fighting Year One. What I mean by that is that many of those serving in Afghanistan may have combat experience in Iraq but are new to Afghanistan. Contrast those folks, few of whom have any linguistic training or real cultural education, with Afghan forces who, in some cases, have been fighting in the same corner of the country for six or seven years. You could see how each could rub the other the wrong way. The Afghan might think the American arrogant and aloof, while the American might see the Afghan as lazy -- when in actuality he's just a little tired for having fought this war, in the same place, watching Americans come and go each year, for the better half of a decade.
2. I have said it before, but I will say it again. A "Green Beret" from the U.S. Army's Special Forces gets over a year of training before he ever steps foot in a foreign country. He receives specialized skills training and both language and cultural education. And he joins a small team that likely has decades of experience already. Contrast that soldier's training and selection process with the one we use for trainers and advisors recruited from the general purpose forces. The training we afford to the former is no guarantee of success. But you can never eliminate risk in war. What you can do is take measures to reduce and mitigate it.
UPDATE: In the comments, my cousin -- who served as a combat advisor in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps BECAUSE HE EMBARASSED HIS FAMILY BY JOINING THE BLEEPING MARINE CORPS SERIOUSLYHOWCOULDYOU -- points me toward what he wrote a few days ago on his iPhone instead of spending quality time with his grandmother.
I temporarily lose my ability to speak and write freely in about two weeks, so I am using what time I have left to stir up as much controversy as possible. Over Twitter two days ago and in my World Politics Review column yesterday, I broached a subject that might anger some of my fellow veterans.
When we talk about what we owe veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we immediately begin to talk about entitlements. The intellectual space devoted to veterans issues, in fact, is almost entirely filled by advocates. (Our research program at CNAS, I am happy to note, is exceptional in this regard.) But as much as I respect organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars -- I am a member, in fact, of both -- we rarely take a step back and ask the hard philosophical questions about service and entitlements.
The fact is that the military that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a military of conscripts like the ones that fought in our nation's previous wars. Each man and woman who has served in Iraq has volunteered and signed a labor contract to provide a service in exchange for compensation. Compensation is not the only thing that motivates servicemen, of course -- far from it -- but the terms of the initial contract are clear.
We Americans, I argue, need to decide whether or not military service is truly a service or whether, in the era of the all-volunteer force, it is a profession like many others in the federal government. Our decades-long inability to decide between these two poles has lead to an ambiguous situation in which we have lifted up our professional military onto a ridiculous praetorian pedestal. The example I always use is that of the uniformed military serviceman in peak physical condition being allowed to board an airplane before a mother with two small children. Every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan that I meet thinks this is ridiculous. But those kinds of no-cost perks are delivered along with a lot of very real and costly veterans benefits -- such as the new G.I. Bill -- given at a time when the rest of the country is making tremendous sacrifices. I write:
If the military is a service, then we can and should expect those who serve to do so humbly and for little reward, in exchange for the grateful thanks of their nation. We might provide compensatory benefits on the back end for the families of those killed and for those wounded or injured while serving. If the military is a profession, by contrast, then we should expect those who choose this profession to provide a contractually obligated service in exchange for pay and benefits.
Either way, the policy implications are the same. If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants -- no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.
Anyway, read the whole thing. What I don't want to see is my fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan become like the baby boomers -- spoiled and entitled, unwilling to either give up benefits or accept new taxes, and putting our own selfish desires over those of the greater good. That's not what I want my military service to be about.
Speaking of World Politics Review, subscribe here. My column ends next week, but if you've enjoyed my column, you'll likely be really excited to see who my replacement is.
P.S. Steve Walt wrote a post on Tuesday asking why no one was talking about Afghanistan. It's a question worth asking, and absent any real guidance from the campaign, I spent last week's WPR column trying to imagine what a Romney Administration's Afghanistan policy would look like.
I have been abroad for the past five weeks and just got back two nights ago. I have currently worked my way through two weeks of emails and have another three to go, so if you have tried to get in touch over the past month, have some patience with me. I was working a bit while I was abroad, as anyone who watched me in debates on France24 knows, and I want to provide some links to my columns for World Politics Review so that you can reach beyond the paywall. (Now having said that, I encourage you all to actually buy a subscription to WPR. It's not terribly expensive, and -- my column aside -- the content is both fresh and informed.)
1 August 2012: "Fallout from Libya Precedent Felt in Syria Debate"
25 July 2012: "State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors"
18 July 2012: "U.S.-Israel Military Ties Face Long-Term Strains"
4 July 2012: "No Crisis in Wartime U.S. Civil-Military Relations"
27 June 2012: "America's Dysfunctional Decade in Afghanistan"
A few months ago, I read the memoir of a lieutenant who served in Afghanistan in 2008, which I argue had to have been the most frustrating year to fight in Afghanistan because it was the last year before policy makers had started paying attention to the war again but also one by which the Taliban had been fully reconstituted. The memoir was as depressing as you might imagine, but it was also a great reminder, contra Rajiv, of the incredible people we have sent to war. We have sent our fair share of lemons, true, but also some amazing Americans as well. I got to break bread with Matt Zeller over lunch a few weeks after reading his book and was blown away by the guy, who is something of a national treasure. Hopefully you will be as impressed as I was and will buy his book.
1. Your book opens with you as a somewhat idealistic young officer eager to serve in Afghanistan. It ends with your intense frustrations at the way the war was being fought. Walk me through that transition.
I come from a long tradition of American military service. My great-grandfather nine generations ago served under General Washington in the Continental Army during the War for Independence. My great-great-great-great-grandfather's Civil War Union Army uniform currently hangs in my closet along with the uniforms my great-grandfather wore in Europe in World War I and my grandfather wore in the South Pacific in World War II. So when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I felt a strong sense of not just patriotic duty to serve, but also a familial obligation. I struggled with the question of "how can I look at my children in the future and not do what my ancestors did before me?"I couldn't justify my relatively privileged middle class existence, for I hadn't really earned any of it -- my ancestors had. So after a few weeks of struggling with whether to drop out of school or shirk my civic duty, I walked into a mall in New Hartford, NY to buy a Christmas present and promptly enlisted to the first person I saw in uniform -- a National Guard recruiter. Two years later I earned my officer's commission through ROTC and finished college. Upon graduation, I was awarded the David Boren National Security Fellowship, which allowed me to go to grad school in fall 2004. While at grad school I was recruited into the Central Intelligence Agency. Thus, in the summer of 2007, when I learned my reserve unit would deploy, I had just begun my agency career.
I focused my life to national service because of 9/11 and had hoped to serve in Afghanistan. I wanted revenge. The attacks had both profoundly angered and frightened me. Moreover, I wanted to ensure that I did my part to provide my children with the freedoms my ancestors provided me. I was thrilled to be headed to Afghanistan, for I felt that it was there I could make the most difference. The Army had ordered our unit to undertake the training of the Afghan Army and Police -- which to me, was the most important thing we could be doing in Afghanistan, even more important than killing Taliban, for by leaving a security force behind that could adequately replace us, we could ensure that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would never rise to power in Afghanistan again.
So yeah, I'd say I was overwhelmingly naive when we entered training at Fort Riley, Kansas in January 2008. But my naivety began to morph into angered frustration as we progressed through our pre-deployment training. I'll never forget how nearly every classroom training session began...
A sergeant would stand in front of our group and with an authoritative voice say, "Good Day gentlemen! Today I'm here to tell you how the enemy uses IED's (or whatever weapon/tactic/etc...) in Iraq!" Then they'd turn around to make sure their powerpoint presentation had started. When they'd turn back to face us, caught off guard to find all of our hands would be up. The sergeant would find our Colonel's hand and ask for his question. We'd all lower our heads as the Colonel would say, "Sergeant, we're not headed to Iraq, we're headed to Afghanistan...." The sergeant would get a deer-in-the-headlights look, pause, breathe, regain his composure and say, "well sir, I've never been to Afghanistan, I've only been to Iraq, but I'm sure its all the same..." And we'd resign ourselves to another likely meaningless two hour lecture. By the end of training, we had turned rather jaded, but still anxious to take on the mission.
We entered Afghanistan not really sure of what to make of it -- almost none of us had been there before. We found it to be the 5th World -- calling it the 3rd World is an insult to the 3rd World, for few places on Earth share Afghanistan's level of poverty and destruction. But, few places also share its natural beauty. People instantly loved or hated it there -- I fell in love the 2nd morning as I watched the sun rise over the snow packed mountains that ring Kabul.
That afternoon, the commanding General of CSTC-A at the time, MG Robert Cone, spoke with all 300+ of us -- the newest class of Embedded Combat Advisers. He asked by a show of hands how many people in the room had served in Iraq -- half of the people in the room raised their hands. And then he said the most profound statement I probably heard all of the war, "Men, I want you to understand something right now. This is NOT Iraq. This is Afghanistan. In Iraq, we do everything we MUST to win. Here in Afghanistan, we're doing everything we can." He then went on to contrast the time of response for a QRF in Iraq (which at that time was 12 minutes) to Afghanistan (2-4 hours), the time of flight for a medivac in Iraq (20 minutes) to Afghanistan (1-2 hours)...He told us we'd be alone, work under extremely austere conditions, and that the Army would ask more of us than it would ever be able to give. The speaker who followed him showed video of our predecessors getting blown up by Taliban IEDs and that's when it started to hit home -- not everyone in this room would go home alive.
The next day I packed up my bags and headed to join a convoy on its way to my new post in Ghazni on a small FOB called Vulcan. While loading up my gear I met the guys we were replacing. I asked what their year had been like, was Ghazni dangerous, and had they seen combat. They got really silent and then one of them smiled the strangest smile I had ever seen -- I'd later come to know it as the "I cannot believe I'm going home alive smile" -- and said "yeah man, Ghazni is fucked up. Really fucked up. Don't worry, you'll all earn your CIBs and CABs, every single one of us did..."
Two weeks later I had my Alive Day as I joined 14 of my brothers in an hour long firefight against approximately 45 Taliban who tried to overrun our position as we guarded one of our MRAPs that had just been destroyed by an IED. I ran out of grenades during that fight. The last thing I remember is a mortar round landing about 10 feet in front of me, its blast sending me flying backwards. In that split second between consciouness and the dark, I remember thinking "they're walking the rounds in on us, the next one will almost certainly kill me." When I came too, someone yelled "Zeller, friendlies to your six, DON'T SHOOT!" I lifted my head and saw the most beautiful sight -- three of our unit's hummers flying up the hill behind me. SFC Robinson swung his door open and in his South Carolina drawl exclaimed "Hey sir! I hear you're in a pickle. But I brought ya some help, including my MK-19, where do you need us?" To which both I and CPT Dean pointed to the ridge line at the crest of the hill. SFC Robinson's hummer charged into battle, its MK-19 blazing and the ridge line turned into the napalm scene from Apocalypse Now. The battle ended with all of us, by some miracle, still alive.
Whatever naivety remained on the morning of April 28th 2008, died by 1615 that afternoon, its fate sealed by the RPG rounds that initiated the assault on our positions.
So why this day? Well it personifies MG Cone's speech. Our QRF took an hour -- and they weren't even supposed to be our QRF, they were technically the radio retrans unit sent out to relay our comms as we think the Taliban were jamming us. Our air support consisted of two Dutch F16's, whose pilots didn't speak English and flew off the minute the Taliban attacked us. The 101st that was the actual QRF? They arrived three hours after the fighting stopped. And why were we there in the first place? Because our patrol that day had got lost as our maps were from the 1980's (when the Soviet Union still existed as a nation and fought in Afghanistan) and we ended up going down the wrong road, driving right into a Taliban ambush site. Our initial standard operating procedure following an IED was to secure all casualties and simultaneously assess if we held a defensible position. If not, we were to move to a position that was defensible. We quickly realized our position on a road outside an unfamiliar village, lost in some part of Waghez District, Ghazni Province, was not that defensible and thus we should employ our SOP -- i.e. move to better ground and destroy whatever equipment we couldn't take with us, which in this case was the $1.3 million paperweight that had been our convoy's lead MRAP. We radioed our intentions to the 101st (the unit to which we were op-conned) to which their battalion commander personally responded, "if you don't bring back that blown up vehicle don't bother coming back at all. We don't leave monuments to our failure like the Russians." And thus, our die-in-place mission and my alive day.
From that day forward, I watched as the war slowly fell apart at the hands of our Army's middle management -- typified by that battalion commander. Case and point, GEN McChrystal's tenure in Afghanistan. To me, the most compelling part of the Rolling Stone article is the scene where a sergeant down range writes an email to McChrystal stating he believes GEN McChrystal doesn't get the war and has ordered policies that are killing men on the front lines. GEN McChrystal gets on the next flight to this sergeant's FOB and goes on patrol with the sergeant's unit. Afterwards, he holds an After Action Review with the sergeant and his men in the outpost's makeshift chowhall. During the AAR he notices a laminated list posted on the chowhall's wall that reads something like "Rules of Engagement As Ordered By COMISAF." Upon reading the list, McChrystal says aloud "these aren't my rules." And thus my point, somewhere between GEN McChrystal issuing orders and the point at which these front line soldiers received them, the Army's middle management bureaucracy altered them to be significantly risk adverse.
This risk adverse mentality drove our operations by the end of our tour -- hard as we tried to fight and ignore it, it came to dominate our every movement, or lack thereof. On 26 JUN 2008, a unit in our bridage embarked on a trip from Paktika to Kabul. They ended up taking a route that bisects Logar and Wardak province, a road known as the Tangi Valley Road. In 2008, allied efforts in Afghanistan had two divergent commands, ISAF and CSTC-A. These commands divided the country differently and often had their field units residing on different FOBs. ISAF had all the resources and most of the men, CSTC-A had all the embedded combat advisers training the Afghan Security Forces. ISAF had deemed the Tangi Valley Road a black route. For whatever reason, CSTC-A never put this information out, so when the convoy traveled down the road, they had no idea that they'd drive straight into a horrendous ambush that would leave two of their three hummers destroyed and three US soldiers and one interpreter dead. As a result of this attack, the next day, CSTC-A declared that all of its units (i.e. we mentors) could only travel in convoys with six or more vehilces -- and that we needed to get permission for every mission from an O6 (Colonel) 72 hours prior to each movement. That one, risk adverse call, nearly sidelined us for the remainder of the war. We lived on a base of approximately 40 US soldiers divided into 5 teams. Six vehicle convoys meant that two-three teams had to travel together on each mission. As a result, every time a team went out, two Afghan units went without our mentoring, simply due to this vehicle restriction.
Indeed, throughout my tour, I also saw this middle management come into country for the first time, declare all policies before them to be 100% failure, and attempt to implement some new regime -- simply for the point of implementing new policy. Remember, no-one ever got promoted by maintaining the status quo, regardless of its effectiveness. By the end of our tour, we had two boards in our makeshift TOC -- "You Can't Make This Shit Up" and "Oh My God, Something Actually Went Right." The former had over 100 check marks, the latter had two.
I didn't want to leave Afghanistan this frustrated, but I realized early on that fighting a war with 100% organizational turnover every 365 days accomplished two things -- we repeated the mistakes of our predecessors and we never had a firm consistent set of goals that continuously directed our strategy and actions.
2. The year you spent in Afghanistan was arguably the toughest year of the war for U.S. servicemen -- the year before the Bush and Obama Administrations devoted new resources to the war. Did you feel neglected by the country? Did you feel your efforts were overshadowed by the war in Iraq?
Yes, totally. Look no further than what MG Cone said to us on Day One. Everything we MUST vs. everything we can. We had three route clearance patrol units for all of RC-East during my deployment. By the end of our tour, 80% of our territory was off limits without an RCP leading your travel on a mission. We went from running multiple missions a day to sitting on our FOBs waiting for one of those three RCPs to be available and capable (i.e. not in maintenance or repairs). And if we couldn't drive, flying was hardly an option either. In 2008, we had one aviation brigade for all of RC-E.
I'll never forget sitting in Kuwait, waiting for a flight home to take leave, and having soldier after soldier coming out of Iraq walk up to me and ask we what it was like to fight in a war where there really was a war still going on. That floored me, because they had everything and we had nothing. My FOB didn't have SIPR or even internet -- each man paid $50 a month to a guy named Baktash who lived in Kabul and in return he made sure that the satellite dish we bough received satellite internet, with speeds that rivaled dial-up from the mid 1990's.
The first time I went to Bagram I walked into one of their chowhalls and just stared in disbelief. I hadn't seen an ice machine in 6 months -- I had forgotten what it was like to have choices for food, let alone desert.
3. You served as an analyst in the intelligence community after you served in combat. What is the difference between the perspectives on the war one gets from each job?
As an analyst in the IC I had every tool and resource imaginable at my disposal and I couldn't share almost any of them with the guys who'd benefit most -- the front line soldier. Our military fights at the Secret or SIPR level. The IC fights at the Top Secret level. Very few FOBs in Afghanistan have Top Secret level connectivity, let alone personnel cleared to use top secret information. Its a problem that persists to this day and one we must fix.
Additionally, as an analyst in the IC, I found that there is too much duplication of effort throughout the 16 organizations that make up the US Intelligence Community. As a congressional candidate, I actually called for the consolidation of the IC into one US Department of Intelligence, headed by a Secretary of Intelligence. The current duplication of effort results in a gross waste of scarce budget and personnel resources and serves up too much confusion to US policy makers -- who are left wondering who to believe when Organization A reports the exact opposite of Organization B.
4. If a young man approached you and said he wanted to serve in the U.S. Army, what would you tell him?
That true leadership and respect are earned, always do what's right regardless of difficulty or popularity, always listen to his sergeants, and to only sleep under his sheets in basic training the night before linen turn-in.
5. You ran for Congress after returning from combat. Assuming we need more veterans serving in the Congress, what are some pitfalls that prevent veterans from doing so?
Money. During my run for office I came to realize that too often Americans send the best funded candidate to office, rather than the best candidate. Too much of my election was dedicated to raising money in order to put television ads out in the fall. Unfortunately, many Americans learn about candidates for office via political ads that air on TV -- hence, the importance of fall TV ads. Unfortunately, it costs around $2.2 million to win a seat in the United States House of Representatives. I don't know many veterans with $2.2 million to kick around. Moreover, running for Congress is a full time job (between the meetings with constituents, town halls, debates, fundraising, media events, press interviews, and parades). Thus, anyone who seeks to take on the burden of running for federal office must either have an employer who is willing to keep them on the payroll while they're off running an election, or suffer unemployment.
Regardless, I think veterans make ideal legislators, mayors, governors, and Presidents. Veterans are natural leaders who put their team (i.e. their constituents) and the mission (serving their constituents) ahead of themselves. If we could only take money out of the equation, then I think veterans would trounce any opponent, as they'd be competing on an equal playing field.
6. The last question is always about food or drink. What food or drink did you miss the most while deployed?
Bourbon and a good burger.
Not hard to understand why. Buy Matt's book here.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's excellent if depressing new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan comes out today. You may have already read excerpts in the Washington Post. Rajiv wrote much of the book while on leave from the Post and locked away in a cubby hole at the Center for a New American Security, so we are hosting a book event for him tonight to which you are all invited.
I read the book in two sittings on Friday and Sunday afternoons. Rajiv's first book depressed me because I was close enough to the shenanigans up the road in the Green Zone to be angered by them. This book depresses me because I was even closer to many of the shenanigans in question and know some of the protagonists. I was also forced, in reading this book, to go back and think through my own assumptions in 2009, many of which I got wrong. Rajiv's third book, presumably, will be about how I myself incompetently managed the occupation of Syria and hosted wild parties at the embassy in Damascus while Marines fought mightily in Homs.
A friend of mine has never forgiven me for saying he was a "loser" in Tom's narrative of the Surge in Iraq. (He insists I called him a loser in life, which I didn't do -- I just wrote that he was a "loser" in the narrative Tom presented.) This book has very few winners and very many losers. The winners? A few intrepid U.S. military officers and diplomats. The losers? Pretty much everyone else -- and especially the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development. I really hope those two organizations in particular take the lessons from this book and remember them going forward but suspect they will instead go into a defensive crouch.
Anyway ... on to the questions.
1. You argue, in this book, that the United States essentially lost the first year of the Surge in Afghanistan because of the way in which it allocated its troops — sending thousands of Marines to Helmand Province instead of, say, Kandahar City. Who was responsible for that decision?
The responsibility rests with several senior U.S. and NATO officers. When commanders at the NATO regional headquarters in southern Afghanistan were asked by their superiors in 2008 to identify how they would use an additional combat brigade, they picked Helmand over Kandahar. Those officers — Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif and his deputies, among them U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson — identified four reasons to send the forces to Helmand instead of Kandahar.
First, that the Canadian forces who had responsibility for Kandahar province didn’t want to cede more territory to the United States. Some Canadian officials were convinced security in Kandahar was improving; others didn’t want to risk the embarrassment. Either way, U.S. commanders didn’t want to push the Canadians to shrink their battlespace.
Second, Helmand was the epicenter of poppy production.
Third, there were more Taliban attacks in Helmand than any other province.
And fourth, foreign troops needed to stay out of Kandahar city, given its cultural and religious significance.
Our own Abu Muqawama (then a member of General McChrystal’s initial assessment team) was among those to question all four points. As I write in the book, “If the mission were to protect the people, Exum thought, the new troops should be closer to the largest population center in the south, not where violence was worst. The drug argument similarly made no sense to him, since Richard Holbrooke had just announced that to avoid antagonizing farmers the United States would no longer participate in the eradication of poppy fields; a CIA study also claimed that the Taliban got most of its money from illegal taxation and contributions from Pakistan and Persian Gulf nations, not from drugs. And even if the Afghans were right about the psychological impact of foreign forces inside the city—some on the assessment team questioned that logic—the surrounding districts seemed like the best home for the Marines. The Taliban’s surge in Helmand was ‘a feint,’ Exum wrote in his notebook. ‘It draws our attention and resources away from Kandahar.’”
The ultimate decision on where to place the first wave of new troops authorized by President Obama in February 2009 rested with the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul at the time, Gen. David McKiernan.
When McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan in June 2009, he gave thought to moving the Marines. By then, however, it was too late. But even if it hadn’t been, his hands would have been tied, because of a conditions set forth by the Marine Commandant at the time, General James Conway. He insisted that the Marines operate in a contiguous area where they could be supported by their own aviation. That effectively ruled out Kandahar. Conway also insisted that a three-star Marine general at CENTCOM have overall operational control of the Marine brigade. That meant McChrystal couldn’t have moved the Marines to Kandahar without the approval of the Marine high command.
2. And people wonder why I love U.S. Marines but have very little patience for the U.S. Marine Corps. (I really need to burn those notebooks, by the way.) But is it really possible to hold the Obama Administration even partially responsible for a decision related to the order of battle on the ground? Sam Huntington argued that politicians should set the policy and agree on a set of strategic objectives and resources with their commanders but that it was up to the commanders themselves to figure out how to operationalize the strategy. Is it then reasonable to criticize the administration for errors made by field commanders?
I agree that it doesn’t make sense for the White House to manage operational or tactical decisions, but the president and his national security team should be fully aware of how the troops are being used. It’s just a brigade, you might say, so what’s the big deal? Perhaps in the context of World War II or Vietnam, it’s a rounding error, but in the context of Afghanistan, the rationale for the placement of 10,672 Marines out of an initial deployment of 17,000 troops should have been clearer to the White House. A new president, signing off on his first troop deployment, should at least have known — or been told — that a majority of those forces were being sent to a part of Afghanistan that is home to about one percent of the country’s population.
3. You displayed a lot of admiration for the U.S. Marine Corps in your reporting for the Washington Post and again in this book. But you also have some very sharp criticisms toward the way the U.S. Marine Corps protected its own parochial interests at the expense of what you see as the greater mission in Afghanistan. Describe for us why you admire the Marines who fought in Afghanistan but fault the Marine Corps as an institution.
I think the Marines — particularly the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (the first tranche, which was sent in 2009) under the command of then Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson — did an amazing job under very challenging circumstances. The work they did in Nawa and Garmser, in particular, was standout COIN (putting aside questions of whether we should have been engaged in a full-on COIN mission there). Did Nicholson push into some places that USG and NATO civilian advisers -- and his NATO bosses in Kandahar and Kabul -- thought were unnecessary? Yes. But the fault, as I write, did not rest with him. He was given the troops, and he was doing what any good field commander would. He wasn't going to let them cool their heels at Camp Leatherneck.
The problem was tribalism — among the Americans, not the Afghans. Marine leaders did not really want to be joint and interoperable. They wanted their own turf, even to the detriment of the overall war effort.
This is what I write in the book:
"[Political adviser Kael] Weston didn’t think Nicholson was being insubordinate in moving into Taghaz. Taking Kamchatka was a rational act if you had the troops. Weston believed the surge had put too many pieces on the Risk board. The problem had been compounded by the decision to send the Marine brigade to Helmand instead of Kandahar. The blame for those choices lay not with Nicholson but in Washington. To Weston, Nicholson was an aggressive commander who was using the resources at his disposal to secure his entire area of operations. Weston disagreed with some of Nicholson’s moves, but the political adviser understood that the general was playing the generous hand he had been dealt. He wasn’t going to keep his Marines sitting on bases.
"There was no doubt in Weston’s mind — or in mine — that Nicholson had used his forces to transform the central Helmand River Valley, evicting the Taliban from its sanctuaries and giving the Afghans another chance to make something of Little America. By the time they departed in mid-2010, Nawa had grown so quiet that Marines regularly walked around without their flak vests. Much of Garmser was safe enough for American civilians to commence reconstruction projects. Hundreds of families were returning to Now Zad. Even the bleeding ulcer of Marja was starting to heal. Nicholson’s year in Helmand felt like the most dynamic and entrepreneurial period of the Afghan War. After years of drift, momentum was finally starting to swing America’s way."
And this from the last chapter:
“Over drinks with a Marine general in a still gentrifying Washington neighborhood, I compared Afghanistan to a run-down urban street. It seemed, I said, as if the United States were devoting a large share of its community redevelopment funds to transform one tenement at the end of the block into a swanky mansion. What happens, I asked the general, if we win Helmand but lose Afghanistan? ‘That would be just fine for the Corps,”’ he said.”
The 2nd MEB has been awarded the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation. I'm no judge of awards, but their work sounds PUC worthy to me. But what if they had done all of that good work closer to the country's second-largest population center?
4. You're also unforgiving in your description of the civilian effort in Afghanistan (in a chapter bluntly titled "Deadwood"). You've now been witness to incompetent U.S. civilian efforts in two wars. Is there any hope for the U.S. government in this regard? What does observing the U.S. civilian efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan make you think as a taxpayer?
I believe that our nation has the talent to engage in war-zone nation building, if that’s something we decide to do again. (Any policymaker or military leader who thinks that’s a good idea needs to have his or her head examined.) The problem is that those doing the hiring for the civilian component don’t look in the right places. Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of President Obama’s national security agenda — they should have brought in top-level headhunters. Those responsible for hiring (often bureaucrats in D.C. with no great sense of urgency or creativity) first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options. Then they turned to retirees and to contractors who had served in Iraq. The right people do exist. We just have to find them, and then convince them to serve their nation.
5. Despite the criticisms, there are some real heroes in this book. Kael Weston and Carter Malkasian stand out in particular. What makes guys like that special, and who are some other heroes?
Kael spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carter spent two years in a hot and dusty forward operating base in Garmser. They built trust with the Marines they served with, and the Afghans. I really respect Kael and Carter, and I wish I could say they are two-of-a-kind, but the truth is that many civilians working for the government could be just like them. If they agreed to spend real time on the ground. If they took the time to build relationships, and, in Carter’s case, learn the language. If they were willing to flout stupid rules set down by the embassy’s security officer.
Most importantly, they were willing to define their jobs in ways to give them maximum influence. Kael called himself a political commissar, not a political adviser. He constantly reminded the Marines that they had been deployed in support of the Afghan people — and as an extension of civilian diplomatic policy, not the other way around. Carter also saw his role as more a proconsul than an adviser. He single-handedly cajoled influential tribal leaders and mullahs to return to Garmser district, correctly betting that their presence would lead others to follow. He won the trust of skeptical residents through countless meetings and roadside conversations, convincing them to reject the insurgency and support their government. He also shaped the Marine campaign in Garmser in a way no civilian had in other parts of the country. He served as a counselor to five successive battalion commanders, influencing decisions about when to use force and helping them calibrate it with a political engagement strategy. He built such credibility with the Marines that if he urged a different course of action than the one they were planning, they almost always complied. Larry Nicholson was among his biggest fans. He thought the Americans needed a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan.
They weren’t the only ones. State Department officer Marlin Hardinger spent three years working at the provincial reconstruction team office in Helmand. He’s just finished a year of Pashto study and will be heading back for another year or two. That’s dedication. There are/were others like them. But the problem is they are the exception, not the rule.
6. I always end with a question about food or drink. What are the top three most memorable meals you have enjoyed in Iraq or Afghanistan -- and why?
a. Eating chicken enrobed in an inch-deep layer of oil on the roof of the police station in Garmser with district governor Abdul Manaf. We spent a while joking about his deputy’s virility — the man had two wives and more than twenty children. But then the conversation moved onto the future of Afghanistan. It was then I wondered whether men like him — in whom the U.S. military and diplomatic corps had invested so much — would be able to survive once the Americans leave.
b. The First Strike MRE I cracked open after spending nine hours walking, kneeling, crawling and worming on my belly on the first day of the Marine operation to clear the Taliban from Marja. I was cold, wet, tired and miserable. Food never tasted better, even if it was processed junk with a ten-year-long shelf life.
c. The lunch that never was. I was on my way to have lunch with Ahmed Wali Karzai when I received word that he had been killed.
Ha. I sometimes test intelligence officers by asking them about local power brokers and who they had lunch with yesterday. It turns out a safe answer is "Rajiv Chandrasekaran." Buy his book here.
... U.S. Army LTC and CNAS Military Fellow Tony DeMartino, who was awarded the French Order of Merit for his service in Afghanistan. I got through about eight lines of La Marseillaise in the staff meeting this morning before Ellen told me to be quiet.