I've noticed on my Twitter account that opinion on the information contained in the leaked Afghanistan documents obtained and released by Wikileaks varies between "yeah, we knew that. So?" to "Oh my God!".
I think there is much more to this whole episode than whether or not you knew civilians were being killed in Afghanistan and former ISI officials were giving advice to insurgents in Afghanistan. This is about public opinion. Measuring what the public thinks and predicting how it might react to events is an imprecise science (much like the related fields of economics and sociology). But it's still very real. You might not know how it works but you can feel its effects when governments start clamping down on banks, launch military campaigns or pull troops out and come home.
And when it comes to public opinion, lots of vagaries start making a huge difference - like how you found out. When George Galloway suggested that British MPs were greedy, people rolled their eyes, nodded or smiled. The general thought was, "yeah. But they are politicians, what do you expect?" However, once the British MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines with details of taxpayers coughing up for duckhouses and flatscreen televisions, the result was a national political crisis.
For Western news organisations, unsustainable losses over the past decade or two have meant the degredation of the kind of infrastructure that allows the media to act as a check on executive power. At the same time, the medium that caused the decline in traditional news ogranisations - the Internet - is also picking up the slack. The Telegraph's coverage of the expenses scandal was built on extensive groundwork done by independent journalists who write extensively on the web. Most conflict coverage since 9/11 has been done through embeds with Western military forces. (the stand-out exceptions here are people like Nir Rosen, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Mitch Prothero) While this is great in the short term for those prosecuting the war, after a while, militaries start to believe their own hype, which actually does longer term damage as it makes PR disasters such as prisoner abuse and the Nisour square incident more likely.
I'm not into offering "big thoughts" or indulging in grand "blue sky thinking" but there does seem to be a growing trend internationally away from control and direction by organisations and governments towards impetus for action coming from groups of individuals who are somehow harnessing technology. Organisations like Wikileaks leave grand old names like Reuters, BBC and the New York Times rewriting news they didn't break. (That said, the NYT is one of a few organisations investing heavily in original reporting, which shows in their output.) At the same time, a leaked video of a girl getting beaten by the Taliban in Swat presented the Pakistani government with the political cover it needed to launch a campaign against the Pakistani Taliban last year.
What makes any difference here is whether any of this changes anything. Does public opinion get swayed? Do politicians feel the need to react? Do insurgents find a sense of justification for their actions (or fall in support when they screw up)? The answer to all of these questions is yes.
So the response here isn't, "yeah, whatever, we know this" or "OMG! why did no one tell me?!". The question to ask is how the information is being digested. That was the question I wish I had asked more thoroughly on the night of September 11, 2001, when I went out and about in Cairo to ask people what they thought.
Here are the things I have learned thus far from the documents released via Wikileaks:
I'm going to bed, but if I were to stay up late reading more, here is what I suspect I would discover:
"Meanwhile, the names of intel sources, which were classified to protect them from violent retribution, are now public. Fuck you, Wikileaks." - J.
I think the time it took Julian Assange to weigh the moral choices involved with publishing these documents was roughly equivalent to the time it took the make-up artist to powder Assange's face for his latest television interview.
If you read the press reports (here, and here), it would appear that my hometown senator, Bob Corker, was on a roll in yesterday's hearings on Afghanistan. Good for him. There is no reason why a guy whose last job was mayor of the mighty metropolis of Chattanooga should develop into a first-class inquisitor on matters related to national security and foreign affairs ... other than the possibility that he simply takes his job seriously and does his homework. The people of Tennessee -- me included -- appreciate that kind of thing.
Check out CNAS adviser David Barno's piece in the Financial Times.
"In the region, clocks are set to July 2011, a date widely believed to be the start of a rapid US withdrawal, and the subsequent resumption of a new internecine Afghan war - one in which all the important actors are already manoeuvring for advantage. Gen Petraeus must find ways to both put time back on the clock through battlefield success, improved governance and more effective civil-military integration. To do this, he must convince the wary protagonists that the US is staying, and that America's interests trump any temptation to replay the precipitate American disengagement after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989."
Pakistani journalists, government people, military people, well-to-do professionals, guys who sit in blankets in road side stops smoking and drinking tea.. everyone thinks that the US will be getting out of Afghanistan no matter what. Even if they don't have any real solid reason for thinking so, the fact that they do creates its own dynamic.
I'm told something similar is true in Afghanistan
So the challange for the US, and Gen. Petraeus in particular, how to square domestic pressure to end America's longest war while not giving the impression in the region that the US is about to leave.
i was at a conference about communications in conflict recently, one of the speakers said that you can't give conflicting messages to different audiences. I can see why.
So spare a thought for Gen Petraeus. He seriously has his work cut out for him.
1. A CNN editor trying to express her admiration for Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah on Twitter is just silly. (The name and title alone are 42 characters!) One should not try and explain what seems to have been a nuanced opinion in a text message. Firing her for it, though, also seems silly. Also silly, though, is continuing to describe Fadlallah as Hizballah's spiritual mentor. That may have been kind of true in the 1980s but has probably not been the case since then. My guess is that the young and relatively undistinguished religious scholars who formed Hizballah's leadership in the early 1980s -- Musawi, Tufaili, Nasrallah, etc. -- needed someone of high religious stature like Fadlallah to beef up their Islamic bona fides.* Fadlallah, in turn, benefited from his relationship with Hizballah within civil war-era Lebanon. By the 1990s, though, both groups more or less outgrew one another. Fadlallah no longer needed Hizballah's support, and Hizballah no longer needed his blessing. Both Fadlallah and Hizballah had enough stature to stand on their own. Even Martin Kramer, who once wrote a long monograph on the man titled "Oracle of Hizballah", is highly sensitive to the way in which Fadlallah's stature and relationship with Hizballah has changed over time. Personally, I think Hizballah and Fadlallah are best understood as separate if overlapping phenomena within Shia Lebanon. Fadlallah's ministry and activities, for example, long precede those of Hizballah.
2. This Andrew Bacevich blog post is off. Bacevich wants us to consider foreign policy decisions black-and-white moral affairs. Bush, he argues, reliably chose the wrong option out of two available but was at least guided by a flawed moral compass. Obama, Bacevich argues, is amoral. This is absurd. In matters of war, leaders at all levels make hard moral choices involving sin and virtue. One could describe this as the hard moral economics of war, and it applies from platoon leaders to presidents. Invading Iraq, for example, delivered difficult-to-calculate moral benefits (overthrowing a brutal dictator, responsible for the death or torture of hundreds of thousands) and similarly-difficult-to-calculate moral costs (horrific violence affecting the lives of millions and costing the lives of many thousands more). By invading and occupying Iraq in such an incompetent manner, we Americans changed the margins, indesputably raising the moral costs further. I disagreed with the initial decision to invade Iraq on both strategic and moral grounds but understood the moral calculus involved. (I have never understood the strategic calculus.) In the same way, just because you disagree with the Obama Administration on Afghanistan does not mean that the administration lacks a moral compass. They probably just did a strategic and moral cost-benefit analysis and arrived at a different conclusion than Bacevich did. I understand that Andrew Bacevich is upset about our policy in Afghanistan. But concluding as he does -- without any evidence to suggest that moral considerations, such as an obligation to the Afghan people, were not weighed in the president's decision-making process -- that the president lacks a moral compass is ugly, unnecessarily ad hominem, and beneath a man of Bacevich's intelligence and humanity. If Bacevich was serious, he would consider not just the strategic risks to a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan -- which is what he is apparently advocating -- but also the moral costs to be paid by the Afghan people we leave behind. In that light, the moral economics of war are no more black and white than the strategic economics of war. We're left with hard choices and trade-offs, and the public discourse is very poorly served by those who pretend they are easy.
*I should add here that I am hardly the only person who has come to this conclusion. I do not have any citations handy, but I do not want to be accused of plagiarizing someone else's research either. So let me just say, again, that my take on this is not unique.
Having just finished a fantastic lunch of fried chicken and sweet tea at Champy's, I am now preparing to leave Chattanooga for Washington. Before I leave, though, I want to highlight this fantastic op-ed in today's Financial Times by LTG (Ret.) Dave Barno, now my colleague at CNAS. Gen. Barno has been a breath of fresh air around the offices at 1301 Pennsylvania, largely due to the kind of sober analysis he brings to this op-ed. (Yes, I know, the pesky firewall at the FT is preventing you from reading the op-ed. But jump it somehow and read the op-ed. Or do like I do and subscribe to the FT -- my favorite paper, by the way, which has replaced my subscription to the Wall Street Journal -- on your Kindle or something.)
Gen. Barno highlights the very real difficulties Gen. Petraeus is going to face in Afghanistan and warns that failing in just one of four critical areas might lead to policy failure. But he also does something else: he defines near-term success, in an oblique kind of way, writing that "success in moving to an enduring (if limited) military presence is achievable."
This is really important: those who fret about American imperial overreach will argue a limited, long-term military presence in Afghanistan amounts to "garrisoning Central Asia". But despite all the anger and emotion in current debates over U.S. and allied Afghanistan strategy, few are arguing for a complete and rapid withdrawal. Michael Cohen, one of the current strategy's critics, linked to several alternate strategies for Afghanistan on his blog the other day, and none argue for a complete withdrawal. The real debate, in other words, revolves around how quickly we can transition to a lighter footprint.
On the one side you have people who argue that something looking like a comprehensive, resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy gives you the best chance to build up key Afghan institutions in the next 12 months to allow you to begin the transition to a lighter footprint counterterrorism and security force assistance mission. On the other hand, you have those who feel the president should have adopted that kind of lighter footprint last spring and that we are needlessly wasting U.S. resources on the current strategy. Despite all the hot air you wil read on blogs like this one (or hear coming out of the mouth of the chairman of the GOP), the real debate about Afghanistan revolves around the best way to spend the next 12 months paving the way for a long-term, limited presence. Those who really think a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is on the table are dreaming. They will not like to hear it, but speaking as a student of the various positions on Afghanistan articulated by U.S. politicians, it is excedingly difficult to see either this president or a Republican presidential candidate arguing for a total withdrawal. It's also hard to see this president or any pretender to the throne arguing for the Cadillac option: a time- and resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign that would truly garrison Afghanistan ad infinitum.
Economists would shrug and argue that this is how people make decisions: rational people, in the words of Greg Mankiw, think at the margin. They rarely decide to simply do something or to not do something. More often, they decide how much of something they are going to do. They weigh marginal costs against marginal benefits and make a decision based on that calculation.
In summary, you might get the impression based upon things you read in the newspapers and on the interwebs that the debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan spans the spectrum from those isolationists who think we should simply pack up and leave to those who would have us devote all our national treasure to U.S. and allied success. But those are not the real parameters of the debate: the real debate is at the margins, and the real question facing policy-makers is how best to reduce the U.S. and allied presence in Afghanistan over the near term while protecting U.S. and allied interests and weighing the costs and risks involved with each choice.
I arrived in Vail, Colorado this afternoon to digest the news from Washington -- which I did during a trail run up Riva Ridge, getting in touch with my 10th Mountain Division forefathers. I think the president acted very wisely today. I think he was well within his rights to fire Gen. Stan McChrystal, a friend and a man for whom I have great admiration, and that it was correct for healthy civil-military relations that he did so. He did so in a very classy way, too, noting Gen. McChrystal's long record of service and the role he has played since 2001 as both commander in Afghanistan and in command of the Joint Special Operations Command. (I believe he will someday get the credit he deserves for his service at the helm of JSOC.) And he did so in a way that minimized many of the risks I wrote about yesterday by replacing Gen. McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus. Those who hoped this episode would lead to a wider examination of U.S. and allied strategy in Afghanistan will be disappointed. But it will be interesting to see how Gen. Petraeus responds to the day-to-day challenges of Afghanistan and what shifts he recommends to both President Obama and President Karzai.
These have been a remarkable but tough few days. We have reason to hope, though, going forward. The president acted with confidence and wisdom. And we have a very good general en route to Kabul. All that is left, then, is to thank Gen. Stan McChrystal for his service. It is a pity that a man who has given so much to his nation ends his career in such ignominious fashion.
Something very, very positive happened today in Washington, DC. Senior Republican legislators, to include Sen. John McCain, and Bush Administration national security specialists, to include Peter Feaver and Eliot Cohen (both careful scholars of counterinsurgency and civil-military relations, I might add), have made clear that the president is well within his rights to fire Gen. McChrystal for comments made in a Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings. Those who love our constitutional democracy should exhale, because I for one was really afraid this was going to turn into a partisan catfight, with those on the Left screaming for the president to fire McChrystal and those on the Right laying the blame at the feet of the president.
I am at a loss, though, as to what the best option for the president is. As I have made clear, I believe any course of action carries risk. The purpose of this post is to share three options for the president that, I believe, minimize those risks.
1. If you decide to retain Gen. McChrystal:
Have him resign ... and then do not accept his resignation. If you really do not think the war in Afghanistan can be waged without Gen. McChrystal, you still have to make clear that words and actions carry consequences and that at the end of the day, the President of the United States is the commander in chief. This option allows the president to keep Gen. McChrystal while at the same time reestablishing a healthier civil-military balance.
2a. If you decide to fire Gen. McChrystal (but believe the current strategy is still the most appropriate strategy for Afghanistan):
Fire him, and replace him with LTG Dave Rodriguez, McChrystal's deputy. This is a simple "drop one" drill, it allows for the greatest continuity, and it allows you to procede as planned with both operations this summer and this fall's strategic review.
2b. If you decide to fire Gen. McChrystal (but decide you need a new strategy as well):
Fire him and name LTG Rodriguez the interim commander while you carry out another strategic review. Once you decide on your new strategy, name a commander best suited for carrying out that strategy. The shame here is that the U.S. general best qualified to carry out a lighter-footprint counter-terror strategy like the one described by Austin Long is ... Stan McChrystal.
Amongst the furore generated by Gen. McChrystal's slagging off of his bosses and colleagues in Rolling Stone Magazine, everyone seems to have missed the fact that Britain's highest representative to the AfPak party has resigned.
It seems Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British government's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, resigned over differences concerning talks with the Taliban.
While insisting Britain should support the US, he was quoted as saying in the Canard Enchaîné: "We should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one." The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said his remarks had been distorted.
As for the Washington Post:
He had pushed for a political solution in Afghanistan and for higher priority to be given to talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, while expressing skepticism that increased military force could prevail.
Quite a few officials in Afghanistan have said Sir Sherard did not see eye-to-eye with Ambassador Holbrooke, the NATO representative Mark Sedwill or Gen. McCrystal.
"Cowper-Coles has been more downbeat, warning that the current battle in Afghanistan was "a civil war" and that the international community had "backed the wrong side", according to one non-British diplomat.
"He had increasingly come to believe that "sod-all can be done" about turning round the fortunes of the nine-year war, a top diplomat said, and is believed to have pushed strongly for the withdrawal of British troops as soon as possible."
I heard Sir Sherhard speak at a dinner organised by the Pakistan Society in London a couple of weeks back. He didn't say anything telling in terms of policy, but it was easy to see from what he said and how he said it that he had figured out exactly how to strike a chord with the kind of people who run Pakistan. I'm not qualified to speak about Afghanistan policy, but Sir Sherard seems like the kind of official I'd want to listen to.