Anyone who has been watching the war in Afghanistan for the past two years knows that ISAF, having focused on southern Afghanistan for the past 18 months, now aspires to shift its focus to Afghanistan's east, where the war has been underresourced and where, in contrast to southern Afghanistan, the Taliban has been gaining momentum. Speak to any commanders on the ground, and they will tell you that if they have their way (and on account of its complexity), eastern Afghanistan will be the last place from which conventional western forces will withdraw in 2013 and 2014.
Helmand Province, where the drug trade intersects with both inter-tribal rivalries and a binary conflict between the insurgency and the government, is a wickedly complex place to wage counterinsurgency operations.* Eastern Afghanistan is, in many ways, even more complicated. The conflict -- which one French commander recently described as "a series of mini-wars" -- often differs from valley to valley, making local knowledge and intelligent commanders all the more valuable.
Which is why I do not understand why the U.S. Army is not making better use of two men widely regarded as being among the most talented battalion commanders to have fought in eastern Afghanistan over the past four years. One was just passed over for brigade command, most likely due to his branch (Armor). Another is rotating out of brigade command prior to his unit's deployment to Afghanistan because the U.S. Army does not believe brigade commanders should be in command for too long. (Both of these officers would be mortified to read their names on this blog, so they will go unnamed. And though I know both officers, I have not spoken with either of them about these circumstances, so if you're in the Pentagon and are reading this, know that people are not griping to bloggers.)
In both cases, the U.S. Army might well be making a decision in the best interests of the U.S. Army as an institution.** But neither decision makes sense in terms of the war in Afghanistan, where it makes the most sense to send officers with experience in regions of Afghanistan back to those same regions.
Here's the question for the readership that I hope will kick off an interesting debate: by removing the service chiefs from any responsibility for fighting the nation's wars, have we created a system whereby the incentives and motivations of the service chiefs are different than those of the commanders in the field? A service chief, for example, is by role and responsibility more worried about managing an officer's timeline and ensuring as many people as possible get the chance to command and less worried about winning a war -- not because he is unpatriotic but because that's not how he is graded. A field commander, by contrast, doesn't give a rat's behind about officer timelines and promotion pipelines -- he just wants to get the best team on the field.
Who do you think? Am I right? Wrong? Is there something I am missing?
*For more on Helmand, check out the journalist Tom Coughlan's excellent chapter in Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field.
**Although, and despite my initial training as an infantry officer, I personally think the U.S. Army needs to realize there are other branches beside the infantry and that the armor and field artillery branches in particular have been really squeezed for opportunities to command at the brigade level. I personally do not think an infantry officer needs to command a BCT comprised of mostly infantrymen if the officer selected -- be he an armor or field artillery or, hell, chemical corps officer has proven himself as a combat leader and has attributes that lead his superiors to believe he would be effective in the field.)
The failure to find bin Laden was a seminal moment in the history of the war in Afghanistan. And it was a catastrophe. From that moment—the moment he escaped his apparent hideout in Tora Bora and went on to make his sneering speeches and send them out to the world—from that moment everything about the Afghanistan war became unclear, unfocused, murky and confused. The administration in Washington, emboldened by what it called its victory over the Taliban, decided to move on Iraq. Its focus shifted, it took its eye off the ball, and Afghanistan is now what it is.
You'd think, nearly a decade after the events of Tora Bora, that Mr. Rumsfeld would understand the extent of the error and the breadth of its implications. He does not. Needless to say, Tora Bora was the fault of someone else—Gen. Franks of course, and CIA Director George Tenet. "Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run" was "worth the risks." Needless to say "there were numerous operational details." And of course, in a typical Rumsfeldian touch, he says he later learned CIA operatives on the ground had asked for help, but "I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet and cannot imagine denying it if I had." I can.
Well, hopefully this will end the furor over an ugly and now thoroughly discredited hit piece. In a more just world, Rolling Stone would conduct an internal investigation to determine how one of its reporters managed to so grotesquely smear an honorable man. Kudos to Spencer Ackerman, a friend of Michael Hastings, for doing some actual reporting:
The “information operations” officer at the center of an explosive Rolling Stone story about an allegedly-illicit propaganda operation will meet on Wednesday morning with an official inquiry to determine if his old boss, the general in charge of training Afghan troops, broke the law.
Only the officer, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, concedes that Lt. Gen. Caldwell’s effort was little more than spinning legislators — something any press flack could have done innocuously. ...
And all that raises questions about precisely what Caldwell is supposed to have done wrong. (Full disclosure: Both Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, and Caldwell are longtime friends of this blog.) After the story broke, the Internet was filled with breathless allegations about Caldwell’s “psyop,” making it seem like his staff used Jedi mind tricks to convince senators that the Afghan training mission is going swimmingly. But even Holmes says that’s overblown. ...
He was also asked to contribute to briefings for visiting U.S. dignitaries, like senators and congressmen, who came to Kabul’s Camp Eggers to observe the training mission and talk to Caldwell. Initially, that meant “just a Google search” on their bios, personalities, and voting records, he says. “That’s not illegal… At that point, I wasn’t asked, ‘Hey, what is it we’ve got to tell them to get our message across?’ I wasn’t asked to put a spin on it.”
And that’s the extent of what Holmes says Caldwell did wrong: “putting a spin” on what to tell legislators about the training.
Holmes is upset about the command climate at NTM-A, and that's now what his complaint to a specially appointed investigating officer will be about. In the interests of full disclosure, LTG Caldwell's former chief of staff is a friend of mine, so I'm going to refrain from commenting about all that. But those of you who jumped the gun and were calling for Caldwell's head a few weeks ago should now feel free to both apologize to Caldwell and to cancel your subscriptions to Rolling Stone.
Here's Nick Kristof in Saturday's Times:
It’s a sophisticated argument that a column can’t do justice to...
I'm not the only one who read that phrase and smiled. What a relief it is to see a writer aware of the limits of his medium.
I wanted to highlight that phrase, though, because on Sunday we got the latest Tom Friedman mess. Friedman's last column, in which he suggested the Beijing Olympics and Salam Fayyad helped lead to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, attracted widespread derision and inspired some very funny if brutal satire.
For me, though, Sunday's column was even worse. Friedman gripes for 854 words about all the money we are spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as far as gripes go, it's a pretty reasonable one, so you're probably wondering why I was so frustrated by the column. Well, there were a lot of little things about the column that annoyed me, such as the conflation of the ISI and the Amn al-Dawla, but the biggest thing that got me about this column was what I was screaming aloud as I read it.
One of the reasons why we are still spending so much money in Afghanistan and had to surge tens of thousands of troops there in 2009 was because we made the fateful decision as a nation to shift the vast majority of our available military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan in 2002 and toward a war in Iraq. (Peter Bergen does a nice job talking about the consequences of this decision in his latest book.)
Within that context, Tom Friedman is the very last person I want to hear complaining about the fact that we are still in Afghanistan after all these years. Because Tom Friedman was one of those public intellectuals who argued vociferously that going to war in Iraq was the right decision. What kind of fantastic lack of self-awareness must you possess to then complain about why we are still in Afghanistan? Watch this clip from a Charlie Rose interview with Friedman in 2003. The arrogance and ignorance on display here still makes me angry almost eight years later.*
*In the past, let it be known, I have tried not to beat up on Friedman too much in large part because I so very much respect the reporting he did from Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon. His dispatches for the Associated Press and for the New York Times were very, very solid. Their quality stands out to even a graduate student reading through the newspaper archives 25 years later.
I spent a bit of time this afternoon explaining to some colleagues the effect the Qana massacre of 1996 had on Israeli military operations in southern Lebanon and then came back into the office to read this:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the easternmountains were killed by helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents, according to a statement on Wednesday by NATO, which apologized for the mistake.
The boys, who were 9 to 15 years old, were attacked on Tuesday in what amounted to one of the war’s worst cases of mistaken killings by foreign-led forces. The victims included two sets of brothers. A 10th boy survived.
In 1996, on the same day as the Qana massacre, the IDF also accidentally killed a family of seven in Nabatiyeh.The IDF compounded their errors by initially refusing to take any responsibility for the horror, so, by contrast, it was good to see Gen. Petraeus personally apologize for the killings in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties have a serious effect on military operations (.pdf), and anyone who argues that we can just apply force indiscriminately in this kind of war simply doesn't understand the nature of the war itself.
1. Yesterday, it was Gen. Mattis. Today's big cup o' ice water comes from Sec. Gates:
In his most pointed comment, Mr. Gates said that “we also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”
I have written about how horrified I am that so many folks here in Washington are so casually considering military intervention in Libya -- just 24 months after the negotiation of a status of forces agreement effectively wound down the U.S. war in Iraq. Many* of the people I have read advocating for military intervention in Libya
a) have no expertise in no-fly zones or other military operations,
b) will not be the ones responsible for the lives of any U.S. troops committed to such an intervention,
c) were prominent advocates for another military intervention in an Arab state a few years back and,
d) were themselves no where to be found when Capt. Exum and his Merry Band of Rangers actually ended up fighting in Iraq several months later (and thus were not on hand to learn the lessons about the limits of power than some of us did).
The U.S. military should give the president every available option on Libya and should plan for possible contingencies. But it is good to hear Gen. Mattis, Adm. Mullen and Sec. Gates informing what has thus far been a woefully informed public debate. And it is good to see some needed push-back against what, again, has been an entirely too casual dialogue about possible military intervention.
2. That's a great segue to this heart-breaking, beautifully written piece by Greg Jaffe in today's Washington Post about Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, and his son, who was killed in Afghanistan. I myself fought in Afghanistan in 2002 and again in 2004 and, since 2009, have pretty consistently advocated for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan because I think they support the president's strategy to end that war. But when my cousin leaves active duty next month, my family will, for the first time since 2000, be one of those many, many American families that do not have any members serving on active duty or fighting overseas. And it will then be my turn to feel a little guilty about the incredible sacrifices that have been made by far too few Americans and their loved ones.
3. Finally, one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I have read in quite some time is this article in the Washington Monthly on the lucrative and poorly regulated terrorism counsultancy business. We basically have a cadre of yahoos running around the country teaching our police forces to fear any and all Muslims, which, if you're trying to radicalize your Muslim population, seems like a damn good way to go about doing it. Very few of these yahoos have any formal training or education in radicalization or currents of thought in political Islam. One consultant they profile is from the minority Christian community in Jordan and has a decidedly hostile view of Islam which he proceeds to share with his audience. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the very best scholars of Islam and political Islam in particular have been Arab Christians and Jews -- you can learn a lot from Albert Hourani (Protestant, Lebanese) and Sami Zubayda (Jewish, Iraqi), to name but two. But this article reminded me of this one scholar who often consults for the U.S. government and teaches about radical Islam without ever mentioning his ties to a certain right-wing Christian militia during the Lebanese Civil War. That has always rubbed me the wrong way.
What am I not reading? Well, Tom Friedman gets the bit about Google Earth and Bahrain right, but all the rest of this column -- the stuff about Salam Fayyad, al-Jazeera's coverage of Israel, President Obama and the Beijing Olympics -- just strikes me as crazy. Students of and experts in the politics of the Arabic-speaking world have never been big fans of Tom Friedman, but I have never seen a column of his greeted with such derision as this one, and I understand why. In defense of the man, let me just say that I once spent six months of my life reading newspaper dispatches in English, French and Arabic from the Lebanese Civil War, and Friedman's reporting for both the Associated Press and the New York Times stood out as top-notch. I sure can't defend this column, though.
*Note: "Many" does not mean "all," gang. Crisis Group has called for a no-fly zone, to pick but one example, and no one would dare accuse the folks on staff there of being callow about military interventions in the Middle East. I have read others make a case -- responsibly, and aware of the gravity of their recommendation -- for military intervention, and the majority of my above criticism does not apply to those people. So relax, David Kenner!
Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone had a bad weekend. First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post (who is obviously a shill who would never under any circumstances criticize the military when it deserves it), did a little actual reporting on what happened in Afghanistan:
The problems began on March 22, 2010, when Maj. Vanessa Hillman, a public-affairs officer in the training command sent an e-mail to Holmes asking his team to help provide weekly assessments of the prior week's meetings with visitors. "How did we do with our communication efforts and messaging," she wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Post. "What results did we get."
Holmes fired back an hour later. "No - we cannot. We are not set up (at all!) to do assessments - nor should we assess the effects of information engagements on US or Coalition allies. We are focused on the adversary, and on the Afghan population - by both joint doctrine and US Law."
That prompted Hillman's boss, Col. Gregory T. Breazile, to respond with what Holmes calls an illegal order: "Mike, You will do the assessment piece for the IEWG [Information Effects Working Group]. You are are directly tasked to support the IEWG and all of the DV [distinguished visitor] visits."
The following day, Holmes wrote to a military lawyer, who called the order "a bad idea and contrary to IO policy."
But independent specialists in military law said Holmes's position as an information operations officer, regardless of whether he was formally reassigned, does not mean he cannot be asked to perform other legal tasks. "If you're being asked to chip in and help someone else, that's a lawful order," said Jeffrey Addicott, who was as an Army lawyer for 20 years and now is a law professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
That is the same conclusion the top lawyer for Caldwell's command reached.
Read the entire article. What you have here is one disgruntled staff officer who didn't like the way he had been re-tasked by his commanding officer. Chandrasekaran also revealed that Holmes had no psychological operations training whatsoever and that the St. Petersburg Times in Florida had this information a month ago (again, leaked from the same disgruntled staff officer) and decided not to report it. (Probably because the St. Petersburg Times famously shies away from controversial reporting.) Holmes griped to Hastings, who deeply reported and wrote this article in, uh, well, actually less than a week.
‘Illegal Psyop’ Neither Illegal Nor Psyop, General’s Lawyer Ruled was the says-it-all headline of a post written by friends-of-Hastings Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman* on Wired's Danger Room. If Hastings did not have such an obvious axe to grind, he might have reached a similar conclusion. Instead, he was too busy taking cheap shots at respected officers.
Politico's Morning Defense has a similar take on all of this worth reading.
*In the interests of full disclosure, Spencer and Noah are also friends of this blogger -- and Caldwell.
While the briefings provided me with a helpful update on what was happening on the ground, I knew that I would have to cross-check their assessment by talking to other military officials, diplomatic officials, outside experts and troops in the field, and I always raise skeptical questions when discussing this topic.
Any time you receive a briefing from a senior military officer or civilian official, you should walk in assuming they are trying to present their activities and accomplishments in the best positive light. As a defense policy analyst, you will sometimes develop close relationships with officers and officials and can walk in expecting a higher degree of candor. And if you yourself happen to be a former officer, you will often find yourself interacting with commissioned and noncommissioned officers with whom you had previously served. In his new book, Bing West quotes Robert Barrow as saying he never saw a crowded battlefield: you always run into the same guys again and again. If, like me, you first deployed for OEF in 2001 (back when it was Operation Infinite Justice!) and for OIF in 2003, trips to Afghanistan are all too often opportunities to catch up with guys you've known for a decade.
But what Sen. Franken says here is really good advice for any defense policy analyst or researcher examining the war in Afghanistan. You need to check everyone's homework. You need to ask critical questions about the information you are being briefed on -- especially the statistics people trot out to support their arguments.
I do not have the years of experience as an analyst like Tony Cordesman -- who seemingly always asks the toughest questions -- or the brain power of a guy like Steve Biddle. But one of the things I try to do whenever I am participating in a sponsored research trip is to schedule lots of meetings and interviews on the side and after whatever scheduled agenda I have been given. In December, for example, I went to Afghanistan and traveled around Afghanistan for 10 days at the request of Gen. Petraeus. Now, I like and am predisposed to trust the guys he has on his staff. Some of his staff are among the more intellectually honest men I know. And in the course of traveling around eastern and southern Afghanistan, I ran into a lot of commanders I knew from either the Rangers or from previous trips to Afghanistan. I like those guys, too, and want to trust what they are telling me. But after I had completed my 10 days traveling around under the auspices of ISAF, I nonetheless spent an additional three days in Kabul talking with civilian analysts from organizations like Crisis Group and the Afghan Analysts Network in addition to journalists who have been based in Afghanistan for a long time. What I heard from those analysts was often very different from what I heard from NATO military officers and diplomats. That doesn't mean the latter are lying or are setting up Potemkin Villages for me to inspect. But it does mean that the reality presented from within the "bubble" often looks different from the outside. So my recommendation to any young analysts, researchers or aides out there would be to always seek out dissenting opinions and analysis. You might end up agreeing with what you were first presented with anyway, but your own analysis will end up sharper.
*I have actually heard from people I trust that Sen. Franken, the former comedian, takes his job admirably seriously, so I should not tease.
One of the ugliest sentences you will ever read in a piece of journalism:
Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban.
That is not a quote from someone else -- those words belong to the journalist himself. Classy. I would recommend reading Michael Hastings' dispatches for Rolling Stone not as sober journalism but as particularly poorly sourced policy papers. Essentially Michael Hastings is doing bad think tank policy analysis with a little character assassination thrown in for extra measure.
When policy analysis is done well, it starts with a research question and then constructs methodology and accumulates data to test an initial hypothesis. When policy analysis is done poorly, the researcher just cherry-picks data to support his desired argument and doesn't ask basic epistemological questions that might call into question the researcher's assumptions or conclusions. Michael Hastings is doing the latter. He obviously has a desired policy preference, and he is cherry-picking the sources that would support that preference. He's obviously not above taking a grotesque cheap shot at a respected senior officer, either.
[In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Joe Buche, who is one of the officers mentioned in the cited article, is a friend of mine. Also, I once met with LTG Caldwell at CNAS before he took command of NTM-A. But the number of times I have met LTG Caldwell at CNAS is equal to the number of times I have met Michael Hastings at CNAS.]
Andrew Exum touches on an academic issue here worth mentioning: that the events in Egypt have been poorly predicted by North American academia, perhaps because political science departments largely focus on quantitative analysis. Andrew, as ever (and I blame living in Washington as well as his southern roots for this), is very polite about not bashing the "quants", as he calls them.
Personally, I would be more blunt. Quantitative analysis and the behaviouralist approach of most American PoliSci academics is a big steaming turd of horseshit when applied in the Middle East. Statistics are useful, yes, when you are in a country that has relevant statistics or where polling is allowed. But things like electoral statistics tell you very little about the political reality of dictatorships, because the data sets are inherently flawed, since they're either unavailable, fraudulent, or irrelevant.
This is not a new problem, right? Garbage in equals garbage out. If the data you are plugging into your analysis is unreliable, your conclusions are not going to pass muster -- not with the political scientists using "soak and poke" methods or, for that matter, any dude you happen to pass on the street. A buddy of mine commented this is less about the divide between quantitative methods and qualitative methods as it is an epistemogical debate. But any debate over methods is ultimately a debate over epistemology: how does the researcher "know" what he or she knows? If he or she is relying on laughably poor data harvested from a semi-closed police state, Issandr points out, he or she can't claim to know much at all. All of this has direct relevance to the study of conflict, of course. Conflict zones are really difficult places to gather reliable data. On the one hand, the U.S. military harvests all kinds of data from its wars. But on the other hand, studying the war in Afghanistan, I have come to trust the data less and less over time and the more I have asked questions about how the data was collected. The numbers look neat on a PowerPoint slide, sure, but when you start asking hard questions, they are less impressive.
(This all reminds me of that quote/warning about how all government statistics are ultimately generated by a civil servant somewhere writing down whatever the hell he pleases on a sheet of paper. Help me out with the exact quote, readers.)