There are two items of note I want to highlight to which I was not able to draw attention while traveling. The first is this post by my friend Steve Negus on Issandr's blog on how Libyan rebels are learning to fight by ... playing video games. Alternately fascinating and hilarious.
The second item to which I want to draw your attention is this paper by Doug Ollivant* for the New America Foundation challenging the "new orthodoxy" about what led to the dramatic drop in ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007. This is an excellent paper. Doug knows enough to know that we cannot definitively determine what caused the 2007 drop in violence, but he advances what he calls "an alternative, counter-narrative" to those offered by Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, Kim Kagan, Linda Robinson and others.** (Which is in itself interesting in part because Doug is one of the heroes of these other narratives -- most especially that of Robinson.)
Doug is one of the smartest thinkers on counterinsurgency I know***, and his piece is littered with interesting observations, though again, it is as tough to prove Doug's narrative is any more valid, given the lack of evidence, than that of Tom Ricks or, say, Peter Feaver. There are just too many variables out there, and as I have argued ad nauseum, the best we can hope to do in the absence of causality is to establish correlation among all the things that happened.
Some of the more interesting observations, though, concern Afghanistan, from where Doug recently returned after a year spent as John Campbell's counterinsurgency advisor. Here are a few choice excerpts. This first one echos a point I made yesterday:
The President’s statements have been ambiguous, ever since his West Point speech of 2009, during which he both authorized an increase in troop strength, and gave a July 2011 date for the beginning of their withdrawal, recently confirmed in an address on the future of the war. This mixed message from the President (which continues to resonate despite post-Lisbon Conference messaging about 2014, and not 2011, being the key date) has been echoed by his administration. This ambiguity is almost certainly driven by the desire to reconcile the largely incompatible goals of permanently and decisively denying al Qaeda safe havens and Taliban establishment in Afghanistan, while simultaneously avoiding long-term intervention and nation building at astronomical cost. So in short, while the troops have arrived in Afghanistan, the unambiguous message of support and presence that accompanied the 2007 Iraq surge has not. We should not be surprised when politicians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan react accordingly.
This second bit is more sobering:
...it is unlikely that a push of more forces, better tactical counterinsurgency, and the arrival of a highly talented commander can compensate for a lack of political commitment and absence of shared goals between the host nation and the intervening power.
*Hahahaha, I love Doug like a brother, but he needs to change his profile picture. "Oui, c'est moi. Je suis au musée du Louvre parce que je suis un homme de culture. Regardez l'angoisse sur mon visage parce que je ne peux pas se permettre une coupe de cheveux."
**Carl Prine dings me for citing Robinson and Ricks in my recent IFRI paper (in his otherwise very touching, thought-provoking post), but I did write that this was an incomplete sample and not a full review of the literature. At least I did in the initial draft I turned in.
***It struck me as so weird and stupid that Doug is set up as some kind of anti-COIN rival to my boss (and his longtime friend) John Nagl in this snarky, argumentative National Journal piece. Doug is as much a card-carrying COINdinista as anyone, and those who understand the continued scholarly and policy development of counterinsurgency know there are genuine operational and strategic differences of opinion concerning COIN and how it should be applied in Afghanistan. (Big footprint with lots of general purpose forces? Small footprint with more special operations trainers? Some combination of both? All of that is counterinsurgency -- it's just different ways of doing it.) More to follow on this...
First off, many thanks to those of you who either attended yesterday's conference or followed proceedings on our website or via Twitter. I will be sure to post the conference videos when they are on-line, and C-SPAN covered the entire event, so when you have insomnia this weekend and are flipping through channels, do not be shocked to see me or Patrick Cronin talking at you.
Second, I finally got around to reading Sarah Stillman's excellent and important article on the treatment of third-country nationals serving in support capacities for the U.S. military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The New Yorker has locked this article, which is silly, because this article has real policy relevance yet most of the people who need to read the article do not subscribe to the New Yorker.
In summary: third-country nationals serving in support functions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often suffer horrific abuses. This will not surprise many of you, but it should make you angry, because your tax dollars are helping fund those carrying out the abuses.
The United States has chosen to do two things in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have led to a situation in which the U.S. military is obscenely dependent on labor from places like Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Philippines -- often not to do work directly related to combat but to instead support a bunch of stuff unrelated to killing the enemy or supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the one hand, we have decided that U.S. men and women serving on large forward operating bases and airfields should have as many of the comforts of home as possible, to include TGI Fridays, Burger effing Kings, etc. (Needless to say, the grunt walking point in Paktia gets none of this.)
On the other hand, a lot of the regular support functions -- like, operating regular chow halls and laundry services -- are not carried out by U.S. servicemen but, again, by third-country nationals.
The people who perform these functions and work at the Burger effing King are not from Kansas or California (or, importantly, Kandahar or Konar) bur rather from South and East Asia. Big contractors farm out contracts to sub-contractors, which in turn farm out contracts to smallish recruiters all over the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The potential for fraud, waste and abuse -- to say nothing of human trafficking -- is both obvious and immense. Many (most?) of these third-country nationals are lied to prior to their arrival about their jobs, the location of their work, their living conditions, and their compensation.
Decisions made in defense policy and war-making have consequences and trade-offs. This is a truism, but an important one. When you buy a bunch of tanks, for example, that might mean you cannot afford to buy a new aircraft carrier. When you decide to turn an artillery battalion into light infantrymen for the sake of the war in Afghanistan, you accept their artillery skills will suffer.
In the same way, if you're going to outsource so much of these wars, that's fine in theory. (Although, again, don't get me started on Burger effing King, or running convoys through an IED-littered road in order to deliver big-screen televisions to a FOB.) But you also need to be prepared to train a division's worth of contracting officers to oversee all of these contracts and subcontracts. Capitalism is amoral. Left to its own devices, the capitalist system will not just do the right thing. If you care about things like values -- to say nothing of spending tax-payer money wisely -- you need to invest in oversight. You can't just farm out all these contracts and assume people you've never met will behave in a moral, responsible manner toward their fellow human beings.
Those who care about these things, meanwhile -- and I would hope those people include people in the executive and legislative branches of our government -- need to read this article.
Longtime contributor to the blog Erin "Charlie" Simpson is back with a guest post for the ages...
Instead of going line by line through MAJ Thiel’s SWJ paper (which I characterized on the Twitters as “horrible, terrible stats work”), I’d like to offer some general guidelines for policy-relevant, conflict research. As Ex will tell you, I am not an Iraq expert. But I know a little bit about COIN and another bit about quantitative research.
1) Big Claims require Big Methods. I’m not one to argue that sophisticated statistics can answer all of our research and policy questions. But if you want to wade in on one of the biggest (conflict) policy debates of the last 10 years, you best bring a lot of stats firepower. Correlations among yearly, national data won’t cut it. There are people who do this for a living: Ivy League professors, Army ORSAs, DIA analysts, DARPA geeks, think-tank types. And they do it with care and sophistication. Learn from them, understand the data and model choices they make, and realize the complexity and contingency of the problem at hand. We cannot adjudicate these complicated causal claims with descriptive statistics.
2) Avoid Sigacts. Sigacts suck. I’m sorry. But they do. They are a function of our presence. More troops (outside of more bases) leads to more sigacts? <sarcasm>You don’t say!</sarcasm> Sigacts are as much a measure of our presence as they are of violence.* (There are also a ton of non-violent sigacts reported. So make sure you knock out those key leader engagements and non-battle injuries before you run your analysis.)
*And as we know, COIN isn’t just about violence (if you’re a Kalyvas person, you know violence has a non-monotonic relationship with control such that low-violence doesn’t always mean good things). So, sigacts are a bad measure of violence and violence is an unreliable measure of stability or “progress” or whatever. But that’s a slightly different debate.
What I'm trying to say here is: Moneyball that shit and find the COIN version of on-base percentage or WHIP.
3) Correlation is not causation. We all know this. But did you also know that low correlation does not preclude findings of causation? Two variables may appear to have a low correlation – until you control for various background conditions. Sometimes this can be tested with jury-rigged chi-square analysis (stratifying one of the variables of interest into various segments -- for example, divvying up Iraqi provinces by #’s of battalions present in 2006 and seeing if there are statistically different levels of violence in 2007). But the only real way to determine which variable among many has a causal effect is with something like regression analysis – correlation won’t cut it.
4) Model specification matters. Ok, so now you want to run some regressions? Which kind? For most conflict data, you won’t want ordinary least squares (OLS). In the parlance of our time, you’ll need to consider the underlying “data generating process.” How do the data come to be observed, and which models’ statistical assumptions best match that process? In general conflict researchers should evaluate various time series, time series-cross sectional, and count models (ie, Poisson) for their work.
5) Level of analysis matters more. How do you plan to aggregate your data? In many instances conflict researchers will want to look at how violence changes across time and space. Global investigations of violence (think Correlates of War or Fearon-Laitin style research) will look at the country-year. That is, annual level national data. This data is usually pre-collected and easy to work with. But if you’re focusing on Iraq or Afghanistan, you need subnational data. And while these wars are long, 5-10 years doesn’t generate enough data points for a useful time series. The more dynamic the conflict, the more detailed you want the data. So you need to dig down to province-month or district-week. (In Afghanistan, sigacts are relatively stable at the district-week level. If you’ve got some data or computing horsepower, you can even carve up the whole country into 10kmX10km grid and go from there.) Unfortunately, that means your other variables need to be measured at the same level, which can be tricky. But them’s the rules.
6) Regression has limitations, too. If you’re doing some sort of “policy evaluation” chances are we didn’t randomly assign the policy “treatment.” What does that mean? That means we probably spent development money in the most violent areas. Or established joint-security stations in safe areas first. Or otherwise implemented a policy based on the very thing you’re trying to study. From a causal inference perspective, that’s a humdinger. One set of solutions is to “match” or pair districts based on their “propensity for treatment,” which can deal with some of the non-random assignment problems. (See Gary King’s paper on health policy evaluation in Mexico for a good example.) There is a lot of good work that needs to be done in the realm of conflict research. Let’s figure out how to do it well.
(Those interested on the academic side may want to get involved in the Minerva-grant funded Empirical Studies of Conflict project run by Jake Shapiro, Eli Berman, Joe Felter and Radha Iyengar. Otherwise, talk to me about cool kids at Caerus Associates.)
From Abu Muqawama: check out Mike Few in SWJ while you're at it. Also, there is a good conversation on Twitter between @drewconway, @charlie_simpson, @abumuqawama, @chrisalbon, @jay_ulfelder and others on this post.
Look, my employer does not take institutional positions, but if you are going to ascribe them to us, please do your homework:
1. U.S. News: "Patrick Cronin, a senior director at the Center for a New American Security, an elite perch for the kind of liberal interventionists who rallied the nation to war in Libya..."
First off, RTFM: does it look to you like we are brimming with enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya over here at 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue NW? And have you ever read anything Patrick Cronin (Bush Administration appointee, by the way, hardly a liberal interventionist) has ever written?
2. Salon: "Some who supported the Iraq war dissent from the Obama's administration maneuvers into Libya. The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, Time's Joe Klein, the young group of bloggers known as the "Juicebox Mafia," and the counterinsurgency fetishists at the Center for a New American Security have all been skeptical or outright hostile to American participation in Libya. Whether because of concerns of imperial overstretch, fears of another long-term occupation, or simple post-Iraq humility, these one-time liberal hawks have traded in their wings."
Dude, if you want to flatter me by blaming me for the president's decision to commit more resources to war in Afghanistan, fine. And the title "counterinsurgency fetishist" is frankly awesome and needs to go on all my business cards. But I don't even know where to start with what else was written. Should I mention that our CEO was a platoon commander in the U.S. Marine Corps when the nation went to war in Iraq and that our president was a battalion operations officer in the U.S. Army? Should I mention that I was a Ranger platoon leader at the time? If by supporting the Iraq War you mean actually fighting then okay. How about I just point out that CNAS was founded four years after the Iraq War began? What the heck, Kerry, did you guys lose all your fact-checkers over there at Salon?
Let me conclude by saying, once again, that CNAS takes no institutional positions on anything except keeping cold beer in our fridge.
We all learned different lessons from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. One lesson I learned was that you should always robustly plan for stabilization and reconstruction operations to follow the conclusion of major combat operations. But with that lesson in mind and being fully aware of the costs associated with properly resourced, comprehensive stablization operations, another lesson I learned is that you should be very, very cautious about intervening in the first place.*
To avert the worst, we must work with the nascent opposition government, the National Transitional Council, to develop a plan for a post-Qaddafi state. It is also vitally important that Western special forces, Arab soldiers or both begin arming and training the rebel fighters. They must be able to not only help toss out Colonel Qaddafi but also maintain law and order in the new Libya.
Like such other post-conflict states as Kosovo and East Timor, post-Qaddafi Libya will most likely need an international peacekeeping force. This should be organized under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League — a step that will require amending the Security Council resolution, which forbids a “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
Max and I have agreed more than we have disagreed about what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq after the United States and its allies intervened in both places.** But there is no way the U.S. Congress will authorize or fund the kind of comprehensive stabilization operations about which Max is writing here. (To say nothing of the United Nations, the Arab League, or many other NATO member states.) He and others who have advocated on behalf of military intervention in Libya should have known this prior to the intervention.
*Although I have a lot of tactical, operational, and theoretical lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that might interest readers of this blog, at the end of the day, my personal lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan boil down to the following: "Well, this has been hard, bloody, painful and expensive. Let us think very hard before ever doing it again."
**I did not support going to war in the latter on strategic grounds, but since I was a lowly 1st lieutenant at the time, I kept my mouth shut. Which is a hard thing for me to do.
From Anne Applebaum:
...being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist. Let's not repeat past mistakes...
To which I would only add that if you are morally justified to intervene but do so incompetently, the incompetence itself amounts to immoral behavior.
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.
Veteran Washington Post intelligence reporter Walter Pincus goes wading through the Wikileaks cables and discovers something that lends support to a post I wrote last week:
Among additional State Department cables released over the past week and a half by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, the handful from Cairo show that U.S. diplomats for years have been aware of Mubarak's views and Egypt's problems. They also show the limited impact that U.S. diplomacy can have on a country when its leader, even a close ally, refuses to deal with what Washington perceives as legitimate failures of its government.
In short, it was relatively easy to predict the trainwreck on the horizon. It was difficult, by contrast, to use what leverage the United States had over Egypt to avert the disaster.
In another article in today's paper, meanwhile, Pincus* talks about what ISAF sees as the logical Taliban strategy this spring:
When Taliban leaders return from Pakistan this spring to begin their annual offensive in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. commander believes they will undertake a major assassination campaign against local and tribal Afghan leaders and others who in recent months have begun cooperating with government officials and participating in the peace process.
The reason: While Taliban leaders have used the winter to withdraw to Pakistan to rearm and retrain their forces, U.S. and coalition forces have destroyed hidden support bases, carried out Special Forces raids on those Taliban leaders remaining in Afghanistan and deployed 110,000 more troops than there were last year, 70,000 of them Afghans.
Ahmed Hashim once coined the phrase "infrastructural takedown" to describe when insurgents do this. Ahmed was thinking, originally, of the Irish Republican Army from 1919 to 1921 and the way in which it went after British civil servants: mailmen, clerks, police -- anyone who enabled British rule. Ahmed started thinking hard about it once he started finding Tim Pat Coogan's books on Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
*Pincus is, what, 78 now? Can anyone over there in the Post's newsroom keep up with that guy? (Fun fact: Pincus finished law school a few years back, graduating at the age of 68.)
Yesterday, 165 House Republicans voted to completely de-fund USAID as part of austerity measures designed to address the U.S. budget crisis. They suggested a lot of other cuts, but you can guess what they did not suggest cutting: the budget of the Department of Defense. They suggested we zero out the budget for USAID but not make any changes to the amount we are currently spending within the Department of Defense.
The FY2011 Department of Defense budget request was $548.9 billion dollars for the base budget, which does not include the $159.3 billion dollars set aside for "overseas contingency operations" such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just to give you a little perspective, the International Affairs budget we set aside for foreign and security assistance programs totaled, according to Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams, $500 billion in the three decades between FY1977 and FY2007 -- $50 billion less than the base budget for the Department of Defense for one year of operations!
But that incredible disparity is not what folks need to know about USAID. The question that last factoid should prompt in the heads of at least 165 people in Washington, DC is, "Wait a minute, why is discussion of the USAID budget included in the authoritative book on the national security budget?"
The answer is that Adams and Williams understand what every U.S. military officer and defense official from the youngest second lieutenant at Fort Benning to Bob Gates understands: the money we spend through USAID is part of our national security budget. Some money, such as the money we spent through both the defense and aid budgets in Haiti last year, we spend for mostly altruistic purposes. But the two biggest recipients of U.S. international aid through USAID are Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can have a separate debate about whether or not this money is being well spent, but we cannot have a debate as to why it is being spent: it is quite obviously being spent to advance what are seen to be the national security interests of the United States.
USAID, as an organization, no doubt wastes a lot of money. But so too, to put it mildly, does the Department of Defense. I have no doubt, in fact, that the amount of money USAID wastes in any given year amounts to a small fraction of the amount of money the Department of Defense loses through cost overruns for the F-35 alone.
The bottom line here is that the biggest defender of the USAID budget will be Bob Gates -- and any U.S. military officer who has ever served with someone from the Office of Transition Initiatives in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.
You want to spend less money on aid and development in Afghanistan? Fine, I agree with you. But get of USAID? Now you're just being ignorant.