This isn't the quote itself, but a friend of mine wrote to me after reading my complaint in this New York Times Magazine article:
Exum emphasized that he is not outraged by Medal of Honor or any other military shooter. But he can’t help, he says, being a little bit bothered by these games. “This is the thing,” he told me. “Point 5 percent of this country actually fights in these conflicts.” Nearly 80,000 Americans are deployed in Afghanistan, Exum said, while 2.2 million played Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live during a single day last fall. “There’s something annoying that most of America experiences the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are actually taking place, through a video game,” he said.
My friend put it better than me:
These will be the first wars in which the civilians always remember where they were on 9-11 but never wondered where a bunch of tough-ass 19 year olds spent the next decade.
As I wrote last night, I rather liked the president's speech and thought it showed proper respect for the sacrifices made and for President Bush. Others on the internets had different things to say.
1. Andrew Bacevich says "The United States leaves Iraq having learned nothing." I disagree. I think we have learned a lot, tactically, operationally, and strategically, and I think the American people will in the future be more wary of the kind of military adventurism that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Bacevich should take heart in this. But honestly, does anyone out there see a U.S. administration ever embracing the kind of neo-isolationism that Bacevich is apparently demanding? And is it just me, or is he crankier than normal lately?
2. Someone sent this post by Jennifer Rubin at Commentary to my mother, who forwarded it to me, asking, "I thought Obama did a great job in the speech last night, showing great respect for the military and the sacrifices that have been made. Am I wrong?" No, mom, you are not wrong. But Rubin is kind of like the anti-Bacevich: the president could have announced he was re-invading Iraq and marching on Tehran in the spring, and she still would have written a post denouncing him as a weak leader who coddles our enemies. (Interestingly, John Podhoretz liked the speech.)
3. Max Bergmann at the Center for American Progress takes a swipe at CNAS and writes that the president has effectively implemented a 2005 report written by scholars at the Center for American Progress. I'll let others decide which think tanks are the most influential on Iraq policy, recognizing that no one outside the 202 area code really cares. But for those of you unfamiliar with the Center for American Progress, let me just say that it is a great think tank filled with some wonderful scholars whose reports I read with interest. It has a different mission and focus than CNAS, but I have many friends there and value their opinions and analysis. I particularly liked this last report by Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman, the latter of whom sends out an invaluable email each morning with news articles and analysis on events in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
4. Fred Kaplan was underwhelmed by the president's speech and wonders where Iraq is headed next. One answer might be found in the rather excellent analysis provided by the man at the Pentagon with day to day responsibility for Iraq. Colin Kahl, an alumnus of the Little Think Tank That Could, is a professor on leave from the security studies department at Georgetown, and he always brings welcome scholarly rigor to his policy analysis.
UPDATE: And on a day when the pathetic Washington Post is ripping off TBD.com's feed to cover the hostage crisis at the Discovery Channel HQ, Anthony Shadid redeems the MSM with one of the best newspaper articles you will ever read in the New York Times.
...I don't think this speech by the president matters much. But I thought it was excellent. I thought it showed class regarding President Bush, made the right connections between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said the right things concerning the nature and composition of U.S. power.
On a related note, I can understand why Republicans do not like this president concerning his preferred domestic policy. But honestly, I can't see how they have much to complain about concerning national security policies.
And on an unrelated but completely apolitical note, let me take this opportunity to remember my friend Joel Cahill. RIP. RLTW. Sua Sponte.
What constitutes success or failure in counterinsurgency campaigns is controversial and has sparked much informed (and uninformed) discussion in the policy and academic communities. (It has also generated this priceless article in the Onion.) Yesterday, I posted a quote from David Galula's Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 and asked the readership to determine whether or not Galula's definition of success can be accurately applied to the United States in Iraq. Here is Galula's definition:
Victory is won and pacification ends when most of the counterinsurgent forces can safely be withdrawn, leaving the population to take care of itself with the help of a normal contingent of police and Army forces.
The debate sparked in the comments thread was a good one, and I promised my own thoughts today. First, though, I need to be up front about some qualifications:
1. My thoughts on whether or not the United States was successful in its counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq does not mean I think the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq was a wise one. Quite the opposite. I think the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq was a blunder, and counterinsurgency operations were only necessary, in my view, once the Bush Administration and the U.S. and British militaries had badly mismanaged the war from 2003 to 2006.
2. I am critical of U.S. and British military performance in Iraq from 2003 until 2006 (and beyond). This does not mean that I believe all units performed equally poorly. Some units and commanders performed exceptionally well. So if you were yourself a U.S. officer or troop on the ground between 2003 and 2006 -- and I myself served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 -- do not take my criticism personally. I do, however, believe that the U.S. military began a difficult and bloody learning process in 2003 that started to show some real fruits by 2006 and that the Bush Administration made a number of wise decisions before and after the midterm elections of 2006 that had a positive effect. The U.S. military deserves credit for learning, and the Bush Administration deserves credit for correcting course.
3. U.S. counterinsurgency operations were not -- I repeat, were NOT -- the only variable which led to the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq in 2007. A bloody civil war in 2006 combined with Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to largely keep his forces on the sidelines and a tribal "awakening" all had an effect on the drop in violence, and it is impossible to determine with relative certainty which variables were most important to the drop in violence. So I am not arguing that the surge in U.S. troops was solely responsible for the drop in violence, and I am also not arguing that counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2007 is the only appropriate counterinsurgency strategy or could be replicated with ease elsewhere.
4. I have a very limited view of what success in Iraq looks like. A secular democracy, free from violence, in which individual rights and civil liberties are protected by a robust legal system? That would be nice, sure. But nations wage war in their own interests, and my view -- which is perhaps cynical -- is that in 2006, the United States was looking for a way to a) reduce the levels of violence in Iraq in order to b) build up key Iraqi institutions so that we could c) transition to a security force assistance mission and largely depart the country. (This is almost precisely what we are attempting to do in Afghanistan today, with less success.)
Given and based upon those qualifications, I believe the United States (and its allies, Iraqi and international) were successful in Iraq from 2006 onwards in serving U.S. interests. I believe the desired policy outcome of U.S. decision-makers has largely been realized through a combination of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, actions taken by the Iraqi government and non-state actors, and wise policy decisions made by the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2006 and 2010.
Today, a series of brutal insurgent attacks tore through Iraq, killing scores in some of the worst violence Iraq has seen since the dark days of 2007. And Iraq's political class remains deadlocked, unable to form a government and frustrating its people. Yesterday, though, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq dipped below 50,000 as the United States credibly transitioned to a smaller security force assistance mission. So while Iraq continues to be wracked by violence and suffers from political instability, U.S. interests have been served in the sense that the conflict in Iraq is now an Iraqi conflict that will be largely settled and fought by Iraqi actors. It's a curious, tragic and selfish definition of victory, I know. But it's victory.
Here's a test for the readership: read the following quote, from Galula's Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958, and debate whether or not Iraq meets the conditions for victory as outlined. Tomorrow I will share my own thoughts.
Victory is won and pacification ends when most of the counterinsurgent forces can safely be withdrawn, leaving the population to take care of itself with the help of a normal contingent of police and Army forces.
Here's a fun project for the readership. This should keep you busy through the weekend. I was reading a book chapter by Stathis Kalyvas (.pdf) and came across his definition of civil war, which will be familiar to those of you who have read this book:
Civil war can be defined as armed combat taking place within the boundaries of a recognized sovereign entity between parties subject to a common authority at the outset of the hostilities.
This got me thinking about Afghanistan and whether or not we can define the conflict in Afghanistan as a civil war. Words like "authority" and "sovereign" seem to me to be in need of exploration (assuming we agree with the definition offered by Kalyvas). Even "outset" is tricky. That in turn got me thinking about Iraq as well. How would we describe the conflict there? Maybe we would say "conflict" is the wrong word and that "political violence" is more appropriate. I don't know myself, but I am interested in the thoughts of the readership.
Update: So I asked a serious social sciency question related to current wars for the readership to mull over the weekend, and I get ... a bunch of inane crap about the mosque they want to build in the old Burlington Coat Factory in Manhattan. Thanks, gang.
Michael Cohen has a great essay in The New Republic on the American Left and Afghanistan. Michael's own policy preferences cloud his essay somewhat, but his diagnosis of the problem and its consequences is spot-on: the American Left has failed to develop and market a coherent policy alternative to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. As a result, the American Left is frozen out of high-level policy discussions on U.S. policy in the region.
I question Michael's assumption that counterinsurgency cannot be a valid policy option for progressives, but I think he is correct that the American Left has been largely ineffective at forming a coherent policy alternative and then selling that alternative. Case in point is the Center for American Progress (CAP), at which several of my friends work. Says CAP's Brian Katulis:
[The progressives] were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign, which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan.
This is disingenuous, of course. Brian and other analysts at CAP -- the most influential think tank on the American Left, with many alumni in the Obama Administration and a fantastic public relations staff -- have published extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their 2007 report, "Strategic Reset," was a major report which argued -- contra the Surge -- for a phased withdrawal to take place in Iraq within one year from the report's publication date in June 2007. (Okay, in retrospect, that was a really bad idea.) But the problem with "Strategic Reset" and other papers is that not only did they fail to persuade anyone in Bush Administration, they also failed to persuade the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Obama campaign's ultimate stance on Iraq, for example, looked a lot more like products being produced by CFR, Brookings, CNAS, and other think tanks in the center and center-left than it did anything produced by the Left. By late 2008, the Obama campaign's position on Iraq largely mirrored that of the Bush Administration!
Look, when the University of Nebraska stomped my beloved University of Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl, it wasn't because of foul play -- it was because Tennessee was simply out-blocked and out-tackled by Nebraska. Anyone watching at home could see this.
Similarly, forming and marketing policy alternatives is the blocking and tackling of think tanks and policy-oriented intellectual life. Failing to form a coherent policy alterative and to market that alternative does not mean that you were overcome by an "echo chamber" of "cheerleaders" who -- unlike you, of course -- failed to critically examine U.S. interests and policy options. It just means that you fought a policy debate and lost it.
Cohen and I are in violent agreement that our policy debates would be enriched by the formulation of coherent policy alternatives on Afghanistan -- from left, right and center. If the current strategy fails, we will need alternatives and branch plans, and I have argued that for counterinsurgency to be relevant and effective, it needs careful criticism. But for the American Left to itself be relevant, it has to form ideas that it can then market to the public and policy-makers. Thus far, it has failed to do that on Afghanistan.
UPDATE: I've gotten some really good reactions to this post. I think it -- and Michael Cohen's article -- have struck a nerve. One reader wrote to suggest that one reason so many prominent members of the American Left have been reluctant to criticize the president on Afghanistan is because they are still hoping for jobs in the administration. Another reader wrote in to defend "Strategic Reset," arguing that while its central arguments were never ultimately persuasive, the report was important because it shifted the debate and staked out a position within Democratic policy arguments. Another reader -- a University of Tennessee graduate -- asked why I had to dredge up such horrible memories of the 1998 Orange Bowl and reminded me that Tennessee won the NCAA championship the very next year. (At the Fiesta Bowl, with me in attendence. They won by out-blocking and out-tackling Florida State, as I recall.)
Some folks at the Center for American Progress were upset with the post, and I understand: no one, myself included, likes to get called out by name in a post. Brian Katulis was particularly upset, and I can understand since I basically said his papers and positions on Iraq and Afghanistan had not been particularly effective. This is like telling an NBA shooting guard that his jump shot sucks, and Brian is a smart and serious scholar who I disagree with but respect. So I'm sorry about calling him out, though I thought it useful to illustrate the dynamic Cohen was describing. (And I thought and continue to think his quote was pretty disingenuous.) Another scholar at the Center for American Progress was upset that he was lumped in "the American Left," and I should have included a disclaimer that not everyone at CAP -- an organization for which I have a lot of respect -- is a card-carrying member of the Left. I understand they are an ideologically diverse and wonderful crew over there, though I am probably not alone in thinking CAP could reasonably be described as of the Left or liberal (in the 21st Century American definition of the latter word). I took what I perceived to be CAP's inability to gain traction for the positions laid out in their Afghanistan and Iraq papers to be emblematic of the American Left's inability to affect the policy debate on Afghanistan. I'm sorry if anyone at CAP felt that illustration unfairly pigeon-holed them. I think a broader discussion of American progressives and Afghanistan would be one worth having and told Brian I would be happy to participate in a public discussion of the issue sometime after I'm back off of dissertation leave.
Ever since my friend and mentor Tom Ricks concluded at the end of his book The Gamble that the Surge succeeded tactically but failed strategically, it has been safe among others to say that the Surge -- for all the heroics of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps -- failed. Andrew Sullivan and Tom write this regularly on their blogs, and because they are serious people, others parrot what they say. At some point, though, evidence gets in the way of their conclusion.
If you really move the goal posts, defining up "success" as the Surge having not only reduced levels of violence and addressed immediate drivers of conflict but having also managed to fix all the problems in Iraq's political process, then yeah, it failed. But I don't recall that ever being the aim of the operation in 2007, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect the U.S. military and its friends in the diplomatic corps to be able to settle the political affairs of a host nation. That's not what a military does, and I am known for having a pretty expansive definition of what militaries should be expected to do on the battlefield. “We intervene in … a conflict,” Gen. Sir Rupert Smith wrote in 2005, “in order to establish a condition in which the political objective can be achieved by other means and in other ways. We seek to create a conceptual space for diplomacy, economic incentives, political pressure and other measures to create a desired political outcome of stability, and if possible democracy.”
So how has the U.S. military and its partners done in carving out that conceptual space Sir Rupert writes about? Well, let's take a look at the numbers:
We can argue about how many other factors aside from U.S. diplomatic and military operations led to the stunning drop in violence in 2007. There was a civil war in 2005 and 2006, tribes from al-Anbar "flipped" in 2006, and Muqtada al-Sadr decided to keep his troops out of the fight for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Those are just three factors which might not have had anything to do with U.S. operations. But there can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. Acts of heinous violence still take place in Baghdad, but so too does a relatively peaceful political process.
If you want to argue that getting involved in Iraq in the first place was a stupid decision, fine. I agree with you. But trying to argue that the Surge "failed" at this point -- even if Iraq someday descends anew into civil war -- simply isn't a credible option anymore.
Update: Sullivan, Larison and Cohen object. Cohen's concern is that we'll take the Iraq experience and think that we now have a one-size-fits-all COIN blueprint that we can apply with equal success to Afghanistan and elsewhere. And I have some sympathy for that concern. (Rand's Nora Bensahel -- who knows more about Iraq than Sullivan, Larison, Cohen or me -- wrote a note in the comments, and I have a lot of sympathy for her concern as well.) Sullivan and Larison, meanwhile, cannot seem to come to grips with the fact that a stunning drop in ethno-sectarian violence -- caused by several factors, including U.S. military operations in 2007 -- has indeed facilitated political reconciliation. We have the recent elections and several negotiated agreements -- not least the status of forces agreement negotiated between the United States government and the Iraqi government -- as evidence that the space created for a political process has been exploited. So my beef with Larison is like the conversations I have with Tom: I don't think he gives enough credit to the political successes in Iraq since 2007.
Again, I thought the Iraq War was a really stupid idea too -- and I actually had to fight in it, so I should be more bitter than most. But the inability to admit that we managed to avoid a horrific defeat in 2007 is really something. You simply cannot look at the above chart and read what Sullivan is arguing without scratching your head. Sullivan even points to something Ayad Allawi said about this Iraqi government not representing all Iraqis and saying that is evidence the Surge failed. Which I think is hilarious, since Allawi is ... an opposition politician. Sullivan regularly links to opposition politicians in this country saying nuttier stuff than Ayad Allawi has ever said (and I have sympathy for what Allawi is saying, actually) without wringing his hands as to whether or not it amounts to a Constitutional crisis. ("The U.S. Civil War failed!") "Opposition politician criticizes government" is hardly a shocker. And after denying he is moving the goal posts, Sullivan then says his criteria for success is "a non-sectarian space for a non-sectarian national government capable of running the country when the US leaves." Well, okay, so an absence of sectarianism is now a requirement for success? You're not going to ever beat "taifiyya" in Iraq, so though I do not remember eradication of sectarianism as one of the metrics tracked by either Gen. Petraeus or the Bush Administration, I guess Sullivan will never have to say he was wrong about the surge.
This priceless email report is from Beirut-based Mitch Prothero, of The National:
The President of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council Sayyed Ammar Hakim visited the resting place of martyr Commander Hajj Imad Moghnieh, in Rawdat al-Shahidain cemetery. After placing a wreath of flowers at the martyr's shrine and reciting prayers for all the martyrs at the cemetery, he considered his presence "At this sacred place, a confirmation of solidarity, support and emotional interaction with the martyrs of the Islamic Resistance, who stood, fought, struggled and sacrificed a great deal for Lebanon, the Arabs and all Muslims, for the just cause in this region, manifested in standing up to the Zionist enemy."
Allow a friend of mine to put this in perspective: "So the guy we killed hundreds of thousands of people to put in power just prayed over the grave of the most efficient killer of Americans ever. I mean, other than the Wendy's triple decker bacon cheese burger."
The New York Times profiles one of the great counterinsurgents of the contemporary era ... and a great friend and mentor to this blogger.
RARELY does the hulking commander of American forces in Iraq meet with Iraqis or go to a news conference without a slight, dark-haired woman standing just a little to one side — as if to give him space, but almost always in his line of sight and within earshot.
The woman is Emma Sky, and she is an unlikely figure in the milieu of the generally strait-laced American military. She is British, 41, a civilian and a onetime opponent of the war, but nevertheless a political adviser, as well as confidante on many policy matters to the American commander, Gen. Ray Odierno.
She is often compared to Gertrude Bell, a celebrated early-20th-century British adventurer who was an architect of modern Iraq. That may be an overstatement, but Ms. Sky is nevertheless, like Ms. Bell, a woman to be reckoned with.