September 27, 2010

On Woodward's Book: A (Very Minor) Clarification

I arrived back in the office this morning to discover a copy of Bob Woodward's new bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1439172498 on my desk with the rest of the mail. The mail also included two other books I ordered from Amazon -- Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affairir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1590170830 and Colin Gray's Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategyir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1597973076 -- so it may be a while before I get to reading and commenting on the Woodward book.

That having been said, and since Marc Ambinder is already giving me credit for having convinced Stan McChrystal to institute strict new traffic guidelines for ISAF vehicles*, I need to make one minor correction -- a clarification, really -- to the section of the book in which I appear:

The Toyotas raced around Kabul. The drivers honked their horns rather than step on the brakes, madly changing lanes, swerving through traffic and accelerating at every opportunity. The theory was that erratic driving reduced the chances of a roadside attack. Afghans who didn't jump out of the way could be plowed down. After one of the SUVs ran a bicyclist off the road, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former U.S. Army Ranger, asked the driver, "What are you doing, man?"


"You can't be too careful. Could've been a bomb, sir," was the response. But this kind of commute left Afghans on the street visibly angry. The team could see how an emphasis on force protection was causing the coalition to lose the Afghan people. Exum wrote a one-pager for McChrystal about aggressive driving and armored vehicles entitled "Touring Afghanistan by Submarine."

All of that is true. But the title of that one-pager actually referred back to another dynamic -- one that Woodward writes about a page earlier. The way in which I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles travel around Afghanistan bothered me in two ways. The first way is mentioned above: I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles driving around Afghanistan as if we were the sovereign authority and not in Afghanistan on behalf of the sovereign authority, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We needed to behave as if we were the invited guests of the Afghans rather than some occupying power. But more than that, the experience of traveling around Mazar-e-Sharif -- a largely secure city in northern Afghanistan -- in an armored German vehicle, whereby I could only observe Mazar and the Afghans themselves through a narrow two inch by four inch slit of bullet-proof glass, really bothered me. It was, as Woodward writes, as if I was seeing Afghanistan through a periscope. And if this was how most German soldiers were seeing Afghanistan, I had no confidence that any of them really understood what was going on in northern Afghanistan at a time when the provinces under German responsibility were noticeably worsening. (And it wasn't just the Germans. In Wardak Province, for example, a U.S. commander insisted on us travelling in an MRAP ... 200 meters.)

I have said before that as someone who makes no claim to being an expert on Afghan culture, I spent much of my time on Gen. McChrystal's review team examining our culture -- and how an operational culture defined by "force protection über alles" hinders our ability to learn about and understand the local dynamics of the conflict. That, in addition to running people of their own roads, was what led to that paper.

On another note, readers of this blog will either be pleased or dismayed to discover that the same black humor and blunt informality you see on this blog are also characteristics of my interactions with four-star generals. For better or for worse, I suppose.

*I was but one of many people complaining to Gen. McChrystal about the way in which ISAF vehicles were racing around Kabul, driving Afghans off the roads and p***ing people off.

Update: Case in point, here is Steve Biddle making pretty much the points I made in an op-ed in the IHT earlier this year. Steve's op-ed is worth reading. The comments section, aside from the usual silliness, is filling up with guys making the valid points that sometimes armored vehicle travel and additional force protection measures are necessary. Absolutely! But officers get paid to take and manage risks in order to accomplish the mission they are given. Between the men and the mission, the mission gets priority. Always. My experience has been that officers and enlisted men understand when reasonable risks are taken to accomplish the mission. They only get bent out of shape when they feel their superior officers are playing too free and loose with their personal safety or that the risks don't make sense in terms of what is necessary to accomplish the mission. I am hardly the first person to note that the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and their allied militaries are especially risk averse, often to the detriment of mission accomplishment. And I would never advise a U.S. military officer to take risks that I would not take myself. But simply buttoning up and doing whatever it takes to avoid casualties is not an option if you're still trying to win. That leads to what I've heard Israeli officers memorably call the "Beaufort Syndrome" after what happened to the IDF in the last years of the occupation of southern Lebanon. Good combat leaders will understand that sometimes you need to do your business in full battle rattle and moving in MRAPs and that sometimes you will need to do your business in nothing more than your ACUs, sitting on the floor of someone's house, drinking tea. You can respond by calling me a pencil-necked think tank geek, which, heh, is very much true, but that doesn't make what I just wrote any less true as well.