June 30, 2010
Hopefully he applies his own advice.
In an exclusive interview to the Times of India, General Singh concedes of Kashmir, "I feel there is a great requirement for political initiatives which take all the people forward together. Militarily, we have brought the overall internal security situation in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) firmly under control. Now, the need is to handle things politically.”
An inherent contradiction plagues Singh’s statements; counterinsurgency should be waged politically and militarily simultaneously, not sequentially. Yet his admission is still required during latest Kashmir’s turbulence. Now India must act on those words - Kashmir protesters continue to be shot at an alarming rate, spawning protest after protest.
At least 10 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks.
India’s security efforts lose their value without political resolution, an outcome General Singh disregards when reiterating his opposition to 'withdraw' or 'dilute' the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir. The AFSPA grants Indian forces the freedom to enter homes and search without a warrant, as well as limiting restrictions on deadly force. The friendly Times labels the AFSPA “iron-fisted,” while outside observers consider the measure to be state repression.
"The armed forces are required to undertake operations in very difficult circumstances,” Singh argues. “If the J&K situation has come under control, it's the forces which have sacrificed with their blood.”
What Singh says is partially true, but he falls into the same trap as Israel. Utilizing laws to act aggressively and with impunity may kill thousands of militants and prevent countless attacks. Yet all it takes to trigger region-wide protests is one dead innocent, spawning more unrest and protests that undermine the political process and whatever progress has been made on the security front.
Singh claims that “adequate measures” have been instituted to ensure the AFSPA isn’t misused. If India really wishes peace in Kashmir it must realize 10 dead Kashmiris set it back months or years security-wise. Though Kashmiri leadership strongly denounces the use of violence, periods like now expose the populace to militant recruiters and incite further provocation against India, feeding what is an endless cycle without political resolution.
And India no longer has the luxury of stalling.
Singh also takes a hammer to Islamabad: "The terror infrastructure in Pakistan remains intact.” He cites 34 active and eight holding camps operational across the border, and accuses Islamabad of trying to revive those groups India has crippled, like Hizbul Mujahideen. Pakistan’s military remains steadfast in its 'Kashmir agenda,’ says Singh, describing how it provides cover fire to help militants infiltrate the Line of Control surrounding J&K.
This may all be true, though Singh’s Indian perspective omits such root causes as a refusal to negotiate Kashmir’s status and ongoing political oppression. But the real irony appears lost on Sinhim, or else he’s hiding it. For years India and America have demanded that Pakistan cease supporting Kashmir militant groups and shift its attention from the eastern border to Taliban territory in the FATA and Punjab province.
Now India finds itself in a similar position.
Tied up for so long with Pakistan in Kashmir, India’s gravest threat has become the Maoist insurgency consuming the eastern half of the state, home to an impoverished and angry population in the hundreds of millions. Singh claims 500-600 fighters operate in Kashmir; at least 10,000 full-time fighters compose the Naxalite ranks, and they’re killing far more Indians.
Maoist attacks increased 40% since last year despite Operation Green Hunt, which the government launched in November 2009. Maoists usually hit hard too, swarming in mass numbers or targeting crowded trains and their tracks, and spread attacks over hundreds of miles of jungle.
Most significant are emerging rumors that ex-military personnel have joined the Maoists, similar to the formation of Los Zetas in Mexico. These officials and soldiers allegedly supply the Maoists with real time intelligence, which they combine with their knowledge of the terrain to ambush large scale government units. Ex-military figures also brief ground troops before and, more importantly, after a battle to teach tactics.
The Maoists have overt ambitions of training themselves into a real guerrilla army, not remaining mere terrorists. Without the proper counterinsurgency, they will far outpace Kashmir and Pakistan as the greatest threat to India.
But the solution to the Maoist insurgency is interconnected to Kashmir, through the words of General Singh. All the security India can bring to bear won’t generate peace in Kashmir without an equitable political agreement. The same goes for eastern India. Though decades of terrorism have tarnished guerrilla warfare, the guerrilla remains a manifestation of oppression. Not evil.
Wherever people suffer from malnutrition, corporate exploitation, and government neglect, one is likely to find guerrillas. Maoist territory houses some of the poorest in the world.
India still inhabits a decent position to negate the insurgency despite its potency. Having seen what works and what doesn’t in Kashmir, these lessons can theoretically be applied internally. Cracking down is futile without meaningful political and economic initiatives. The objective of COIN isn’t to “defeat” an insurgency by physically destroying it, but to negate the insurgency’s root causes and drain its fuel.
Then the insurgency will run out of popular support, leaving it an empty shell, or disperse with its demands somewhat satisfied and easier to contain.
With the Maoists stepping up their attacks to prove India’s paramilitary offensive ineffective, India stands at a crossroads. Increasing pressure has ratcheted up the current debate: launch a full-scale military operation or pursue politico/economic/socio programs to wean the local population away from the Maoists. Negotiation remains an option if they renounce violence, which India considers a long-shot.
Although the second option may seem the longer of the two, this is not the case. A military operation will certainly provoke ever-increasing resentment against the government; India has been training local paramilitaries to avoid alienating the populace more than they already are. Without the proper non-military spectrum, a military campaign will instantly protract the insurgency.
The only viable counterinsurgency revolves around self-determination and development. It may be a long, hard fight, but it’s still shorter than a military-centric strategy. That goes for Kashmir, West Bangal, or anywhere else guerrillas are found.
June 29, 2010
Few books hit closer to reality as General David Petraeus replaces Stanley McChrystal amid an inferno of political spin and military-speak.
But McMaster’s acuity is further illuminated by an additional layer of context. As director of studies of insurgencies and revolution at the National War College, Bard O’Neill authored a rare work on the subject - an eponymous textbook titled Insurgency and Terrorism, complete with lesson plans. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the book supposedly influences Washington policy-makers and defense think-tanks, although it doesn’t appear to.
At the very end lies an excerpt of McMaster’s conclusion: “The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”
O’Neill mirrors McMaster by highlighting that while correct military strategy is obviously necessary for counterinsurgency (COIN), the character of those implementing that strategy is often the decisive factor. O’Neill saves the concept of integrity for last, and with good reason - solid military strategy can be negated by poor political command.
Their thoughts lead directly to the crossroads of President Barack Obama “no change in policy” slogan in Afghanistan.
Obama and Petraeus publicly claim to possess “the right strategy.” For the sake of argument they can have it, because they also lack what O”Neill considers the three essential elements for successful COIN: flexibility, integrity, and equanimity. But the second quality, being interconnected, supersedes the others at Afghanistan’s critical juncture. Integrity deficiency symptoms can be widely observed: “portraying defeats as victories, ignored shortcomings, and fabricated lights at the ends of tunnels.”
O’Neill writes that in the absence of government integrity, situational estimates are warped “either by pessimism or, as seems to be more often the case, undue optimism.” Witness US Defense Secretary Robert Gates pleading before Congress that the war isn’t as pessimistic as the US media reports, when the international media makes it look like a trained puppy. Though we can’t tell, Gates insists the war is marching in the right direction.
Washington may have a workable military strategy in theory, but demonstrating its viability on the ground has proven exceedingly difficult. Yet the White House’s greatest failures comes in handling the political and media aspects of COIN, which carry equal weight as military operations. Not only has Washington struggled to stay on message, but also to deliver that message with integrity.
From Obama’s underestimated campaign promise of two combat brigades (now 50,000 troops) to declaring “the right strategy” at West Point, the American people have been fed a steady dose of lies on Afghanistan. Treated with “arrogance” as true leaks were denied. Felt helpless as politicians and generals “lie in the pursuit of self-interest.”
The ultimate result: “abdication of responsibility to the American people,” who suffer duplicity at the military and political level.
Take for instance the notion that US and NATO casualties are rising because coalition troops are surging into southern Afghanistan. The Taliban is also improving tactics on two notable fronts, marksmen and IED’s. The UK is currently studying the improved skill of Taliban riflemen and snipers who are increasingly targeting likable Western officers. Demoralization among coalition troops multiplies the loss of their positive influence on the local environment.
In the case of IED’s, coalition troops aren’t just encountering more of them but missing more. A new generation of factory-produced plastic IED’s, less visible to metal detectors, was introduced from Pakistan last year. The possibility of Taliban-ISI collusion in itself gives reason to doubt Washington’s claim that Islamabad is finally playing on its side.
“In other provinces like Helmand they are using a lot of homemade stuff, but for us Pakistan is a 20-minute drive away,” Naimatullah, a Taliban bombmaker, tells The London Times. When pressed on whether Pakistani’s military directly supplies the components, Naimatullah quietly responds with a smile, “I cannot say. It comes from Pakistan. That is all.”
Now bomb sniffing dogs, already in short supply, are the best means of accurately rooting out IED’s, and even they have a hard time. Naimatullah uses curdled yogurt to throw off the dogs. Though impossible to know the truth, basic facts speak for themselves. America and NATO have spent tens of billions trying to combat devices that cost pennies, yet they’re killing more coalition and Afghans soldiers than ever.
As for Afghanistan's National Army, a new in-house audit just accused the White House and Pentagon of being "too optimistic" of its capabilities.
And one cannot speak of duplicity without mentioning Marjah. US and NATO commanders initially promised the area would be secure in a matter of weeks, possibly a month. Five months after the launch of Operation Moshtarak, Walid Jan Sabir, the member of Parliament from Marjah district, tells reporters, “the area is at best marginally safer since the US-led offensive in February.”
“I was optimistic about all this at first,” he says, “but I’m disillusioned, and so are a lot of the people I’ve been talking to. There are increasing numbers of [improvised explosive] devices, the government they installed isn’t trusted by the people, people have been beheaded, and US forces are barging into homes and arresting innocents. The people are caught between the US and the Afghan National Army by day, and the Taliban by night.”
Says US Defense Secretary Robert Gates from Washington, "The reality is that the military operations in Marjah were successful, and a place that had been controlled by the Taliban is no longer - for two years or more - is no longer controlled by the Taliban."
There will always be an inherent battle between over the truth during war time. All nations and peoples lie and exaggerate to excite their populaces and maintain morale. But fabricating “undue optimism” and imperiling the war is both poor strategy and unacceptable immorality in a democracy. None of these military problems would be so acute if US leadership didn’t cover them up, and that’s where integrity comes in.
Public dishonesty often leads to private dishonesty as politicians struggle to convince themselves of their own ploys. And the damage is most severe when the absence of integrity manifests at the highest strategic level - war objectives. As President Barack Obama transfers his final hope from McChrystal to Petraeus, America still lacks a fundamental goal in Afghanistan.
Is it to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda alone, or its affiliates too? Is it to break the Taliban’s “momentum” and then destroy it, or negotiate? Is it to train the Afghan army and hope it can defeat the Taliban once the West withdraws, or simply hold government territory? With so many variations, no one really knows in the White House, Pentagon, or Congress.
“To date, all responses to this question have been vague and lacked clarity,” seven members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a letter to their Chairman, Senator John Kerry, after interviewing key Pentagon officials.
For example Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador to Afghanistan, defended the war’s mission after McChrystal’s termination by declaring, “We continue to have a very clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity, especially in the area of your army and your police.”
No goal is more ambiguous than “breaking the Taliban’s momentum,” given that defining benchmarks is impossible until retrospect and insurgencies often turn in cycles. Nor is al-Qaeda part of Eikenberry’s equation, having mostly fled the country to Pakistan or overseas to Africa. Ask any given US official and they’re liable to respond individually, when the objective should be standardized.
A lack of clear goals has led to schisms inside the White House and Pentagon over how much negotiation with the Taliban is too much. Such indecisiveness fuels the discord over Obama’s proposed July 2011 deadline, and whether to beat a quicker exit or extend the deadline. This obscurity pollutes Washington’s credibility when it comes to “the right strategy,” as Obama vows he possesses.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claims he “was nearly sick” after reading Michael Hasting’s Rolling Stone report.
Many Americans feel his pain when he continues, "My message will be clear: nothing changes about our strategy, nothing changes about the mission and nothing changes about the resources we are dedicating or the commitment we are making to defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in the region."
“My primary concern over the past few days has been to minimize the impact of these developments on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan,” Gates added. “The president’s decisions fully and satisfactorily address that concern.”
Mullen and Gates believe McChrystal’s remarks in Rolling Stone were an “aberration.” This report was no aberration, but a reflection of Afghanistan’s unfavorable condition and juxtaposition to July 2011. The more US officials convince us that their strategy won’t change, the more foolish they appear for being obstinate to self-reflection. For ignoring how dismal the war is progressing.
Even CIA director Leon Panetta admitted - during his own defense - that Obama’s surge is moving “slower than I think anyone anticipated.” And yet no change in strategy is in order.
So what is the truth? It’s likely that July 2011 was always a phantom date to promote the war from both angles. But such political duplicity naturally backfired, with anti-war advocates demanding a quicker withdrawal to a futile war and pro-war proponents pleading for an end to the deadline. Reality is simple - since Marjah was over-hyped and is taking longer than expected, so too goes the entire US strategy in Afghanistan. The equation already works for Kandahar.
But a lack of integrity breeds more undue optimism and instead of reviewing a strategy with the potential to collapse, Washington is forging ahead with extended blinders. In McChrystal’s aftermath, The New York Times reported, “administration insiders acknowledge that there have been preliminary discussions about whether to rethink the approach to a war that is clearly bogging down.”
This may become truer if the war flat-lines, yet the boat is moving in the opposite direction. President Barack Obama recently complained about "a lot of obsession" surrounding his July 2011 “deadline.” This “obsession” exists because no one believes him, because he lacks integrity. Obama promises that Petraeus represents “a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy,” when he’s really stepping on the gas.
The policy is changing and they don’t want to tell us.
According to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, Petraeus told Obama point-blank that 18 months would be enough time to begin transferring authority to Afghan security forces and commence a US withdrawal. He even promised "no one is going to suggest we stay." Six months later and the deadline has retreated at least six months. Obama claims he “won’t tolerate division," that "we will conduct a full review," but he just tapped a general that played down both the December review and July 2011 deadline.
Petraeus told Congress during his testimony to "not make too much” of December, while July 2011 is totally conditions based. Nor is it a withdrawal date, only a "transfer" date. Ironically Petraeus may be operating with the highest integrity: “It is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is, the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”
That was two weeks ago. With Petraeus set for his Senate confirmation, Congressional support from all sides has targeted the deadline for destruction. Asked what Obama should do if Petraeus requests six extra months, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vocal opponent of the war, replied: “I would say give it to him, absolutely.”
"I'm against a timetable," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, flatly told NBC's "Meet the Press." And to really observe which way the wind blows, uber-insider Henry Kissinger reaches the conclusion that, “Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic.” His solution: “Artificial deadlines should be abandoned.”
Instead Kissinger argues for “regional diplomacy,” all the while ignoring the scant incentive China, Russia, and Pakistan have to bail out America or do its dirty work. Nevertheless he believes, “military operations could be sustained and legitimized by such diplomacy,” out of, “a need to do justice to all those who have sacrificed in the region, particularly the long-suffering Afghan people.”
Expect Washington to spread this message as long as possible until July 2011, and beyond if it gets that far.
Feinstein attempts to portray her weakening as prudence, claiming another six months gives Petraeus “flexibility, realistically.” The same argument has already been made by the Pentagon and the GOP. But six months is relatively insignificant in the long lifespan of counterinsurgency, especially when December and July 2011 are being treated with disregard. Why six more months? Because another six months will follow. And another.
As O’Neill observes, flexibility without integrity leads exactly to the stalemates that are Vietnam and Afghanistan. The same goes for equanimity: the ability to deal with adversaries after a conflict. In the absence of a clear goal and deadline, Washington also lacks a consensus over whether to negotiate with the Taliban. Those negative effects are currently being manifested in Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who reportedly meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on occasion.
O’Neill muses how commonsense and simple the idea of integrity is, and how often overlooked. Thus “its importance cannot be emphasized enough.” But it hasn’t been in Washington and if left uncorrected, the void of integrity will systematically annihilate even the best laid military plans.
June 28, 2010
- US President Barack Obama, lamenting “a lot of obsession” surrounding the war’s exit strategy.
He made these comments on a Sunday, out of the country, and around the same time Senator Diane Feinstein, a vocal opponent of Afghanistan, added six months onto Obama’s deadline if (when) requested by Petraeus. And he wonders why we're "obsessed."
"It was purely a political decision, not one based on facts on the ground, not one based on military strategy.”
- Republican Senator John McCain, referring Obama’s July 2011 “deadline”
"None of the players believe in the current strategy. Karzai is going down the drain and taking the international community with him.”
- Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah
“We've got a chance in hell. That's about all we've got."
- anonymous US adviser in Afghanistan, according to Slate's Fred Kaplan
June 27, 2010
Washington isn’t biting and has drafted contingency plans for unilateral operations.
But Karzai, allegedly losing faith that America will defeat the Taliban, is working backchannels to subvert US opposition against high level negotiations. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is already lurking behind the curtains and now Haqqani, who until this point has refused negotiations with Karzai, may be as well. They in turn could potentially set the table for Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
Karzai’s office naturally denies any meetings took place - the issue is divisive inside his inner circle and in Washington - so it’s hard to analyze concrete information yet. Regardless, the rumors by themselves are the latest shots fired into the heart of President Barack Obama’s surge.
Perception can be as real as reality in an insurgency.
June 26, 2010
As US officials such as President Barack Obama, US Secretary of State Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chief's Michael Mullen continue pledging "a change in personnel, not a change in policy," Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings pursues his own quest to spread the real message of his report: Afghanistan needs a change in policy, not personnel.
Scott Horton: All right, everybody, we’re joined on the phone by Michael Hastings, freelance reporter, friend of the show, and he is the author of the article that’s turned Washington D.C. upside down this week, “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine. Welcome back to the show, Michael, how are you doing?
Michael Hastings: I’m good man. How are things on your end?
Horton: Everything’s great, I really appreciate you joining us here on the phone from, where, Kandahar this morning?
Hastings: Yeah, I’m in Kandahar right now.
Horton: And how’s things there?
Hastings: Well, we, just a few, it was a half hour, 40 minutes ago, we were hit by a number of rockets, which is a pretty regular occurrence here, and there’s pretty regular fighting all around this area right now. We spent a couple moments on the floor and in a bunker.
Horton: Jeez. Well. And I hope you’re bugging out of there this morning and going back to Kabul or somewhere safer?
Hastings: Yeah, I’m heading out of here.
Horton: Okay, right on. Well in the few minutes before you get in your armored vehicle or whatever it is and get out of there, man, let’s talk about – well, first of all, I guess, the reaction to your piece. You have Gen. McChrystal and his team, “Team America,” his closest buddies surrounding him, really opening up about how much they cannot stand the administration, and that seems to have been the thing that got Washington all upset.
Hastings: Yeah, apparently to criticize and make fun of the vice president in front of reporters, that’s generally probably not a good career move. But I think, I think what the comments point to from Gen. McChrystal’s view is a real frustration that his team has with the White House as well as a frustration he has with other civilian policy makers who are involved in the Afghanistan strategy.
Horton: Yeah, I mean, that’s really what comes across in the article is that it’s not a personal account really of McChrystal, it’s about his inability to succeed in Afghanistan, and then it seems like all the frustration, all the finger pointing goes up from there, instead of them taking responsibility, him and his “Team America.”
Hastings: Yeah, and I think certainly if we look at, you know, President Obama’s role in selecting Gen. McChrystal, why he selected Gen. McChrystal, and what President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan originally was – remember, in March 2009, you know, President Obama said he wanted to narrow the goals in Afghanistan, narrow them to just fighting al Qaeda. Then he selected a Gen. who proceeded to do just the opposite and expand the goals almost exponentially. We went from 50,000 troops to 150,000 troops. We went from fighting al Qaeda to building a nation on an almost unprecedented scale. So, really, I think, you know part of this hostility is the relationship between the president and the general and the fact that the president has just sort of lost control of the policy.
Horton: Yeah, well, and it doesn’t sound like the troops in Afghanistan seem to be so gung ho about this anymore either.
Hastings: No, I think, I mean I’m sure you’ve discussed counterinsurgency many times on your program, and we’ve discussed this before as well. You know, the US military is made to fight. That’s what they’re really good at, and they’re really efficient at it. And it’s very difficult to put them in situations and then tell them, you know, don’t fight. And that rubs a lot of them the wrong way and a lot of them feel that they may have to make sacrifices and they might be putting their own lives more at risk rather than, say, killing who they view are insurgents.
Horton: Yeah, well, and that’s an interesting thing too, the whole, you know, sent out there to fight with one hand tied behind their back. They’re up against people who have rifles and are willing to shoot back at them and yet then because they’re supposed to be trying to avoid civilian casualties, even though all their enemies are civilians, they’re put in a position where they have to get shot rather than shoot. Hastings: Really, and I think, I mean I think you know this is a sort of fundamental flaw with counterinsurgency is that, you know, we spend $600 billion a year on our military but then we get involved in these wars where we can’t even use our technological edge. I mean, in a way it doesn’t make much sense. So, yeah, I mean, you know, once you take away the US and the ground troops’ air support, you’re putting a US solider on, you know, a somewhat level playing field with a Taliban fighter. And so these guys who signed up to fight are like, “What the hell, you know, like, why are we here?”
Horton: Yeah, they imagined they were going to be a set piece battle against a different state’s military instead of patrolling around like a, you know, a SWAT cop or something. Well, now, you talk about how they changed the mission from fighting al Qaeda to building a nation and how McChrystal’s gotten his stamp on it, and I guess they had to change the mission because, he says in here, there are no al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Hastings: Exactly. I mean, the sort of connection between nation building and fighting terrorism and fighting al Qaeda is I think, you know, a very tenuous connection at best, and so you get stuck with this momentum of the campaign you’re fighting, and it’s worse than a quagmire. They’re saying that really it’s worse than a quagmire because it’s a quagmire we knowingly walked into. Because if say al Qaeda’s in Pakistan, then what are we doing in Afghanistan?
Horton: Yeah. Well now, the centerpiece of the COIN strategy supposedly was this, or the showpiece for it I guess, was the invasion of Marjah. They were going to give the people of Marjah a “government in a box.” Did you have a chance to talk with Gen. McChrystal much about that operation?
Hastings: Well, I did talk to him about that, and he, you know, was sort of optimistically cautious as that’s the position they take. But then, you know, much later he said that Marjah was a “bleeding ulcer.” So what does that say? And I think one of the funny things about this story is that people have been saying, “Wow, how could he have said these things in private to you?” Well look at what he says in public. He’s calling one of his operations a bleeding ulcer. So what do we expect him to say in private?
Horton: Right, yeah, his centerpiece operation. At least he’s bluntly honest, this guy. Well, and look, this is not nothing here: It seems like there is, you know, a challenge to the civilian supremacy in a sense here, you have a very powerful general mocking and ridiculing the president, the vice president, the special envoy, the ambassador, everybody but the secretary of state, apparently, he thinks he’s better than them, and that’s really not how it’s supposed to be in America. Did you take that as a real challenge to civilian supremacy or as just some drunk old general is letting off some steam here?
Hastings: I think there’s a larger kind of structural issue here about – you just compare the DOD budget to the State Department budget, $600 billion to $50 billion. You know, you look at every foreign service officer – you know, there’s more people in the Army band than there are foreign service officers. You know, you could fit every foreign service officer on an aircraft carrier. You know, so you look like at just the sort of decay of the State Department and basically our foreign policy has become our defense policy. You know, the two are one. And I think that translates into the fact that a lot of the time just the leaders get the blame for all the wars, and they should take their fair share of blame, but I think we also have to start looking at the military leaders in a much more critical way than they’re accustomed to be looked at. We’re packing up here and so I’ve got to take off, but I appreciate your time and we’ll talk again soon.
Horton: Likewise. Be safe, and we’ll follow up hopefully either tomorrow or Friday or next week.
Horton: Take care, Michael. All right, everybody, that’s Michael Hastings with the story of the week, so far, in Rolling Stone magazine, “The Runaway General.”
Seven Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee left nothing to chance in a letter to the chairman, demanding hearings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Having heard the Pentagon's side of the war, it's time to hear the civilians.
Perhaps Kerry’s first round of questions should zero in on Iraq.
With no compromise in sight between de facto Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqi National Movement (INM) party secured two more parliamentary seats than al-Maliki in the March election, Iraq is not the post-civil war environment America had hoped to leave in peace. Sporadic but high-profile terror attacks, electricity and water shortages, and the government’s deadlock is grinding down Iraqis on the streets.
Their officials apparently aren’t happy either.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “they had detected a lack of direction even before Obama tapped Petraeus to replace his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal... The Iraqis describe U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U.S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy's single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here.”
At the macro level President Barack Obama has left oversight to Vice President Joe Biden. “Obama has not chaired a meeting on Iraq since last year, and according to one prominent Iraqi political figure, many Iraqis are worried that Biden does not have the clout to coordinate U.S. policy.”
“We hear about the responsible withdrawal of Obama,” says former Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, “but not a lot of things are happening with soft power, and that is creating a vacuum of Western presence, if you like.”
Washington’s single-mindedness is leaving America stumbling from war to war.
"Afghanistan is heating up,” admitted a senior U.S. military officer. “With such a high [profile] U.S. general, he will be sucking all resources to Afghanistan that he brought to Iraq. It does affect the balance of things in Iraq right now."
The first of many questions then:
- How can a proper withdrawal be executed from Afghanistan, whether starting in July 2011 or four years from now, when the process is difficult enough in Iraq, a state generally presumed stable by Washington?
- How plausible is a surge in Afghanistan when Iraq’s surge, considered the easier counterinsurgency, may leave the country unstable, divided and vulnerable to outside interference - exactly the opposite of America’s goal?
Iraq as a whole cannot feel as though America forgot it like it does now - losing control of ground conditions and perceptions severely threatens US efforts in Afghanistan. Not only did Obama pledge a responsible exit from Iraq and victory in Afghanistan, he predicated one on the other. As the anonymous US official said, troops and equipment are being transferred all the faster with Petraeus swapping insurgencies.
Any delay in Iraq’s withdrawal could negatively impact Afghanistan’s operations.
But the far greater danger is the possibility of two failed wars. Iraq was supposed to be the easier conflict, relatively speaking, and pay dividends. If left broken little hope can be held out to Afghanistan. Obama expected victory in Iraq to propel him to victory in Afghanistan. Iraq’s reversal could all of a sudden leave him with two defeats by 2012, making re-election that much more challenging.
And of course draining America and its allies of resources while leaving gaping power vacuums in the heart of the Eastern Hemisphere.
June 25, 2010
Ibrahim, commander in Yaqbariweyne, Hakaba, Kanbahirig, and Gobanle towns in southern Somalia, could be the beginning of the snowball.
“We warmly want to inform the press that from today henceforth we have joined Al-Shabab and by joining Al-Shabab is not something disgracing,” he announced days ago. “There were several leaders of Hizbul-Islam who have previously joined Al-Shabab and to mention one of them is Sheikh Hassan Turki the founder of the Islamists groups in Somalia, and the reason we have joined Al-Shabab is that we have seen that Hizbul-Islam is not as active as Al-Shabab, but they are instead passive.”
Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigades, became the first of Hizbul-Islam’s militias to re-defect to al-Shabab in 2010 after splitting from the group in 2009. Sheikh Ibrahim gives al-Shabab two of Hizbul-Islam’s arms, the strategic Hiraan province that includes Beledweyne, and numerous ancillary groups in the south.
Ibrahim added that he’s, “very proud of amalgamating their strength to Al-Shabab, and has urged the remaining Hizbul-Islam fighters... to follow their concept.”
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of Hizbul-Islam, is not amused. His militia crumbling, Aweys criticized al Shabaab for seizing Baladweyne and claimed his fighters withdrew to avoid conflict. Consequently, Aweys has allegedly negotiated with the TFG during the two weeks that saw half of his militia break away.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdirahman Hajji Aden Ibbi told reporters in Mogadishu, “Hizbul Islam promised us that it would hand over the control of their areas before the 50th anniversary of Somalia’s independence, we hope that the Somali flag will be raised in those areas, because this group is not against the sovereignty of our country.”
This sounds promising, but Aweys probably won’t deliver. Garowe remarks on the rash of Hizbul-Islam’s defections, “Aweys has recently lost his officials to Al-Shabaab, leaving him with an empty shell. Other reports also suggest that members from Hizbul Islam group have walked out of the negotiation table for unclear reasons.”
Fearing an al-Shabab takeover, Aweys ended up accelerating al-Shabab’s storming of Hizbul-Islam territory. Garowe reports that al-Shabab is advancing, “to more towns currently controlled by Hizbal Islam in a bid to seize them before the occupiers officially hand over to the government.”
Despite the usual amount of violent infighting that comes with factional splintering, most Hizbul Islam units appear to be joining al-Shabab. Aweys even says, “Al-Shabaab is a jihadist group, we were planning to unite with them but their actions will not allow us now to join them.”
This suggests most factions of Hizbul-Islam will rejoin al-Shabab in a matter of time, with Somalia’s Transition Federal Government (TFG) absorbing the remnants. The combined pressure from al-Shabab, Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, Ethiopia, and the TFG has proven too much for Hizbul-Islam. It has been driven into its one natural ally, who now has hundreds more fighters and one less problem to worry about in its rear territory.
Consequently, the news couldn’t be worse for America and the TFG. As al-Shabab assimilates its strongest rival, Ahlu Sunna appears to be pulling away from the TFG. Somali ministers have praised Ahlu Sunna for its positive impact in the country, but their flattery didn’t satisfy Sheikh Omar Abdulkadir, Chief of the Consultative Council of Ahlu Sunna.
Abdulkadir responded by, “outlining that his movement sent a delegation to Mogadishu in order to hold power-sharing talks with the government. The clergyman emphasized that the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea submitted all the necessary details from its side including appointees for positions, but he accused the government led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of not responding adequately.”
We noted in prior analysis the mutual distrust between Ahlu Sunna and the TFG, how the TFG suspects Ahlu Sunna is exploiting the government’s crisis to seize power. Given that the deal between them was supposed to transfer ministries to Ahlu Sunna, present discord likely revolves around this unfulfilled promise.
Sheikh Abdulkadir warned that his movement “will strongly retaliate if the government continues to ignore the group's good gesture.”
Few developments could be worse for America or the TFG than a breakdown with Ahlu Sunna, their last and only local line of defense. Were Ahlu Sunna to turn on or simply undermine what’s left of Somalia’s government, Mogadishu will descend into another round of civil war between Somalia’s two major militias - with Villa Somalia as the first prize and the whole state up for grabs.
At this point Ethiopia could intervene directly on Ahlu Sunna’s behalf, provoking new nationalism and military disturbances, ill trained as Ethiopian soldiers are for counterinsurgency. US Special-Ops lurk in the shadows, Reapers control the skies, naval ships ready to launch cruise missiles. Possibly a Marine task force if worst comes to worst.
Or a soldier revolt could tip the balance in favor of al-Shabab.
A large group recently stormed Somalia’s parliament requiring the intervention of President Sheikh Sharif, who promised to pay them their salaries. How he can do so when he finds himself in a new political feud with Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke remains unknown. The threat of defection surrounds the TFG, a classic COIN signal of a collapsing government.
“Thousands of Somali troops, who were trained out of the country, have not received their salaries for several months, prompting some desert and join Al-Shabaab,” Garowe reports.
With so many possibilities, the only impossibility remains stability.
Somalia is often labeled the world’s most invisible conflict, a title that sounded more cliche two days ago than today. Though highly visible, people merely feel helpless about Somalia. But as al-Shabab secures the country’s southern half, where roving al-Qaeda camps dodge Predators, and begins to push north, the conflict has indeed faded into Afghanistan’s oblivion.
General David Petraeus is architect not just of Iraq and Afghanistan’s military campaigns, but Somalia’s too. Yet counter-terrorism is not a substitute for counterinsurgency, and America can barely practice COIN in one failed state let alone two. Now Somalia arguably poses the greatest transnational threat.
Not something President Obama will bring up when sending Petraeus off to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
June 24, 2010
His strategy already in disarray, Obama scrambled to heave off one final shot - The Petraeus Hail Mary.
But the Wall Street Journal’s conclusion lingers at the surface: “In choosing to throw a Hail Mary pass to General Petraeus, the President has chosen a commander who understands counterinsurgency, who helped to design the current Afghan strategy, and who knows how to lead and motivate soldiers. He - and they - need a Commander in Chief willing to show equal commitment and staying power.”
What Petraeus really means is that, one way or the other, US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan has finally arrived at the end of a seemingly endless road. The positives of Petraeus: he is, generally speaking, what people make of him, a diligent COIN student and polished public speaker. Architect of Iraq and Afghanistan’s surges, and Stanley McChrystal’s COIN mentor, Petraeus provides the smoothest transition during this high-stakes moment.
Overlooked is how unstable Iraq appears, how it’s nevertheless superficially compared to Afghanistan’s complexity, and Petraeus’s woeful attempt to contain al-Qaeda with Special Forces in Yemen and Somalia. Where the group actually plans attacks on Western targets.
But if anyone in the US military can turn Afghanistan around, Petraeus is the best bet.
His cons are Obama’s worst nightmare: if Petraeus fails no one else can ably replace him. Obama just put in his closer, played his trump card which he was undoubtedly holding until after July 2011. Now he has nothing left. Justifying another general will be impossible if Petraeus cannot crack the Taliban code in time, and America’s war will be forced to end (many will consider this a positive).
Ultimately Petraeus untangles few roots of discord between the White House and Pentagon. Obama pressured him to speed up the surge beyond his calculations, from fall 2010 to summer, a demand both he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen opposed until twisted into submission. Petraeus is far more articulate than McChrystal, but their military views on Afghanistan are roughly the same.
That McChrystal was forced out for behavior similar to Petraeus’s actions, albeit more theatrical, is an overt contradiction.
The White House became alerted to the Rolling Stone’s article last week, triggering an immediate debate on McChrystal’s status and Petraeus as the replacement. McChrystal’s boiling point had already risen since 2009, his resignation long in the making. But as the White House debated McChrystal’s fate, Petraeus also found himself loudly undercutting Obama. Testifying before Congress, Petraeus pushed back July 2011 by calling it a transfer date, not a withdrawal date - absolutely not a deadline - and added that everything is conditions based.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was forced to quell the growing clamor over the deadline’s definition - because of General Petraeus. So why expect smoother sailing? Because he speaks better? He still thinks like General McChrystal.
Now a chain of command is undoubtedly paramount to upholding a stable democracy. At the same time, civilian chain of command bent on deciding war policy through politics more than strategy presents an equal danger. McChrystal’s judgment to supersede the White House was wrong, but Obama, having already underestimated Afghanistan’s requirements, is guilty of grave deception against the American people.
Rolling Stone author Matt Hastings writes, “Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply f....d up things are in Afghanistan. ‘If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,’ a senior adviser to McChrystal says.”
Obama claims a change in personnel, not policy, is needed, but the reverse is more accurate. Refusing to review US strategy in any significant way while attempting to keep the situation as hidden as possible only furthers the deception.
As does installing and hailing Petraeus after he committed a similar deed as McChrystal. Those believing the chain of command is being upheld by Petraeus might want to pay closer attention to Washington’s power structure. He may pose an even greater threat, being far more “elite,” politically connected, and deeply aligned with figures like US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Rumors of a presidential campaign refuse to die (Gates could simply keep his job).
Does Petraeus really stabilize America's chain of command, or challenge it?
Unless Obama privately agreed to Petraeus's deadline extension, militarily necessary but politically perilous, Washington will be right back to its conflict of interest next December and into July. This is no way to wage war, especially the trial of fire that is counterinsurgency. McChrystal’s termination should have focused attention here.
Yet even as the White House and US media steer the conversation towards chain of command and away from Afghanistan’s crumbling strategy, Petraeus’s own opposition to key aspects of Obama’s surge, primarily a lack of troops and July 2011, remains lost in the shadows.
McClatchy News reported earlier this month, “a number of U.S. and allied military, intelligence and diplomatic officials have been warning for months that the American strategy in Afghanistan is failing and complaining that no one at a high level in the Obama administration wants to hear their discouraging words.”
And they still don't.
June 23, 2010
"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor - showed poor judgment," Obama said of Michael Hasting's Rolling Stone article that has triggered an earthquake in Washington.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed, “The magnitude and greatness of the mistake here are profound.”
But the White House and Pentagon fundamentally disagree on troop levels and time-frames in Afghanistan, foremost concerns among many, and changing generals won’t matter if the strategy isn’t altered in the process. Obama is facing a runaway war before a runaway general.
A breakdown in strategy before a break in the chain of command.
Beyond sluggish military progress in Marjah and Kandahar, US counterinsurgency operations continue to lack the essential non-military support from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s nebulous allegiance. Karzai and his brother, both said to be closer to McCrystal than Petraeus, have orchestrated a symphony for the current general.
They realize that a shifting strategy could challenge their power and won’t miss a chance to sow division. After all, US officials do it to them all the time.
Meanwhile Pakistan just ignored US envoy Richard Holbrooke’s explicit warning to veto a pipe-line deal with Iran. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani told reporters that he would reconsider the deal if it violated U.N. sanctions, but that Pakistan is "not bound to follow" unilateral U.S. measures. Good news from Pakistan is rare these days.
And NATO support wanes every day.
Ultimately McChrystal’s poor judgment is due to Obama’s. Not only did he severely underestimate the war’s requirements, he also lied throughout his presidential campaign on the concept of a "good war." Obama did speak occasional truth on Afghanistan - he did say a surge was coming. But he also knew a larger effort was needed, and undersold his position in order to create political space for the first round of 17,000 troops and 4,000 trainers, with the hope that “success” would support another small surge.
What he didn’t realize is how many troops were actually needed or, at 50,000 and counting, how fast they would stack up. Hastings recounts how Obama believed he could “escape” with 21,000 troops, only to be confronted with an initial request of 150,000 troops. 25,000 was considered high risk, 40,000 the medium bar.
Speaking from his own opinion, Hastings claims that Obama woefully underestimated what counterinsurgency entails, and that his lack of knowledge has cost him respect in the military. It’s common knowledge that Obama used Afghanistan to bolster his weak foreign policy credibility. He’s also dressed down his generals to appear strong, surely an unpopular tactic.
The present chaos is already the result of playing politics with war.
Unfortunately that cycle is about to repeat in the looming showdown between Obama and McChrystal. If the general is replaced then his exit should necessitate a review of whether to exit Afghanistan. Otherwise McChrystal’s termination would be more political than strategic, a scapegoating to continue the war under newly avowed allegiance.
Perhaps even an opportunity to sell a “new beginning” that Afghanistan needs more time. A showdown and its fallout has political manipulation smeared all over it.
But given that McChrystal is reportedly preparing to offer his resignation, considering who comes next cannot be avoided. The list of suspects includes General James Mattis, Joint Forces Command chief, Lt. Gen. John Allen, No. 2 at CENTCOM, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal's No. 2 in Afghanistan, and General Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Yet only one man seems truly suited for the job, the ace of these kings: David Petraeus.
He fits for too many reasons. First, whether Obama decides to change course and withdraw or not, he’ll need a larger than life personality to contain the Pentagon’s leaks. Obama can't trade down. The schism between the White House and Pentagon demands a strong man like Petraeus, not another deputy.
Afghanistan is also a highly public and politicized war, and Petraeus is America’s most publicly skilled general, whether on TV or in a Congressional hearing.
A second reason stems from McChrystal’s saving grace: counterinsurgency. McChrystal has sold himself as a COIN student and the media has obliged to paint that portrait, but he’s also a relatively a young COINdanista, as Petraeus and his students call themselves. Having commanded Joint Special Operations Command for five years, his mind likely leans towards counter-terrorism, not pure COIN.
McChrystal picked up his COIN speak from Professor Petraeus, America's leading COIN advocate. Author of the US Army COIN manual and shadow directer of Center For a New American Security, which prides itself on COIN, no one is more theoretically suited for Afghanistan.
Petraeus also led the Iraq surge, which could count for something inside the White House despite Iraq’s undecided outcome.
The obvious downside is that Petraeus won’t resolve Afghanistan's countless ills or the underlying discord between the White House and Pentagon. He holds similar views as McChrystal - most Pentagon commanders feel like they don't have enough troops, time, or the correct strategy on a geopolitical scale. Petraeus felt that 30,000 troops were too few, July 2011 too early. Obama even forced him to speed up his surge, which Petraeus initially voiced skepticism of.
None of these doubts have changed.
If Obama does fire McChrystal, the best option is to find a general that believes in a quicker draw-down, not one determined to eliminate July 2011 as a withdrawal date. Petraeus has already pushed back the deadline so that’s where his path leads. Though Obama doesn't want to leave Afghanistan in chaos and have it bite him, he still wants a quick exit before the 2012 election cycle. The Pentagon is devoid of commanders who feel the same.
US strategy is in disarray and until that gap is bridged - until Obama reanalyzes his own judgment - there won’t be much difference whether McChrystal is left in the war or pulled. Ignoring such blaring signs of disaster would be suicidal. And it bears repeating that President Obama would be wise to address the nation as soon as possible.
June 22, 2010
- General Stanley McChrystal, apologizing for a soon-to-be-released Rolling Stone article titled, The Runaway General, in which McChrystal mocks several White House officials over Afghanistan
He referred to President Barack Obama's decision to approve the surge by saying, "I found that time painful. I was selling an unsellable position."
The latest cracks in the foundation. The December review and July 2011 deadline threaten to consume the White House and Pentagon with political infighting and leaks, just like the review in 2009. Problematically, the White House and Pentagon disagree on many areas of foreign policy, including Afghanistan.
"Analysts say Gen McChrystal disagreed with the pledge to start bringing troops home in July 2011," says the BBC matter-of-factly.
The White House and Pentagon have to get a grip on Afghanistan and that requires altering the time-frame one way or the other. Another review or a special team meeting won't bring resolution unless fundamental policies undergo reform in the process.
But such a possibility from Washington faces grim odds.
June 21, 2010
But rather than deploy an official with credible sincerity, President Barack Obama sent out one of his least credible batters.
"The July '11 date, as stated by the president, that's not moving," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC's "This Week,” one of several rounds he made on Sunday. "That's not changing. Everybody agreed on that date... And the goal is to take this opportunity, focus on what needs to get done, and then on July 2011, begin the reduction."
Unwise as it is for Obama to stay hidden while his surge falls apart, even more foolish was to send Emanuel to do his dirty work - although that is his job. As both Democrats and Republicans (and ourselves) demand answers to the holes in Obama’s time-line and basic strategy, Emanuel will prevent the White House from securing new support.
Not only is Emanuel considered less than trustworthy by Washington insiders and the US public, he may be gone before July 2011.
Rumored to be angered by the White House’s “idealism,” The Telegraph reported Sunday night, “Washington insiders say he will quit within six to eight months in frustration at their unwillingness to ‘bang heads together’ to get policy pushed through.”
Emanuel issued a statement saying, “This is BS. And if you need it for translation, it’s baseless.”
What’s really baseless is Emanuel’s statements on the Afghan war. Let’s assume for a moment that Emanuel isn’t going anywhere; he’s still an unappealing figure to sell the war, given the tarnished perceptions of his character. When the US people demand honesty and get Emanuel, an immediate error has been committed.
Furthermore, Emanuel was allegedly one of the main opponents of Obama’s surge, rightfully fearing distraction from and complications with US domestic issues. Having favored the “offshore” strategy, Emanuel is stating a personal opinion more than any hard reality. He isn’t speaking for the Pentagon, who surely conflicts with him due to his opposition, has no relative idea of the conditions in Afghanistan, nor military expertise in general. The same conflict is developing between the Pentagon and Vice President Joe Biden, who Emanuel agreed with on going “offshore.”
To reaffirm Obama’s deadline in the face of mounting contrary evidence is lethally disingenuous. Emanuel won’t stop the bleeding.
Now let’s assume the Telegraph’s report contains either partial or full truth. Rumors have had Emanuel on the out for months so this isn’t out of the blue. His prediction on Afghanistan has also come true, as the war is devouring Obama’s credibility and wasting political support on the domestic front. Given that the war will only demand more resources, Emanuel will be forced to adapt legislatively for the rest of Obama’s first term, and likely his second.
If he stays.
It’s not baseless that Emanuel would skip out in the event of a GOP victory in the mid-term Congressional elections. That base has already been constructed. If Emanuel were angry at idealism then a July 2011 deadline would certainly qualify. And who wouldn’t expect Emanuel to deny such a report? The possibility remains open that Emanuel won’t last the rest of Obama’s term.
Which means at the very least, the White House deployed a man of political uncertainty to vouch for Obama’s fake July 2011 deadline. At worst, the White House just made a phantom promise with no intention of keeping it.
“There is no more important place in the world for American foreign policy and national security,” US envoy Richard Holbrooke said of Marjah from the village itself.
Regardless of what happens in Emanuel’s personal future, few US troops will be leaving Afghanistan after July 2011 - if any. This isn’t the integrity that the situation requires, yet it appears the White House and Pentagon are planning to lie all the way until then.
Or as long as they can.
June 20, 2010
"People are losing context. I think there's a rush to judgment, frankly, that - that loses sight of the fact we are still in the middle of getting all the right components in- into place and giving us a little time to have this - have this work."
"We clearly understand that in July of 2011, we begin to draw down our forces. The pace with which we draw down and how many we draw down is going to be conditions-based."- US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, continuing to defend "progress in Afghanistan"
The July 11th (sic) date as stated by the president is not moving. That's not changing. Everybody agreed on that date... The goal is to take this opportunity to focus to begin the reduction of our troops."
- White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, naming Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen
"I think the president is going to have to redefine the plan, and when the proper time comes for that, he will have to make a decision."
The political sphere is no different. Both skeptical of the US's strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to attract scrutiny while Pakistan has yet to disconnect from the Afghan Taliban.
This mass of negativity has yielded a propaganda battle between the Pentagon, the international media, and to a lesser extent the US media. The former accuses the latter entities of “cynically” prejudging US strategy as a failure, and has launched every missile in its arsenal to counter the overwhelming pessimism.
After Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a glowing review of President Barack Obama’s surge to the US Congress, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell channeled his boss by seizing control of the narrative.
“In the year since, that growth has been halted, and we are taking back territory from the Taliban,” Morrell insisted. “Their momentum has been thwarted, but it is still far too soon for us to say it has swung completely in our favor.”
The Pentagon’s irritable reaction to negative perceptions surrounding Afghanistan has only created more collateral damage. For the last year US commanders preached the importance of perception in counterinsurgency, and how often perception becomes reality. Now we’re being told to ignore other perceptions in favor the Pentagon’s.
Backlash to the Pentagon’s backlash illustrates the latest example of how Washington doesn’t get it.
A propaganda campaign that denies everything the US and NATO publics are hearing naturally fuels new doubts of America’s strategy. Gates, Morrell, and company are digging a deeper hole for themselves by blatantly closing ranks and responding in group-think. Though the Pentagon continues to argue that the war needs to be “reframed,” it appears unable to do so.
That leaves President Obama.
The White House has many problems in Afghanistan, but from a political standpoint they stem from one overriding disadvantage. Likely as a hedge, Obama has publicly dissociated himself from the war and negated his personal abilities in the process. Rarely does he engage the media on Afghanistan, seemingly uncomfortable with doing so, and his cabinet deploys only when the media must be combated. Karzai’s recent visit to Washington, for example.
Right now Obama is allowing the Pentagon to sell his war through a phalanx of yes-men.
Instead, he should hold another national address on Afghanistan and radically depart from prior speeches. He cannot spend the beginning recalling 9/11 and the rest confidently but solemnly pledging victory. He must honestly confront the American people, and by extension every state and people affected by the conflict, of which they are too numerous to list.
This obviously sounds idealistic, but is in fact realist policy. As the totality of Afghanistan becomes uncontrollable to its Western handlers, panic serves no interest except the Taliban’s and its allies. Only through integrity can Obama secure lasting political support for the Afghanistan war. Washington has tried lies - and they’ve failed miserably.
With the situation so destabilized, both in Afghanistan and on the West’s political front, it becomes all the more critical to simplify the root equation. Influential defense analyst Anthony Cordesman articulated this position in a report to the Center For Strategic & International Studies, titled: Realism in Afghanistan: Rethinking an Uncertain Case for the War.
Fortunately for Obama, the fundamentals of counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan can be laid on the table by a novice with limited time.
"Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict,” Cordesman writes. “The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”
Cordesman's first question depends on the second, which consequently becomes more important. Not until a third dimension is added though, one left open ended by Cordesman: how long will “winning” take? Can counterinsurgency work in Afghanistan and how much time is necessary - these two questions are jamming the US machine.
It’s up to Obama to clarify them.
The answer to the first question is a conditional yes. Applied correctly, across all spectrums of military and non-military operations, and counterinsurgency can potentially stabilize Afghanistan. Gaining majority support from Afghans is possible with patience and awareness, as is negotiating with elements of the Taliban unaligned with al-Qaeda. Pakistan remains a wild-card, but may be willing to permanently resolve the conflict through Taliban negotiations.
Whether US leadership can apply COIN principles is far less certain and reality is tilting towards the negative. But the question has never been whether COIN is possible so much as how long it will take, which necessarily decides the cost.
Cordesman, while leaving the final outcome undecided, goes into detail on deadlines and expectations. For him Obama’s July 2011 has been voided, as he should think in light of the Pentagon’s retraction. General David Petraeus recently downplayed both Obama’s review in December and the July 2011 deadline while testifying to Congress, an omen of thing to come.
Says Cordesman, “One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline, and/or if the GIRoA and the Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people, and our allies perceive it as a deadline. The same will be true if the timing of the campaign, and the impact of US and allied actions, are defined in terms of unrealistic expectations. No amount of planning, discussion, and analysis can set clear deadlines for this war.”
Obama must start by preempting his own deadline before December.
People from all nations realize the game is over. It’s time to come clean that 18 months was never a possibility to withdraw US troops or transfer control to Afghan forces, but a gross underestimate and an error. He will be forced to default anyway, and lying until December will only make any decision harder to sell.
As for a deadline, while impossible to set in stone, Obama can offer a more realistic time-frame for the US people to choose whether to support the war or not.
They should know that US and NATO operations will require another five years minimum to demonstrate verifiable trends of success. Costs will rise. Real COIN demands long-term nation-building, which Afghanistan desperately needs, yet the West is primarily sustaining its own security operations. Though non-military aid is generally cheaper than military, the heavy economic lifting required in nation-building has yet to begin.
And this phase would be the longest of all.
“One can guarantee that it is better to have a credible chance of victory in 2012-2013 than it is to rush to defeat in 2010-2011,” Cordesman predicts. “Moreover, it is fairly easy to predict the political cost of pretending that the aftermath will not require serious aid expenditures, and US and allied military advisory and support efforts, well beyond 2015... In fact, even the most optimistic estimate of any mining and agricultural development effort indicates that major financial support is likely to be needed through 2020.”
“It is time to be honest about this.”
Specifically, it’s time for Obama to be honest. For Washington to fear or oppose expressing the truth to the American people and the global community, while simultaneously demanding untold blood, time, and billions for the war, is unacceptable. Unorthodox as it would be to speak such haunting truth, Obama will only generate support - whether staying or withdrawing from Afghanistan - through transparency.
He's not going to last with the Pentagon fighting his PR battles too.
June 19, 2010
"We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, commander of the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR), told a briefing last week in London. "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."
"The answer to this is not charging around the Indian Ocean with expensive destroyers," he wisely advises. "It has to be a Somalia-based solution on land.”
But while many officials and outside observers preach this mantra repeatedly, no discernible effort is being made to actually live it. One cannot say this time or that time is the worst in Somalia, considering its seemingly endless history of civil strife. Now is as bad a time as any though. Displacement and hunger know no limit, al-Shabab controls half the state, and Mogadishu teeters on the abyss.
Somalia’s fate has been thrown into the balance, leaving no surprise why piracy refuses to abate.
Weeks ago the West had a massive problem on its hands. Mogadishu seemed poised to fall after al-Shabab stormed the capital to counter a government offensive, one that never launched. Their waves pushed back AU soldiers, accused of lethargy, as Somalia’s Transition Federal Government (TFG) threatened to consume itself through infighting.
The Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, aligned with the TFG in March and presumably activated by its US and Ethiopian suppliers, saved the day. Ahlu Sunna created space between al-Shabab and the presidential palace in Mogadishu, while also attacking al-Shabab controlled towns across the country in a demonstration of strength.
Villa Somalia is safe - for the time being.
Now Al-Shabab is no stranger to fighting Ahlu Sunna, having tried before to penetrate its central territory. But Ahlu Sunna’s frontal entry into the war has changed the fundamentals. It seems likely that al-Shabab didn’t intend to confront Ahlu Sunna until the final phase of its campaign, after seizing Mogadishu and eliminating or absorbing rival militant groups like Hizbul Islam.
Rather than quell the insurgency and buy enough time for US and EU trainers in Uganda and Kenya, Ahlu Sunna has shifted al-Shabab’s focus away from the TFG and prematurely forced a battle for the entire country. Perhaps it won’t materialize, or will and prove inconclusive, but that’s where the battle lines lead.
As al-Shabab and Ahlu Sunna engaged throughout late May and June in central Somalia, International Crisis Group Horn of Africa Director E.J Hogendooen observed, “All indications, at least from the indications we've received, is that al-Shabab has also moved some of its forces into central Somalia so this may be the start of a fairly significant series of clashes between Alhu Sunna and al-Shabab.”
On cue al-Shabab peacefully seized Beledweyne, the second largest city by population, from rival Hizbul-Islam, this week. Bordering Ethiopia and inhabited by advance elements Ahlu Sunna, the city has always been strategically critical and could see a new battle in the future.
Or serve as al-Shabab’s launch pad into the north.
Given Hizbul Islam’s strength disadvantage, it’s possible that al-Shabab used the group to temporarily hold Beledweyne until Mogadishu had fallen. Then it would advance on Beledweyne and form a front across the country to the capital, consolidating everything to the south and amassing in the central territory. Hizbul Islam would be destroyed or swallowed up, depending on its choice.
The latter seems probable. Hizbul Islam’s administration in Hiran’s Jalalaksi district, near Beledweyne, recently joined Al Shabaab. And while conflicting reports have surfaced, Sheikh Abdulkadir Haji Ahmed, chief of Hizbu Islam in Beledweyne, allegedly switched sides to al-Shabab the other day.
"We are hereby declaring our resolve to unite with our fellow jihadists (holy warriors) in this strategic Hiran region," said Sheikh Ahmed. "Unity is certain to arouse strength."
And in a related note, reports claim that some al-Shabab recruits infiltrated Ethiopia's training program. A spokesman for defecting soldiers delivered a speech to the inhabitants of Bula-Hawo, a strategic city on the Ethiopian border.
“In the first place when we have enrolled ourselves to the Somali government soldiers we never really mean to be part of them,” said a man by the name of Hassan, “but we merely had the ambition of observing the way the Ethiopians train, and now were are fully trained to fight against the Ethiopian troops and their entire ally.”
With the assertion of Ahlu Sunna, al-Shabab is now less likely to consolidate in Mogadishu, were it to capture the city. No sooner had Ahlu Sunna entered the fight did al-Shabab turn its eyes north. The TFG and AU troops are no longer its primary enemy, and the decisive battleground no longer Mogadishu, but all of Somalia. The main series of battles highlighted by the Western media are in territory challenged, not held, by al-Shabab.
Not in southern Somalia, but in Dhuusamareeb, capital of the central Galguduud region and forward base of Ahlu Sunna. Seizing Beledweyne is significant because it lies only 75 miles south of Dhuusamareeb.
Al-Shabab has tried capturing Dhuusamareeb before, notably in January 2010, and residents are reporting the worst fighting in months. Al-Shabab initiated operations to retake the city as soon as Ahlu Sunna moved into Mogadishu, and tried assaulting Marergur, 20 miles to the north, before being intercepted by Ahlu Sunna forces. Other central towns such as Mareeg and Gureil have come under al-Shabab’s attack.
The assaults on Mogadishu and takeover of Beledweyne are ultimately designed to create a pronged front against Ahlu Sunna, a strategy that now appears prematurely in effect. Two flanks will assail Dhuusamareeb over time while simultaneously attempting to seize surrounding villages. Mareeg, on the coast, should be another main target.
All lines then point to Abudwak, al-Shabab’s final objective to controlling all territory to Somalialand and Puntland. Abudwak lies roughly 100 miles north of Dhuusamareeb - and houses the headquarters of Ahlu Sunna.
Whether or not al-Shabab succeeds will be determined in the coming months and possibly years. Ahlu Sunna won’t be defeated permanently without the TFG’s total collapse and the successful merging between al-Shabab, offshoot militants, and tribal warlords. Furthermore, any decrease of concentration in Mogadishu could result in stalemate, not seizure of the capital, and thus inhibit the assault on Abudwak.
al-Shabab may also weaken itself internally if not careful with dispersing its forces across the country, a possibility that opens up counterattacks by the AU, Ethiopian, or even US forces.
What’s absolute is that al-Shabab will never be defeated purely through military or domestic means. Somalia demands external political intervention, not the present type that merely masks weapons supplies. Somalia requires a real regional initiative. Though partially integrative, no unified strategy exists between America, the EU and UN, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and the Somaliland and Puntland territories.
That’s why Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has called for greater international cooperation.
"This matter must be addressed with greater urgency,” Kibaki said during a visit from Vice President Joe Biden. “We have asked the U.S. government to provide leadership to forge a concerted international effort to stabilize Somalia.”
Unfortunately America has yet to respond politically in any meaningful way. A recent Somali conference held in Turkey appears a backhanded slap at the West for failing to provide more than token diplomacy and escalating militarism. These phases should be done in reverse, constructing an international, full-spectrum framework to then roll out local political, military and economic operations.
But such is not the case.
The number of estimated foreign fighters in Somalia continues to rise. This isn’t just a fact, but also a US propaganda campaign to justify military intervention. Last year the number was 100, and only weeks ago listed at 200. This estimate then ballooned last week to between 300 and 1,200, according to US officials.
The sudden change corresponds directly to General Petraeus’s new Special Forces directive, which emphasizes an active military campaign in Somalia despite the lack of a functioning government. Consequently, the governor of Hizbul Islam in Mogadishu recently warned of future air raids.
“We have information about plans by western countries to carry out air raids on cities and towns including Mogadishu, Kismato, Marka, which are under the control of Somali Islamists,” said Ma’alin Hashi Mohammed Farah.
And in a true sign of desperation, America has actually confirmed it’s arming child soldiers in Somalia’s army. We’ll dig deeper into that story later.
The West’s present strategy has no chance of eliminating piracy, let alone insurgency, in Somalia. America’s plan of action has resulted in al-Shabab challenging for total control of the state. Unless the strategy is to keep Somalia destabilized as part of the grand war for global resources - which has been theorized - a radical change in political mentality must reduce militarism in the region.
Failure to change will almost certainly yield a strike on Western soil, which is more likely to escalate the futile military cycle than break it.