Afghanistan

So What’s ‘Decent Interval’ In Pashto? (سم لاسي پريږدو وقفي)

Very little actually happened during Obama’s stunt visit to Kabul. His mastery of obfuscating optics remains unmatched: America is leaving in 2014 to rebuild at home, except we are staying to ‘finish the mission’. The most cheeky line? His declaration that ‘the mission is on a clear path to success.’ Do tell.

Pure focus group gold. The twinkle in Obama’s eye during his speech seems to say ‘This is how you do it.’ Soaring verbiage for all persuasions and voila – Afghanistan politically neutralized for 2012. After that, not really his personal problem. Who says he can only slow roll news?

We’d prefer a more honest and coherent withdrawal. And an open rejection of nation-building, COIN and (add your list here). Afghanistan as an even moderately functioning society should be far more pressing for Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad and whoever is the next Mayor of Kabul/Afghan president.

Afghanistan, Obama's Kabul Visit, Endless War, Lives And A Trillion Wasted

The scale of American profligacy over 13 years understandably makes a clean walk away difficult. Lives and a trillion dollars thrown away, mostly for nothing. A pointless surge that cynically bought time but accomplished little. An entire generation of national security bureaucracies and personal careers built on the whole Islamo-Terrorist/Drink-Tea-Complex. That’s a lot of inertia for Obama to take on. Particularly for one instinctively prone to compromise. So Decent Interval today is a more drawn out affair.

The $4-5 billion being brandied about as a post-2014 annual ante for graft aid to Kabul is expensive, even compared to Tel-Aviv. Sure, it keeps the American hand in the Great Game. In for a trillion, in for a billion, amirite? A lighter CT footprint requires some infrastructure and logistics after all. Obama concedes we’ll be in Afghanistan for another decade anyway.

Most of the aid money will be a psychological sop to alleviate American guilt. Does anyone really expect a dollar given to Kabul after 2014 to yield sudden benefit and efficiencies? Guilt’s emotional echo likely will fuel AgitProp for future mission creep again, most prominently from the so-called ‘Left’ [sic] with their emotional, impulsive ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) cant. The humanitarian calls for action here will be to alleviate oppression of helpless [gender/minority/pet] left destitute by callous abandonment. People may even Tweet about it. (We suspect those agitators (and Afghans) will be disappointed; America, once she’s psychologically withdrawn, will treat Afghanistan like an office party in a cell phone commercial ‘-so 45 seconds ago’).

Obama’s dazzling skill fuzzing up political conversation may be welcome in some quarters now. We’ll all rue it later. ‘Lessons of Afghanistan 2001-2014′ inescapably will be on a future political blackboard. Not that we as a society are particularly adroit at drawing lessons, let alone studying them.

A Tiny Flicker Of . . . Hope . . . ?

As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

Obama on ’60 Minutes’ (May 8, 2011)

Maybe Bismarck really was right after all. Although, to be fair, once again the Goldilocks process is revealed. The options before him were: (a) stand-off kinetic force; (b) boots on the ground; or (c) wait for more data to increase confidence percentage. He chose (b). (Thank goodness – ed.)

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You Don’t Say . . . Gates Gets Wet As An Amphibian

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

Bob Gates, February 25, 2011

You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha . . .

Vizzini, (1987)

Gates tells the Army that Krauthammer and the ‘Go Ashore’ crowd are history. And beneath the crude bureaucrat calculation, Gates seeks to return the U.S. to fundamental geopolitical realities: we’re an amphibian power, not a continental one. Too little, too late.

Rumsfeld Redux – Here Come The Snowflakes

Rummy is ginning up the hype machine for his forthcoming memoir. We have little doubt he devoted more effort and attention to detail than either Cher Condi or his nominal boss.

Even in retirement he intends to fill the vacuum still surrounding the vacuous Decider.

Garfinkle’s ‘Obama As Innocent Abroad’ — American Foreign Policy As Rorschach Test

We first met Adam Garfinkle 30 years ago or so when he was starting out at FPRI. We’re under no illusions about his ideological prisms. His re-printed piece in “The American Interest”, ‘An Innocent Abroad: The Obama Foreign Policy’ easily could come from Hudson or the usual suspects. Yet he correctly observes:

Indeed, the fuzzy indeterminacy that characterizes the Obama foreign policy holds true even at the highest echelon of strategy. The United States is the world’s pre-eminent if not hegemonic power. Since World War II it has set the normative standards and both formed and guarded the security and economic structures of the world. In that capacity it has provided for a relatively secure and prosperous global commons, a mission nicely convergent with the maturing American self-image as an exceptionalist nation. To do this, however, the United States has had to maintain a global military presence as a token of its commitment to the mission and as a means of reassurance to those far and wide with a stake in it. This has required a global network of alliances and bases, the cost of which is not small and the maintenance of which, in both diplomatic and other terms, is a full-time job.*


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Afghanistan 2010 – ‘Decent Interval (COIN Remix)’

We all get IMAX 3D seats to the 2010 remix of a flailing Superpower’s failing war. (No, not the in-camera expensive 3D shot on location but the sloppy, shoddy and cheap post production 3D ).

Per Fred Kaplan, COIN and all that? So 2009. “U.S. and NATO forces are [now] concentrating more on a different, possibly faster, explicitly more forceful means of pressuring the Taliban to the negotiating tables.” Stand-off kinetic fire on target has risen 300% in the last 12 months (NYT says 50%). The increased operational tempo presumably is intended to assist NATO’s effort to facilitate ‘reconciliation’ talks among Karzai and Taliban factions.

‘Grooming’ the battlespace for a fantasized secondary coercive political effect is, of course, more PowerPoint nonsense. Considering that the U.S. is actually more ignorant of its environment 9 years into this sordid affair than by comparison 1974 (9 years after Da Nang). Moreover, both the Mayor of Kabul, Karzai, and the Taliban loathe the U.S. and keenly aware of the clock running out.

Petraeus et al. have some advantages. Unlike the Southeast Asian Unpleasantness, the Nation never really went there. No draft. With 15 minute news cycles, ADD tweeting ‘thought leaders’, what is a ‘Decent Interval’ now? After all, who remembers the Gulf Oil Spill? That happened here. It’ll also assist with the inevitable “Stab in the Back’ narrative. (Btw, anyone else notice Time/Life hawking Nazi porn commercials on cable this October with almost Beckian urgency? Expect the forthcoming ‘Stab in the Back’ to be of that ilk, more an apolitical merchandizing opportunity than immediate post-1975. Everyone is in the click throughs and ‘Likes’ chase now).

On a related note, we’d like to say the reports of war crimes, sanctioned murder of unarmed Afghans and cover-up by the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade is a surprise. But can’t. As longtime readers will recall, we’ve long predicted this would happen as a systemic inevitability, when mission incoherence fosters creeping nihlism that subborns institutional ethos, discipline and self-image. The late Charlie Moskos might have had much to say on the sociological phenomenon/vulernability to militaries throughout history.

When the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade arrived in Afghanistan, its leader, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, openly sneered at the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy. The old-school commander barred his officers from even mentioning the term and told shocked U.S. and NATO officials that he was uninterested in winning the trust of the Afghan people.

Instead, he said, his soldiers would simply hunt and kill as many Taliban fighters as possible, as dictated by the brigade’s motto, “Strike and Destroy.”

What resulted was a year of tough fighting in territory fiercely defended by the Taliban and a casualty rate so high that it triggered alarms at the Pentagon. By the time the 3,800-member brigade returned in July to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., it had paid a steep price: 35 soldiers were killed in combat, six were dead from accidents and other causes, and 239 were wounded.

The brigade also carried home a dark legacy that threatens to overshadow its hard-won victories and sacrifices on the battlefield. In some of the gravest war-crime charges to arise from the Afghan conflict, five soldiers have been accused of killing unarmed Afghan men, apparently for sport, and desecrating their corpses. Seven other platoon members have been charged with other crimes, including smoking hashish – which some soldiers said happened almost daily – and gang-assaulting an informant.

Rise And Slow Fall Of Another American Army – And Friends

Years ago, when writing a book actually meant something, Shelby Stanton’s Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces Vietnam 1965-1973 offered incisive insight into how the U.S. Army conducted operations battle by battle, battlefield by battlefield and how the institution itself devolved in parallel with U.S. political and strategic incompetence.

It’s fashionable across the Interwebs to proclaim as Les Gelb does, in his now SNL-parody worthy fin de siecle world weary sort of way, there’s nothing terribly new in the Wikileaks material. With a smug eyeroll they type, ‘*everyone* knows’ the war is going badly and the ISI is untrustworthy. Which is not really the point.

Here, at a basic mid-level (some secret, some confidential, classified but not compartmentalized) is an incredibly rich data trove revealing how the relevant U.S. institutions acted and perceived themselves as acting in the moment. Which is a macro version of what Stanton did for the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The weight of minute detail and quantity about the institutions and their interactions is itself the story. Regardless whether the data changes the ‘picture’ whether we’re ‘winning’ exchanged as common wisdom in a Dupont Circle, er, circle jerk time loop with [take your pick, Kagan, Pillar et al.].

What emerges is not some magic revelation that the U.S. is unsuccessful per Obama’s speech macro in ‘halting the momentum of the Talleeeeban’. The granular detail makes clear military, diplomatic and other institutions are utterly incapable of accurately assessing their environment and calibrating accordingly. On it’s own, the cumulative impact is serious enough, being — predictably — a slow but accelerating disintegration of internal coherence and ethos. Anyone who knows the military as a concrete living entity (as opposed to just an abstraction ala the Neocons or NotSoBright) also knows collapse of ethos and internal coherence leads to nihilistic operations and follows a trajectory potentially ending in institutional death spiral. Apart from overall strategic failure.

This admittedly limited data dump – while massive — remains just a straw’s view. Much remains out of public view. Still, one gains clear snap shots of consistently unanchored institutional failure across the years calling into question their very ability to offer trustworthy, meaningful input towards a rational American strategy going forward.

Yes, we all ‘know’ it ‘all’ already. But consider the difference between listening to a piece of music and investing the time and neurological training to play an instrument – to understand the music from that internal perspective – let alone being able actually to play it. The difference seems small. That gap is enormous. The historical and practical impact from this data’s release has real meaning. More than some equally dysfunctional ‘thought leaders’ as they speak *at* each other while cradling stale tuna sandwiches at a Think Tank event manufactured for CSPAN.

“Would You Like To Know More?” (Updated)

Thank goodness for the Columbia Journalism Review. They’ve looked into claims that Politico redacted material from a McChrystal story because it was unflattering to the profession avocation. They pronounce all clear. There’s nothing to see.

As you likely know, Politico after-the-fact redacted their reporters’ statements that Michael Hastings, author of the Rolling Stone McChrystal piece, was so effectively candid because he didn’t worry about access and burning bridges. In Jon Stewart’s non-redacted words, Hastings piece revealed the rest of American media as the mediocre, self-editing access sycophants we all know them to be.

But hold on. The august CJR arbiters received an email from a Politico editor. Therein Politico proclaims the deletions occurred solely ‘to tighten up the piece.’ To CJR the issue is settled. (Although carefully crafted language allows CJR to cover itself for the future). Politico doesn’t escape unscathed. CJR wraps Politico’s knuckles for bad form. How thoughtless to withhold such an explanatory email for a day. Many were left in anguish needlessly.

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Jonathan Chait And Battered Pundit Syndrome

Seeking perhaps to maximize page views and SEO optimization (the boy’s gotta eat), Jonathan Chait goes contrarian and affirms the Boy King’s Rooseveltian greatness. He condescendingly diagnoses the ignorance of Obama’s critics thusly:

Part of the reason for liberal dismay in [sic] an ahistorical understanding of how progress works. In the liberal memory, political success is bathed in golden-hued triumph. In reality, it is a grubby, stop-and-start process that looks pretty ugly up close . . .

A second reason for liberal despair is the cult of the presidency. Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower.

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OK, Cameras Rolling People, And . . . ACTION!

The American military colossus arrives in a fleet of helicopters which British lack. When US Marines air assaulted into a notorious Taliban stronghold in the south of Helmand Province – far south of positions the British have struggled to hold for three years – they arrived in a fleet of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters . . .

The US military colossus has moved into Afghanistan’s most dangerous and turbulent province, moving troops, aircraft and armoured vehicles in numbers which British commanders could only dream of through their years of frustrating battle against a determined and deadly enemy . . .

The well-supplied Americans are in stark contrast to their British brothers-in-arms, whose shortages of armoured vehicles and helicopters are the subject of political arguments at home. . .

Then on July 2, the US Marines arrived – launching their biggest helicopter-borne assault since the Vietnam War . . . After replacing British troops in central Helmand districts such as Garmsir, the American Marine commanders were careful to praise their predecessors – and the sentiment is genuine.

Commanders say they did a “great job” or they were “fantastic”. But the praise is qualified by an acknowledgement they didn’t have enough resources. “The Brits did a phenomenal job,” said one senior officer. “They didn’t have a lot of people, they were a force of maybe three or four thousand I think, and we are coming in with 10,000 Marines, so we got a lot more to do a lot more things. We just have a lot more people.”

If only it were true. It’s all nostalgic in a way. How re-assuring to have Brits marveling once again at ‘Over here, over paid and over sexed’. Very Churchillian in a pico sense. The Austrian Corporal History Channel knows how to program this narrative. Plucky Anglo-Americans riding together a wave of (relative) American tactical material abundance in one far off province to . . . victory.

Except we all know, like Col. Kilgore, ‘Hamid don’t surf, Sir!’ This elaborate military theater and psychological manipulation is aimed at both the local populace and the Mayor of Kabul’s emissaries. Most of the Taliban, especially their most valuable foreign operatives, have already withdrawn or melted away. Intentionally for both sides. We remain skeptical that once all the theatrical sturm und drang fades the ‘central government’ [sic] can exert consensual civilian control over the region to engender meaningful loyalty.

More than at any time since 2001, American and NATO soldiers will focus less on killing Taliban insurgents than on sparing Afghan civilians and building an Afghan state.

“The population is not the enemy,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told a group of troops this week. “The population is the prize — they are why we are going in.”

To realize their goals, the Americans and their allies want to capture the area with a minimum amount of violence. American commanders say the attack on Marja is intended to be nothing like the similar size assault on the city of Falluja, Iraq, in November 2004. In that case, Falluja, under the control of hundreds of insurgents, was largely destroyed. The Americans killed plenty of guerrillas, but they did not make any friends.

“We don’t want Falluja,” General McChrystal said in an interview this week. “Falluja is not the model.”

At least there’s that.