Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fun with additional SNAFU context

Earlier today, Rue illustrated the horror of the Army’s $900,000,000 ‘accounting error’ by calculating what that much money could have bought in terms of various weapons systems, and by comparing it to the total defense expenditures of other whole countries.

I posted a link to Rue’s piece on Facebook, and my friend Kristin commented, “Kind of puts that whole “cut PBS funding because every little bit counts” red herring into perspective.” Which got me thinking: just for funsies, what if we take that number outside the completely-overblown-and-disproportionate-to-all-other-facets-of-reality context of the Defense budget? How much would $900,000,000 get us in other parts of our own federal budget? I took a peek through various other Departments’ budgets to see, sampling from a wide range of programs. (Estimates are based on the White House’s FY13 budget).

I’m totally not an accountant, so some of my calculations might be off, but from what I could figure here is a sampling of what other departments/agencies could fund with the amount of money Defense essentially loses in its couch cushions:

Agency/Program How Far $900,000,000 Would Go There
Head Start 6 weeks
NASA Exploration 3 months
Secret Service 6 months
USAID Operations 7 months
Fish & Wildlife Service 8 months
ATF 9 months
Federal Marshal Service 9 months
Dept. of Education Race to the Top Program 11 months
Federal Work Study Program 11 months
Small Business Administration 1 year
Millennium Challenge Corporation 1 year
Dept. of State Non-proliferation, Anti-terrorist, Demining Programs 17 months
Smithsonian Institution 17 months
VA Prosthetic Research 18 months
Bureau of Labor Statistics 18 months
OSHA 19 months
NASA Aeronautics 20 months
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for the Elderly 2 years
Peace Corps 29 months
Dept. of Justice Juvenile Justice & Child Safety Programs 3 years
Dept. of Labor Veterans Employment & Training Program 3.5 years
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) 4 years
Dept. of Commerce Economic Development Administration 4 years
National Endowment for the Arts 6 years
National Endowment for the Humanities 6 years
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for People with Disabilities 6 years
Dept. of Labor Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs 7 years
National Galleries of Art 7.5 years
Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights 23 years

Nah, but unusable Stryker parts are cool, too.

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“Send Lone Wolves to Strike Inside of France”

In an article I wrote yesterday for the Globe & Mail, I noted that online jihadists have been inciting attacks against France. One post in this regard, from the Ansar al-Mujahedin Network, was particularly interesting in light of a monograph I co-authored last year with my G&L colleague Dan Trombly about the tactical and strategic use of firearms by terrorists. One of our conclusions was that “small arms are quite useful for terrorist organizations. They are among the most tactically flexible weapons for complex operations, and for lone wolf or small group attackers, they are one of the most simple to use and readily available options. For this reason, small arms will continue to be an obvious choice not only for al Qaeda, but also for other terrorist groups that wish to carry out attacks.”

The post that caught my interest went up on January 13, written by a forum participant calling himself Abu Ubaydah al Masri al Salafi. Entitled “Advice to Our Brothers in the Islamic Maghreb,” the post provides a number of pieces of tactical and strategic advice. Some of the advice includes encouraging other jihadis to “join the army with the goal of killing the largest possible number of French soldiers, and thus weakening the trust between the two sides,” and capturing the French rather than killing them in order to create an anti-war climate in that country. But given my monograph on firearms, his fifth piece of advice stood out:

Send lone wolves to France to strike inside of France. It is preferable for the operations to be like Mohammad Merah’s operation [i.e., the Toulouse shooter]; that is, carried out by gunfire rather than explosives because it takes a long time to prepare explosives and the operation might be uncovered before implementation due to surveillance.

This passage concisely summarizes precisely why firearms will continue to appeal to terrorists, both individuals and groups, even despite the existence of proliferating options.

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Welcome to Book Group

Gunpowder & Lead is sponsoring a book group! Here’s the idea: every 3-4 months, one person in the group (of 6-7 people) will choose the book that everyone will be reading. It can be any book, on any subject, fiction or non-fiction. The idea is that if the books are generally chosen by individuals rather than by consensus, we are more likely to read something we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves. It’s a way of expanding our viewpoints. Additionally, it will mean that the responses to each book will be from people with a wide range of expertise on the topic of the selected book, which will give us a variety of perspectives.

Once the book is chosen, we’ll announce it here so that anyone who wants to read along and participate in the discussion can do so, and we’ll leave the comment thread of the announcement post open for anyone who wants to discuss anything about the book before the deadline. At the end of the allotted time, everyone in the main book group will write a short response/review which will be posted here on G&L. Following that post, we will host a discussion on Twitter for everyone who has read along.

For our first book group selection, we have chosen Steve Inskeep‘s Instant City, one of the most frequently mentioned books in our #bestbooks 2012 discussion.

The confirmed readers for this round are me, Diana, and Daveed from G&L, along with Sina Kashefipour – who first suggested a book group – Rebecca Johnson, and Nathan Finney. We plan to post our reviews and host the discussion on Instant City during the week of February 18-22. I’m looking forward to a great conversation, and I hope many will take part!

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Petraeus and Schadenfreude

Back in 2006, I was asked to deliver a series of lectures at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. At the time, the Ted Haggard scandal had just become big news in the U.S. Haggard was the head pastor at the New Life megachurch in Colorado, one of the U.S.’s most prominent evangelicals — and, it turns out, he had paid a male prostitute for sex over a three-year period and also used methamphetamine in front of him. One of the professors at Tyndale engaged me in conversation about the Haggard scandal, and noted his advice to other Christians (the professor’s advice, not Haggard’s): when you see a public figure engulfed in a humiliating scandal, imagine that your own worst sins and darkest secrets were being broadcast to the entire world. This was not an argument for lack of accountability, but rather an argument for compassion, humility, and realization of our own weaknesses.

I thought of this conversation when news of David Petraeus’s own scandal broke. My impression about some of the public reaction to this scandal was similar to that of Andrew Exum, who wrote on Twitter: “My feed right now is filled with schadenfreude, crass comments, and general idiocy. Apparently there are axes in need of grinding out there.” Similarly, Mark Jacobsen noted — in the most perceptive piece I’ve seen about the Petraeus scandal — that he was “already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.” Jacobsen wrote that, “with the first cracks defacing his legacy,” Petraeus’s detractors “are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.”

Jacobsen emphasized how in many ways, the story of Petraeus’s fall from grace is the story of the human condition. “In our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues,” he wrote. In that way, “we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.” I think the creation of impossible expectations is one part of the picture; the other part is the glee with which we then tear down our heroes (or, if not heroes, our prominent public figures) once the cracks in their armor become evident.

Schadenfreude is an emotion I rarely feel, and generally find it highly distasteful in others. I am not touting my own virtues here: I have more than enough faults to go around. But it is in large part my awareness of my own flaws that makes me feel schadenfreude so rarely, and find it to be such an ugly, human emotion. To be sure, part of it is the political climate in which we live. In a very good piece about the 2012 election, Matt Taibbi noted that “we should be confident that whoever wins has our collective best interests at heart, even if we don’t agree with his or her ideology, the same way we reflexively assume that the pilot of any plane we board doesn’t want to fly us into a mountain.” Yet that basic confidence has eroded. “People today on both sides are genuinely terrified of a wrong outcome in this election,” Taibbi wrote. “They’ve been whipped into a state of panic – people everywhere are freaking out and muttering to themselves and firing off vitriolic emails.” In this climate, our political foes are seen as less than human, and we rejoice at their humiliation, whether it is Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Anthony Weiner. Sometimes we cheer not only their humiliation, but also their deaths, as could be seen earlier this year in Matthew Yglesias’s thoroughly disgusting remarks when conservative figure Andrew Breitbart passed away.

There is something at play beyond the political climate, though. I think there is something about men like Petraeus — a war hero, a four-star general, a Princeton Ph.D. — that makes others feel a bit smaller, like their own lives do not measure up. When they fail, our reaction is: you aren’t so special after all. We are delighted to learn that our heroes aren’t too different from us after all, and in some ways may be even worse than we are.

But that is exactly the point: they aren’t too different from us. Humans are capable of great things, but there is also something inherently flawed and broken in the human condition, something that is prone to straying and spectacularly failing. And that is just as true of the people who gloat at the fall from grace of Petraeus, or Weiner, or Craig, or Haggard, as it is of the men who stand at the center of these scandals.

At the end of the day, the advice I got at Tyndale in 2006 is the best thing one could have in mind about scandals like these. We should all imagine that our own worst flaws and failings are on display before the world, just as Petraeus’s now are. Yes, let’s have accountability when something like this occurs. Petraeus absolutely should have resigned, and there is a good chance that this story will look even worse as more information trickles out. But everyone could do with less schadenfreude, less pure joy when the heroes that we built up fall far short of the impossible standards to which we would like to hold them.

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Finishing the Job

One of the memes that emerged following Wednesday’s presidential debate is the idea that Mitt Romney wants to kill Big Bird. This may or may not be fair: Romney said that he loves Big Bird, but wants to cut the federal subsidy to PBS. As soon as Romney said that, though, his detractors went to work. One standard meme is phrased: “Pres. Obama took out Bin Laden. Romney took out Big Bird.” This just underscores a point that I’ve made before: meme writers really need to undertake more rigorous research.

One of these men is dead. The other is still at large.

Here is the key question: is Big Bird actually the target? After all, Romney explicitly stated his adoration of Big Bird before saying that he would cut the PBS subsidy.

Those pundits who were so quick to contrast Mitt Romney’s alleged targeting of Big Bird with Obama’s targeting of Osama bin Laden should be aware that a Sesame Street character has been prominently linked to bin Laden, and it wasn’t Big Bird. Rather, there is a famous (and rather old) image of Bert, of Bert and Ernie fame, standing behind bin Laden at a press conference. This was a PhotoShopped image, of course: to date, not a shred of evidence has emerged suggesting that Bert was anywhere near either Tora Bora or Abbottabad. Further casting doubt on the authenticity of this image is the fact that San Francisco artist Dino Ignacio ran the web site Bert is Evil!, which featured (doctored) images of Bert standing alongside some of the most evil figures in history.

But somebody forgot to tell the jihadists. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, this picture of Bert standing behind bin Laden clearly made its way onto a sign at a pro-bin Laden protest held in Bangladesh:

This is a real photo of a rally, as verified by Snopes and other sources. As Snopes notes, the company that made these posters, the Dhaka-based Azad Products, claims that it didn’t intend to include Bert. They got the photos from the Internet, and Azad production manager Mostafa Kamal told reporters, “We did not give the pictures a second look or realize what they signified until you pointed it out to us.” If I may, this is either extremely sloppy work — or else Kamal and his minions were fooled by the image of Bert as a fearsome mujahid. At any rate, the picture of Bert alongside bin Laden is now part of the historical record, immortalized by its display at an actual rally.

Similarly, the meme writers got sloppy after Wednesday’s debate. If they wanted to link Obama’s killing of bin Laden to Romney’s comments on Sesame Street, they should have realized that Bert is the real target. And now Romney supporters who stand behind his subsidy cuts to PBS have been given an opening for a classic comeback. Using the above graphics, all they need to say is: Romney 2012. Time to finish the job.

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Pakistan’s “Sovereignty” Canard

This Saturday, Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan plans to lead his PTI party into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on a “peace march.” Khan’s goal is to draw attention to the stark living conditions and lack of services in that remote area, but his primary objective in taking a walk through the mountains with 100,000 of his closest friends is…yes, you guessed it. Protesting against me, your long-suffering, oft-maligned Predator drone.

Although Pakistan’s government is less than thrilled about this idea, Khan has won the support of the Pakistani Taliban, who have guaranteed security for his marchers. Interestingly, Khan has blamed the government for tacitly permitting American drone strikes in the FATA, while also repeating the government’s claim that such strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty. Unfortunately, he’s contradicted himself. His first argument is fair; the second is a canard.

It’s worth pointing out that the term “canard” has its roots in the French word for duck. Specifically, it comes from that waterfowl’s well-known tactic of making loud noises and feigning injury to draw potential threats away from its nest.

And sovereignty- the right of a state to dictate what goes on within their borders- is the bedrock of the most common legalistic argument against drone strikes. Pakistani politicians (and those on the world stage who sympathize with them, like Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) claim that American drone strikes in the FATA, in the face of Pakistani objections, constitute a violation of sovereignty. They are wrong, for the simple reason that Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter allows one nation to use force in the territory of another if the host nation grants permission.

A recent Wall Street Journal story made the degree to which Pakistan permits drone strikes abundantly clear. In comically-archaic fashion, the CIA faxes (yes, faxes) a monthly description of roughly where and how they intend to operate UAVs to Pakistani intelligence. The ISI used to fax back an acknowledgment; after the bin Laden raid, they stopped. But to this day, the Pakistani military continues to engage in “deconfliction,” ensuring that its own aircraft and civilian traffic do not interfere with American operations. (Brookings’ Lawfare blog has a podcast interview with CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey, which features an informative segment on the genesis of this Pakistani-American arrangement.)

Every time I cross the border, every time an American missile hits Pakistani soil, Pakistan’s government exercises their sovereignty by choosing not to blow me out of the sky. I operate openly, and Pakistan’s doing so would be a huge bummer, but well within their technical capacity. Yes, the sole act of not starting a war doesn’t equate to government permission. But sovereignty implies a range of options and authorities beyond war, and Pakistan has visibly exercised that sovereign authority in the recent past.

After the May 2011 bin Laden raid (which, as a side note, constituted a real sovereignty violation, with no warning whatsoever and American boots on the ground deep inside Pakistan) bilateral relations were already sour. But on November 17th of that year, a nighttime gun battle between NATO and Pakistani forces (the latter of whom were suspiciously close to fleeing Taliban) resulted in an air strike that killed 26 Pakistani border police near a village called Salala. Pakistan halted trucks resupplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, kicked American drone operations out of the Shamsi air base, and demanded an unprecedented cessation of drone strikes.

And we listened. Drone strikes that had been commonplace ground to a total halt. It took six weeks before U.S.-Pakistani ties had mended to the point where the strikes could resume. In contrast, it took six months of diplomacy and a public apology before Pakistan reopened the “Ground Lines of Communication.” This incident made it clear that, behind closed doors, Pakistani authorities could grant authority for American air strikes in the tribal areas- but they could also take it away. That’s sovereignty.

Some Americans have gone so far as to argue that Pakistan’s talk of sovereignty is ridiculous because the Pakistanis themselves can’t control the territory in question. Former CIA officer Art Keller argued in Forbes that “It is precisely Pakistan’s lack of sovereign control over the festering mess of militant activity in the FATA that makes our actions necessary,” and that Pakistanis should give up talk of sovereignty until they could establish it themselves.

I find myself defending Pakistan on that count. Sovereignty is the inherent right to control your territory, and that right isn’t solely dictated by your capacity to do so. The real problem is more complex; by publicly claiming a violation of sovereignty whilst privately exerting it, Pakistani policymakers avoid responsibility and accountability to their voters.

For what might a Pakistani politician be held accountable? In 2011, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that Pakistan suffered 26 domestic terror attacks a week. A third of Pakistan’s kids don’t go to school and half its women are illiterate. 29 Pakistani journalists have been killed in the last five years, including Saleem Shahzad, whose work uncovering militant links to the Pakistani navy got him tortured to death by elements of the ISI. The government literally can’t afford to keep the lights on, so “load-shedding” by power companies plunges businesses and citizens into the dark. And Pakistan pays about 9% of GDP in taxes, which the Congressional Research service called “mass tax evasion by the country’s economic elite.” The Pakistani political class is much happier to instead see the nation’s outrage, ink and airtime dedicated to a safer topic. Like sovereignty violations.

And by cooperating with our counterterrorism efforts (including drone strikes,) the influential Pakistani military gets access to some of the choicest American defense hardware. Since 2001, we’ve sold- or even given- toys like P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars. We even gave them an Oliver Hazard Perry-class missile frigate, for crying out loud.

And no, the Taliban didn’t start buying yachts. As has been obvious for 10 years, U.S.  counterterrorism assistance represents a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s armed forces to gear up for war with India. Ending drone strikes would derail a $4.3-billion gravy train. And that’s far from the only American aid in the mix; development groups receive billions of dollars for education, shelter and basic nutrition in Pakistan. (Of course, many Pakistanis have no idea. American markings are often removed from aid shipments out of fear that they will become targets for militants.)

The elected, legitimate government of Pakistan has weighed costs and benefits, and made a clear decision. Granting permission (however grudging or tacit it may be) for drone strikes represents a better option than risking a strategic break with America. By fixing public outrage on drone strikes without actually stopping them, Pakistani civilian leaders can divert attention from domestic problems while handing out an anonymized largesse of American development dollars. And Pakistan’s military can tolerate drone strikes as the cost of doing business; after all, they’re getting an arsenal of weaponry they can throw at their “real enemy,” India.

Pakistan’s claims of sovereignty violations are a canard in the most traditional sense of the word; a false pretense, designed to divert attention away from that which has real value. By (proverbially) quacking and flapping their wings over sovereignty, they hope to distract the world, and more importantly their domestic population, from their willingness to clear the FATA skies for robots like me in exchange for weapons, food, and cash.

They have been extraordinarily successful. The narrative has shifted from a holistic approach to Pakistan’s internal problems (of which tribal-area militancy is just one symptom, like education or electricity) to a worldwide drumbeat in which evil American spies and robots violate sacred borders. So when everyday Pakistanis complain about sovereignty, they do so instead of questioning secret decisions their leaders have made on their behalf.

When Pakistani leaders invoke the sovereignty canard, they seek to have it both ways; fight the Americans in public, reap the benefits of cooperation in private. And it works; everyday Pakistanis take to the streets and burn American flags instead of asking how their nominally-democratic government can be so wildly out of step with the will of its electorate. In part, this is what makes Imran Khan unusual; although he reserves plenty of outrage for America, he also doles out a fair amount to President Zardari for cooperating with us. That’s what makes Khan’s use of the sovereignty canard so silly.

Sending me to hunt bad guys in the FATA might be a strategic error. It clearly strains U.S.-Pakistan relations. And it’s definitely against Pakistani public opinion. But it certainly is not a sovereignty violation. So when you hear someone say otherwise….just listen for the quacking.

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The Nusra Front’s Threats Against Captured Yemeni Officers

As reported in Asharq Al Awsat, the Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra) claims to have captured five Yemeni officers who were sent to Syria to help the Assad regime’s fight against the uprising in that country. (A Yemeni rights group claims, in contrast, that they were studying at a military academy in Aleppo.) The video shows their passports with biometric information in both Arabic and English, provides the names and ranks of the five captured men, shows pictures of them in military uniforms, and records their “confessions.” For example, one man who identifies himself as Mohammed Abdo Hezam al Meleiky says, “I ask the Yemeni government to cut all logistical and military ties because Bashar al Assad’s regime is a regime that is killing its people and that is what we saw with our own eyes when we came here.”

There is still some question about the authenticity of the recording, but the capture of the five officers is likely to be valid based on the fact that five Yemeni families reported that their sons had disappeared in early September. Their report corroborates what is on the video.

One  relevant detail has not made its way into the press reporting. At the beginning of the video, an unidentified voice recites verse 5:33 of the Qur’an in Arabic: “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

Whenever individuals are captured by groups like the Nusra Front, a threat of physical violence is quite obviously implied. But this video makes the threat of violence explicit at the outset (although “exile from the land” is obviously a more appealing option for the captured officers than any of the other listed punishments). It is possible that this introductory remark could be a warning of grisly things that are yet to come.

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Sunk Costs

General David Barno writes in Foreign Policy about the choices facing the Obama administration in Afghanistan going forward in light of the frequency of ‘green on blue’ attacks and the recent suspension of joint operations resulting from them. In the post, he frames two possible paths the administration could take, and makes his case for the one he prefers. What I want to tease out here is a subject somewhat tangential to the point of Barno’s post. He describes his first option as follows:

“[The administration] could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings.”

Setting aside any the question of which is the best path and why to look at this one comment, this is terrible reasoning. I don’t doubt what Barno is saying. I don’t doubt that many would make their recommendations on this basis. If you have put a lot of time and effort and energy and sacrifice into something, it is understandable that you’d want to see it through, but there comes a point when it might become clear that your approach isn’t working, and at that point it is irresponsible not to consider changing it. Sunk costs are not a reason to do anything.

Any important decision – of which the decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan is certainly one – should be based on what is in our best interests going forward, and what is going to help us be the most successful in achieving our objectives. Unfortunately, I think we often give undue weight to what we have done in the past, and not enough to clear thinking about what we need for the future.

Part of this simple inertia: it’s a lot easier to continue doing what you’re doing than it is to start something new. The challenge of conceiving and fully implementing a new strategy is daunting to say the least.

Part of it is a desire to save face: we think we’d look dumb or indecisive if we put all this work/time/money/life into an approach only to abandon it midstream. (Or, heaven forfend, like we’re admitting we were wrong).

Part of it is a very human tendency to overvalue past investment. In this interesting piece from a while back in which he illustrates the sunk cost logical fallacy through a discussion of Farmville, David McRaney describes this phenomenon like so:

Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

We’ve invested years of our time, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives in Afghanistan at this point. If we’re going to get trapped in this kind of thinking about anything, it will be about this. We think: we can’t have done all this for nothing. We can’t have let so many people give their lives in vain. This is an extremely emotional argument. It is also logically bankrupt.

Taking more time, spending more money, risking more lives doesn’t undo what has already happened, doesn’t fix what has gone wrong, and doesn’t justify what we have spent in the past. We need to acknowledge and set aside these emotional drivers in our decision-making so that we can make policy decisions based on what choices give us the best chance of success in achieving our objectives. The psychological and emotional trap of money spent, time wasted, and – hardest of all – lives lost, can’t be permitted to dominate these decisions.

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Green on Blue

Nathan Finney has a piece up at the Kabul Cable right now on advisors. It’s a good read and he gets at some important ideas. One of his main arguments is that policy should drive everything, which might seem obvious to the wonks, but policy – and the stomach/political will to do what it actually takes to achieve policy goals – has been changeable and often lacking. At this point, it seems clear that when we went into Afghanistan, we either didn’t really think about what our long term objective for Afghanistan itself was – as opposed to our objective for al Qaeda, or the Taliban, which was pretty clear – or that we were not realistic at all as to what it would take to achieve it.

The increased use of, and emphasis on, advisors did not really come up until we were looking for a way out. See, once we had gone in and knocked the Taliban out of power and chased most of what was left of al Qaeda in the country into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, we started that other war, that ill-conceived, ill-fated adventure in Iraq. And we just sort of bumped along in Afghanistan. We set up a government. We fought occasional pockets of resistance that got less and less occasional, but we didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, as a country. Because Iraq, Iraq got so damn ugly, it took all of our attention and in the end, drained us of our will to persevere. When things had gotten bad enough in Afghanistan that we had to pay attention, even as they were finally winding down in Iraq, we just wanted out. Though the President made the decision to ‘surge’ the troops in Afghanistan in 2009, it was basically too little, too late.

So before long the objective had to change again. We would no longer concern ourselves with the whole of Afghanistan, with a democratic government, elected freely and able to provide necessary services to all its people. We would no longer be as worried about trying to do the right thing, or even about cleaning up the messes we had made ourselves. But we didn’t leave. Because if we just left, we were cowards, we were cutters and runners, we were admitting defeat. So where did this leave us? Determined to persevere, largely if not entirely just to save face, but with the only real objective to get the hell out.

The new version of victory would be to stand up the Afghan military and police forces, to act as advisors to build their capacity. It’s not that advisory missions can’t be effective – Finney’s piece touches on some of the ways in which they can - but forgive me if in this case it looked to me like another way to redefine victory, a grasping at one last straw that might let us tell ourselves that no we weren’t leaving because we’d lost, no it wasn’t all for nothing, all the damage and death and ugliness, that we achieved this thing, and that’s why we’re leaving, because we’re done and Afghanistan is better off.

We weren’t going to put in the years and years and billions and billions and time and energy on the day-to-day details of civil-society-building and education and capacity-building and infrastructure creation that this whole war-tired country needed. We want the answer to be easier, cheaper, simpler than it is. Victory, making things better, leaving a stable and friendly nation would have been a long, expensive, and expansive project had we really taken it on. No iteration in a continuing series of half-assed initiatives will change any of that. It’s uncomfortable to admit, because we want to be good, we want to be the people who do the right thing, because we want to always be a success, but the truth is we don’t care about Afghanistan. Not enough to do what it would really take. And this is why we fail.

This is why the advisory mission is a shambles too, with so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks – a pretty term for an ugly thing, that always evokes in my mind high grassy hills and wide summer skies, swirls of cool soothing color, not the heat and betrayal and blood it’s really meant to mean – occurring with alarming frequency, and I can’t help but think that it’s because all it ever was was a cover for our exit, a half-assed attempt to save face on our way out the door, and that deep down, we know it, and so do the Afghans.

Note: It should go without saying – but I’ll say it anyway since sometimes it doesn’t – that when I speak of what we have and haven’t done, I mean collectively as a nation. I know that there are many individuals who have served nobly, who care deeply, who have done what they can, and that there have been good programs and small areas of success. I am referring to our time in Afghanistan writ large. 

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Auditing the Surge in Afghanistan

On Friday, I fell assbackwards into was asked to write an op-ed for The Guardian assessing the surge in Afghanistan. Before I tease you with the beginning of my piece in the shameful hope of getting you to visit the site and drive up page views so they ask me to write again, allow me to note the power of social media in the 21st century.

Ten years ago, hell, maybe even five years ago, someone like me is not asked to write an op-ed in a newspaper like The Guardian. They might publish something I submit, but they’re certainly not soliciting me. That’s because the editors don’t know who I am nor do they know what I write, if I write. But because a friend like Chris Albon pays me an enormous compliment on Twitter, likely directing an editor to my Twitter profile, which then leads him to Gunpowder & Lead, I receive an email asking me to write this piece.

Long story short: social media is an amazing tool and the great equalizer in the world of ideas.

But really, none of this is possible without my good friend Diana Wueger, who about a year ago asked me to write here because she thought I might have some interesting things to say. Thanks, Diana.

And now, to my op-ed:

As the Middle East erupted in violent protests two weeks ago, US efforts in Afghanistan sunk to new depths. There hasn’t been much good news out of Afghanistan since March 2003, but last week was particularly bad– highlighted by an audacious attack on Camp Bastion and the announcement that all combined patrols with Isaf and Afghan troops would be temporarily halted. Overshadowed by those incidents were two more insider attacks that killed six Isaf service members the same weekend. Indeed, good news is hard to find.

Reminiscent of similar attacks on Pakistani military bases, a small group of well-trained militants carried out the spectacular attack on Camp Bastion, one of Isaf’s largest bases in country. Fifteen well-armed militants disguised in US army uniforms breached the perimeter fence and split into three roving teams. The result: two US marines killed, including the Harrier squadron commanding officer, nine wounded, and eight AV-8B Harrier “jump jets” destroyed or damaged beyond repair. It was the largest, single-day loss of US military aircraft since Vietnam. At roughly $30m per copy, the loss of eight irreplaceable Harriers rendered VMA-211, the squadron hit, combat ineffective for the first time sinceDecember 1941.

Three days later, Isaf announced that most combined patrols with Isaf and Afghan troops would cease “until further notice”. Ostensibly done to limit Nato troop exposure to Afghans while anger over a disgusting anti-Islam video remains palpable, it’s hard to see this order as anything but a response to the growing insider threat – so-called green-on-blue attacks, when an Afghan soldier turns his weapon on his Nato partner. Thirty-six such attacks have killed 51 members of coalition forces this year, roughly 20% of all Isaf casualties. Given that Nato’s withdrawal strategy rests entirely on the premise of ensuring Afghan forces are capable of providing security on their own, and that as of April 2012, only 7% (pdf) of Afghan army units were rated as fully capable, the suspension of combined operations calls the entire strategy into question.

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