Of Drones & Drugs

So I lobbed two posts on Twitter yesterday morning, pertaining first to drones and then to drugs, that probably weren’t a good fit for the 140-character format. In short, I implied that using UAVs for counternarcotics implied the GWOT had entered a “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase, and that the DEA was doing a better job collecting HUMINT than some other alphabet agencies. I figured I’d try to draw out the logic (or lack thereof) underpinning them.

As Spencer Ackerman rightly pointed out, UAVs are in no way new to the drug war. The Department of Homeland Security employs Global Hawks, Predators and Reapers over our land borders, and the Navy is slowly deploying Fire Scouts for drug interdiction at sea. Closer to shore, the Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection jointly operate a Reaper variant called the MQ-9 Guardian, and testing out the smaller Scan Eagle. Police in Miami (a city boasting at least a passing acquaintance with drug trafficking) continue to field-test Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-Hawk drone.

What we have not seen- yet- is the employment of armed UAS against drug traffickers, solely vis-à-vis their being drug traffickers. But I think that line got a little blurrier last week, when the U.S Treasury Department designated Taliban leader and Helmand province “shadow governor” Mullah Naim Barich as a drug kingpin. Not that it’s not already a fuzzy distinction to begin with. We’re spending billions both on a “war on drugs” and a “war on terror,” although both activities are necessarily a criminal matter as well.

Looking at the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and NSPD-9, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our covert operations in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other garden spots, it’s fair to say we came down pretty hard on the “war” side of the argument with terrorism. So designating a major Taliban fighter as a drug kingpin seems, at first blush, to be icing on the cake; the thought process being that while we earnestly endeavor to shuffle him off the mortal coil, we might also be able to slow down his IRGC-assisted drug pipeline into Iran. 

The Taliban aren’t the only terror organization linked with drug trafficking. Hezbollah has worked closely to launder money and move narcotics with criminal organizations in Colombia and Venezuela, not to mention the notorious Zetas in Mexico. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) even got caught trying to move cocaine through the Sahara into western Europe. I’m not really surprising anybody by saying that when you hunt terrorists, you stand a good chance of disrupting narcotics trafficking.

But since we’re now hunting Taliban who wear the dual hats of drug kingpin and military/intelligence target,  I think the day may not be far off when civilian law enforcement agencies like the DEA find themselves consistently closer to the kill/capture missions traditionally associated with JSOC and drones. It’d already be tough to tell a DEA Foreign-deployed Assistance & Support Team (FAST) agent from a JSOC operator. So I think we will be entering the “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase when the blurry line between terrorists and drug traffickers is used to blur the authorities by which we pursue them. Specifically, it would be tempting to play up a drug lord’s terrorist bonafides as a way of justifying a Title 50 Griffin through his car door, instead of risking lives on a mission to haul his ass in for a costly and uncertain federal trial.

The DEA says that’s not the case, and insisted to TIME last year that their priority is drugs, not terrorists. But as the legacy GWOT footprint lightens, it’s the DEA who’s out building FOBs and shooting people in unpleasant corners of the world. Its Special Operations Division quietly runs a Terrorism Investigations Unit, or the 960a Group, dedicated to chasing narcoterrorist bad guys across the globe. And sure, it’s still primarily a domestic law enforcement agency, but the DEA, through its Office of National Security Intelligence, is a also a full-fledged member of the IC, right alongside Air Force Intelligence and the CIA.

My point in all this is that by also designating a Taliban chief a “drug kingpin,” the already-close nexus between overseas American civilian law enforcement and some particularly pointy military/IC/contractor entities just got a little closer. And- as seen in that TIME story above- there’s some real doubts about the efficacy of prosecuting some of these international bad guys. So over the next year or so, I would not be surprised to see more mentions of DEA in the same breath as some of the more imaginative interpretations of “traditional military activity,” or flat-out Title 50 hijinks.*

*This will all be highly classified, but we’ll hear about a DEA success story, which will inevitably piss off someone at the CIA, who will leak everything to David Ignatius.

 

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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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Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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Shabaab’s Godane Releases Eid Message

Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane (a.k.a. Mokhtar Abu Zubayr) released an audio statement on Saturday commemorating Eid al-Adha that was posted on the pro-Shabaab Calamada website. Here I excerpt relevant parts of his statement (in italics), and provide my own commentary.

This eid season comes at a time of major changes and historical events across the world. The first of these is the setback faced by allied infidels who have invaded the Muslim world. This is manifested by their defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic decline in their countries, the collapse of puppet regimes in the Arab world, the Jews feeling more insecure following the fall of the walls surrounding them. The second example of the ongoing changes in the world is the success achieved by the Muslim ummah. The first one is the fall of infidel-allied regimes in the Arab world and the spread of jihad activities in Egypt, India, Syria, Mali and Nigeria.

Two points can be made about this passage. First, as I have pointed out, most prominently in Bin Laden’s Legacy, al Qaeda and other jihadi groups have seen the U.S. economy as its center of gravity, and much of their strategy has been designed to wear down the American economy. (Shabaab is, as of February, an official al Qaeda affiliate.) Thus, it is unsurprising that the first of the setbacks faced by “infidels” that Godane points to is “the economic decline in their countries.” Second, there has been a longstanding debate about the impact of the “Arab Spring” on al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. Early last year, the majority of regional security analysts held that the Arab Spring was devastating for al Qaeda, and jihadism more broadly, by showing that the old dictatorships could be toppled by nonviolent protests and removing the grievances that bred jihadism. (I was publicly skeptical of this position.) But it is becoming clearer that jihadis themselves do not interpret the Arab Spring this way. Godane says that he thinks it has helped jihadi effects because “the Jews” (i.e. Israel) feel “more insecure following the fall of the walls surrounding them” and because “infidel-allied regimes in the Arab world” have fallen, while jihadi activities have spread. Of course, the fact that jihadis perceive the Arab Spring as positive for them doesn’t mean they are right, but it is always a mistake to declare what impact new events will have on an enemy without considering the enemy’s own perceptions.

The first is the infidel invasion of our country. They used all available political, media, intelligence and military resources. Their main aim is to stop the implementation of the sharia. They cannot afford to see our people getting peace and justice through the religion and its sharia. They are also worried about the rise of Islam and see it as a threat to their oppression and injustice through which they control the world. Their other aim is to loot the country’s resources especially oil and minerals. Since the world is facing economic collapse, they see Somalia as a resource reservoir. This has forced them to end the apostate transitional system in the country so that they would legitimize the looting of the nation’s resources through agreements [with the new government]. The apostate leaders have come up with a plan they named “International Cooperation,” a pretext used to loot public funds and the country’s resources so that they could surrender them to the infidels.

Shabaab lost its final stronghold of Kismayo in late September, but the group is not defeated. Instead, it is resorting to insurgent mode (and also continues to administer some areas, as I will discuss momentarily). I am keeping a database of Shabaab attacks, and between the loss of Kismayo and October 15, I count sixteen attacks in Somalia and Kenya that can be attributed to Shabaab and its sympathizers, with around 24 killed and 92 wounded. (I have two caveats. First, obviously the database needs to be updated to reflect attacks that occurred in the past two weeks. Second, the limitations of the Somali press impact the count of those killed and wounded. My estimates are as conservative as the reporting will allow.) The above passage — focusing on the enemy’s desire to prevent the implementation of sharia, hatred of Islam, and intent to exploit Somalia’s resources — gives us a sense of the narrative that Shabaab will use to try to use to convince people to join or support an insurgency against Somalia’s transitional federal government (TFG) and African Union forces in the country (African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM).

Thank God the AMISOM invasion is being defeated and they are not achieving their objectives. The administrations in the Islamic regions are still in place and are fully operational. The Islamic administrations still control the very few towns the enemy has penetrated. The enemy’s hope that once the regional capitals are captured, the Islamic administrations in the country would collapse has backfired.

Shabaab does still administer a number of towns in Somalia. As pro-government forces have advanced, however, Shabaab fighters have generally melted away. In other words, there is no evidence that they are making an effort to hold territory in the face of advancing pro-TFG forces. However, Godane’s statement suggests that Shabaab still sees its administration of these areas as significant, and he argues that its administration is more enduring than the enemy’s penetration of these areas.

It is important to note that one of the historical mistakes made by the enemy is dragging Kenya into the war. They will regret this move for a long time. Their celebration over the capture of Kismayo will be short-lived, God willing.

Godane is arguing that Kenya’s involvement will serve as an irritant that drives people toward the insurgency, similar to how Ethiopia’s invasion in December 2006 helped produce a powerful insurgency. Indeed, Godane concludes with a call to “Somali clans, clerics and traders to make use of this opportunity to fight the enemy.” He says: “History is being written. The true followers and adherents of the sharia are being separated from the ones who follow their whims. Fight the enemy. Victory is from Allah.”

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Should the Fort Hood Attack be Classified as an Act of Terrorism?

The question of whether the Fort Hood attack carried out by Nidal Hasan should be classified as an act of terrorism is in the news. As ABC News notes, survivors of the attack have “released a new video … calling on the government to classify the November 2009 shooting as a terrorist attack rather than ‘workplace violence,’ a change that would make them eligible for specific combat-related benefits.”

The coverage of this issue has been a bit confused, because there are actually three different questions embedded within it, and media coverage has conflated them. The three questions are: 1) should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria?, 2) should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan?, and 3) was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism?

Should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria? The bottom line is that it doesn’t qualify as one under existing criteria. As ABC News explains, a Purple Heart may be awarded to service members who are killed or wounded “in action against an enemy of the United States; as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force; or as the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States, provided the Secretary of the military department concerned recognizes the attack as an international terrorist attack” (emphasis added). An international terrorist attack, in turn, is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents” when the act involves “citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The Fort Hood attack really did not involve the citizens or territory of more than one country. Those who want it classified as an international terrorist attack will argue that Anwar al Awlaki’s involvement makes the attack international. Leaving aside the objection that Awlaki was also American (he was, in fact, a dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen), the problem with this argument is that Awlaki did not direct the Fort Hood attack. Indeed, the correspondence between Hasan and Awlaki could be classified as a case of unrequited love on Hasan’s part, as Awlaki barely gave Hasan the time of day.

One may argue that the criteria should be changed to allow the award of Purple Hearts to Hasan’s victims. I am not going to evaluate that argument here — but regardless of whether it is right to change the criteria to allow Hasan’s victims to be awarded Purple Hearts, current criteria do not support the award without such a change.

Should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan? As Pentagon spokesman George Little noted in an email to the Washington Times, Hasan was charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder. I should note that in my initial version of this post, since edited, I erroneously sympathized with the idea that terrorism charges should have been brought in the first instance, because I was looking at applicable federal law. However, as Louis Klarevas flagged on Twitter, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) does not contain a separate charge for terrorism offenses. Indeed, in pre-trial coverage, Time explained that UCMJ would make for a simpler trial for this exact reason:

While the debate swirls about Hasan’s motives, connections and communications, opting for a military trial avoids the legal mire of treason or terrorism charges. Military prosecutors will have a Dragnet view of the case — “just the facts” as Jack Webb, star of the television cop classic was fond of saying. Why he did it is not essential, [Scott] Silliman says, although the defense may seek to cloud the picture with digressions into motivation. Prosecutors will focus on what the accused intended to do and how he allegedly did it: when he bought the gun, what he said to neighbors and how he acted on the morning of the crime.

In August, I did field research in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the Carlos Bledsoe case (Bledsoe is the man who carried out a shooting in 2009 at Little Rock’s military recruitment station, killing one soldier and injuring another). I spoke to the prosecutor in that case, Larry Jegley, about why the fact that Bledsoe’s motivations made the shooting an act of terrorism was treated as incidental. His response illustrated why prosecutors may opt for a simpler case in chief in instances such as this:

We have anywhere from 40 to 100 killings a year in my jurisdiction, and we try a lot of homicides. Of course, this thing got a lot more attention because the victims were in uniform, and were at an installation of the U.S. military. Our attitude about it early on was that we’ll let our cops do their thing, because unfortunately they’ve got a lot of experience. We’ll figure the rest of it out when we get there. Whether it would be tried as terrorism didn’t really enter into our mind. If you read the statutes, the only unusual factor at work in this case was the fact that one element of the capital murder statute involves someone in the military: Arkansas Criminal Code § 5-10-101(a)(3) applies to premeditated and deliberated killing for the purpose of causing the death of military personnel. That is what made this capital murder.

In other words, to Jegley it was simpler to treat the Bledsoe case as one of the too-frequent murders his office has to deal with every year: he had the evidence that he needed to prosecute the case as a capital murder, and playing up the ideological dimension would, in his view, only have complicated matters. Jegley and his team looked at Bledsoe’s motivations (rooted in his jihadist beliefs) to see if anything jumped out at them as an aggravating factor during the sentencing phase, but they found nothing.

Similarly, UCMJ does not contain a terrorism charge. This is not to say that Hasan’s attack couldn’t garner terrorism-related charges under federal law; but charging Hasan with a terrorism offense under UCMJ is a non-starter because UCMJ does not include terrorism charges.

Was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism? In this area, I agree with the criticisms of the Pentagon review. Hasan’s attack was not a simple case of workplace violence, and it is impossible to understand the incident without taking a hard look at Hasan’s motivations, and the ideology that drove the attack. In this regard, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure toPrevent the Fort Hood Attack, was far more rigorous and thorough.

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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 Rippling Effects of Sinking Costs

Co-blogger Caitlin’s post on the problems and sunk costs about Afghanistan makes a very valuable point about the problematic reasoning of “seeing through” incredibly costly and struggling military commitments. Her last paragraph is worth quoting again for emphasis:

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.

Nevertheless, American foreign and defense policy is replete with these sorts of decisions. Part of the reason this is so is obviously, as Caitlin argues, because there are significant emotional factors which discourage policymakers from making decisions to cut their losses.

Another issue, though, is that incentives to double down on sunk costs are built into discourses about the perception of U.S. power, and even a fair deal of U.S. strategy. Sunk cost reasoning, particularly about war duration, is built into the policy and geopolitical discourses of credibility and more lately, will power, that came to exert a significant influence on American foreign and defense policy and analysis and commentary surrounding it.

In the Cold War, the United States found itself, for the first time, with a relatively wide-ranging domestic and international mandate for taking on a global security role. The number of potential threat areas were vast and, in material terms, the efforts to secure and advance U.S. interests in each of them frequently infungible except at the strategic nuclear scale. The preferred option to simultaneously defend these interests from Communist perturbation was deterrence. In Germany, Korea, and many other theaters, deterrence relied on using so-called speedbumps which could not adequately defend a position but would presumably tie the U.S. into “doubling down” on losses or launching punitive strikes.

In Vietnam where nuclear deterrence had only limited utility to U.S. policy objectives, sunk costs proved especially difficult to avoid. Policymakers believed that failing to stay the course in Indochina would undermine the credibility of U.S. security commitments elsewhere and encourage Soviet provocations. The obsession with credibility has since morphed into a more ambiguous preoccupation with willpower, resolve, strength, and seriousness. Much as the credibility-concerned believed doubling down in one area was necessary to dissuade hostile encroachment and provocation most everywhere else, fears of American weakness, lack of resolve, or seriousness acquire a ripple-effect that endagers America or constitutes a choice in favor of decline with world-historical implications.

Doubtless, deterrence is not bankrupt as a concept, but letting highly perceptual factors such as willpower or credibility rule U.S. policies becomes more and more unsustainable. In a period of diminishing material capacity. In the political discourse surrounding arguments of willpower and deterrence, doubling down on sunk costs becomes necessary to convince actual and potential adversaries that the United States would not renege on its security commitments and hegemonic prerogatives.

However, the material realities of doubling down on sunk costs tend to undermine, rather than bolster U.S. credibility. Whatever fear was struck into the heart of American adversaries by the prosecution of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strain these wars – actual and perceived – placed on the U.S. military have certainly done more to enhance actual and perceived U.S. decline than any failure to double down

Retrenchment very often works. Even if it forswears achieving the desired local outcomes, if it frees up resources necessary to achieve more important or realistic goals elsewhere, it is generally a worthwhile undertaking. This will not always be happily resolved by convincing allies to take on a larger burden or reductions in local hostile intent. Some objectives will still not be desirable to local allies, and some objections to U.S. interests will persist long after the U.S. leaves.

This is basically fine, though. There is no superpower or great power cartel which has the interest or capability to exploit peripheral retrenchment by the U.S. into advantage against it in more critical areas, as the Soviet Union plausibly could by encroaching on U.S. interests in some regions. In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. very well could fail to achieve most or all of its core local objectives, but still be better off if doing so freed up resources to focus on more vital resources elsewhere, or mitigated the failure at a lower cost than sinking more costs into the country.

This is deeply unsettling both emotionally and for visions of U.S. power with American credibility and willpower as central components. The promise of credible U.S. power and universally-feared American strength provides a way for the U.S. to, in theory, put potential adversaries into awe and mitigate threats globally while simultaneously achieving local objectives. But as the material advantages enabling the U.S. to pile on sunk costs diminish, the price of the local objective quickly detracts, rather than enhances, American power.

The sunk costs fallacies which latch, remora-like, onto theories of deterrence and hegemonic stability, survive not just because of emotional appeal but because they appear to derive from the relatively successful historical record of the U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union. Yet the United States triumphed in the Cold War in spite of its occasional doubling down on sunk costs and unachievable objectives, and so the emotional glow of that victory, and the selective memory of its policies and strategies, outweigh the favorable geopolitical and economic trends which both significantly enabled America’s success and mitigated the costs of its failures.

Embracing retrenchment rather than doubling down on sunk costs is particularly vital, because as prevailing balance of power and economic trends attenuate the potential scope and scale of U.S. dominance, doubling down will have a greater relative impact on straining and degrading U.S. capabilities, and therefore accelerate the undermining of the U.S.’s overall position. A managed retrenchment that occurs earlier, while the strain is lower and the prevailing shift in power more gradual, on the other hand, opens more opportunities for recapitalization and managed realignment. Honestly assessing U.S. priorities and areas of interest, and discarding with the lesser and peripheral ones rather than trying to see them through at increasing cost will be emotionally painful and perhaps politically disconcerting, but a strong will directed towards accepting painful losses rather than denying them amidst mounting costs would better serve U.S. interests today.

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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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