Michael Crowley's new piece on Afghanistan should be a sobering read for liberal hawks:
For the left in the Bush era, America's two wars have long been divided into the good and the bad. Iraq was the moral and strategic catastrophe, while Afghanistan--home base for the September 11 attacks--was a righteous fight. This dichotomy was especially appealing to liberals because it allowed them to pair their call for withdrawal from Iraq with a call for escalation in Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq wasn't about retreating; it was about bolstering another front, one where our true strategic interests lie. The left could meet conservative charges of defeatism with the rhetoric of victory. Barack Obama is now getting ready to turn this idea into policy. He has already called for sending an additional two U.S. brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, to the country and may wind up proposing a much larger escalation in what candidate Obama has called "the war we need to win."
But, as Nagl understands at the ground level, winning in Afghanistan will take more than just shifting a couple of brigades from the bad war to the good one. Securing Afghanistan--and preserving a government and society we can be proud of--is vastly more challenging than the rhetoric of the campaign has suggested [...] The challenge of exiting Iraq was supposed to be the first great foreign policy test of Obama's presidency. But it is Afghanistan that now looms as the potential quagmire.
It's certainly worth questioning to what degree the Democrats' enthusiasm for the fight in Afghanistan has been an effort to protect their right flank while opposing the war in Iraq. This isn't so say that this fight isn't necessary, but it's going to be far more painful than most of its supporters realize.
For what it's worth, the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan has, to a large extent, already begun.
What would possess you to get on a cruise ship headed for the pirate-laden Gulf of Aden is beyond me. But apparently, that's what 650 or so passengers did, only to have my fears fulfilled and be attacked by... pirates. Their Rome to Singapore voyage on a U.S. vessel was impolitely interrupted by gunfire on Tuesday.
Luckily, the good ship avoided capture. As CNN dramatically put it: "The ship took evasive maneuvers and accelerated to its full speed of 23 knots or 27 mph." That's some speedy driving.
But as we all know by now, others have not been so lucky. A Ukranian weapons ship and a Saudi oil tanker are still being held for ransom.
Back on land, the chaos ensues. The Ethiopian troops who have occupied the country since December, 2006, are pulling out next month, and the government is nervous it won't be able to stay in power (no wonder, since it was installed by Ethiopia to begin with). Peacekeepers are nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, the former Islamic government is gaining lost territory.
Hell of a cruise.
Photo: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images
Incredibly, just one.
That's way down from the monthly average of 21 deaths since May, and given that 2008 has already been the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a single death is a notable figure. But it's probably unlikely that security there is any making solid, long-term gains: A U.S. military spokeman told the LA Times that insurgents scale back operations during the colder months, which might have led to fewer deaths last month.
And notably, Spc. Jonnie L. Stiles died in mid-November when a suicide bomber struck his convoy. As Obama and Petraeus hone in on a new strategy for Afghanistan, suicide attacks, which have been the terror tactic of choice there for just the past few years, are sure to remain the primary threat to U.S. troops.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
When it comes to whether President-elect Obama should follow through on plans to base a missile defense shield in Europe, everyone's got an opinion. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says dropping the shield program would pave the way toward improving U.S.-Russia ties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the shield isn't worth all the trouble and should be scrapped. The LA Times editorial board says Obama should make up his own mind, before basically telling him to ditch the shield.
What Obama thinks about all of this isn't entirely clear. After a conversation between the president-elect and Polish president Lech Kaczynski last week, Kaczynski seemed to get the impression that Obama and expressed support for the shield, which will be partially based on Poland. Obama's people say he never promised any such thing:
"President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama made no commitment on it. His position is as it was throughout the campaign: that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable," McDonough said.
Bolton characterizes this statement as "weak and ambiguous." He's right, but it's probably the best the Obama team can do at the moment.
In an ideal world, I suspect Obama would scrap Star Wars. It's an expensive and unnecessary program that stands in the way of Obama's goal of engaging Russia on more pressing matters. But as Time's Mark Thompson points out, extravagantly expensive military programs take on a momentum of their own and are often harder to shut down than they are to start.
Then there's the matter of agreements that the Obama's predecessor signed with Poland and the Czech Republic. Mevedev's recent bluster has also put Obama in a position where he would look awfully weak by acquiescing to Russia's wishes.
The fact that the Obama team hasn't come down strongly on either side of this debate yet seems to be driving partisans crazy, but there's little reason for him to dive in headfirst before there's even national security team in place. This issue is a lot more complex than either side usually admits and Obama is right to take his time.
In an interview that appeared on the front page of the Financial Times today, a senior Chinese military official gave some "hints" about China's aircraft carrier program. "Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach," promised Major Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the the Defense Ministry's foreign affairs office.
In last week's FP List, we called for Agent 007 to secretly gather evidence about China's naval capabilities. Far from being reassuring, these vague comments from the Chinese military make James Bond's (hypothetical) task even more urgent. We'd like to know the truth.
In response to the FT article, Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a security think tank, told me today that "China has waged an at times sophisticated and at times facile campaign of disinformation surrounding its aircraft carrier program." He believes the world will never get a transparent description of China's carrier program.
The irony, though, is that this latest "campaign of disinformation", while growing more sophisticated, clings tightly to its facile notions. On the one hand, the Chinese government has deployed an English-speaking and "avuncular" military official (as the FT describes Qian) to massage the international press corps, which is quite unprecendented for China's notoriously tight-lipped military. Yet the Chinese government seems to believe that other countries will not question its intentions, that simply averring it has no wide ranging naval ambitions is enough to divert the world's attention elsewhere.
When pressed about its technological capabilities, "the [People's Liberation Army] will seek to couch their missions in defensive terminology," Fisher says. "However, the usual approach ... is to assess the capability of the platform, its electronics and weapons, and then assume they will be used to the maximum envelope of those capabilities for any range of offensive and defensive missions." When China does launch an aircraft carrier, it's possible that the crosshairs will be trained only on the Taiwan Strait. But that certainly can't last forever. Qian will have to find an easier pill for the rest of the world to swallow.
Photo: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images
It's commonly known that vast quantities of vice leave Afghanistan's borders each year, but German forces are fighting back. Media reports show that German military bases in the country received shipments of more than a million liters of alcoholic beverages last year. That included 990,000 liters of beer and 69,000 liters of wine. If all of this were consumed only by the 3,600 German troops stationed in Afghanistan, that would come out to 275 liters of beer per soldier.
Back in the Fatherland, the opposition Free Democrats party, which requested these figures from the military, seized on the revelation as a sign that more must be done to relieve the boredom of German troops. But the Defense Ministry shrugged these concerns off, saying troops were "well within" the two-cans-per day limit. The ministry added that the drinks, which are for purchase, are also consumed by German police, journalists, and diplomats. Even Foreign Minister Franz Walter Steinmeier likes to kick back a cold one when he's in country. "When he visits Afghanistan occasionally one or two cans of beer will be downed," said one Foreign Ministry spokesman.
If President-elect Obama pressures Germany into sending its troops south to fight the Taliban, maybe they'll have fewer chances to tank up. But so long as Chancellor Angela Merkel adamantly refuses to let this happen, I say "Prost!"
Photo: MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images
Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has erupted again over the last several weeks, continuing an ongoing war that has left more than five million people dead. But now, as many times before in Congo's rather dreary history, the region is getting sucked in.
Human Rights Watch reports today that Ugandan rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army are now pillaging northeastern Congo. Zimbabwean and Angolan troops are reported to be involved, too. Bravo to Angolan peacekeepers, who have volunteered for the ongoing U.N. mission there, but the whole thing harkens ominously to the late 1990s, a time when Angolan troops supported the Congolese government against Zimbabwean and Namibian troops in country.
In other words, neighbors of this conflict cannot be assumed innocent.
The stakes are high. Even in comparison to the last decade of Congo's history, today's conflict is worrisome. An already desperate humanitarian situation is now dire, as this week's photo essay demonstrates. UNHCR already reports that 250,000 people have fled their homes in the last two months, bringing the total displaced to 800,000. Camps are unsafe, and UNHCR is trying desperately to relocate 60,000 civilians from the front lines. At least 1,000 cases of cholera have been reported in over a month's time -- countless more no doubt go unrecorded.
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Over the past week, Israel has hosted many services, speeches and events in honor of former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. The national hero and Nobel Peace Prize recipient was assassinated 13 years ago by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist who opposed Rabin's peacemaking work.
Israel's top politicians used the occasion to highlight messages of peace. One Israeli soldier, however, appeared to be less than riveted while attending a memorial ceremony earlier this week, showing his lack of interest with what his Air Force base commander deemed a "disrespectful act": a yawn. Apparently, he didn't even cover his mouth.
The faux pas came during the commander's own remarks. So loud and disruptive was this yawn that the commander paused for a "few minutes." This display of disinterest earned the soldier 21 days in jail.
But does the punishment fit the yawn?
The soldier's mother doesn't think so. The woman recounted the episode to Israel Radio, saying that she'd raised her son on Rabin's legacy and that he wasn't being disrespectful, he was merely tired.
But, if Rabin's memory impresses any lessons on those in the company of our boorish yawner, especially now as elections approach and peace negotiations hang in the balance, perhaps it's that peace requires superhuman energy and staying power.
Rest up, Israel. There's much work ahead.
A wedding in Afghanistan reportedly ended in tragedy on Monday, when a missile fired by a U.S. aircraft slammed into the crowd, killing 40 civilians and wounding 28 others. When I saw the news, I wondered, why does the United States always seem to bomb weddings in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Part of the reason is that America's enemies are lying about the effects of American air strikes. "During the air war leading up to Gulf War I, it was amazing how U.S. airstrikes seemed to systematically hit Iraqi schools and hospitals," noted Wayne White, a former deputy director in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the Near East and South Asia, in an interview today. "[These claims] turned out to be, in most cases, Iraqi propaganda."
But that does not minimize the very real limitations of air power, and the fact that many strikes do indeed hit civilians. As far as weddings are concerned, a crowd of revelers can be hard to distinguish from a gathering of insurgents from the bird's-eye view of a spy drone. From afar, celebratory gunfire can also make a joyful wedding appear to be an angry mob. Air power's trouble in delivering pinpoint strikes, combined with the time lag between receiving intelligence and bombing a target, also increases the likelihood of civilian casualties.
White knows the limitations of allegedly "smart" munitions. "An airstrike which generally uses a 500-pound bomb, even if it hits its target in many cases, there's going to be collateral damage," he notes. Airstrikes were never meant to be used in an urban environment or in villages, he argues, because of their lack of precision.
However, there has been an increasing reliance in air power in
The lag time between receiving intelligence and launching a missile at a
target also increases the risk of civilian casualties. Let's say an
Photo: FILE'; Joseph Giordono-Pool/Getty Images
I got a military press release on this story yesterday, and it seems little else is known about the incident:
An Afghan national in Meywand, Khandahar province, reportedly doused a U.S. civilian working with the U.S. military with a flammable liquid and lit the worker on fire. Another U.S. civilian then shot and killed the attacker.
The burn victim sustained serious injuries and was transported to a Coalition forces medical facility for treatment.
That's pretty horrible. The interesting bit, however, is this detail:
The U.S. civilians were working with teams of anthropologists and psychologists that help the U.S. military with cultural awareness.
There's a fierce debate among anthropologists about the morality and practical effects of working with the U.S. military, a topic we addressed a few months back in a debate between Hugh Gusterson and Peter D. Feaver.
One aspect of the discussion we didn't really delve into was the military's controversial "human terrain teams," in which social scientists actually embed with military units to advise them on cultural issues. It sounds like the civilian was a member of such a team; I imagine this incident in Afghanistan will make it even harder to recruit qualified folks.
More details are coming out about the U.S. helicopter strike in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal on Sunday. Anonymous U.S. officials are calling the raid a "success," saying that it killed Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi loyal to al Qaeda who smuggled foreign fighters into Iraq. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is sticking to its story that the US military overran a farm, killing eight unarmed civilians. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem condemned the U.S. attack as an act of "terrorist aggression" on Syria.
The ease with which Syria's enemies have violated its sovereignty represents a serious blow to Syria's credibility on the international stage. In Sept. 2007, Israel bombed a mysterious site in northern Syria, and Syria's only reaction was a muted denunciation of the attack. If Syria is seen as unable to retaliate to attacks on its own territory, it will likely find itself victim to more of these incursions in the future.
The lingering question from this attack is: why now? Gen. David Petraeus had praised Syria last year for cutting down the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from its territory -- the number crossing the border now is estimated at around 20 a month, down from a high of 100 a month. Still, U.S. commanders recently voiced frustration that Syria has not cut off the flow of fighters completely. The most likely scenario is that the military simply calculated that the risk to the lives of US soldiers in Iraq outweighed the minimal risk of Syrian retaliation triggered by crossing over the border.
Photo: RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images
Aviation Week reports on the new, improved Iraqi Air Force:
[T]he order of battle for the Iraqi Air Force now includes three [Cessna] Caravans for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR], three armed Caravans, two Hawker/Beechcraft King Air light transports and six King Airs 350s also for ISR.
How many generals would put meeting with development and finance experts as one of the top items on their to-do list?
My guess: not many. Which makes Gen. David Petraeus, who is gearing up to take the reins at Central Command later this month and putting together a 100-day review of U.S. strategy in the region, all the more impressive.
In what I see as a very encouraging sign, Petraeus reached out to officials at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund last week, Bank President Robert Zoellick reportedly among them. A source close to the general told Reuters that the meeting's purpose was "to touch base and note the Central Command's interest in supporting comprehensive approaches in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others."
The Los Angeles Times reviewed John McCain's record in the Navy and found him to be "a pilot who early in his career was cocky, occasionally cavalier and prone to testing limits."
Imagine! A cocky fighter pilot.
One of the more substantive moments of disagreement in last night's debate came when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin tangled over whether a "surge" was needed in Afghanistan.
When Palin said that "the surge principles that have worked in Iraq need to be implemented in Afghanistan, also," Biden saw an opening, and mentioned that U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan (left), the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, had just said that "Afghanistan is not Iraq" and that he wouldn't use the term "surge" to describe what is needed there.
"He said we need more troops," Biden emphasized, referring to McKiernan. "We need government-building. We need to spend more money on the infrastructure in Afghanistan."
To which Palin responded, "McClellan did not say definitively the surge principles would not work in Afghanistan. [...] The counterinsurgency strategy going into Afghanistan, clearing, holding, rebuilding the civil society and the infrastructure can work in Afghanistan."
Democrats are scoring this exchange as a clear victory for Biden -- especially since Palin botched the commander's name -- but I am not so sure.
Here's why. McKiernan also said, "I don't want the military to be engaging the tribes" and indicated he would prefer to work through the central government. Given Afghanistan's history and tribal makeup, "It wouldn't take much to go back to a civil war," he warned.
I'm pretty sure Palin has little in-depth conception of what the "surge" principles mean and how they might apply in South Asia. (See here for a recent essay exploring this issue further.)
It's self-evidently true that Afghanistan is not Iraq. The problem, though, is that McKiernan is probably wrong about engaging the tribes -- and Biden ought to be very skeptical of the general's analysis. After all, one key reason the insurgency was tamed in Iraq was that the U.S. military essentially began paying tribal insurgents not to attack them. Just yesterday, the British ambassador to Kabul was caught warning that President Hamid Karzai's government is on the verge of collapse. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. And as former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and tribal expert Pat Lang points out, Afghan tribes are a fact of life with which the United States must deal:
The Afghan government of today is merely one of the many "players" in the complex socio-political situation in Afghanistan. If the United States backs the Karzai government with the idea of creating a highly centralized state in Afghanistan, then it is going down the road to re-creating the same social chaos that led to several years of ferocious tribal and factional revolt in Iraq.
Afghanistan is never going to be the kind of country that the neocons would like to see. Success in Afghanistan will require a realistic use (manipulation if you prefer) of the actual playing pieces on the board of Afghan Chess.
Thought that pirates belonged to the realm of children's books and a thick-eyelinered Johnny Depp? Well, there's nothing storybook at all about this story: Small-scale pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked 62 ships this year, 25 of them hijackings.
On Sept. 25, the increasingly bold pirates caught their biggest ship yet, a Ukrainian boat carrying an estimated $30 million in weapons and ammunition. The pirates are asking for $20 million in ransom.
So, whence do such medieval-sounding avengers hail?
As someone who tried to write her undergraduate thesis on Somali pirates, I'm kind of perversely thrilled that they've become such a hot topic. Some quick background: For the last two decades, Somalia's politics have been one big power vacuum, with any number of unsavory characters (both Somali and foreign) vying to fill the gap. (I will refrain from expounding further, but a good update can be found here.)
About 10 or 15 years ago, fishermen, too, noticed that the power vacuum wasn't just a land-lubber phenomenon. As the pirates themselves describe in a fascinating interview with the New York Times, they call their merry band "the Central Region Coast Guard," and characterize it as a sort of ersatz navy that merely protects fishing vessels from outsiders eager to steal their catch. Of course, they have held humanitarian aid, yachts, and now weapons shipments hostage. And as for the ransom thing, who wouldn't ask for a bite, when there is nothing else to eat?
This time, the Somali pirates are likely to get their cut of at least a few million dollars. Ransoms paid to various captors this year alone have cost $30 million. But five U.S. warships and another Russian vessel on the way will ensure that no funny business takes place. Many had feared that the pirates would sell the weapons to terrorists on a dangerously well-connected Somali black market.
I'm sure they would love to do that, but since they attacked from wooden fishing boats, it's not likely they could even begin to offload the weapons. Tanks -- unlike pirates -- don't do so well on the high seas.
Correction: This original blog stated that Dickinson wrote her thesis on Somali pirates. Alas, she attempted to, but ended up focusing more broadly on Somali maritime security and U.S.-Somali relations, instead. We regret the error.
Following up on the recent military and energy agreements with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Russia has now announced a deal to sell five military helicopters to Bolivia. Ambassador Leonid Golubev called it the "first step" in military cooperation with the country's anti-American government:
We want to show the United States that Latin America is not their backyard," Golubev said Tuesday. "We also have interests in various spheres, including military ones."
I get the basic idea here: "You play around in our backyard, we'll play in yours."
But the Russians are kidding themselves if they actually think Americans will be that rattled by Bolivia buying five helicopters. Yes, Latin America is traditionally the United States' sphere of influence, but Americans understand that concept in a fundamentally different way than Russians understand their "near abroad" in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
When U.S.-supported "color revolutions" overthrew Russian-backed governments in Ukraine and Georgia, many Russians (and high-ranking ones) feared they were next on the American regime change list. NATO expansion in Eastern Europe is seen as a direct military threat.
Chávez and Evo Morales certainly aren't well-liked in Washington, but most foreign-policy mavens here see them more as angry buffoons or strategic obstacles, not serious threats to America's sovereignty.
Venezuela and Bolivia are resource-rich countries with a major aversion to yanqui imperialism, so it makes sense that Russia would want to cultivate ties with them. But the Kremlin shouldn't think that Americans will fret about developments in Bolivia in the same way that Russians worry about Georgia or Ukraine. Honestly, the country has bigger things to worry about right now.
I was amused to see the BBC misquoting the new Central Command commander, Gen. David Petraeus, on the "existentialist threat" facing Pakistan:
You have heard the newly elected President Zadari. You've heard the army chief and others all recognise that this is in a sense an existentialist threat, this is a threat to Pakistan's very existence," the general added.
Of course, Petraeus actually said "existential threat," as the accompanying video shows, without the "-ist." He was referring to the Taliban and other militant groups.
But I wonder, what would an existentialist threat to Pakistan consist of? Suddenly, madrasa students are reading Sartre and Camus instead of memorizing the Quran and the Sunnah? Nihilism replaces Islamism as the reining ideology of tribal militancy? That, to me, sounds like positive change.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was getting awfully tired of reading about Russia's strongly worded but vague "warnings" to its neighbors. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski agrees, and expressed his displeasure yesterday in the politest way imaginable:
"Of course we don't like it when the Russian president or Russian generals threaten us with nuclear annihilation. It is not a friendly thing to do, and we have asked them to do it no more than once a month."
Who could say no to that?
Here's an interesting graphic from today's Financial Times, related to a Harris opinon poll conducted for the paper after the war in Georgia. It seems that an increasing number of Europeans in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain see Russia as a threat, but few of them want to increase defense spending as a result.
Plus, Vladimir Putin is no doubt pleased to have confirmation that although the Baltic states are NATO members, in none of the countries surveyed would a majority sending troops to defend them against Russia if that country "were to take military action against them."
Everyone agrees on one thing: For the last year plus, the death count in Iraq has been on the decline. Iraq is slowly calming after five years of turbulence, to say the least.
Was it the troop surge that did the trick? Was it Gen. David Petraeus and his awesome counterinsurgency tactics?
A creative study released today by the University of California, Los Angeles, says no. The researchers' alternative hypothesis is disconcerting: Ethnic violence cleared Baghdad's most troublesome neighborhoods of occupants before U.S. soldiers ever had the chance.
Using free satellite imagery from the Department of Defense, researchers tracked electricity use in Iraq before, during, and after the surge took place. Electricity use (as measured by visible night-light) in Baghdad fell, notably in certain outlying neighborhoods where incidents of ethnic violence were documented by The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq.
"If the surge had truly 'worked,' we would expect to see a steady increase in night-light output over time," says Thomas Gillespie, one of the co-authors, in a press release. "Instead, we found that the night-light signature diminished in only certain neighborhoods, and the pattern appears to be associated with ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing."
The authors note that in the same time period, electricity use increased in cities outside of Baghdad where the surge (as well as the same intensities of ethnic violence) was largely absent. The authors believe it is unlikely that a decimated power grid alone generated their results, since personal generator use is popular in Iraq's capital city.
Despite the eerily apparent correlation between maps of ethnic violence and maps of electricity use, there are several questions to clarify before the survey is crowned as truth. Feel free to suggest others in comments.
First, it would be interesting to overlay yet another map depicting the intensity of the surge by neighborhood. If the authors' theory is correct, one would expect the areas with electricity decrease to be easier to patrol since they had already been violently cleansed of their troubles.
Likewise, is it possible that the surge itself led to the decrease in electricity use? If the neighborhoods in question were also hot spots for the surge, soldiers could have damaged infrastructure accidentally during patrols, residents could have fled, or loss of life is conceivable in military confrontation. Whatever the explanation, this would yield an equally disturbing interpretation: the surge actually diminished residents' quality of life and access to power rather than causing an improvement.
Finally, there is no mention of the reported security improvements in areas such as Anbar Province, where casualties have also dropped off significantly. More satellite data -- if and when it is available -- might shed light on what happened outside the capital.
Without more on the ground accounts, it is difficult to say just how earth-shattering the findings released today are or aren't. Certainly, there has been a staggering amount of ethnic violence, the extent of which is still trickling out with the more than two million refugees now living abroad.
For those who fled, the calm -- if it is real -- has truly been a separate peace.
Pakistan's security establishment seemd a bit confused yesterday over whether troops had, in fact, fired on U.S. helicopters in South Waziristan. The Pakistani military had denied security officials' reports that the event had taken place. In the future, however, there may be no such ambiguity:
[A]rmy spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press that after U.S. helicopters ferried troops into a militant stronghold in thetribal region, the military told field commanders to prevent any similar raids.
"The orders are clear," Abbas said in an interview. "In case it happens again in this form, that there is a very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire."
If Bush is actually serious about catching Osama bin Laden before he leaves office, he's not going to do it without help from Pakistan. This is a situation that needs to be resolved immediately. Five Pakistani experts had some ideas for how to proceed in last week's web-exclusive, "How to Catch Osama."
Not a good day to be working at the press office of the Department of Defense. This morning, The Times of London released a video that purports to show civilian casualties in Afghanistan -- dozens at least -- from an American air raid in late August.
The Pentagon has insisted that civilian casualties in the attack were limited to the single digits, even as both the Afghan government and the United Nations put the number above 90. In a blog post last week, I wondered if this was a problem of counting methods -- deciding who is a civilian and who is a fighter.
That's a hard case to argue after watching the video [WARNING: graphic]. The Times says that a doctor shot the mobile-phone film the morning after the air raid. In the clip, casualties overcrowd a room filled equally with grieving men and women. The corpses include children. The chaos and pain of the moment is palpable.
As Human Rights Watch explains in a report released today, this is a serious problem -- and not just for America's reputation in Afghanistan. Civilian deaths, of which HRW says there were 321 this year, could easily provoke an even larger humanitarian crisis:
In every case investigated by Human Rights Watch where airstrikes hit villages, many civilians had to leave the village because of damage to their homes and fear of further strikes. People from neighboring villages also sometimes fled in fear of future strikes on their villages. This has led to large numbers of internally displaced persons.
Hopefully, all this will be enough for Pentagon officials to reconsider their story. Until now, they have claimed that the incident began after forces came under fire while going after Mullah Sadiq, a Taliban commander. While the U.N. called upon civilian and government witnesses to verify its 90-something number, the Pentagon has pointed to retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Fox News correpondent who was indicted (but later cleared of charges) for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, to back its claim. A new investigation has been promised.
Last week, Major Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of troops in eastern Afghanistan, addressed the growing concerns with promises that Americans are avoiding casualties at all costs. He also complained:
The enemy routinely exaggerates the number of civilian casualties as propaganda, just pure and simple. They use lies and deceit as an asymmetric strategy."
All the more reason to have a transparent, indpendent investigation. With due respect to the general, the importance of ending civilian casualties -- or at least owning up to them -- is something we cannot exaggerate enough.
As I noted yesterday, the McCain campaign has been dinging Barack Obama for proposing a slowdown in funds for Future Combat Systems, the Army's $200 billion modernization program.
Well, the indefatigable Noah Shachtman has kept digging, and he's found a doozy. John McCain's top economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, submitted a budget plan to the Washington Post's editorial board in July. In it, the McCain campaign says it will eliminate -- not slow -- FCS entirely:
Balance the budget requires slowing outlay growth to 2.4 percent. The roughly $470 billion dollars (by 2013) in slower spending growth come from reduced deployments abroad ($150 billion; consistent with success in Iraq/Afghanistan that permits deployments to be cut by half -- hopefully more), slower discretionary spending in non-defense and Pentagon procurements ($160 billion; there are lots of procurements -- airborne laser, Globemaster, Future Combat System -- that should be ended and the entire Pentagon budget should be scrubbed).
Whoops. Shactman comments:
McCain aides are privately furious about the contradiction, I'm hearing. But there's been no official comment, so far, about the mix-up.
Here's a little tidbit from CNN that illustrates the importance of proper capitalization -- or maybe it illustrates why political reporters should stay away from writing on national security:
John McCain is launching a new line of attack against Barack Obama, criticizing his rival for saying Sunday that he would buck his own party by calling for an increase in the size of the U.S. military.
"Of course, now he wants to increase it," McCain told an audience in Lee's Summit, Missouri Monday. "But during the primary he told a liberal advocacy group that he'd cut defense spending by tens of billions of dollars. He promised them he would, quote, 'slow our development of future combat systems.'"
See, Obama was most likely referring to Future Combat Systems (FCS), the controversial, $200 billion Pentagon procurement program, rather than "future combat systems" as a generic concept.
And by the way, it's not actually some kind of commie, terrorist-loving, left-wing position to favor slowing FCS. As the Washington Post reported last year, lots of folks -- including the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Budget Office -- "have questioned the cost and management" of the program. Danger Room's Noah Shachtman has been following this story for awhile now, and he blasted the program thusly in March:
The Army's gargantuan digital modernization plan has turned so rotten, a new congressional report says it's time to start thinking about killing off the effort, and looking for new alternatives. [...] The project is so big, the GAO now says that "it is not yet clear if or when the information network that is at the heart of the FCS concept can be developed, built, and demonstrated by the Army."
UPDATE: See also Sharon Weinberger's recent argument for FP, "The Pentagon's Doomsday Men," for the bigger picture when it comes to defense procurement.
UPDATE2: It gets better, Shachtman reminds us. McCain himself has "lashed out at the Army" -- and rightly so -- for overspending and some shady accounting maneuvers on FCS. "Hopefully, today's remarks were just the result of some sloppy staff work," says Shachtman, "and not some change of heart about the program, or a cynical election-year misrepresentation."
Two weeks ago, an operation aimed at Taliban insurgents in the Afghan village of Azizabad looked like a public relations mess for the United States. The United Nations reported that the airstrikes killed no less than 90 civilians. Protests shot up in the local town, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack.
Ninety civilian casualties? Nope, say U.S. investigators today, who put the number instead at just five. All the others killed -- somewhere between 30 and 35 people -- were Taliban insurgents.
Could it just be the way we are counting? Besides, who really is a civilian?
In fact, there is an official definition, found in a 1977 addition to the Geneva Convention -- but it reads like a confused doctors' diagnosis of exclusion. If you're not carrying a gun for somebody or for some reason, chances are you're a civilian. The lines gets blurry when you start feeding the fighters, housing them, or just plain looking like them.
I suspect that the United States, perhaps more focused on controlling a rebounding Taliban insurgency, might define a combatant a bit more loosely than does the United Nations. Or perhaps the "civilian" witnesses that both camps interviewed simply had motives for either exaggerating or supressing the death count, depending on who was asking the questions.
Questions should keep being asked, though, as long as one-liners like this one keep popping up:
On Tuesday, NATO said it accidentally killed four children in Paktika province with artillery fire.
Not a good way to win hearts and minds.
Maybe I just have a soft spot for lost causes but I think there's something weirdly poignant about the efforts of Bolivia--a landlocked country--to build up its navy:
Beyond the ice-capped peaks to the west lay their object of longing, the Pacific ocean, but Bolivia's navy was marooned and landlocked at Lake Titicaca, 3,800 metres (12,470ft) above sea level in the Andes.
"I've never seen the sea," sighed Wilmer Camargo, 18, a conscript sailor in navy blue uniform. "But when I do I would like it to be a Bolivian sea."
He spoke for a nation. South America's poorest country lost its coast in a 1879-1884 war with Chile and wants it back. La Fuerza Naval Boliviana exists to keep that hope alive by cultivating a maritime conscience and end the "enclaustramiento".
The navy's purpose is mostly aspirational, but it keeps busy by patrolling the country's 5,000 miles of rivers for smugglers and will soon join an international peacekeeping force in Haiti, its first overseas (or any seas) deployment.
Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a clever interactive map from Mother Jones that color-codes countries by the number of U.S. troops stationed there. The scroll bar allows you to see how levels have changed over time since 1950 in five-year increments. You can watch the troop presence in Vietnam gradually increase over the course of 20 years before disappearing completely, or see the military's several arrivals and departures from Iraq over the last half century. You can also click on a country to get more details.
With the surge's success in bringing military (but not political) stability to Iraq, the spike of violence in Afghanistan led to calls for a similar surge there. But it turns out a status of forces agreement (SOFA) -- which is proving to be somewhat troublesome in Iraq -- is what Afghan leaders really want.
On the heels of a NATO air strike last week that the UN says killed 90 civillians, Afghan leaders are calling for a review of foreign troops operating in the country. Officials want a SOFA to regulate the responsibilities of international units and are seeking an end to "air strikes on civilian targets, uncoordinated house searches and illegal detention of Afghan civilians."
President Hamid Karzai, at least, wants foreign outfits to coordinate with Afghan troops and local authorities, and thinks the operation ought to shift its focus next door to Pakistan:
The war against terrorism is not in Afghan villages,” he said. “The war against terrorism is elsewhere, and that’s where the war should go."
While there is some good news to be had, things have been generally looking bleak in Afghanistan all summer. While nearly seven out of 10 experts surveyed in FP's recent Terrorism Index supported redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, it's clear that more troops alone aren't going to solve the problem.
It seems increasingly clear that Russian troops are not, in fact, pulling all the way out of Georgia:
Russian units said they had orders only to fall back as far as South Ossetia and some platoons were still dug in near roads outside Gori, while Russian troops bearing new peacekeeping badges dominated the main east-west highway, a key trading artery. A senior Russian official said Russian military checkpoints ringing South Ossetia would be permanent.
Moreover, it seems the Russian high command hasn't put much thought into the whole public diplomacy thing. Here are two more shots of Russian peacekeepers flipping Getty photographer Uriel Sinai the bird:
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