Long knives, Washington, Afghanistan, part 2

I’ve been thinking more about the timing of the WaPo’s publication of Woodward’s bombshell and the accompanying materials this morning.
It seems clear to me Woodward must have had the text of the McChrystal Assessment for a number of days. His colleagues had the time to do some good follow-up reporting with Gen. Jim Jones and other senior officials. Also, the WaPo and the Pentagon had time to negotiate the amounts of the assessment that the WaPo could put onto its public web-site. So obviously, the folks inside the administration knew that Woodward had it and the WaPo was going to publish it.
Yesterday, Obama was doing his big t.v. blitz– going onto five major t.v. news-discussion programs to discuss primarily health-care but also aware he’d be getting questions about Afghanistan and other issues.
Here’s what he said on Afghanistan on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

    When we came in, basically, there had been drift in our Afghan strategy. Everybody acknowledges that. And I ordered a top to bottom review. The most important thing I wanted was us to refocus on why we’re there. We’re there because al Qaeda killed 3,000 Americans and we cannot allow extremists who want to do violence to the United States to be able to operate with impunity.
    Now, I think we’ve lost — we lost that focus for a while and you started seeing a– a classic case of mission creep where we’re just there and we start taking on a whole bunch of different missions.
    I wanted to narrow it. I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important. That was before the review was completed. I also said after the election I want to do another review. We’ve just gotten those 21,000 in. General McChrystal, who’s only been there a few months, has done his own assessment.
    I am now going to take all this information and we’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating al Qaeda and — and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me — somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops, then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe.

Well, strictly speaking, back on March 27, when he made the decision based on that first “top to bottom review”, he decided to expand both the troop numbers and the troop mission in Afghanistan. Only at some later point did he decide he wanted to “narrow” it.
In their piece in the WaPo today, Rajiv Chadrasekaran and Karen DeYoung write that the chaos surrounding the holding of last month’s Afghan election was a turning point for the administration.
Also, note the apparent put-down of McChrystal in what Obama said.
So, a couple of quick points here. Did the WaPo delay the publication of today’s news reports to allow Obama to get his version out to the public first– or was there some other reasoning behind the timing of publishing these stories?
Also, McChrystal may well not last long in his job.
But whether he does or not, the bigger issue here is that Obama and his national-security team are going to have to do some very broad thinking (as I noted earlier– see # 2 here) if they want to find a way to ramp down the currently huge risks the US/NATO troops face in Afghanistan.

Long knives out in Washington over Afghanistan

You can criticize Bob Woodward– and I have– for the insidery, back-scratching nature of most of his recent journalism. But he still manages to pull out a significant number of real news items.
Wow! In today’s WaPo, he has a piece describing a document (PDF) that was most likely leaked to him by someone on the staff of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, in which McC warned that

    he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure.’

The leaked document was sent by McChrystal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on August 30, under the title “COMISAF’S INITIAL ASSESSMENT”. (COMISAF is the acronym for “Commander of the [US-led] International Security Assistance Force”.)
I have not had time to pore over the PDF version yet. But Woodward and various other writers at the WaPo evidently have done so. The PDF version posted on the WaPo website is one for which they received a security clearance after certain portions were removed.
An accompanying article by Rajiv Chadrasekaran and Karen DeYoung gives an account of some– but certainly far from all– of the political context within the Obama administration, within which someone took the decision to leak this very sensitive document to Woodward.
Chandra and DeYoung write,

    From his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees one clear path to achieve President Obama’s core goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing havens in Afghanistan: “Success,” he writes in his assessment, “demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”
    Inside the White House, the way forward in Afghanistan is no longer so clear.
    Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy,” there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
    Instead of debating whether to give McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, more troops, the discussion in the White House is now focused on whether, after eight years of war, the United States should vastly expand counterinsurgency efforts along the lines he has proposed — which involve an intensive program to improve security and governance in key population centers — or whether it should begin shifting its approach away from such initiatives and simply target leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan.

And then, they have this devastating put-down of McChrystal:

    McChrystal’s assessment, in the view of two senior administration officials, is just “one input” in the White House’s decision-making process.

They add:

    Obama, appearing on several Sunday-morning television news shows, left little doubt that key assumptions in the earlier White House strategy are now on the table. “The first question is: Are we doing the right thing?” the president said on CNN. “Are we pursuing the right strategy?”
    “Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, “then we’ll move forward,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration.”

I have a few quick reactions to this important news:

    1. I am really glad that Obama is looking at a range of options other than trying to continue the effort to mount a countrywide “counter-insurgency” campaign in Afghanistan that would also involve trying to build a functioning state system in the whole of that very complicated country.
    2. In the range of other options he’s looking at, he should certainly be looking at options that involve bringing other significant international partners into the operation rather than just, as at present, members of the NATO alliance. NATO is so much the wrong implement through which to be acting in Afghanistan, for the reasons I’ve blogged about a lot here over recent months. Other powers, located much closer to Afghanistan, have both (a) a much stronger direct interest in seeing some form sustainable stabilization take root there than members of distant NATO do, and (b) much greater capability– in terms of being both geographically and culturally closer to Afghanistan– to act effectively there. These nations include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan (which has its own problems, of course), and most of the other Central Asian nations. The UN would seem to be so much the most appropriate body to convene and lead this new form of help for Afghanistan.
    3. Of course this would signal– and be a part of– a much broader shift in the balance of power in world politics between “the west and the rest.” But this shift is happening, anyway.
    4. Very evidently there is a huge, deep, and significant debate within the Obama administration over whether to continue with a “COIN”-only approach, or not. Chandra and DeYoung indicate that this seems to pit some military commanders (McChrystal and Chairman of the JCS Adm. Mike Mullen) against the civilian leadership in the White House.
    5. Unmentioned thus far have been the views of Gen. Petraeus, the highly political general who as head of CENTCOM is McChrystal’s immediate superior and thus stands between him and Mullen in the chain of command. Unknown also is the position in this tussle of Secdef Gates.
    6. All of the above people serve, of course, at the pleasure of our elected president. But a pointed resignation of any one of them, if he should disagree with the decision that Obama eventually makes, would be a major political blow to Obama. That gives all of them clout– but probably Gates and Petraeus the most clout of all.
    7. The leaking of McChrystal’s assessment seems very like a move to cover the rear-end of the military leaders in the– increasingly much more likely– event that the US/NATO “mission” in Afghanistan ends up in some degree of defeat, ignominy, chaos, or worse. Woodward tells us that McChrystal’s assessment concluded by saying, “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” But if McChrystal or anyone in his office had anything to do with the leaking of the document, then that act would indicate that the leaker really did not not judge “success” to be very likely at all.
    8. Woodward’s acquisition and leaking of this document are a reminder of the big journalistic coup of his early career in the 1970s, when he and Carl Bernstein leaked details of the dirty tricks President Nixon used against the Democrats during the Watergate affair. But they have more in common, substance-wise, with the 1971 leaking to the NYT of the “Pentagon Papers”, an internal Pentagon assessment that pointed to the unwinnability of the US-Vietnam War.

Anyway, the leak of the McChrystal assessment is a huge story. Chapeau to Woodward.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb responds

    [In a follow-up to the exchange that I blogged here yesterday, Dr Amal Saad-Ghorayeb has written the response that follows. I will be happy to publish, in full, any further remarks that Dean Grant Hammond or any of his staff at the NATO Defense College (NDC) cares to submit. The subject of how, exactly, officials in key NATO structures like the NDC define NATO’s “mission” in the Israeli-Arab theater is an important one that citizens of all democracies– in Lebanon and elsewhere– should certainly be ready to discuss. Anyway, here is Saad-Ghorayeb’s contribution. ~HC]

by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb

Despite the very personal nature of Dean Grant Hammond’s
last e-mail (apparently sent to me by mistake), I had no intention of
dignifying his vulgar outburst with a reply. However, given the publication of
his response to Helena Cobban’s queries, I feel obligated to alert the reader
to the distortions of reality, inconsistencies, and omissions which
characterize his defensive tract, all of which can be readily discerned from
the—as yet unpublished– e-mail exchanges that took place between myself
and the NATO Defense College staff.

But more important than my efforts at
clarifying the episode, is my endeavor to underline its exact magnitude, lest
it appear a mere tit-for-tat exchange between myself and NDC

The episode is nothing short of a
botched attempt to enlist me –on account of my “academic expertise [on Hizbullah] and reputation” to borrow Hammond’s words– to
deliver a lecture on the Lebanese resistance movement to an audience of Israeli
and other NATO officers and diplomats,  and then, in clear violation of
my country’s laws, to engage IDF officers and diplomats in back-channel talks,
in the context of the scheduled “Q&A” session. It is crucial to repeat here
that these Israeli guests were not private citizens but diplomats and IDF
officers, and that accordingly, I was invited to not merely engage in cultural
normalization with Israeli academics, but in security normalization with
Israeli officers. 

Continue reading “Amal Saad-Ghorayeb responds”

NATO and Lebanon

For many years now,
successive US administrations have been vigorously trying to  persuade as many Arab countries
as possible—especially those that are still in a state of war with
Israel—to undertake “confidence building measures” in a purported attempt
to “entice” Israel into being more forthcoming in the peace diplomacy…

Now, an episode
involving the respected Lebanese political scientist Dr Amal
Saad-Ghorayeb shows us that the US-dominated NATO
alliance has also been part of this campaign.

Unless you’re a
particular kind of a military-affairs afficianado you
may not be aware that NATO runs its own institute of higher learning, the NATO
Defense College (NDC) , in Rome.  Through the work of this college, as
well as in other ways, NATO has been trying for some years now to impose its
own form of (military-based) normalization on the relations between Israel and
several Arab states– including Lebanon, a country that (a) is still in a
formal state of war Israel now, as it has since 1948, (b) has been the victim
of numerous acts of Israeli aggression over those decades, including a string
of extremely lethal major military invasions, occupations, and assaults, the
most recent (and one of the most lethal) being that undertaken in 2006, and (c)
continues to this day to be subject to Israeli aggression, including in the
form of very frequent military overflights.

In these circumstances,
it is scarcely surprising that Lebanon has a law barring its citizens from
having any contact with Israeli military personnel. Ah, but now it turns out
that NATO—a body that proclaims its support for (a certain version of)
the rule of law—has been seeking to tempt Lebanese citizens to skirt or
break this law by meeting with Israeli military officials in a clandestine,
“off the record” kind of way.

I could digress a bit
here and write about the deep problems NATO has been experiencing ever since,
with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991-3, it suddenly lost its
foundational raison d’etre and had to start inventing
“missions” for itself in various places far distant from its originally
envisaged Central European battlefields. 
(As I’ve blogged quite a few times in recent months, the continuing NATO
“mission” in Afghanistan is one that’s particularly ill-suited to NATO’s
capabilities, and may well bring about the dissolution of the alliance in its
present, neo-imperial form.)

back to NATO and Lebanon.
Sometime this summer, Florence Gaub, who
works with something called the NATO Regional Cooperation Course (NRCC), which
is run out of the Rome-based NDC, invited Amal Saad-Ghorayeb to give a lecture to the members of this
fall’s NRCC course. Saad-Ghorayeb agreed to do it.
She also, not surprisingly, sought the assurance of those inviting her that she
would not be expected to work with Israeli military personnel while she was

This assurance was not
forthcoming. On September 8, Gaub wrote to Saad-Ghorayeb noting that Israel was a full partner of
NATO’s in the NATO-sponsored “Mediterranean Dialogue”, one of the co-sponsors
of the NRCC course. She also wrote that, “
I can not ensure that any of the NATO officers present does not by
chance hold a second Israeli passport.”

(This latter statement is
intriguing. How many of NATO’s member countries allow
members of their militaries to have Israeli– or other—second passports?
Or is it only Israeli passports that are permitted? Also, several NATO members
have sizeable military units serving in the beefed-up UNIFIL peacekeeping force
in south Lebanon. Might some of those soldiers be holders of Israeli passports?
An interesting thought, right there… )

In her September 8 email, Florence Gaub added,

Continue reading “NATO and Lebanon”

American power has limits? Who knew?

Steve Clemons tells us today that

    Afghanistan, like Iraq, is sending the impression to the rest of the world that America is at a “limit” point in its military and power capabilities.

Well, duh.
He goes on to say,

    Limits are very, very, very bad in the great power game — and Afghanistan is yet again, an exposer of monumental limits on American power.

Now, Steve is usually an intelligent and reasonable person. So I’m mystified why he is giving the impression here that the US had no significant “limits” on its great-power capabilities until the Iraq war; and that the relatively sudden “revelation” that there are such limits is both surprising and “very, very bad.”
C’meon, Steve. Yeah, maybe you grew up more in the era of post-Cold War US uberpowerdom than I did. But even then, there were always limits on US power.
And you know what, for any kind of a realist, knowing there are limits and figuring out how to work effectively within them is a good thing, not a bad thing.
It was GWB and his crowd who thought there were no limits, and that they could make their own history regardless of other powers or other interests.
… Steve’s piece was basically about Afghanistan. Neither he nor anyone else has yet been able to explain to me why the US (which is located halfway round the world from Afghanistan) and NATO– in which the allies are also very geographically and culturally distant from Afghanistan– could ever be conceived to be the ideal tools for “pacifying” Afghanistan.
Let’s have a whole lot more realism in this discussion. Including by recognizing there are limits to US power.

Pat Lang on the dangerous, continued rise of ‘COIN’-mania

Lang makes some important points here about the distortion of what should be a rational, nationwide discussion about the US military’s massive and troubled engagement in Afghanistan.
He writes,

    The interests of the reigning generals, the neocons and the Brothers of the Order of Counterinsurgency at CNAS are coming together now. The mechanisms for propagation of the faith in COIN as a vehicle for the program of the AEI crowd are widespread. Among them are internal blockage of access to blogs like this one by the armed forces, exclusion from the main stream media of dissenting voices and the editorial page of the Washington Post.

CNAS— the Center for New American Security– is a relatively young but currently very influential think-tank that’s been a hot incubator for “liberal” hawkishness. Michele Flournoy, one of its founders and its first president, is now Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy and may well replace Bob Gates as Secretary.
All the “mechanisms for propagation of the faith in COIN” that Lang mentions are important. But let’s hope that wise heads and the continuing military and financial realities of the situation in Afghanistan can speedily turn the debate in Washington in the direction it needs to go.
Oh yes, and some serious, pro-withdrawal popular pressure is really necessary, too.

Advancing Security and Opportunity — US Style

The military effort to “advance security and opportunity, so that Pakistanis and Afghans can pursue the promise of a better life” is accelerating in both countries. It sounded good when President Obama said it at the White House:

    We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future. And to achieve that goal, we must deny them the space to threaten the Pakistani, Afghan, or American people. And we must also advance security and opportunity, so that Pakistanis and Afghans can pursue the promise of a better life.
    . . .But we must also meet the threat of extremism with a positive program of growth and opportunity. And that’s why my administration is working with members of Congress to create opportunity zones to spark development. That’s why I’m proud that we’ve helped advance negotiations towards landmark transit-trade agreements to open Afghanistan and Pakistan borders to more commerce.
    Within Afghanistan, we must help grow the economy, while developing alternatives to the drug trade by tapping the resilience and the ingenuity of the Afghan people. We must support free and open national elections later this fall, while helping to protect the hard-earned rights of all Afghans. And we must support the capacity of local governments and stand up to corruption that blocks progress
    . . .we must stand with those who want to build Pakistan. And that is why I’ve asked Congress for sustained funding, to build schools and roads and hospitals. I want the Pakistani people to understand that America is not simply against terrorism — we are on the side of their hopes and their aspirations, because we know that the future of Pakistan must be determined by the talent, innovation, and intelligence of its people.

Continue reading “Advancing Security and Opportunity — US Style”

The Year of the Ox II

First, going back to the year of the Golden Snake (nothing personal, George) — April 26, 2001:

    REPORTER: Do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?
    GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes we do. And the Chinese must understand that. Yes I would.
    REPORTER: With the full force of the American military?
    GEORGE W. BUSH: Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.

Continue reading “The Year of the Ox II”

Recuerda Los Niños Héroes

Remember the boy heroes — Mexicans do.
Who were the boy heroes?

    Los Niños Héroes (the “Boy Heroes”) were six teenage military cadets who died defending Mexico at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle (then serving as the Mexican army’s military academy) from invading U.S. forces in the September, 1847 Battle of Chapultepec.
    Their commanders, General Nicolás Bravo and General José Mariano Monterde, had ordered them to fall back from Chapultepec, a large building on a steep hill near Mexico City, but the cadets did not; instead, they resisted the invaders until they were killed, with accounts maintaining that the last survivor leapt from Chapultepec Castle, down a steep cliff, wrapped in the Mexican flag to prevent it from being taken by the enemy.
    The cadets are honored by an imposing monument at the entrance to Chapultepec Park; and the name Niños Héroes, along with the cadets’ individual names, are commonly given to streets, squares and schools across the country. For many years they appeared on the MXP $5000 banknote, and they currently appear on the MXN $50 coin. Mexico City Metro station Metro Niños Héroes is also named after them.

Why do I bring this up?

Continue reading “Recuerda Los Niños Héroes”