Archive for June, 2010

One of the gems buried in Michael Hastings’ now ubiquitous Rolling Stone article is a senior adviser to General McChrystal thanking his lucky stars for public ignorance of the state of the war:

Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says.

Well, mission accomplished, gentlemen. Your little frat party managed to get everyone’s attention and, combined with a never-ending stream of gruesome milestones, it caused the bottom to drop out of public support for the Afghanistan War.  According to the newest polling from Newsweek:

  • Only 37 percent of those surveyed approve of the way President Obama is handling the war. 53 percent disapprove. That’s a major reversal from prior results that showed support/opposition solidly in the president’s favor by a  55/27 margin.
  • Only 26 percent of those surveyed believe we’re winning in Afghanistan. 46 percent believe we’re losing.
  • This crystallizing opposition isn’t due to disagreement with the way President Obama handled the McChrystal/Rolling Stone flap, either. Most Americans agreed with his decision to dismiss the general by a 50/35 margin.

McChrystal’s statements in the Rolling Stone piece probably weren’t enough to cause his ouster on their own, but as the latest in a series of insults and missteps, they were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Similarly, the McChrystal flap probably wasn’t enough to turn Americans against the war, but as a tawdry new development at the end of a string of gruesome events transpiring on the periphery of the national consciousness, the episode was enough to cause the electorate to push their chair back from the kitchen table and stomp over to see just what the hell you kids are doing in here that’s making all that racket?!

Mommy and Daddy obviously didn’t like what they saw:

Pentagon officials are now running around trying on some of their most Orwellian rhetoric to date (No! Really! We’re not bogged down!) trying to sooth Congress and the extraordinarily cranky electorate, but it’s too late. The tanks are rolling into Baghdad, despite Bob’s insistence to the contrary.

For their part, the hawks in Congress are dangerously misreading the tea leaves. Some are calling for scrapping the July 2011 withdrawal date and for staying in Afghanistan indefinitely. Others are insisting that protections for civilians in the war zone should be loosened. But these vicious chest-thumpers are missing the point: Americans don’t want more and more brutal war. We want our troops home, yesterday.

Prior polling had shown a strange dichotomy: Americans didn’t support the Afghanistan War, but they approved of President Obama’s handling of the war. The White House could wave away dismal polling numbers for support/opposition to the war by pointing to the high approval numbers for Obama’s handling of the war, and Congress could hide behind “supporting the president.” No more. Americans are fed up with this brutal, costly war.

Memo to politicians: Love the Afghanistan War in public at your peril.

Had enough? Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook as we fight back against this costly, brutal war.

Here’s a hint: it’s not Karzai and friends, and it’s not the violence of U.S. counterinsurgency strategies.

The coalition asks, “Why not COIN?”
We the people must ask, “Why not love?”

Ashamed of yourselves yet, COINdinistas?

You’re going to hear a lot of crowing about the reduction in NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan during the last few months compared to the same time last year. (Read the full report here in PDF format.) This reduction took place in the context of a massive spike in overall violence and a continually degrading security environment in that country. Before the supporters of the president’s brutal, costly counterinsurgency strategy (referred to without affection as “COINdinistas”) get started this week, I want to reiterate a point I made a couple of months ago when the last round of silly, disingenuous pro-counterinsurgency celebrations took place:

Selective Interpretation

COIN doctrine as interpreted by [COINdinistas] with the aid of the stats [they] used asserts something like this: McChrystal and friends reduce by 28 percent the number of civilians they kill, while the Taliban increase the number they kill. The local population’s animosity builds toward the Taliban, triggering a shift in political support to the U.S. and allies, a withdrawal of support for the Taliban and an influx of intelligence to the counter-insurgents.

This interpretation, however, is a very academic exercise with major blind spots as to the actual dynamic in Afghanistan and [and it’s a gross distortion of] the actual COIN doctrine described in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

“Progress in building support for the [host nation] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do now believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts. The populace decides when it feels secure enough to support COIN efforts. (p. 179)”

“During any period of instability, people’s primary interest is physical security for themselves and their families. When [host nation] forces fail to provide security or threaten the security of civilians, the population is likely to seek security guarantees from insurgents, militias, or other armed groups. This situation can feed support for an insurgency. (p 98)”

“Counterinsurgents should not expect people to willingly provide information if insurgents have the ability to violently intimidate sources. (p. 120)”

Here’s Stanley McChrystal explicitly stating that COIN doctrine requires you to protect the population from the insurgents.

Note that all of these statements deal with the importance not just of the protection of civilians from killings by counterinsurgents, but the protection of the people in general. Counterinsurgency doctrine says that people aren’t going to switch to your side if they think they’ll get killed for it, no matter how low you drop the rate at which you cause civilian deaths. In other words, a drop in casualties caused by U.S. and allied groups is not sufficient for the hoped-for dynamic to take hold, according to COIN doctrine. It must be paired with an increase in security from insurgent violence as well.

So, even if … McChrystal and Co. were killing fewer civilians, they still hadn’t managed to increase security for civilians in Afghanistan as measured by the total civilian deaths caused by the parties to the conflict. …Even if McChrystal proved he could drive down civilian casualties when he puts his mind to it, he’s also managed to prove over the last year that he can’t protect the population.

People who claim to actually believe in the efficacy of and the necessity for actual counterinsurgency in Afghanistan need to start screaming, right now, about what’s going on in Afghanistan under General McChrystal because their credibility is now unambiguously on the line. …The problem is, though, that an honest reading of counterinsurgency doctrine should have indicated that the system was already blinking red in 2009, but for whatever reason people continued to sing the praises of Saint Stanley McChrystal and took up gross distortions of COIN doctrine to do so. Numerous prerequisites for success as articulated by COIN doctrine remained absent and/or further degraded over 2009, including host nation government legitimacy and security for the local population, yet many writers focused on one particular statistic (casualties caused by pro-government forces) because it let them tell the story they wanted to tell.

If you see a person crowing about how the new U.N. reports shows the “strategy is working” and we’re on our way to victory, know that you’re looking at a disingenuous snake-oil salesman who’s hoping you can’t read.

Watch "Don’t Let General Petraeus Move the Goalposts on Afghanistan" in HD on Facebook.

Concern troll.

In an argument (usually a political debate), a concern troll is someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with “concerns”. The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.

Urban Dictionary.

When asked about the July 2011 deadline to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, General Petraeus says “I support the policy of the president.” This past week, though, in testimony before Congress in hastily arranged hearings, he made his position more clear. He supports the policy of the president,” but thinks “we have to be very careful with time-lines,” and he might even try to convince the president to renege on his promise to the American people as July 2011 comes closer.

He’s a concern troll. He’s kowtowing to the principle of civilian control of the military, but his function in the debate is to constantly hem and haw, sapping support for strong action in favor of a position with which he does not (and maybe never did) agree.

Now, Petraeus is a cool customer and an experienced hand at testifying before Congress. When faced with an adversarial questioner, he rarely shows his cards and tends to filibuster them out of time, sticking closely to the “I support the president” talking point. That’s what makes his performance this week slightly shocking. The masked slipped.

When asked by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) whether his support for the July 2011 reflected his best, personal, professional judgment, he responded with a very interesting stare at the senator, an “um,” and a five-second-or-so pause before saying, “We have to be very careful with time-lines.” Asked whether that was a qualified yes, or qualified no, or a non-answer, he said, “qualified yes.”

In other words, “yes, but…”

Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing shed even more light on what exactly those qualifications are, and the troll tusks were showing. Responding to a question from HASC Ranking Member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Petraeus said that yes, he supports the July 2011 date as the beginning of a process. But, he complained, that date was based on a projection from last Fall. He said we’ll do everything humanly possible (well, everything humanly possible within the constraints of a brutal, costly strategic frame that’s not working) to achieve those conditions. When asked by McKeon whether July 2011 was based on conditions and not just a date on the calendar, he said, “That’s correct.” And, when asked whether he’d recommend delaying the withdrawal if those conditions didn’t materialize, he confirmed it.

America, get ready for this excuse:

“Well, we tried, but it’s just not possible for us to keep President Obama’s promise to start a withdrawal this month.” –General David Petraeus, July 2011.

Compare that General Petraeus, who only gives the July 2011 date his qualified support and who wants us all to know he might change his mind when crunch time arrives, with this General Petraeus, described by Jonathan Alter:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informal. “Bob, you have any problems?” he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.

The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.

“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.

“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.

“Ditto,” Petraeus said.

Expect the Alter quotation above to become cliche in a hurry. Petraeus revealed this week that he has no intention of standing by his word to the president. This week, he said explicitly that if we can’t do the things he says in 18 months, he will, in fact, suggest we stay.

Petraeus says he supports the president’s policy. His comments this week, though, serve only to validate the critics of the withdrawal portion of the president’s policy. He’s not a supporter of this policy. He’s a concern troll.

Don’t let him get away with moving the goalposts. Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook as we work to end this brutal war that’s not worth the costs.

“…because I am determined to take the Gospel seriously.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., A Time to Break the Silence on Vietnam.

Happy Sunday.

Defense Secretary Gates wants to extricate himself and the president from the impending P.R. disaster shaping up around the flailing Kandahar operation set for this Summer Fall.

“I think it’s important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan,” Gates said in comments that appeared to play down a U.S.-led operation for control of the area, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.

“Kandahar and Helmand are important but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle,” he said.

From the Pentagon’s most recent Afghanistan report to Congress, here’s a chart showing how optional Kandahar and Helmand are for the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy being pursued by U.S. and allied forces.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

From p. 126 of the Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (April 2010), emphasis mine:

8.1:  ISAF Strategy

Under the ISAF concept of operations, the main effort is to conduct decisive clearing operations concentrated on the most threatened population in the southern part of the country to establish population security and implement measures that diminish insurgent influence over the people.  As described in Figure 23 – ISAF Concept of Operations, the main effort in RC-South, by province, is in Helmand and Kandahar, where efforts are focused on clearing districts most threatened by insurgents.

No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a “shaping,” “supporting,” or “economy of force (read: leftovers)” operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.

Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He’s hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, “bleeding ulcer” trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration. As Daniel Ellsberg says in the most recent Rethink Afghanistan video, this war can be infinitely prolonged, but “winning” through military force is a pipe dream that’s killing people.

UPDATE: ISAF and the Pentagon are now comically denying that they ever planned an “offensive” in Kandahar, emphasis mine:

The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. “The media have chosen to use the term offensive,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive.”

Sure, the media chose the word “offensive.” Specifically, the American Forces Press Service (in a story cross posted on the Pentagon website and the ISAF website!), quoting one Maj. Gen. Nick Carter:

The general stressed that the planning and execution of an offensive in Kandahar are Afghan-led initiatives directed by President Hamid Karzai. The provincial governor is reaching out to his city and district mayors to engage the population and build relationships with the population, he said.

Carter said he expects the offensive to begin in the “next month or two,” and that by Ramadan, which begins in August, security improvements will begin to be apparent. It will take some three months before a strong, credible government is formed in Marja, he said, leading him to believe that it could take just as long, if not longer, to sway public support and perception in Kandahar.

For more use of the word “offensive” in posts on ISAF’s website, see here and here.

Image of a cross with a "peace" inscription hanging near the trigger of a tank.

Image of a cross with a "peace" inscription hanging near the trigger of a tank. What is wrong with this picture? Photo credit: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images/Boston.com