Posts Tagged ‘Wired for War’

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.


Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?


Message creep tracks mission creep. “The real problem is Pakistan!” Mechanized hunter-killer falcons wander out of the Graveyard and hurl hellfire. Afghanistan becomes “AfPak.” The strike areas grow. A widening gyre whose center cannot hold.

April 4, 1967: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives one of the most important and least remembered speeches of his career: “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break the Silence.” King denounces the economic exploitation of the poor by the U.S. war machine, its effect on our national economy and poverty programs, and the anti-Christian darkness swirling in the basic assumptions of the war. He says:

What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?

April 4, 1968: An assassin kills Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of a hotel.

April 4, 2009: A U.S. “Predator” unmanned drone is given a command to fire on a house in North Waziristan, killing civilians.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Intelligence officials say a suspected US missile attack has killed at least 13 people in northwest Pakistan.

The officials say Saturday’s strike targeted a home in a remote area of North Waziristan. They say residents pulled out 13 bodies and at least eight wounded from the rubble. There are civilians among the casualties.

April 4, 1967:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Roll Call 2009:

Anti-war Democrats have been largely mum on President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled policy for Afghanistan – partly because leading liberals don’t yet know where they stand.

April 4, 1967:

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.


The war in Afghanistan has crept into Pakistan. Despite the refusal of the CIA to acknowledge the Predator and Reaper strikes in Pakistan, many, many reports in the media document the presence of our loitering killing machines over Pakistani territory, remote controlled from facilities in the continental United States. The American public knows the drones are there; the Pakistani public knows they are there. The U.S. national security structure is at war in Pakistan.

The President might find comfort in the fact that large numbers of U.S. ground troops are not on Pakistani soil, but in so doing he’s splitting the finest of hairs, and betraying an inability to get past a decidedly Western frame of reference when weighing the costs of his policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From that myopic point of view, the use of Predators and Reapers solves a problem: they allow us to pursue enemies into Pakistani territory while preserving some infinitesimally small amount of plausible deniability (the drones often fly so high they cannot be seen from the ground) and so-called “respect” for Pakistan’s sovereignty over its territory. These drones also allow the U.S. mission to creep into Pakistan without risking troop deaths as a direct result of the drones’ deployment. But the administration’s attribution of these benefits to the use of these killing machines can only be made possible by a lack of understanding of the people affected by the strikes and the dynamics that lead to the use of terrorism as a tactic.

P.W. Singer, in his new book, Wired for War, describes the effect of “distance warfare.” After summarizing a negative attitude toward technology in some parts of the Muslim world affected by deep, backward-looking fundamentalism, Singer cites retired Pakistani lieutenant general Talat Masood:

Masood…described the technology tha the U.S. military was using as “amazing,” but also as causing “great anger” in the region….”The advent of ‘distance warfare’ has profound implications for the battlefield and for America’s global strategy…in every case, whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq, it has vastly complicated the prerequisite of building the structures of peace.” In short, warned Masood, “The concept of ‘shock and awe’ could drive moderate and uncommitted civilians toward anti-Americanism.”

Singer goes on to describe how our understanding of the costs and benefits of the drone strikes ignores the cultural of the region, leading us to miscalculate how the strikes will be interpreted by the local society.

As a security expert in Qatar summed up, “How you conduct war is important. It gives you dignity or not.” …America was coming across as a menace, using its high technology to pick on the little guy. …Even pop culture in the region echoes the experts. In 2007, for instance, one of the most popular songs…[gave] a hint at how what Masood described as America’s “distance war” is being portrayed: “America’s heartless terrorism, Killing people like insects. But honor does not fear power.”

Finally, Singer summarizes how the use of Predators and Reapers could motivate terrorist attacks on the United States:

Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar…sees a similar message going out from American use of unmanned systems to the broader Muslim world. “It will be seen as American cowardice. In war terms, if you are not willing to sacrifice blood, you are essentially a coward…These systems will show the pathway to your defeat unintentionally. They create a subtext that shows that you don’t want to die…That all we need to win is to frighten them.”

…Unmanned systems…are the ultimate means of avoiding sacrifice. But what seems so logical and reasonable to the side using them may strike other societies as weak and contemptible. Using robots in war can create fear, but also unintentionally reveal it.

It is this link that leads Akbar to conclude that…[t]he greater the use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of America’s unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”

Disturbingly, I heard the same conclusion time and again from other regional experts.

An opponent will often choose terrorism when they face an extremely powerful adversary exerting their overwhelming advantages in the region of conflict. War is always at its core a struggle between factions to generate sufficient violence to trigger political consequences. Tactically, when an enemy uses weapons platforms so advanced that their opponent cannot deflect or directly respond, the victim of the advanced weapon has an incentive to respond indirectly and asymmetrically. Psychologically, when one faces an opponent exerting an overwhelming and untouchable ability to exert violence, a sense of powerlessness and humiliation can compel some to seek a way to assert themselves against their enemies. When this is reinforced by a cultural disdain not only for the technology itself but also for those who would utilize such asymmetrical advantages in the field of battle, combined with the deaths of loved ones or neighbors caused by the technology, drone strikes become a severe liability if the overarching goal is to reduce the threat of terrorism against one’s people.

The administration’s strategy review ignored warnings that flooding Afghanistan with troops would unite the U.S.’s enemies against them. Once the administration announced they planned to escalate, the Taliban factions, as warned, reinforced their mutual allegiance and their ties with al-Qaida. Similarly, experts warn that Predator and Reaper strikes could generate terrorist retaliation against the U.S. and the U.S.’s allies, but the Pentagon recently widened the use of drones deeper into Pakistan. And, as predicted:

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack on a police training academy in Lahore and suicide attacks in Islamabad and Bannu, and warned of further attacks in Pakistan in the coming days and later in the US.

“These (attacks) were in reaction to (US) drone strikes in the Tribal Areas,” Baitullah Mehsud told BBC Urdu over the telephone from an undisclosed location.

“Over the next few days, more such attacks will come … two or three suicide attacks will take place,” warned Mehsud, without naming any cities or targets. “As long as the drone attacks continue, we will not stop.” The Taliban leader said he would himself “teach the US a lesson”.

Enough. As King said in 1967:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

… The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The Obama Administration should seriously consider the recent recommendations of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. Then, the Administration should go back to the drawing board on Afghanistan, craft a strategy that has as its goal an immediate reduction in the level of violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The best way to do that is to give up on the idea that more troops, more drones, and more killing will help the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.