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October 30, 2009

Robert Kagan and Regime Change in Iran
Posted by David Shorr

I've started posting on TPM Cafe as a regular blogger, with this post in response to Bob Kagan's WaPo op-ed yesterday. But there's more to say about the following passage at the end of Bob's piece:

The worst of it is that the Tehran regime is now desperately trying to buy time so it can regain full control of the country in the face of widespread anger after the fraudulent presidential elections in June and a still-vibrant Iranian opposition. For the clerics, an endless negotiating process is not merely a means of putting off any real concessions on its nuclear program. It is also, and more important, a way of putting off any Western sanctions that could produce new and potentially explosive unrest in their already unstable country.

To put it mildly, mixing the issues of the nuclear program and Iran's political turmoil is not helpful. In my other post I've already highlighted the distinction between holding off from seeking new sanctions and "an endless negotiating process." Now I want to stress the need to choose between two mutually exclusive policy goals: stopping Iran from getting the bomb or regime change. You simply can't pursue both at the same time.

The expression of people power after the June election fiasco was truly inspiring, and greater openness of the Islamic Republic is a thing to be hoped for. But apart from the problem of Iranian hard-liners exploiting any American involvement as a convenient excuse for their own repressive acts, there is a direct and inevitable trade-off between reaching a nuclear deal and holding out for different leaders. As a practical matter of domestic political reality, the turmoil could very likely push Iranian leaders to resolve the nuclear issue, but regardless of our sympathies, such politics is among the Iranians.

Just think about it. If you lead the Iranian government to believe that the United States' real objective is to remove them from power, won't they have good reason to doubt that cooperation on the nuclear program would earn them any benefit? What incentive is there to make a deal? And is Bob Kagan really saying that "potentially explosive unrest in [an] already unstable country" is a good thing?

October 29, 2009

You're a funny man, John McCain
Posted by Patrick Barry

John McCain points out that "[f]or the first time since September 11, 2001, America is having a vigorous national debate about how to succeed in Afghanistan."  I'd point out that debating something is pretty hard when you're not paying attention to it

What Exactly Are Our Options in Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

I have a lot of respect for Stephen Biddle, who I think wrote one of the most cogent analyses of FM 3-24, the Army and Marine Counterinsurgency Manual. But on Afghanistan, I've been a bit more critical. There was his piece from the American Interest this past summer that I felt portrayed our options in Afghanistan in an overly simplistic manner.

Now he's written a piece for the New Republic that takes a similar approach, by portraying our options in Afghanistan as being a choice between full-fledged COIN and COIN half-measures. The folks at TNR asked me to draft a response to the article and you can read the full thing here. I've cut and pasted a short preview below:

In the summer, Biddle based his argument on the suspect notion that policymakers faced the choice of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or prolonged American engagement. Now, Biddle's straw men are the disparate elements of a counter-insurgency operation, which he claims will fail on their own but which are likely to succeed if pursued in concert. But neitherfull-fledged COIN or so-called half measures are reflective of the diverse set of possible scenarios that the White House could andshould be considering. If anything, they only muddy the waters because neither strategy has a strong chance of succeeding or even being implemented.

Biddle claims that "integrated COIN offers a higher probability of success than any of the proposed middle ways; middle ways are cheaper, but also likelier to fail." Yet nothing in his article actually supports this argument. Biddle does not make the affirmative case for why a COIN mission would work; and he doesn't fully and faithfully engage with the alternative approaches for stabilizing Afghanistan and securing U.S. interests there. Quite simply, there is no evidence that the sum he embraces is greater than the parts he dismisses.

October 28, 2009

Obama and Honduras: principled stance leads to pragmatic moves
Posted by The Editors

This post is by NSN intern Luis Vertiz

Reports indicate the Obama administration will be sending high level officials as envoys this week to meet with both factions in the continuing drama of the Honduran coup. The crisis started when President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office, to be replaced by Honduran congressman and interim President Roberto Micheletti. The envoy trip will be the first time the Obama administration will directly lead negotiations between the two sides, as efforts by the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and regional diplomats have thus far faltered. The sticking point during these negotiations has been whether or not to allow former President Zelaya to finish his term in office, which is set to end in January. Obama’s strategy has been to allow the negotiations to move forward without direct US involvement, while at the same time waiting for an opportunity to confer recognition of any possible consensus.

Continue reading "Obama and Honduras: principled stance leads to pragmatic moves" »

October 27, 2009

Two Guys Who Light The Menorah Debate COIN, Afghanistan and the Military Industrial Complex
Posted by Michael Cohen

Judah Grunstein and I take about an hour over at Bloggingheads TV to debate the finer points of COIN (is it really warm and fuzzy?); US strategy in Afghanistan, the myth of American omnipotence (a favorite topic of mine) and the divergent reactions to Obama's Nobel here and in Europe, where Judah lives.

The funniest thing about this discussion is that after we finished taping we spent another half hour continuing our debate - and it was some pretty good material. But you'll have to wait for when we put out the collector's edition DVD. And if you hear some faint barking in the background that's my bulldog Ruby, who is a full-on COINdanista. She is none too happy with my writings and even has a framed picture of David Galula over her dogbowl.

Watch it here

October 26, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The What is CT Version?
Posted by Michael Cohen

This paragraph from an otherwise pretty fascinating article on Afghanistan in the Wall Street Journal this weekend left me completely and utterly gobsmacked:

People familiar with the internal debates say Mr. Obama rejected a strictly counter-terror approach during White House deliberations in early October. One official said Pentagon strategists were asked to draft brief written arguments making the best case for each strategy, but the strategists had difficulties writing out a credible case for the counter-terror approach -- prompting members of Mr. Biden's staff to step in and write the document themselves.

How is it possible that the US military, which has spent the past 8 years fighting a Global War on Terror (i.e. counter-terrorism) incapable of drafting a credible case for a CT approach in Afghanistan . . . for the President of the United States? Seriously, how is that possible? I suppose the smart ass answer would be that there is no credible case for a CT approach in Afghanistan. But of course that is silly; as Austin Long pointed out recently at FP.

But I really have to question the kind of military advice President Obama is getting  if they can't even tell him what a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan would look like. Have they become so inculcated with COIN doctrine that they simply reject the very idea that a CT strategy can succeed in Afghanistan or elsewhere? And how is the President being served when he is not being presented with every possible military and political scenario in Afghanistan? Look, whether you support COIN or support CT, the bottom line is that if the military is being asked by the President to develop military options for Afghanistan they have a pretty significant obligation to do it - whether they agree or disagree with the approach. The fact that they can't or won't do it is pretty disconcerting.

October 23, 2009

Cheney's Host -- A Bit of Background
Posted by David Shorr

The host of former Vice President Cheney's infamous speech this week was Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy. Not coincidentally, Mr. Gaffney has been a standard bearer for hard-line archconservatism going way back. To offer further context on where these guys are coming from, I feel compelled to give some historical background and recall the denouement of Gaffney's government service. Namely that Gaffney was ultimately too conservative for the Reagan Administration.

In Reagan's first term, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was the Dick Cheney figure, pushing for a confrontational policy toward the Soviet Union, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle played the role of David Addington in relentlessly steamrolling alternative internal views. Frank Gaffney was Perle's deputy. In essence, the Reagan Administration's first-term policy on nuclear weapons and arms control was a preview of the break-your-kneecaps bureaucratic operating style that Cheney subsequently perfected. [For a terrific chronicle of those times, see Strobe Talbott's Deadly Gambits. Talbott was the Jane Mayer of that time, though she also played that role herself back then.]

During his second term, Reagan shifted his policy toward pursuing arms control rather than eschewing it; he brought in a new defense secretary, Frank Carlucci, and out went Perle and Gaffney. One of the signs of our political times is that in contemporary terms, President Reagan would qualify as a moderate -- which is the difference between him and Vice President Cheney and Mr. Gaffney. (For some more recent examples of Frank Gaffney's radical pronouncements, see Salon.)

Romney's Day Old Talking Point
Posted by Adam Blickstein

In an Op-Ed today in the Manchester Union-Leader, Mitt Romney regurgitates neocon talking points that he already regurgitated earlier this week at an AIPAC conference that were no doubt originally spoon fed into his mouth by Fred Kagan or one of his acolytes. I'm not going to rehash the idiocies of the Romney's varied and scattered arguments, but the problem with eating ones own vomit is that it just doesn't really taste the same the second time around. For instance, Romney said this at AIPAC on Monday:

When Poland and the Czech Republic are humiliated by us, they lose confidence in America’s support for them, and they may decide that they must incline more toward Russia.

And in his Op-Ed today, Romney stated:

When Poland and the Czech Republic are humiliated by us, they lose confidence in America's support for them, and they may decide that they must incline more toward Russia.

But while Romney was busy re-writing copy and pasting his AIPAC address into the pages of the Union-Leader, Joe Biden was in Poland holding high level meetings with the Polish Premier. The outcome?

...the Polish prime minister and president gave their backing to the scaled-down alternative. That was an achievement for Biden who will take his message to Romania and the Czech Republic.

Premier Donald Tusk signed on to President Barack Obama's revamped U.S. missile shield, declaring Poland ready to participate in the project, which is intended to counter threats from Iran.

"I want to stress that Poland views ... the new configuration for the missile shield as very interesting, necessary, and we are ready at the appropriate scale to participate," Tusk told reporters at a news conference with Biden.

The only thing humiliating is Mitt Romney not reading the news close enough to actually, you know, adapt his talking points to at least marginally reflect reality. We already had one President who was notorious for not reading the news. We can't afford another.

UPDATE: And of course, something Romney doesn't even mention is the fact that the strategic repositioning of our missile defense architecture is meant to enhance both security for Europe and Israel in the face of evolving threats, underscored by joint U.S. Israel defense exercises conducted this week:

A major air defense exercise launched with Israel this week will help the United States craft its European missile shield, a U.S. commander said on Thursday.

Signaling the strength of their alliance against what they say is a threat from Iran's nuclear program, Israeli and U.S. forces launched a biannual drill on Wednesday. Known as Juniper Cobra, it includes target practice against missiles, both real and in computer-simulated exercises.

War is Cruelty, You Cannot Refine It
Posted by Michael Cohen

My colleagues at New America Foundation, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have an excellent new report out about the effects of the drone war against al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. For those of us who have been advocating for a ramping up of the US-led drone war it brings with it sobering news:

Since 2006, our analysis indicates, 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups, all of whom have been killed since January 2008. 

It is not possible to differentiate precisely between militant and civilian casualties because the militants live among the population and don't wear uniforms, and because the militants have the incentive to claim that all the casualties were civilians, while government sources tend to claim the opposite. However, of those killed in drone attacks from 2006 through mid-October 2009, between 500 and 700 were described in reliable press reports as militants, or some 66 to 68 percent.

Based on our count of the estimated number of militants killed, the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent.

While these numbers suggest that the drone war has been successful in disrupting al Qaeda; the fact that one in three people killed by these attacks is an innocent civilian is clearly troubling. This raises all sorts of legal and moral issues about the killing of civilians.

Indeed one of the arguments made by supporters of a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan is that those of us who are advocating a more counter terrorism/drone based approach are ignoring the potential price paid by civilians. (An argument made by Eli Lake's in a recent bloggingheads debate with fellow DA blogger Heather Hurlburt). Ignoring the fact, for a second, that my recommendation is actually for a decreased military footprint in Southern Afghanistan this is a false and misleading choice. Civilians die in all wars - counterterrorism missions or counter-insurgencies; and we should be completely honest about that point. But this question got me wondering a bit: should civilian casualties even be the primary prism by which we assess America's war fighting choices?

Part of the reason why we focus so directly on civilian losses is the new dominant COIN narrative that argues protecting civilians must take precedence because if civilians are killed indiscriminately it risks creating what David Kilcullen calls "accidental guerrillas."

But if the history of COIN shows us anything it is that counter-insurgencies are just as deadly as conventional wars and are always hard on civilians. From the Briggs plan in Malaya, which forcibly relocated half a million ethnic Chinese, and the detention policies and systematic use of torture that defined the Battle of Algiers to the sectarian cleansing that preceded the surge in Iraq in 2007 if there is one defining characteristic of COIN it is coercion and violence. A lot of "accidental guerrillas" were created in Malaya and Iraq and Kenya and even Algeria - and yet even FM 3-24 tells us that these were successful counterinsurgency operations. So the bottom line is that anyone who tells you that counterinsurgency is a warm and fuzzy way to fight a war is simply not telling the whole story.

In Afghanistan, however, the US military has bought into the warm and fuzzy argument; hook, line and sinker.  And it's bringing with it some troubling results. There is this story from Jonathan Landay about an ambush of US Marines that was perhaps made worse by rules of engagement (ROE) that place a premium on protecting civilian lives; there was a fascinating 60 Minutes story recently, which recounted the stress soldiers were feeling in trying to protect civilians while also seeking to target the enemy; and there was this harrowing tale from Tim Lynch about how the Taliban manipulate the US military's ROEs regarding civilian casualties to attack US and NATO targets. Beyond the danger to US troops, Lynch raises a legitimate concern:

In war people die; the currency spent by battle commanders is blood.  Many of those who perish are innocents which is why the professional does not enjoy war, seek combat or prolong conflict.  Our leaders are prolonging conflict by restricting the use of our decisive combat arm.

Now I don't write this to suggest that we should take the gloves off in Afghanistan or that we take military steps that would needlessly target civilians; instead it's a bit of a corrective to the notion that we can fight a war effectively in which protecting the population rather than targeting the enemy is our abiding goal.

In the end, I'm not sure this is realistic or achievable - or even the proper way to judge the effectiveness of a specific mission. The United States should do everything in its power to protect civilians and avoid any military action that harms them, but at the expense of the achievement of that mission or US national security interests? Well that's not so clear cut.

Indeed, throughout American history we have taken the opposite course; perhaps the best example being the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. Did that act save the lives of both American soldiers and ironically Japanese civilians who would have died in an American invasion? Probably. 

But even in Afghanistan, if adopting a COIN approach rather than a more military focused CT mission saves civilian lives: is it the right strategy?

Would targeting the Taliban more directly, even at the cost of a higher number of civilian casualties, be a more humane long-term strategy if it wiped out the Taliban and their rancid ideology AND put Afghanistan on an better path toward stabilization. I'd hate to be the one to make a call, but its not only a legitimate debate - its a philosophy that pretty much defined US war-fighting practices from the first days of the republic.

Indeed, possibly the safest thing to do for Afghanistan would be to withdraw all American and NATO troops (it certainly would be the safest although likely not the best turnout for Afghan civilians forced to live under Taliban rule). But I don't hear anyone who is preaching the virtues of protecting civilians making that argument. And why not? Because in their view, defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda is in the vital national interests of the United States. They have decided that protecting American lives from al Qaeda terrorists is worth the risk it poses to Afghan civilians. In fact, whether you support a CT mission or a COIN mission you've basically made the call that protecting American lives from terrorist attack is worth the potential price paid by Afghan civilians. Not to say this isn't necessarily a legitimate choice to make, but let's at least be honest about it.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that no matter what course we take - short of complete withdrawal - civilians in Afghanistan are going to find themselves in harm's way. This is a simple fact and all the platitudes about COIN being more humanistic won't change that. If we determine that fighting wars is in our national interest - and that the threat from foreign powers and America's enemies are intolerable - then we should be completely honest about the price to be paid. Hopefully by doing so we will set a higher bar for when and how we intervene overseas (and perhaps do it less often).

But if we try to fight wars in the belief that we can make it safe for civilians while still protecting our national interests - we're just lying to ourselves. As Sherman reminds us again, war is cruelty, you cannot refine it.

October 22, 2009

Delayed Reaction
Posted by James Lamond

So it just occurred to me that the irony of the Center For Security two awards yesterday.  Scooter Libby was given the Service Before Self award, for taking one for the team, so-to-say.  So Scooter's award is for protecting his boss, Dick Cheney.  Therefore, if Scooter took such a hit in protecting Dick Cheney, then it is safe to assume that Dick Cheney did something wrong and was in trouble. Right?  So who else would the Senter for Security Policy award with their highly prestigous Keeper of the Flame Award? None other than Dick Cheney.

But I guess you can't argue the merits.  The award is given, to "individuals who have enhanced American security through their commitment to a strong military, the propagation of democracy and respect for individual rights throughout the world." An who has done more for respecting individual rights around the world than Dick Cheney?

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