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December 29, 2010

The White House's Growing 'Credibility Gap' on Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Foreign Policy that argued only the US military is optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan. I noted that the apparent disconnect between public statements by the military and pretty much everyone else in Afghanistan is "increasingly bringing into question the very credibility of U.S. military statements about military progress in Afghanistan." 

Since then, things on this front have only gotten worse and the credibility gap has extended from the Pentagon to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has followed the military's lead by putting out a number of optimistic statements about the war in Afghanistan that, as difficult as it is to say, are misleading the American people about the actual security situation in Afghanistan.

First there was the White House's Afghan Strategy Review, which made the following assertions:

in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas.

The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country. 

In Afghanistan last month, President Obama said

"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future."

And Secretary Gates was even more specific:

"As a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago."

Nowhere in the review, and as near I can tell, the remarks of Gates and Obama is it reflected that in many parts of the country the security situation has actually deteriorated or that Afghan civilian deaths have increased significantly over the past year.

In fact, the statements above are contradicted by a litany of facts that offer a far more pessimistic view on the progress of the war. In fact, over the past week or so there have been several major pieces of evidence that demonstrate the extent to which the US military and now the White House are misleading the American people about the tenuous security situation in Afghanistan.

First the Wall Street Journal reported on a UN report about security in Afghanistan:

Internal United Nations maps show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year's fighting season, countering the Obama administration's optimistic assessments of military progress since the surge of additional American forces began a year ago.

In the October map, just as in March's, virtually all of southern Afghanistan—the focus of the coalition's military offensives—remained painted the red of "very high risk," with no noted security improvements. At the same time, the green belt of "low risk" districts in northern, central and western Afghanistan shriveled considerably.

The U.N.'s October map upgraded to "high risk" 16 previously more secure districts in Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Parwan, Baghlan, Samangan, Faryab, Laghman and Takhar provinces; only two previously "high risk" districts, one in Kunduz and one in Herat province, received a safer rating.

Today, McClatchy reports on the findings of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office and in particular its reporting on deterioration in northern Afghanistan: (I heard similar things from their representative in Mazar in September):

"Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year," said Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization that analyzes security dangers for aid groups.

While U.S.-led forces have driven insurgents out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, Taliban advances in the rest of the country may have offset those gains, a cross section of year-end estimates suggests.

Insurgent attacks have jumped at least 66 percent this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

"I can't understand how they can say it is more secure than last year," said Hashim Mayar, the acting director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 Afghan and international aid groups working in Afghanistan. "Insecurity has extended to some parts of the county that were relatively safe last year."

Perhaps most damningly, a recent Pentagon report to Congress drew similar conclusions:

The insurgency’s capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding, as evidenced by a greater frequency and wider dispersion of insurgent-initiated attacks; however, that spread is being increasingly challenged by the ISAF surge forces conducting operations.  Despite the increase in ANSF and ISAF capabilities to counter insurgent attacks, the insurgents’ tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to evolve in sophistication.  In addition, the insurgency continues to inhibit the expansion of a legitimate Afghan Government through an effective shadow governance process that provides dispute resolution, rule of law, and other traditional services in a number of areas.  

Keep in mind, this is a Pentagon report - and it appears to directly contradict the words of the President and the Secretary of Defense. 

So what you have is a mountain of evidence indicating that the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening; that in particular, insurgents are making serious in-roads in the north and west of the country and putting once secure regions in greater risk; even as the US is putting greater pressure on Taliban insurgents in the South and East. 

While it may be factually correct for Obama and Gates to suggest that the Taliban "control" less territory than they did before the surge this is a highly dubious claim since the Taliban's effectiveness is not really defined by territory as much as it is the ability to intimidate and influence the population, exert its influence in local communities and spread instability. This is a fact that is almost certainly understood by our military commanders in Afghanistan.

The simple fact is that the Administration's efforts to put a more positive spin on the increasingly tenuous security situation in Afghanistan is to gloss over the truth. Perhaps the most important story of the past year in Afghanistan is that even with the inclusion of more than 30,000 more US and NATO troops the security situation has worsened dramatically.

Now one can argue that this is a means to an end; a first stop on the road to progress. I don't find that personally credible, but it's certainly a legitimate argument for the Administration to make.

But it's quite another thing to play down the deterioration around the country; to cherry-pick improvements in areas of the country inundated with US troops as a reason for overall optimism; and to provide the American people with a decidedly one-sided and incomplete view of the war in Afghanistan. This, unfortunately, is what the White House and the military are trying to do. 

To be blunt, it's becoming increasingly difficult to take anything the White House or the military says about the war in Afghanistan seriously.

December 22, 2010

New START Reflections and Kudos
Posted by David Shorr

The issues of nuclear weapons and arms control are basically where I got my start (sorry) in foreign policy. My formative experiences as an advocate were in the early-80s nuclear freeze movement. The core argument was pretty straightforward: there was no valid military or security rationale for having the tens of thousands of n-weapons already in the US and Soviet arsenals, never mind adding a lot of new ones. Added nuclear forces would literally be overkill -- the capacity to "make the rubble bounce," as we used to say. That's why my nomination for Quote of the Debate goes to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who argued that New START deserved support because...

it leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come

That pretty much says it. As long as we have enough to retaliate and deter, the rest is tougher-than-thou political posturing. It was clear from the outset that this treaty would separate the sober-minded from the alarmist. The support for New START from the traditional Republican mandarins and military leaders was no surprise. Just as predictable were the conjured imbalances and vulnerabilities. The Right just moves farther and farther right; have they really been complaining about a far-Left agenda? Really?

Critics seem to have lost sight of the real problem: stemming the spread of nuclear arms to countries like Iran and North Korea. This is their blind spot. They seem oblivious to the connection between our own credibility -- for which disarmament is the good faith price under the NPT -- and our ability to forge a united international front and keep the heat on Iran. Oblivious might be too strong a word. Last night I watched Sen. Thune propose an amendment that sought guarantees of continued Russian support for the Iran effort. Rather than merely continue down the path of cooperation with Moscow, let's subject our bilateral arms control to constant tests and demands of Russia's reliability on Iran. Talk about what-have-you-done-for-me-lately... 

But back to the celebration and some well-earned kudos. Part of my excitement about the Senate vote traces to my role in the election of one of the new senators. For several years I was Sen. Al Franken's main foreign policy adviser before and during his campaign, so I take special pride in his vote to ratify New START.

Finally, I want to sing the praises of key voices for this debate particularly here on the blogosphere. First off, Max Bergmann of the Think Progress Wonk Room (and a Democracy Arsenal alum) has been all over this issue from the start beginning. On the journalistic side, Josh Rogin has provided terrific coverage on his Cable blog over at Foreign Policy. Right here at DA, Kelsey Hartigan has done a great job as our resident New START watcher. And last but not least, Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione as been a relentless tweeter. While I've focused my plaudits on the blogosphere, this has clearly involved huge efforts by the administration to negotiate and push the treaty forward, by senators and their staff to debate and ratify it (THANK YOU, Senators Kerry and Lugar), and the advocates and analysts of the arms control community to open the political space and spur things along.

December 21, 2010

New START Daily Wrap: Day 7
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Cloture invoked:  “victory for common sense” ahead.  Hours ago, the Senate voted 67 – 28 to close the floor debate on New START and move towards a final vote.  Senators now have up to 30 hours to wrap up the floor debate, though Hill observers expect the final vote to come sometime Wednesday.  Five senators were absent for today’s vote—and at least three, Sens. Wyden, Bayh and Gregg—plan to vote for the pact tomorrow.  Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) released a statement today after the vote, saying, “We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons… All eyes will be on the Senate in these last hours of debate and all will see a victory for common sense and the Senate act in its best traditions.”

GOP support pours in for New START.  As top military officials continued to urge the Senate to ratify New START, conservatives were clearly feeling the heat.  Editorial boards across the country lambasted treaty opponents. “Enough posturing,” write the LA Times. “A party that claims to oppose political gamesmanship and favor a strong national defense is giving itself a black eye.”  By the end of the day, eleven GOP senators – Lugar, Alexander, Bennett, Brown, Cochran, Collins, Corker, Isakson, Murkowski, Snowe and Voinovich – all announced they will support the treaty’s final passage and voted to close off debate today.  Additional support could come tomorrow. 

Treaty opponents cling to partisan frame.  Rich Lowry wrote this morning on the National Review Online, “Republican opposition to New START is collapsing.” Lowry further suggested that the New START debate has been a “dismaying rout” for conservative opponents.   As The Cable points out, , “Everyone here on Capitol Hill is beginning to see the ratification of New START as increasingly inevitable – everyone, that is, except for Sen. Jon Kyl.” Greg Sargent further notes, “It seems particularly ludicrous that at a presser today, Senator Lindsey Graham actually apologized to Jon Kyl on behalf of the rest of the Senate, because it isn't doing his bidding and instead is ratifying New START.”

Words of Wisdom from America’s Military Leaders. Again.
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Over the past week, leading uniformed officials have continued to urge the Senate to ratify New START.  There is a reason the tide has turned and additional GOP senators have gone on record to say they will support New START:  The treaty has the entire support of the United States military leadership. Despite desperate attempts to drag this debate into partisan waters, New START has the bipartisan support it needs.  So take heart, America – there is at least two-thirds of the United States Senate that won't put politics above  national security. 

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense:  “I strongly support the Senate voting to give its advice and consent to ratification of the New START Treaty this week.  The treaty will enhance strategic stability at lower numbers of nuclear weapons, provide a rigorous inspection regime including on-site access to Russian missile silos, strengthen our leadership role in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and provide the necessary flexibility to structure our strategic nuclear forces to best meet national security interests.”

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:   “The Joint Chiefs and I are confident that the treaty does not in any way constrain our ability to pursue robust missile defenses… I continue to believe that ratification of the New START Treaty is vital to U.S. national security. Through the trust it engenders. The cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we in the military have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States. I am as confident in its success as I am in its safeguards. The sooner it is ratified, the better.”

Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, Commander of Global Strike Command, the command that oversees the Air Force's nuclear enterprise:  "I think the START Treaty ought to be ratified and it ought to be ratified right now - this week… I think it's absolutely essential that we reestablish that cooperative, collaborative relationship and the START Treaty is the core, the nexus, around which that dialogue can take place. That's why I'm such a strong supporter and think the treaty ought to be ratified.”

Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “All of the Joint Chiefs are very much behind this treaty, because of the transparency, because of the reality that both the United States and Russia are going to have to recapitalize their nuclear arsenals, both the delivery vehicles and the weapons.  To have transparency, to understand the rules by which to put structure to that activity, we need START and we need it badly.”

Afghanistan Misson Creep Watch Redux
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently a few senior members of the US military have lost their minds:

Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there.

The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.

The plan has not yet been approved, but military and political leaders say a renewed sense of urgency has taken hold, as the deadline approaches for the Obama administration to begin withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. The Americans are known to have made no more than a handful of forays across the border into Pakistan, in operations that have infuriated Pakistani officials. Now, American military officers appear confident that a shift in policy could allow for more routine incursions.

The decision to expand American military activity in Pakistan, which would almost certainly have to be approved by President Obama himself, would amount to the opening of a new front in the nine-year-old war, which has grown increasingly unpopular among Americans. It would run the risk of angering a Pakistani government that has been an uneasy ally in the war in Afghanistan, particularly if it leads to civilian casualties or highly public confrontations.

Angering the Pakistani government is putting it mildly; how about creating the risk of a military confrontation between the United States and Pakistan. Where does one begin to count the ways that this undertaking could go badly astray? What happens if US forces find themselves confronted by Pakistani soldiers - our allies?

And how exactly does this further US interests vis-a-vis Pakistan? It's hard to see how this might help in the process of getting Pakistan to crack down on Afghan Taliban safe havens. If anything, one could very easily imagine that it will have the precise opposite effect; further embittering Pakistan and making cooperation on confronting the Afghan Taliban that much less likely. If one of the stated purposes of the US mission in Afghanistan is, in part, to stabilize Pakistan . . . well how does this further that goal? Indeed, these cross-border raids could actually risk destabilizing Pakistan politically.

Other than all that seems like a good plan.

And to what end would be contemplating this dangerous escalation of the war. If the Times reporting is to be believed what is driving this now is the nearing "deadline" for the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. What this seems to suggest is that you have folks in US leadership positions who are so desperate for a "win" in Afghanistan that they are willing to risk sparking a military conflict with Pakistan in order to "show progress" - any sort of progress against the Taliban.

If ever there was a moment to step back and fully consider the potential consequences of our actions in Afghanistan it is right now. If a cross-border attack is the only way to "defeat" the Taliban then its time to contemplate the possibility that the current strategy has more costs than it does benefits. It's moment like these when cooler heads must prevail and the civilian leadership needs to put its hand on the brake. 

Because, to a large extent, the very fact that ideas like these are being floated in the New York Times is indicative of how precisely out of control and divorced from US interests, are policy there has become. In the minds of some policymakers, the desire to win in Afghanistan seemingly trumps all other US interests in the region - heck across the globe. At the precise moment when the US desperately needs to be de-escalating in Afghanistan; there are those in the senior ranks of the military who would dangerously ratchet up the conflict and put the US and Pakistan on a collision course to open conflict.

Mr. President, you need to get control of your generals and this war. Because what is being contemplated here is insane.

December 20, 2010

New START Daily Wrap: Day 6
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Military leaders continue to urge swift passage of New START.  Admiral Mullen reiterated the military’s unanimous call to ratify New START as soon as possible.  “The sooner it is ratified, the better,” Adm. Mullen said in his letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). 

Gen. Scowcroft on GOP obstructionism:  “It’s baffling to me.”  General Brent Scowcroft (ret.), the former National Security Advisor to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, expressed dismay on Monday with his fellow Republicans.  “I just don’t understand the opposition. Some of it with John McCain is (opposition to the repeal of) Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, some of it is politics. But to play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff.”

GOP Senators say New START will pass easily.  The Hill reports today that, “GOP senators — including those who plan to vote for the treaty and those who say they’ll oppose it — have told The Hill they expect it to pass easily.”

John McCain submits a missile defense amendment to the resolution of ratification.  After denying that he was negotiating an amendment to the resolution of ratification – which, unlike his amendment to alter the preamble, would not kill the treaty – John McCain submitted a missile defense amendment today.  Senators Kyl, Graham and Kirk co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. McCain.  Hill observers predict an agreement to move forward is in the works.

Sen. Brown (R-MA) announces that he will support New START. "I've done my due diligence, and I’m going to be ... ultimately supporting the START treaty," Brown told reporters after emerging late this afternoon from a closed-door intelligence briefing for all senators. "I believe it's something that’s important for our country, and I believe it’s a good move forward to deal with our national security issues."

New START Daily Wrap: Weekend Edition
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

President Obama sent letters to Senators Reid and McConnell about the U.S. missile defense plans.  President Obama reiterated, "Regardless of Russia's actions in this regard, as long as I am President, and as long as Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy the effective missile defenses to protect the United State, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners."
Killer amendment, killed.  Senators voted 59 to 37 to kill Sen. McCain's amendment to strike the language in the preamble that acknowledges "the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms." George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice all acknowledged this reality during their tenure. 
"It's time to get this done."  In his weekly address, President Obama urged senators to come together and pass New START.  "Ratifying a treaty like START is not about winning a victory for an administration or a political party, it is about the safety and security of the country."
Sen. Risch's "killer" amendment would only make reducing Russian tactical nuclear weapons more difficult.  As its name indicates, New START deals with strategic arms, and does not address tactical nuclear weapons. Failure to ratify New START would only hinder efforts to reduce Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal. Our NATO allies recognize this as well, which is why they fully support New START. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has explained, "This is a key concern for allies - not only those closest to Russia's borders - in light of the great disparity between the levels of Russian tactical nuclear weapons and those of NATO. But we cannot address this disparity until the New Start treaty is ratified. Which is another reason why ratification would set the stage for further improvements in European security."

New START Daily Wrap: Day 3
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

18 European Foreign Ministers:  New START Matters.  The foreign ministers wrote:  New START will "have a positive impact on American, European and wider international security. Its impact on international security goes far beyond Europe - it is global. That is why we all share an interest in seeing the new treaty ratified and implemented."
Killer amendment, killed?  After complaining that New START was too important to consider on a dual-track process, Sen. McCain introduced an amendment that would kill the treaty.  The perambulatory language that acknowledges "the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms" is merely a statement of fact-which George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld both acknowledged during their tenure. Amendments require 51 votes to be defeated, a reality the treaty's opponents seemed to recognize as they refused to agree to a time limit, stretching the debate well into Friday evening. 

Backing down.  Sen. Corker threatened to hold New START hostage if Democrats moved forward with the DREAM Act and repealing DADT.  McCain rejected this notion on the Senate floor, saying, "there continues to swirl allegations that there is going to be a vote for or against because of another piece of legislation... I reject that allegation... I know that every member of this body is making the judgment on this treaty on its merits."  Sen. Corker was forced to call back the Washington Post and walk back his comments.  Sen. Lindsey Graham also rejected the threat.

December 17, 2010

The Short Life and Timely Death of Pop-Centric COIN
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Nation, I have a new piece looking at the evolution of counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan - from McChrystal-esque hearts and minds to Petraeus-style, kinetic action:

What is happening in Afghanistan is an embrace of the aggressive approach to counterinsurgency once publicly dismissed by FM 3-24 advocates. This is not to suggest that US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have given up on trying to reach hearts and minds. But their embrace of techniques they once argued against is an implicit acknowledgment that the population-centric tactics of FM 3-24 have only marginal effectiveness in a nonpermissive environment like that of Afghanistan today. Like so many counterinsurgents before them, US generals are finding that the carrot is far less effective than the stick.

Their actual approach bears startling resemblance to the smaller-military-footprint counterterrorism strategy outlined by Vice President Biden during last year's strategic review debates. Put aside for now are dreams of state-building in the Hindu Kush or the belief that only by turning the people away from the insurgents can America secure its interests. Instead, military planners have shifted their focus to an end-game strategy of using lethal force to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The shift in emphasis toward a more traditional conflict is compelling evidence of the disconnect between the theory of population-centric COIN and actual US capabilities—and an unstated recognition that FM 3-24 has so far not succeeded. This hasn't stopped COIN advocates from arguing that the shift in military emphasis is all part of the larger COIN effort; after all, they claim, direct military action is a crucial element of counterinsurgency. But these are self-serving and deceptive arguments, intended in part to mask the failure of the military to capture Afghan hearts and minds.

You can read the whole thing here . . . and please do!


The Civilian Side Needs Advocates
Posted by Jacob Stokes

QDDR Dan Drezner has a good roundup on the challenge of breaking the civilian agency “feedback loop,” which he aptly characterizes as, “State loses operational authority and capabilities because of poor funding, which leads to more tasks for Defense, which leads to even more lopsided funding between the two bureaucracies, which leads to an even greater disparity in responsibilities, and so forth.”

What Drezner describes is a phenomenon, but it’s also the strategy for those who want to turn the Department of Defense into the Department of Everything. (Mitt Romney epitomizes this position in his book, “No Apology.”) You starve the civilian side of foreign policy, then lambast it for being ineffectual.

Drezner asks the right question: Will the QDDR do anything to tip the balance back towards the civilians:

Will the QDDR change that? That's sorta the point of the whole exercise -- the phrase "civilian power" appears 281 times in the QDDR. I'm dubious -- the only way this works is through greater staffing and greater funding for U.S. foreign aid, and in this Age of Austerity, the first things that get cut are.... diplomats and foreign aid funding.

I'd love to see Hillary Clinton make the case to Congress than an extra $50 billion for State would improve American foreign policy enough to cut, say, $100 billion for DoD. I'd love a free pony too, for all the likelihood that this will happen.

Clinton’s recent piece is Foreign Affairs was an attempt to make just such a case: that diplomacy and development are not only humanitarian, warm-and-fuzzy efforts. They’re hardheaded investments aimed at solving problems before they descend into the expensive and bloody conflicts that truly require a military response. (As Matt Yglesias wrote this week in the Prospect, the late Richard Holbrooke personified this viewpoint.)

Continue reading "The Civilian Side Needs Advocates" »

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