The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Petraeus lobby

It is worth drawing attention to this article in the Washington Post, entitled 'Our best chance in Afghanistan'. The key messages are these:

- military progress in Afghanistan is undeniable (and we shouldn't worry about the seemingly increased insurgent presence in the north)
- Islamabad must do more to clear insurgent safe havens in Pakistan and Washington must put more pressure on Islamabad
- we should not rush transition
- counter-terrorism operations (SOF raids, drone strikes) are an integral part of COIN and we should not scale them back

However, the most interesting element of the article is the authors, Frederick and Kimberley Kagan. They are referred to as "independent military analysts who have conducted research for commanders in Afghanistan" which somewhat glosses over the fact that they work closely with General Petraeus and serve as his 'telescopes' - independent, out-of-the-box analysts whose insights reach from the political and strategic levels down to the ground truth at the tactical level.

That being the case, it is reasonable to suppose that Petraeus had some say in this article and that the main messages are in fact his own.

In that light, the description of US strategic goals in Afghanistan becomes especially noteworthy.
"From the Afghan border we have a unique vantage point on the groups that most directly threaten the American homeland and the stability of the entire nuclear-armed subcontinent... The ultimate goal of American strategy in the region must be ensuring that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable and friendly so that we can make the best use of that vantage point. The president's strategy gives us the best chance of doing that."
This is a clear statement that this war is not merely about chasing al Qaida operatives. This is about US geostrategic interests and about establishing a long-term physical presence in Afghanistan and in the wider region.

Furthermore, calling it the "president's strategy" is a subtle way of putting Obama on a hook and ensuring that he does not go back on his commitments. Rather less subtle is the forthright statement that President Obama must "make good on his words to American soldiers in Afghanistan last month: "We will prevail."

In short, the messages conveyed here equate to a clear statement of intent by General Petraeus. In this war, winning in Washington is as important as winning in Helmand and Kandahar.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Winning hearts and minds - lesson 1

Under the code-name Operation Christmas, the Colombian Army are erecting giant Christmas trees in FARC-held territory in an attempt to persuade the guerrillas to demobilise.

A novel idea (and the Colombian government have in fact had some success in demobilising/reintegrating rank-and-file FARC members over the past few years) but probably not one which could be replicated in, say, Afghanistan... for obvious reasons.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Perception is reality

As we approach the end of the year and as the Americans release their Strategic Review of the campaign in Afghanistan, many will take stock and examine what (genuine) progress has really been made as a result of the west's reinforced COIN strategy.

Small Wars Journal features an interesting critique of COIN in which the interviewee, Colonel Gian Gentile, who served two tours in Iraq and is a visiting fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, takes issue with certain premises of COIN, or not so much COIN itself but the perceptions surrounding it... which is an important distinction to make.

The most striking example of this is when Gentile takes issue with "the idea that better tactics can rescue a failed policy and strategy". Many people would undoubtedly agree that such an idea is deeply flawed [insert compulsory Sun Tzu quote here] but Gentile touches on an important problem by stating that "we see this narrative playing itself out in how contemporary memory has been created toward the Iraq War and it shapes action and the creation of the perception of progress today in Afghanistan".

Had Gentile just held that thought, he may well have exposed the truth of the matter but instead Gentile misses the target - although only just - with his next sentence.
"When General David Petraeus talks of the "right inputs finally being in place" he betrays a deep seated adherence to the COIN narrative that better generals and reinvented armies can rescue failed strategy and policy. Unfortunately, upon inspection history demolishes this myth."
There is a considerable argument to be made that this is not 'myth' at all but in fact 'the creation of perception', the intended perception being that COIN worked in Iraq and is working in Afghanistan.

On the former, Tom Ricks concluded in The Gamble that the surge succeeded tactically (in improving security) but fell short strategically (failure to achieve an Iraqi political settlement). Given the extensive contribution of David Petraeus (and his cohorts) to that book and given the intellect of the man it is unthinkable that he will not have seriously reflected on those conclusions. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that he would have factored this into his thinking with regard to Afghanistan and even concluded that a similar scenario could play out there also. Indeed, when we look at the tactics and measures employed by Petraeus since he replaced Stan McChrystal in July, it is reasonable to conclude that he has decided that 'tactical success/strategic shortfall' is the most realistic of all potential desired outcomes (ie. the best we can hope to achieve) and is actively executing the campaign on that basis.

The most striking tactical example is the extensive - and rapid - formation of 'Afghan Local Police' units. Although Petraeus has never directly compared these to the Sons of Iraq, it is reasonable to make precisely that link given how often he uses the Iraq campaign as a point of reference. However, while many (e.g. Ricks) have pointed out that while the Awakening militias were clearly a major factor in the perceived success of COIN and the surge in Iraq, the variables on the ground in Afghanistan are very different.

The Sunni Awakening militias in Iraq turned against foreign jihadists as a result of the latter's brutal and indiscrimate methods and, furthermore, these militias had relatively strong command and control set-ups. In contrast, the village militias in Afghanistan are intended to protect against the Taliban who, despite the presence of some foreigners fighting among them, are very much an indigenous organisation firmly rooted in Afghan - primarily Pashtun - society and territory. Furthermore, these local police units are nominally under the control of the Ministry of the Interior but, in a country where tribal structures have been badly fragmented by thirty years of war, there are no obvious checks and balances at the village level. There is therefore a real danger that these 'local police' units could very quickly start to function as the private militias of the local warlord and, according to the New York Times, that already appears to be the case in some areas.

That is not a recipe for long-term stability but perhaps it is not intended to be. Perhaps this is simply a means of dissipating the strength of the insurgency in the villages, weakening their supply chains and reducing their pool of potential recruits. The long-term effects for the country - and the State - of Afghanistan may not be good but if the Afghan Local Police facilitate a number of tactical victories for ISAF across the country, then they will have achieved their goal (from a strictly western perspective).

Another example is the incredible intensity of Special Forces operations against mid-level Taliban commanders, which has caused a fair amount of debate among coindinistas and others over the difference, if any, between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

However, this concerted SOF campaign is arguably more significant in the context of reconciliation and reintegration. While reintegration of low-level Taliban foot soldiers is ongoing at the same time as high-level, back-channel discussions are (apparently) ongoing in (apparently) an attempt to 'reconcile' the Taliban leadership, operational-level Taliban commanders are being killed and captured in significant numbers. It has been previously been argued on this blog that serious negotiation with the Taliban - in a conflict resolution sense of the term - is just not feasible and recent farcical episodes such as the involvement of an imposter certainly do nothing to alter that perception.

In short, at the same as we are seeking to 'reintegrate' low-level foot-soldiers and pursuing less than convincing discussions with the high-level leadership, we are kinetically targetting the mid-level commanders in an attempt to break the operational back of the Taliban. Is the objective really, as is claimed, for ISAF and the Afghan government to be in a position of strength when the (apparently) inevitable political process of reconciliation begins in earnest? Or is it in fact intended to hit the Taliban hard enough for them to do the smart thing and lay low for a while, allowing us to declare victory and go home?

So, again, we could argue that these tactical measures are intended to achieve a good enough level of operational success (ie. relative short-term security and stability) to be portrayed as a victory to our publics back home. The second part is achieved through an aggressive strategic communications campaign, aimed at politicians and publics alike and backed up by semi-convincing proof like, for example, this week's US strategic review. Bloggers, academics and rogue journalists may pick holes in these arguments but the point is that the vast majority of people on the home front (for 'people' read 'voters') constitute a very receptive audience.

While Americans and Europeans alike struggle through a financial crisis (not to mention that many European nations have never figured out why they went to Afghanistan to begin with), the notion that we've won in Afghanistan and can begin to draw-down is not going to be a hard sell - quite the opposite in fact. Of course, in reality many western troops will remain and large amounts of western money will continue to be spent for some time yet. However, another lesson from Iraq is that this doesn't really matter as all these problems will very quickly disappear from the front pages.

Gentile is right to warn against placing too much faith in "the idea that better tactics can save a failed strategy or policy" (and Ricks is probably right to assert that Gentile represents the silent majority of Army officers who are less than content with the Petraeus cult) but only from a purely military perspective. In the grander scheme of things, in a political and highly mediatised context, it is absolutely possible to 'rescue' a failed strategy or policy with better, or different tactics, both on the battlefield and on the airwaves and it is reasonable to assert that this is what will happen to the campaign in Afghanistan.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks as self-fulfilling prophesy

Much has already been said and written about Wikileaks, not just about the diplomatic cables themselves but indeed about the very notion of divulging such large amounts of sensitive information to the public.

The cable containing a list of vital US facilities has been described as the most controversial of all the leaked documents. Frankly, it's hard to disagree with Malcolm Rifkind, the former British Foreign Minister, that this degree of irresponsiblity borders on criminal.

However, it could be argued that there is another - perhaps greater - danger in releasing this kind of information into the public domain in that it will change peoples attitudes and probably not for the better.

Using the highly publicised example of Arab states urging the US to attack Iran, anyone with a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics will probably not be surprised. It is hardly a secret that Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its main rival in the region and vice-versa.

However, when these positions are laid out so starkly in the public domain, is there not a real risk that positions will harden on all sides? Will Iranian hardliners - and perhaps even the Iranian people - see enemies all around them and react like a cornered animal? Will Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states involved, redouble their efforts to cut off the head of the snake in the fear that the snake will strike first? Will warmongers in the US and/or Israel attempt to use these Arab states to apply even more pressure on their governments and militaries and force them to strike Iran?

In short, by releasing these documents have Wikileaks made a military strike on Iran more likely? Have they created a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Did the people at Wikileaks ask themselves any of these questions before divulging all that information? If not, why not? If yes, then how do they justify their actions which can only cause heightened tensions and reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution?

The truth is that with information comes responsibility. Wikileaks obtain and release masses of information, apparently without thought to the consequences and certainly with no responsibility or accountability. Unlike investigative journalism for example, there are no corroborating facts, no second opinions, no explanations of context. They simply dump huge amounts of information for people to digest, usually through headlines and at-a-glance summaries.

This is not freedom of information or freedom of speech in any real sense and the consequences of such recklessness are not likely to be good.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

UK-France cooperation on nuclear warheads

Given the theme of this blog, it is worth highlighting the recent defence cooperation agreement between the UK and France. On 2 November, an overarching agreement was signed outlining a package of initiatives that will result in greater interoperability between the two countries' conventional forces. In a subordinate treaty, the two governments also agreed to cooperate in the stewardship of their nuclear warheads. It is this latter accord - including motive and effects - that I will focus on here.

Under the agreement, a joint simulation facility will be constructed in Valduc, France, where scientists from both countries will conduct work on the safety and security of their respective country’s nuclear warheads. In addition, a joint Technology Development Center will be established at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, which will develop simulation technology for the center at Valduc. Construction costs will be split equally between the two governments.

Just to unpack this a second: the moratorium on testing under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) means that nuclear weapon states have to find other ways to ensure the viability of their nuclear warheads. This is done through advanced facilities that use computer simulations to test various components and implosion capabilities. Needless to say, such facilities are expensive. In a bid to save money and pool resources, the two countries will share a single facility without exchanging sensitive information regarding warhead design. In other words, they will work independently instead of actually assisting one another.

Although the timing of this agreement is certainly down to money, it is worth looking at it from a slightly different angle as well. Engaging in defence cooperation with France at this time is (perhaps) a way for David Cameron to outflank some of the more Eurosceptic members of his own party. He can display his European credentials while arguing the decision's merits solely from an economic standpoint. While this is unlikely to have been the motive, it can certainly be used as an example of his government engaging constructively with France in an area where the Labour Party ultimately failed to deliver.

There is, however, one interesting consideration regarding this agreement: the potential effect it will have on the special nuclear relationship between the UK and US. Of course the term "special" is overused when it comes to US-UK relations, but in the context of nuclear weapons the relationship certainly is special. Weapon designers from both countries exchange a range of information, ideas and materials. Best practices in terms of warhead design are frequently discussed in a series of joint working groups that date back to the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement.

Given that the 1958 agreement strictly limits the sharing of information with third parties without the other's consent, what effect will the UK-French agreement have on UK-US cooperation? Under the current agreement the answer is not much. However, David Cameron did state that "this is the start of something new, not an end in itself." So the question is, how far can the UK and France go in this area before officials in Washington start shifting awkwardly in their chairs? The answer probably lies somewhere between nowhere and not very far at all.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

EU budget fiasco

This story is not one that would be immediately associated with the subjects usually covered by this blog but, ultimately, money has repercussions on everything.

In a nutshell, the European Parliament had requested a 5.9% increase in the European Union's budget for 2011. Many countries opposed this - notably the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain (David Cameron being especially vocal) - which, frankly, is understandable in these hard financial times. Nations would find it extremely difficult to justify to their electorates how the EU can be granted a 6% budget increase while domestic budgets are being slashed across the board, while individual nations are being bailed-out and while unemployment figures remain high.

It was therefore agreed to compromise at 2.9%. However, as a trade-off for accepting 3% less, MEPs demanded a greater role in talks on future spending, including finding new income for the EU budget.

What is most striking in this whole affair is the political ineptitude of the Europeam Parliament and its Members. Firstly, to ask for a 5.9% budget increase in the current climate simply defies belief. Of course, as in any negotiation, the likelihood is that they demanded an exaggerated increase in the full knowledge that they would have to compromise. However, that in itself demonstrates either a lack of political nous or, simply, a complete disconnect between the Brussels bubble and the people they claim to serve. In this financial climate, any demand for any sort of budget increase is inappropriate and unacceptable to the vast majority of voters across the continent.

To ask for a 0.59% increase would have been unrealistic while Ireland (and perhaps soon Portugal) is due to follow Greece in being bailed out by the EU. To ask for 5.9% is downright insulting to electorates who feel disconnected from faraway institutions in Brussels at the best of times, let alone in the current climate of financial hardship.

In that light, to 'accept' a compromise of 2.9% while insisting on a greater decision-making role is simply naive, in fact shockingly so. It basically presented Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden with an open goal to torpedo the whole exercise and keep the budget frozen at 2010 levels. The Parliament has achieved none of its objectives but still appears out of touch and intransigeant, whereas the member States have achieved more than they hoped to while still appearing flexible and willing to compromise.

In short, the European Parliament has shown itself to be very far removed with the people it claims to represent and, furthermore, tactically incompetent in terms of basic negotiating skills. If the European project is going to make progress then we need at least a semi-decent legislative branch. This is not it.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hillary misspeaks on AfPak

Hillary Clinton has made some interesting and fairly forthright statements on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, most notably on Islamabad's use of proxies against hostile regimes in Kabul and New Delhi. (the interview was originally given to ABC but, not surprisingly, was quickly picked up by Indian media).

Of particular note is her seemingly candid assessment that similar use of proxies by the US against the Soviets during the 1980s had backfired, the less-than-subtle implication being that Pakistan should learn from American mistakes and not do likewise.
“Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the Mujahideen force against the Soviet Union [in Afghanistan]. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And it didn't work out so well for us.”
It's an interesting statement: honest and circumspect. The one problem is that it isn't actually true.

While it is undoubtedly true that America's covert action towards the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s created blowback, her very specific claims that the US trained, equipped and funded Osama Bin Laden's network are not accurate, if we are to believe the evidence presented by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars. Coll states that Bin Laden (who at the time was a financier and not an operator) never received money from the US, or from Pakistan for that matter. Indeed, he had plenty of his own.

In fact, Coll's research makes it very clear that the US funnelled its cash and weapons through Pakistan - more specifically the ISI - rather than directly fund and equip mujahideen units, bearing in mind that this was after all a covert war. Over time the CIA would begin to directly supply certain mujahideen - notably Ahmed Shah Massoud - who were marginalised by the ISI but Coll presents no evidence that the US directly funded Arab jihadists generally, or Osama Bin Laden specifically.

However, the trade-off for running a covert war through Pakistan was that the ISI decided which muj received the money and arms. These were invariably the most radical Islamists in Afghanistan, as the ISI argued they were the more effective fighters. Not only did this empower the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it also meant that the ISI itself - and hardline elements within it - were empowered and emboldened to pursue their security interests through proxies in Afghanistan and in Kashmir, the result being the major instability we see across the region today.

In short, the US may not have directly supported Osama Bin Laden but they did help create a situation where he and other equally malign - if not more so - elements were radicalised and strengthened during the war against the Soviets and its aftermath.

Why is this distinction important? Taking Hillary Clinton's statement at face value, we might conclude that the US was simply careless and/or misguided in choosing the wrong ally against the Soviets. The truth is both more complex and more serious than that and it would be both deeply disappointing and (potentially) highly dangerous if that important lesson were lost.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Achilles in the trench

By Patrick Shaw-Stewart

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

NGOs in a conflict environment

The following musings are on a subject which seems to arouse strong feelings in certain quarters. The role of NGOs in a conflict environment is a complex issue, one which is more deserving of a thesis than a blog post. However, I merely want to touch on the issue of NGO neutrality as this was discussed at some length in a forum I attended recently.

Since that forum was conducted under Chatham House rules, I won't give too many details. Suffice to say that the round-table was chaired by a western government official and attended by representatives of many different humanitarian NGOs, some well known and some less well known, as well as government and military personnel. The theme was ostensibly the 'humanitarian space' in a specific conflict environment and the intersection of NGO and military development activities in the areas where both work. However, the discussion was quickly monopolised by the issue of NGO neutrality.

I could understand the NGOs' complaint that government/military stabilisation contractors asked them for ideas but then expected the NGOs to implement those ideas on their behalf. However, I cannot quite get my head round their seemingly pathological fixation with neutrality, especially when it would seem to call into question what they actually hope to achieve through their work.

For example, the NGOs at the round-table explained that they shied away from stabilisation activities, which they defined as strengthening the government and therefore making them party to the conflict.

That may be true but it makes me wonder exactly what they hope to achieve. There may very well be clear theoretical differences - even practical differences - between stabilisation on the one hand and 'pure' development activities on the other. However, what happens if stabilisation fails and a government falls? Will development be possible in the ensuing chaos? NGOs may have preserved their neutrality during all this but if in the long-run they aren't able to bring sustainable development (not stabilisation but 'real' development) to the people they hoped to help then what was the point?

I freely admit I have no experience of working in an NGO but that is one question - perhaps even a contradiction - regarding their self-proclaimed neutrality that I just cannot get my head round.

On top of that, I read a rather more cutting assessment of NGO neutrality in Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes, drawn from her observations in and around Kandahar from 2001 to 2005. The basic premise is that whereas neutrality may have been a valid concept in Bosnia or Rwanda, it is not valid in the honour culture of southern Afghanistan.

Chayes argues that in Afghanistan, or at least in the Pashtun belt, it is better to belong to one side and advertise your affiliations. The reason? That side can take revenge if harm is done to you and that fact affords a certain amount of protection. In short, Mutually Assured Destruction is a valid concept there.

However, Chayes essentially accuses many aid organisations of not recognising the reality of their surroundings and the society they were working in. Many aid workers simply took their own good intentions for granted and expected others to do the same, regarding their self-proclaimed neutrality as their power and their safe conduct. When some aid workers were killed, it was regarded as either an accident or an abberation caused by the US military presence in Afghanistan which they regarded as an inherent part of the problem.

In the context of a clash of civilisations, this rationale doesn't stand up. We may not accept the clash of civilisations thesis but the point is that the Taliban and certainly al Qaida do. Consequently there is little or no difference between a US soldier and a western aid worker and, in fact, the latter may be even more threatening as they extend olive branches by building schools, hospitals, bridges etc.

Put together, those two questions make me wonder about the role of NGOs in a conflict environment, more specifically what they can look to achieve long-term if their attachment to neutrality might actually work against them.

What really makes me wonder is that when the chairperson of the round-table repeatedly asked what governments and/or militaries could do to operationally create a greater or better humanitarian space for NGOs, the NGOs present were unable to provide a single concrete answer.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The UK's SDR

This week the UK revealed its Strategic Defence Review (SDR), a much anticipated document due to the inevitable defence cuts it would contain. As expected, it received mixed reviews.

This isn't an attempt, on my part, to comment on the merits and weaknesses of the SDR, but I do want to draw people's attention to the arguments that have been made on both sides. For more of an insider's view (given that he has to sell it in Washington), this Foreign Policy article from Sir Nigel Sheinwald - British Ambassador to the US - advocates the merits of the document. On the opposite side (and from an American no less) see Max Boot's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Although you can't hide from the fact that parts of the Review are a little embarrassing - aircraft carriers with no aircraft for ten years being a case in point - you also can't hide from the fact that these cuts were necessary. A document like this has to predict the future while dealing with today's realities; not an easy task. Only time will tell if it leaves the U.K. military in a position to deal with tomorrow's security challenges.

Chechnya's creeping Islamism

Chechnya is rarely headline news nowadays, but an attack last week shows that the province's problems are far from over.

In a coordinated attack on the parliament, Ministry of Agriculture, and office of the Parliamentary Speaker, gunmen managed to kill six people and injure another seventeen. Those behind it are Islamic insurgents who in recent years have largely operated in the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Although Chechnya is synonymous with North Caucasian violence, it has been one of the region's quieter republics since the current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, was installed in 2007. The dictatorial way in which he's ruled, and the crack-down on militants that he's orchestrated, has suppressed much of the insurgency and pushed it into Dagestan and Ingushetia. Russia's Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, sought to promote this perception by claiming "The situation we saw today is extremely rare. Here, there is stability and security." Nurgaliyev then went on to say:

"The leadership of the insurgent underground has practically been taken out. A significant portion of its arms supplies and financial resources have been cut off. The work of emissaries from foreign terrorist centers has been contained."

This may be true, to a large extent, but at what cost? It certainly hasn't been done by winning the hearts and minds of the Chechen population. In what can be considered a paradox between a government that crushes fundamentalism while encouraging creeping Islamism, Kadyrov himself appears to be backing a crack-down on women dressed "provocatively" in public. This raises some interesting questions about the way in which Kadyrov is ruling Chechnya. For instance, will backing more puritanical Islamic customs help him win support from young males that may otherwise join fundamentalist militant groups? Or will it store up more trouble for the future if Moscow ever decides to throw Kadyrov over-board? It's very difficult to say but today's Chechnya certainly offers an interesting case study in counter-insurgency and the type of political model required to contain militant populations.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

PTSD in Afghanistan

This story from the AFP deserves comment - it states that some 60% of the population of Afghanistan suffers from some kind of mental health problem.

The WHO notes that there is a particularly high number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. In her book Punishment of Virtue, Sarah Chayes stated that the whole of Afghan society suffers from PTSD, a legacy of the Soviet occupation and the terror this brought above all to rural areas of Afghanistan.

Chayes identified some of the symptoms of PTSD as being commonplace in her dealings with the people of Kandahar during her time there. These include an inability to bond emotionally, an inability to plan for the future, an inability to think beyond one's own needs for the collective good and excessive guile.

This subject would be worthy of some in-depth research by real experts in this field. That being said, it seems impossible to think that the thirty years of conflict in Afghanistan would not have had profound psychological effects on the people involved.

The question today is how much is this a factor in their behaviour towards ISAF, the broader international community and their own government (and looking at the symptoms Chayes highlights one might be inclined to say it is a real factor). More importantly, has any one stopped for a moment to consider this and factor it into our strategy for building governance and development in Afghanistan today?

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Reclaiming hearts and minds in Pakistan

The BBC tells the story of Dr Mohammad Farooq Khan, who was shot dead by the Taliban in Swat last week. Dr Farooq ran a school - or more accurately a rehabilitation centre - for teenage boys who had previously served (voluntarily or otherwise) with the Taliban. See also this obituary and video tribute in the New York Times, also featuring Dr Farooq's mission statement in his own words.

Well worth reading and also worth asking the question - how many similar centres exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan and what is the international community doing to help them?

PS: See also this story about the Turi tribe in Kurram who expelled the Taliban from their small corner of the FATA.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

British Troops vs. British Nukes

The title is taken from this New York Times editorial, which suggests the UK should scale-back its plans for a like-for-like Trident replacement in order to maintain current troop numbers. Swingeing cuts mean something in the MoD has got to give, but what should it be?

The ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review (to be completed by October 20th) will certainly inform cuts to the U.K. defence budget. One outcome may be along the lines of the NYT article above, in which the U.K. security and defence establishment concludes that current threats require maintaining troop levels. This may mean scaling-back the Trident replacement. Another argument is that scaling-back Trident would mean planning for the future on the basis of today's threats. Tomorrow's threat could be a nuclear Iran. How can these two arguments be reconciled? One suggestion is that defence be ring-fenced, just like overseas aid.

There is a real argument to be made for cutting the Trident replacement to three submarines instead of four. The question is how much money this will actually save. A great deal of the cost in developing a new fleet of submarines is at the research and design phase. It's also basic economies-of-scale that the more vessels you build the cheaper each will be. So although there is a saving to be made in going to three, it's unlikely to be 25%.

So what else can be cut? A big problem the UK faces is that so many procurement projects have been bunched together into a relatively short period. These include the purchase of Typhoon aircraft, two new aircraft carriers, 135 F-35 strike fighters (for the aircraft carriers), and seven new Astute-class submarines. This is on top of the Trident replacement, which will cost around £20 billion. Something clearly has to give. It may be that they decide to cut the Trident replacement to three submarines in combination with the purchase of a reduced number of F-35s and Astute submarines. Another possibility is scrapping the aircraft carriers, but the amount of money already spent, coupled with how far along they are with construction, makes that unlikely.

So although the NYT article raises an interesting question, it's simply too simplistic to paint the argument as 'Troops vs. Trident'. Doing so ignores the delicate balance that needs to be found between fighting today's war and ensuring you are prepared for tomorrows, whatever it may be.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Measuring success in Afghanistan

That's the real question after all - how do we measure success in Afghanistan? The Rand Corporation have provided a tool to do just that in the shape of an in-depth report on sources of success in counterinsurgency campaigns, entitled Victory has a Thousand Fathers.

Among the key findings, as summarised on the US Army and US Marine Corps COIN blog, are the following:
- The balance of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ practices perfectly predicts outcomes.
- Repression wins phases of a campaign, but usually not the campaign itself.
- Tangible support trumps popular support.
- Poor beginnings do not necessarily lead to poor endings.

As the USA/USMC blog states, the Rand report is not a completely infallible tool but it does add a degree of scientific analysis to the existing body of knowledge on COIN - which as a subject and, above all, as a practice is notoriously difficult to quantify in anything like a scientific manner.

That being the case, purely out of intellectual curiousity I have conducted a little experiment. The very last page of the report shows a scorecard of Good vs Bad COIN practices and factors and I have graded the current campaign in Afghanistan using that scorecard.

I have done so without fully reading the report and using only my own knowledge and perceptions (professional, anecdotal and random) of the current situation in Afghanistan. In other words, I am using the scorecard to quantify my perception of the war in Afghanistan. At a later stage, I will repeat the exercise having actually thoroughly read the report and having fully researched each individual point in order to confirm (or not) my assessment of each criterion named in the scorecard.

The objective right now is, I repeat, to measure my perception of the campaign because, as we all know, perception is reality and public support for the ISAF mission will stand or fall based on people's perceptions and not the reality.

So, without further ado...


Good factors

1. COIN force realizes at least two strategic communication factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through g is at least 2 positive responses)
a. COIN force and government actions consistent with messages (delivering on promises) NO
b. COIN force maintains credibility with population in the area of conflict (includes expectation management) ??
c. Messages/themes coherent with overall COIN approach ??
d. COIN force avoids creating unattainable expectations NO
e. Themes and messages coordinated for all involved government agencies NO
f. Earnest IO/PSYOP/strategic communication/messaging effort NO
g. Unity of effort/unity of command maintained NO

2. COIN force reduces at least three tangible support factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through j is at least 3 positive responses)
a. Flow of cross-border insurgent support significantly decreased, remains dramatically reduced, or largely absent ??
b. Important external support to insurgents significantly reduced ??
c. Important internal support to insurgents significantly reduced ??
d. Insurgents’ ability to replenish resources significantly diminished YES
e. Insurgents unable to maintain or grow force size NO
f. COIN force efforts resulting in increased costs for insurgent processes ??
g. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent recruiting ??
h. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent materiel acquisition YES
i. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent intelligence YES
j. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent financing ??

3. Government realizes at least two government legitimacy factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through e is at least 2 positive responses)
a. Government corruption reduced/good governance increased since onset of conflict NO
b. Government leaders selected in a manner considered just and fair by majority of population in area of conflict NO
c. Majority of citizens in the area of conflict view government as legitimate NO
d. Government provides better governance than insurgents in area of conflict NO
e. COIN force provides or ensures provision of basic services in areas it controls or claims to control NO

4. Government realizes at least one democracy factor
(Score 1 if sum of a through d is at least 1 positive response)
a .Government a functional democracy NO
b. Government a partial or transitional democracy YES
c. Free and fair elections held NO
d. Government respects human rights and allows free press YES

5. COIN force realizes at least one intelligence factor
(Score 1 if at least 1 positive response)
a. Intelligence adequate to support kill/capture or engagements on COIN force’s terms YES
b. Intelligence adequate to allow COIN force to disrupt insurgent processes or operations YES

6. COIN force of sufficient strength to force insurgents to fight as guerrillas (Score 1 if YES) YES

7. Government/state is competent NO

8. COIN force avoids excessive collateral damage, disproportionate use of force, or other illegitimate applications of force ??

9. COIN force seeks to engage and establish positive relations with population in area of conflict YES

10. Short-term investments, improvements in infrastructure/development, or property reform in area of conflict controlled or claimed by COIN force YES

11. Majority of population in area of conflict supports/favors COIN forces ??

12. COIN force establishes and then expands secure areas YES

13. COIN force has and uses uncontested air dominance YES

14. COIN force provides or ensures provision of basic services in areas it controls or claims to control ??

15. Perception of security created or maintained among population in areas COIN force claims to control ??

Total positive score (Sum of 1–15) 8 points

So far, not a bad score for ISAF although what this shows us is that the military side is fine but the civilian side - above all strategic communications and the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government - still presents enormous challenges as little progress would appear to have been made. So basically we haven't learned anything new here.

Bad Factors

1. COIN force uses both collective punishment and escalating repression
(Score 1 if at least 1 positive response)
a. COIN force employs escalating repression NO
b. COIN force employs collective punishment NO

2. Primary COIN force is an external occupier YES

3. COIN force or government actions contribute to substantial new grievances claimed by insurgents YES

4. Militias work at cross-purposes with COIN force/government NO

5. COIN force resettles/removes civilian populations for population control NO

6. COIN force collateral damage perceived by population in area of conflict as worse than insurgents’ NO

7. In area of conflict, COIN force perceived as worse than insurgents NO

8. COIN force fails to adapt to changes in adversary strategy, operations, or tactics NO

9. COIN force engages in more coercion/intimidation than insurgents NO

10. Insurgent force individually superior to COIN force by being either more professional or better motivated NO

11. COIN force or allies rely on looting for sustainment NO

12. COIN force and government have different goals/level of commitment YES

Total negative score (Sum of 1–12) 3 points

FINAL SCORE (Good minus Bad) 8 - 3 = 5 points

Total > 5 = History says, “You are on the path to victory.”
Total < 0 = History says, “You are in trouble.”
Total between 0 and 5 = History is equivocal: “Do you feel lucky?”

Conclusion: History says ISAF is almost on the path to victory, at least based on my assessments of each specific criterion and I'm sure many people would challenge these. Interestingly, I have arrived at essentially the same conclusion that I had before beginning the exercise, a conclusion (or an opinion) which my many previous posts on Afghanistan have outlined in some detail.

However, while the results would seem to give cause for optimism, I would add some caveats to this scorecard.

Firstly, the large number of question marks is due to the fact that I was simply unable to answer some questions. The two reasons for this were i/ that I do not have access to intelligence on, for example, insurgent financing and external support (and if I did I wouldn't reveal it, this blog is not Wikileaks); and ii/ I think it is simply impossible to establish the real views of the Afghan population, for example on the credibility of the Kabul government. Opinion polls are never completely accurate, even less so if the people responding risk their lives by speaking out against the Taliban. On top of that, the very concept of government (as we know it) barely exists in some remote areas of Afghanistan so the question is too generic (and too western) to be truly useful in an Afghan context.

A second caveat would be that I have tried to lean towards the worst-case scenario and be very miserly in handing out positive responses (I accept that here I'm slightly undermining the original intention to base this scorecard on perception and not reality). So for example, although the government does provide better governance than insurgents in some areas of the conflict, this is not the case in all areas. So no points here. By the same token, I don't believe ISAF contributes to substantial new grievances and although the Afghan government has done so on occasions and in certain places, this is not a universal picture. However, neither ISAF nor the Afghan government have fully resolved old grievances so, for that reason, they don't win any points.

In other words, where the question requires a black or white response I have chosen black. This is important because it could be that the score is actually better than I have made out.

A third caveat would be that this scorecard is a study of COIN based on a great many examples, whereas I'm specifically looking at Afghanistan. I doubt whether many Afghans, especially in rural areas, are really concerned about whether or not the government allows a free press. So although that counts as a positive on the scorecard, it may not count as a positive in reality.

Fourth and final caveat: history may be leaning in favour of an ISAF victory but, again, the report is not Afghanistan-specific. The evidence is drawn from around 30 case studies of insurgencies from all over the world. The three case studies from Afghanistan all registered as a victory for insurgents. In other words, there is a difference between world history and Afghan history.

In summary, the war in Afghanistan is not the disaster that many people believe it to be. It would seem to be going in the right direction - according to the criteria used here - and it could be that ISAF is very close to taking a decisive grip on the initiative, at least tactically, if the numerous question marks can be converted into points gained - although those specific criteria (ie. governance) are probably the hardest to achieve.

However, in addition to the caveats I outlined, I have to identify what I perceive to be actual problems with the study bearing in mind that I have deliberately not yet read it.

Firstly, I have referred to the so-called reconciliation process in Afghanistan on several previous occasions but the scorecard makes no mention of anything along these lines, any kind of criteria for a political settlement between the government and/or COIN force and their insurgent opponents. I find this to be a glaring omission given that the received wisdom is that there is no such thing as a decisive conventional victory in a COIN scenario and, therefore, some kind of political settlement with the insurgency must be reached.

Secondly, the scorecard suggests that the military aspect of the ISAF campaign is going fine but that the governance side is not. Of course we knew this already but we also know that victory - I mean a real victory, not a PR victory - is not possible unless achieved on all fronts. The study does not take this into account: instead, the COIN force wins simply by amassing a total of more than 5 points. In reality, or at least in Afghanistan, the COIN force must not just reach a certain amount of points but must score them across all categories.

I would therefore take issue with Rand's first key finding, that 'the balance of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ practices perfectly predicts outcomes', as I think there's more to it than simple arithmetic. Perhaps this finding makes sense in most of the other case studies but in Afghanistan today the picture is of ISAF scoring many points against insurgents but none with the Karzai government and that just isn't good enough.

Finally, most of the criteria in the scorecard are from the tactical level. This kind of methodology makes it very easy to conclude that we're winning because we're scoring tactical points, all the while losing sight of the bigger strategic and political picture. It is fashionable these days to quote Sun Tzu (especially among people who haven't actually read his book - myself included) and one of his most famous maxims is applicable here: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

In conclusion, I have tried to apply the scorecard to the current COIN campaign in Afghanistan which is much larger in scale and in geostrategic importance than all of the case studies in the report... except of course the Soviet Union's COIN campaign in Afghanistan. Even though I cannot claim to have learned anything new or had my perceptions changed in any way, I find the scorecard to be a semi-useful tool in highlighting certain strengths and weaknesses of a COIN campaign and certainly a very interesting intellectual exercise.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Arms control and political capital in the U.S.

As the U.S Senate moves closer to a vote on the new START agreement with Russia, many observers are beginning to ask questions about where this leaves the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT was voted down by the Senate in 1999, towards the end of the Clinton Administration, and has been in a state of limbo ever since. Although President Obama says he will seek ratification of the treaty during his presidency, a vote before the 2012 election is looking increasingly unlikely. This raises a number of questions concerning political capital, choice of battles, and limiting the number of fronts on which you fight them.

For those who are unaware, the new-START treaty limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic weapons to 1,550 warheads and 700 active nuclear delivery vehicles. These are modest numbers considering the previous limit was 2,200 warheads by 2012. However, ratification of the treaty has been a harder fought affair than many had expected. Sceptics make two main arguments against ratification 1) that it may limit deployment of U.S. missile defence systems and 2) not enough money is being invested in ensuring the safety and reliability of the existing U.S. stockpile. These are weak arguments considering the treaty contains only a fleeting mention of the link between offensive and defensive arms and the Obama Administration has provided the NNSA with a substantial increase in budget to ensure effective stockpile stewardship.

Nevertheless, countering these arguments has made START ratification difficult, and the more difficult it becomes, the harder it will be to put CTBT back on the legislative agenda. One thing the Obama Administration wants to avoid, at all costs, is seeking ratification of the CTBT only to have it rejected for the second time, which could kill the treaty.

The difficulty in ratifying START shows just how challenging the Obama arms control and disarmament agenda is. His 2009 Prague speech laid out ambitious goals and created high metrics for success, but it may be that overall success is now judged on his ability to ratify CTBT. That is not to say Obama did the wrong thing in seeking ratification of START first, the old START agreement expired in December of last year and negotiations have formed part of a relatively successful re-set policy with Russia.

The problem, however, is that political capital is everything in the United States and there is only so much to go around. This means that a trade-off between the two treaties is virtually inevitable (at least in the short-term), which raises the question of whether Obama should have gone further to limit expectations in order to avoid eventual international disappointment and condemnation.

That's a difficult question to answer. His disarmamnet agenda needed to be clear in order to avoid complete meltdown of the nonproliferation regime. But what is clear, is that the U.S. Senate needs to take responsibility and ensure the meltdown has not simply been delayed. That will require it to look beyond party politics. Something that is easier said than done.

Germany pays off WWI debt

It may seem incredible but Germany has only just finished paying off the war debt imposed on it after its defeat in the First World War. This week-end will see a final payment of €70m - from an original demand of 269bn gold marks (or 100,000 tonnes of gold).

Of course Germany has not continually paid reparations during the 89 years since the sum was fixed in 1921. The original sum of 269bn gold marks was later to reduced to 112bn by the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan during the 1920s. At various stages during the 1920s the Weimar government was not able to pay and during the 1930s Hitler was flat out not willing to pay - although the same was true of the Weimar government. In 1953 the London Treaty suspended payments until Germany was reunited, at which point a reduced amount of payments was reactivated.

John Maynard Keynes was among the many prominent voices criticising the Treaty of Versailles, arguing that it would not achieve its objectives and, needless to say, he was proved absolutely right. At least the Allies made a better fist of it twenty years later.
"After WWII they decided to hang the leaders and not to punish the nation but in WWI it was the other way around." ... "The lesson was learned eventually. Unfortunately, it required another 20 or so million people to be killed."
NB: It's a little strange that this story does not seem to have been reported very widely. Aside from the BBC, a cursory search via Google News reveals not much more than this report on (US) National Public Radio.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Talking to the Taliban

Asia Times reports once again on the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, which at the moment appears to be little more than back-channel negotiations between the US and the Taliban through Saudi and Pakistani mediators.

If true, the assertions made by the Asia Times would appear to justify concerns previously expounded on this blog about the notion of talking to the Taliban.
"Taliban sources in the southern regions of Pakistan confirmed to Asia Times Online that while different Taliban groups had been approached, the Americans would prefer to talk to one of the major anti-US forces in Afghanistan, the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) led by former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The HIA is likely to strike a deal with the Americans before the Taliban... In the Taliban camp, the activity in the HIA camp is viewed as a bid to divide the resistance."
In other words, there are many different factions and it appears very difficult to ascertain if any of them would be able to secure buy-in from all or most of the others if an agreement was reached. The Taliban can be forgiven for thinking this is an attempt at divide-and-conquer... as they are very probably right.

In the meantime, President Karzai has set up his own High Peace Council but since it is far from clear where they fit in to the US/Saudi/Pakistani process, he in turn can be forgiven for thinking that his position is being undermined once again.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The African front

I recently wrote about the ongoing debate in Uganda over the country's participation in AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. This article in the Guardian argues that Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, has less than altruistic reasons for sending Ugandan troops to Somalia and that he is quite happy to be used as an American pawn in the war on terror.

The argument goes that, through Ugandan participation in AMISOM, Museveni's regime is seeking to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community in order to i/ divert attention from its military interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its alleged human rights abuses against rebels in northern Uganda and ii/ maintain the flow of western aid into the country (amounting to one third of the government's annual budget), not to mention US military training and logistical support, despite the widespread corruption of the regime.

On top of this, since al-Shabaab bombed Kampala in July and killed over 70 people, the government has introduced extremely restrictive security measures. In the words of the Kampala police chief:
“We are sounding a warning. No gathering of more than five people, even if it is in your compound, should be held without clearance from the Inspector General of Police. People intending to hold wedding parties, music galas, football matches and road processions should notify the IGP first.”
From a wider perspective, the article takes a swipe at Washington, insinuating that the US is content to turn a blind eye to all this as Uganda is proving a useful proxy in the war on terror through its engagement in Somalia. Aside from a brief reference to DynCorp (which equips and trains the peacekeeping force in Somalia with State Department funding), there is little attempt to delve into the detail of what the US is doing in Somalia (or Africa generally) or to construct an argument as to why intervention in Somalia is such an inherently bad idea.

As a matter of fact, African leaders at last week's UN General Assembly argued for more western intervention in Somalia and Africa more generally. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, President of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (which physically controls only a small corner of Mogadishu), said progress was being made in many areas but that ultimately the solution to both terrorism and piracy lies in greater international engagement on land, notably by training national security forces and providing support to AMISOM. In other words, don't just send ships to patrol the Gulf of Aden, help us build a proper State.

Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya, went so far as to claim that the deteriorating security situation in Somalia poses a "threat to international peace and security greater than in any other conflict in the world" and that more opportunities should not be lost through benign neglect.

Specifically, Kibaki exhorted the United Nations and the international community to to support the appointment of an eminent high-level personality for Somalia, effectively deploy 2,000 troops and review the current mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to enhance its peace enforcement capacity. He also urged the world to fully support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan ahead of the secession referendum in January.

In other words, more engagement not less. Taking swipes at the US is not going to help anybody here. This is precisely the time when the international community should be seeking to engage constructively in Africa and with so much attention fixed on Afghanistan there is an opportunity for other actors, notably the European Union, to step up to the plate. The EU has already begun to set up its Somalia Training Mission - ironically based in Uganda - but, if Messrs Sharif and Kibaki are to be believed, much more needs to be done.

The best way to avoid Africa - and specifically Somalia - becoming a full-blown front in the 'war on terror' would be to engage properly now. In Afghanistan, the golden hours were wasted and the west has consequently found itself fighting a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign. We should hope that the wider international community will have the foresight to avoid repeating that mistake in Africa.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Interoperability in WWII

I'm currently re-watching the - still excellent - BBC series The World at War from the 1970s. In this day and age of multi-national military alliances and buzzwords like 'interoperability', I was amused to hear this from General Mark Clark, Commander of the US 5th Army, in reference to the campaign in Italy during WWII.
"[The Germans] were well-trained troops, tenacious and well-led... and they were homogenous. They were all of one nationality, they were all equipped with the same weapons and ammunition, they ate the same food, they believed pretty much in the same God.

I had sixteen different nationalities with me, some of whom couldn't eat this and that, some didn't want to fight on Fridays or some other day of the week and then we had the British with their infantry weapons and artillery completely different from ours. You couldn't move with ease from one front to another like the Germans could."
I don't know how much, if anything, we should read into a statement like that (although I'd be curious to know what the sixteen nationalities were). It just struck me as quite ironic when viewed from an early 21st century perspective. I doubt we'll hear an American general (much less a European) say this kind of thing publicly anymore... but I wonder how many of them think this way.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Obama the Commander-in-Chief

The fall-out from Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, has seen much heated debate on President Obama's handling of national security and relations with the military. The following two articles highlight some interesting aspects of that debate. One is critical, the other is favourable. Both address the fundamentals of the role of the US Commander-in-Chief and how Obama is measuring up.

Firstly, this article, by comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln, makes a thinly-veiled attack on the former's handling of the war in Afghanistan, an attack which fails because it is based on a very poor understanding of Abraham Lincoln's approach to the role of wartime Commander-in-Chief.

In a nutshell, the article claims that Lincoln had the good fortune to find a highly competent general in Ulysses S. Grant and did what every good President should do - delegate the entire conduct of the war to his General and protect him from his detractors, regardless of the potential political consequences. On the other hand, Barack Obama has found a highly competent general in David Petraeus but continuously meddles in his conduct of the Afghan war and places his own party political agenda above national security.

Its a neat comparison, one that will undoubtedly find favour among the readers of this particular newspaper (although it's doubtful that the readers of The Republican-American would need much convincing that Barack Obama is not a very good Commander-in-Chief). However, the pseudo-historical basis for the article is all too easy to disprove and this in turn undermines the article's whole conclusion.

In Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen's seminal work on top-level civil-military relations, the author convincingly argues against the notion (which for a long time was the received wisdom in academic and political circles) that Lincoln merely found a good general and let him get on with his job. In fact, Cohen shows that Lincoln strove to i/ keep a very close eye on what his generals were doing and ii/ become just as knowledgeable, if not more so, than his generals on every detail pertaining to the conduct of the war (for example, technological innovations). Moreover, Lincoln was acutely aware of the unavoidable influence of politics in the conduct of war.
"Lincoln had to educate his generals about the purposes of the war and to remind them of its fundamental political characteristics. He had not merely to create a strategic approach to the war, but to insist that the generals adhere to it... It was Lincoln's understanding of the interplay of war and politics, no less than his ability to absorb military detail and to read human character, that made him the greatest of American war presidents."
The truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a much better war leader than this article gives him credit for and the same may yet prove to be true for Barack Obama. That remains to be seen but the point is that the conclusions of this article are plain wrong, simply because it exhorts Obama to be more like Lincoln but in fact criticises Obama for trying to do the very things that Lincoln did. Obama might be making mistakes but his intentions are sound.

Secondly, on a very closely-related theme, this article from Foreign Policy, aside from being an insightful look at the interplay between politics and strategy, directly addresses Obama's most famous quote from the book - "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party" - in reference to his decision to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Needless to say, even though few people have actually read the book, the vultures are already circling.

Of course the likes of John Bolton are not really advocating that President Obama completely ignore domestic party politics when making national security decisions. What John Bolton is really doing is making a not-very-subtle attempt to score political points - the truth is that the "cold-blooded, cynical, grotesquely political manipulation of national security" is Bolton's, not Obama's.

However, taking the accusation at face value (for the sake of argument), any serious student of history would not even countenance the notion that strategy and politics should be kept separate.

As Tip O'Neill famously said, "all politics is local". As Stephen Biddle explains, there have been countless examples of the importance of domestic politics in strategic decision-making. To expect otherwise is simply unrealistic.
"Good strategy is politically sustainable strategy. Anything else is unrealistic and self-defeating. And any president who did not worry about the domestic politics of his strategy would be a very poor commander in chief indeed."
We may disagree with Obama's decisions but the fact remains that, in demonstrating his keen awareness of the fundamental link between politics and strategy, he is behaving just as a President - and a Commander-in-Chief - should.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

African parallels

Just as many European nations debate what course of action to take in Afghanistan, with troop withdrawal becoming an increasingly serious option, there is a similar debate ongoing in Uganda with regard to that country's participation in AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Uganda has maintained 2500 troops under AMISOM since 2007 - 33 have been killed in action and, in July of this year, over 70 people were killed by al-Shabab bombs in the Ugandan capital Kampala, that group's first attack outside Somalia and in direct reprisal for the participation of Ugandan troops in AMISOM.

It's interesting to note that the debate in Uganda features similar arguments to those we're used to hearing in Europe and in other ISAF nations - that sending troops to Somalia has made Uganda less secure, that Uganda should withdraw its troops if other nations don't pull their weight (only Uganda and Burundi currently contribute troops).

On the other hand, there is also a strong body of opinion in Uganda (and elsewhere in Africa) that AMISOM's mandate should be expanded (despite United Nations' objections) and that troops be allowed to undertake proactive military operations... just like in Afghanistan.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Karzai good, America bad

For all the varied western interpretations of the current situation in Afghanistan, this critique from former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar (who counts Kabul and Islamabad among his postings) is strikingly different to any strand of western opinion.

Bhadrakumar's opinion of the role of Pakistan and the ISI in Afghan politics, more specifically the reconciliation process, is what one would probably expect from an Indian observer and, moreover, his opinion is one which would very likely find favour among many western observers too. What is different, however, is Bhadrakumar's view of Hamid Karzai who, far from being an American puppet, he depicts as their victim.

On the former point, Bhadrakumar is damning in his assessment of malign Pakistani influence, American doublespeak and their joint sabotage of Karzai's reintegration plan - most notably through the arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar in Karachi early this year.
The bizarre operation was undertaken despite the CIA and the ISI being aware that in Mr. Baradar (who is credited with moderate views), Mr. Karzai had a key interlocutor and the two were at an advanced stage of negotiations regarding the Taliban's participation in the upcoming Loya Jirga in April, which, of course, would have become a defining moment of the war. The ISI's detention of Mr. Baradar can only be seen as a move to ensure that Mr. Karzai did not have any top-level interlocutor among the Taliban leadership and to drive home the message that any dealings between the Taliban and Kabul should be conducted through the “proper channels,” namely, Rawalpindi and Washington.
A frustrating aspect of this article is that Bhadrakumar does not explain this in greater detail, either by citing evidence that Baradar was in advanced negotiations with Karzai or by explaining why the US would sabotage Karzai in such a way.

The notion that the Pakistani authorities arrested Baradar, along with several other alleged members of the Quetta Shura, in order to install their own people in their place is hardly unique to Indian conspiracy theorists - it appeared for example on CNN and in the New York Times. In the same vein, Bhadrakumar's assertion that the ISI is playing a long game, willing to bet that Afghanistan's western-style, pluralist democratic system will not last and that eventually the Taliban will come out on top once again, is also not entirely alien to western audiences.

What is less comprehensible is Bhadrakumar's depiction of concerted American efforts to fatally undermine Hamid Karzai and have him replaced as the Afghan leader during last year's Presidential elections. For all the (very public) disagreements between Karzai and the international community, above all the US, the long-term investment in Karzai's political (and actual) survival is surely too great to be ignored. Moreover, if regime change truly is the objective, then who is being lined up to replace Karzai? The list of realistic candidates is not long.

Incidentally, Bhadrakumar alleges that "the U.S. does not want a strong Afghan leader in Kabul with an independent power base" but some informed westerners have previously argued for precisely this scenario.

There are clear reasons, therefore, to call into question's Bhadrakumar's belief that Karzai (along with his family) is the victim of American sniping and manipulation, which should not mean dismissing it altogether. However, where Bhadrakumar's case really starts to fall into place is when he touches (all too briefly) on regional geopolitics.
"The U.S. strategy will be to keep up the pressure on Mr. Karzai in the coming period even as the mother of all questions concerning the U.S. military presence is yet to be addressed. The Afghans will oppose a permanent U.S. military presence, while the Pentagon is bent on getting a status of forces agreement with the powers that be in Kabul so as to retain long-term access, which is needed to effectively pursue the containment strategy toward China."
That line of argument makes more sense - in fact, it would be very difficult to disagree with it - but it still warrants greater explanation and analysis. As interesting and thought-provoking as this article is, Bhadrakumar raises as many questions as answers on several issues, all worth revisiting in the very near future.

Post-scriptum: On a different note, the IWPR report that the Taliban have imposed a maximum price of $3,800 on brides (yes, you read that correctly), which has made one future groom very happy:
Now my father-in-law can’t charge me too much because this Taleban order isn’t like one from the Karzai government - it’s a strict order which no one can disobey.”
Now that is how to win hearts and minds.

Iran and the IAEA

An IAEA Board of Governors Report, made public this week by the Institute for Science and International Security, claims that Iran is interfering with the IAEA's mission in the country by blocking the appointment of particular inspectors -- those that possess knowledge and experience of its nuclear fuel cycle. More specifically, they prevented the return of inspectors who highlighted what they believed was unreported nuclear activity.

This report is significant as it's yet another example of the IAEA drawing attention to its own institutional weakness; on this occasion the inability to select its own inspectors. Instead, the agency presents a list of individuals to the country it's inspecting, which can then object to any names it's unhappy with. And in the end it's the state (not the IAEA) that has the final say.

As a result, the IAEA's work is made difficult by Iran throwing obstacles in the way of individuals who are attempting to build expertise. This is particularly true at the facility level, where experience gained from previous visits to Natanz enables a level of knowledge that can not be gained from reading briefing books. But Iran certainly isn't breaking any rules by these actions, it's just not acting in good faith. So what can be done? Answer: nothing. And if the international community did try to reform the selection process then it will be rightly accused of double standards.

So does this report highlight anything new with regards to Iranian compliance?

Well, not really. Once again it shows Tehran isn't willing to go out of its way to prove its compliance, but under the current rules it doesn't need to. So it's just another example of it dragging its feet, even though there is no real evidence it's diverted nuclear material to a weapons programme. So unless a) there is evidence in the future that a significant quantity of material has been diverted; b) all IAEA inspectors are thrown out; or c) additional uranium enrichment facilities are discovered, then the West and Israel are going to find it difficult to prove what Iran's intentions really are.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Supplying Afghanistan

This study by the IISS provides an interesting snapshot of the bigger geostrategic picture surrounding the war in Afghanistan. It takes a look at supply lines leading to Afghanistan and asks how instability in Pakistan has forced ISAF to diversify and make considerably greater use of northern routes.

Whereas previously 80% of ISAF supplies went through Karachi (and then either to Kandahar via Chaman or to Kabul via the Khyber Pass) that figure has now fallen to 50% since the opening of the northern route in May 2009. Taken in isolation, that statistic is quite striking and would seem to be clear proof that incidents such as the torching of 50 ISAF trucks at a depot near Islamabad in June have had a significant impact on the war effort.

On the other hand, it should be noted that, even with this diversification of supply lines (which is basic common sense, whatever the circumstances), supplies through Peshawar and by extension the Khyber Pass have doubled this year alone, presumably matching the surge in troop numbers. Furthermore, it is also worth pointing out that some countries along the northern routes place caveats on the use of their territory and/or airspace, notably forbidding the transport of lethal cargo, so the importance of Pakistan to the ISAF logistical effort remains uncontested.

Looking at the map makes one wonder though - the US and NATO had to strike deals with all those countries along the northern route and it would be interesting to gain more insight into the financial and geopolitical implications of this. This is yet another example of how the war in Afghanistan is having a significant effect across a very large, important and unstable region.

The article even mentions that the US is looking into the possibility of opening a land route through China, all the way from its eastern seaboard. Aside from the physical challenge of hauling supplies across the Tibetan Himalayas and the Karakorum Range, one wonders what price China would demand for such a service.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

ETA declare a ceasefire... again.

For the second time in four years (and the fourth time overall), the armed Basque separatist group ETA have announced a ceasefire... or rather they have announced that they will "not carry out armed actions."

There is little political substance in their statement and certainly nothing new, although one can almost admire their audacity for claiming that "ETA has contributed to proposals for cooperative actions and resolutions of the conflict."

The immediate reaction in Spain and elsewhere is that ETA are calling a ceasefire because they have no choice, because they are too weak to do otherwise and that this announcement is simply window-dressing to make it seem like they retain the initiative.

Indeed, the basic facts speak for themselves. When Mikel Karrera Sarbe - a.k.a Ata - was arrested in May this year, he became the sixth suspected ETA leader to have been arrested since November 2008. ETA has tried (and supposedly failed) to move its support and logistics infrastructure from France to Portugal. They provoked outrage (and the ire of Nicolas Sarkozy) by killing a French policeman in March this year. Quite simply, ETA had nowhere else to go.

An interesting aspect to this story is the claim by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams that Irish republicans played an important role in persuading ETA to put down their guns. While it is hard to ascertain just how influential Irish voices were in the Basque decision-making process, Adams does make a very necessary point about the role of the Spanish government:
"There is also a heavy responsibility on the Spanish government to grasp this opportunity for peace and progress. It needs to be farsighted, to think strategically and to ignore those voices that seek a resolution in terms of victory and defeat."
Unfortunately that seems highly unlikely given the initial reaction from Madrid in the shape of Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba:
"Eta kills in order to impose itself, so that means one cannot dialogue. Eta has stopped because it cannot do anything ... and also in order to rebuild itself."
While the second part of the statement is undoubtedly true, the first reflects a deeply ingrained mindset within the Spanish State - regardless of which political party happens to be in power. By way of contrast, when the British government was accused by the SDLP (moderate Irish nationalist party) of only talking to the political wings of Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups because they had guns, Jonathan Powell responded "and your point is?"

Having said that, Pérez did no more than articulate the feelings of probably a large majority of Spaniards so, purely from a political point of view, he arguably couldn't have said anything else.

However, it is to be hoped that behind the scenes the Spanish State will indeed be astute enough to take a long-term, strategic approach to this opportunity. For example, if it is indeed true, as alleged, that ETA are merely calling a temporary ceasefire in order to regroup then now is exactly the time, during their period of inactivity, to try and reintegrate ETA militants and their support base (what's left of it) into mainstream society and political life, as I have argued before. Above all, Madrid must positively respond to the Basque left and legalise those parties which do genuinely seek political solutions through peaceful, democratic means and always have done.

This entails 'legalising' the very concept of Basque nationalism, which historically has been an existential non-starter for the Spanish State which has too often sought to taint all Basque nationalists with ETA's violence. However this is very definitely a "democratic minimum" for a political process and the best way to render ETA completely irrelevant and seal their defeat. If Madrid fails to seize this opportunity, then their statements in response to ETA's announcement will very likely become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

PS: Anybody puzzled by the face-masks and berets on display can find answers here.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Rational debate on Afghanistan

There is a lot of noise on Afghanistan these days and not much of it seems balanced or reasoned. Jim Molan's article in the Australian Herald Sun at least asks some rational questions and attempts to encourage a reasoned debate.

When the article appeared last week I thought the notion that more troops would be requested was rather unlikely... and yet that is precisely what has happened this week as ISAF push hard to fill the strategic shortfall of international trainers for the Afghan National Security Forces.

However, the real value of this article lies not in the potential solutions Molan hints at but in his call for proper debate based on assessment of facts, as opposed to knee-jerk 'ideologically prejudiced' reactions which fail to consider the situation as it is and the options available to us.
"If there were to be a debate, then it needs to preceded by an open assessment of where the war is now, where the war is likely to go, and what Australia could do that might be of value... Any debate must primarily address what we should actually and physically do."
The article is specific to Australia but the principle can and should be applied to every ISAF nation individually and the international community collectively.
"There are now 21 very good reasons for re-examining what we are doing, what we should be doing and what we could achieve in Afghanistan."
In other words, that is no less than the fallen deserve.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Political Courage and the New York Mosque

During the past week, President Obama has stirred a great deal of emotion in the United States after lending support to the construction of a mosque close to Ground Zero. Were Obama's comments an act of political courage? Did he inadvertently politicise an issue that should have been dealt with at the local level? Has he opened a door that the Democrats should have kept firmly shut? These are all questions that many people are asking.

First, what constitutes an adequate distance from Ground Zero? There's a huge difference between building a mosque on the actual site and building one two streets away. If two streets is not far enough, then what is? Four? Six? You simply can't claim there is a two mile exclusion zone around the site within which no Islamic establishment can be built. Not only is that argument offensive to all Muslims, it's particularly offensive to the families of those Muslims that were killed on 9/11.

So, although Obama's comments were morally and constituionally correct, will they have negative political consequences? There are numerous reports that suggest his popularity has declined sharply over the last week. There is also the question of whether this was an act of political courage or a move to shore-up support from minority groups.

Even if it was a courageous statement, was it the right thing to do? While the content of the statement was certainly correct, addressing the issue so directly has turned it into a national debate, perhaps reinforcing divisions rather than healing them. This will be a conundrum for many politicians that seek to address ethnic tension - should they speak out in defence of religious freedom, or should they avoid these discussions for fear of what may be said in the ensuing debate?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Talking to the enemy - post scriptum

The BBC has an interesting story on alleged back-channel communications between dissident Irish Republicans and the British and Irish governments respectively. The claim was made by Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, who must be considered a credible source given his own considerable experience of just this kind of back-channel communication. Having said that, it would be interesting to know why he chose to reveal this as I'm not quite sure what purpose he is serving in doing so.

I just wanted to highlight this briefly as an illustration of some points I made earlier this week. The Continuity IRA would be just the organisation who, according to the notions I expounded in my previous post, would not really be worth talking to on account of their lack of political nous.

However, this news raises a point which I probably should have dwelled on more in my previous post. The IRA in the early 1970s also had zero political nous - their entire political manifesto was 'Brits Out'. Some have argued that the political path on which the republican movement would eventually embark began at the Cheyne Walk talks in London in July 1972, which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness attended and at which they realised that armed struggle alone would not be enough to achieve their objectives.

[NB: Peter Taylor's books Provos and Brits gives an in-depth and highly informative account of these initial talks. Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA gives an excellent account of the way in which Adams and McGuinness would subsequently lead the republican movement down a political path.]

In short, by opening dialogue with armed groups you might be able to get them to think differently about their position, their methods and their objectives. That would have to be the aim of these back-channel contacts with dissident republicans, as Martin McGuinness has said. Incidentally, I think this quote answers the earlier question as to why he chose to reveal these talks - he's trying to put public pressure on dissidents to accept the inevitable, that the armed struggle is long over and to stop stirring up trouble which might hinder the perceived mainstream republicans from achieving their political goals.
"That suggests to me that these groups are recognising that at some stage they are going to have to wake up and smell the roses in terms of their inability to destroy the peace process," he said."
Ordinarily, the success of this kind of outreach would depend on many factors - for example, the leadership of the armed group itself, the background of the government negotiators (who must also be politically aware) - but it could be a worthwhile enterprise, albeit one that usually does not bear fruit immediately and the IRA are a prime example of precisely that.

Of course, this outreach must be done in such a way that it is easy deniable - note the strenuous British and Irish denials in the article, e.g. "it has never been our practice to speak to these people" - and indeed, according to some people mentioned in the article, these contacts have been very indirect and carried out by people from government bodies representing the intelligence agencies. In other words, this is not an official government policy.

However, the comparative lack of public or political outcry (aside from the occasional blustery comment from unionist politicians) perhaps shows to what extent people have accepted that talking to the enemy is a necessary and inevitable part of any kind of peace process.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Obama's Georgian success

President Obama's attempted re-set of relations with Russia was criticised by many U.S. Republicans who claimed the policy would leave Georgia and Saakashvili out in the cold. Brian Whitmore argues in Foreign Policy that the re-set has enabled the United States to gain much needed leverage over Moscow, thereby restraining Russian policy towards Tbilisi.

There is real merit to this argument. Russia has much more to lose by attacking Georgia today than it did in 2008. This is primarily due to the economic benefits that Russia seems set to gain if the bi-lateral relationship continues on its current trajectory. One key area of potential economic cooperation, as Whitmore points out, is the proposed U.S. investment in Russia's high-tech sector, coupled with Moscow's need for U.S. support in its application to the World Trade Organisation. As a result, any return to military means against Georgia would be a blow to its economic development.

Georgia appears to welcome this breathing space.

However, there is one additional element that Whitmore doesn't mention: Russia's primary policy aim in the 2008 conflict - preventing Georgia's accession to NATO - has been largely achieved. Of course, this is a questionable statement - one that many will disagree with. But Georgia's membership of NATO has, at the very least, been indefinitely delayed and the conflict with Russia appears to have been a key contributor to that delay. Therefore, how much can the Obama re-set really take the credit for Russia's more restrained policy towards Georgia? It's likely that the truth is a combination of Russia having achieved its objective and it having more to lose today than it did in 2008.