Tag Archives: War in Afghanistan

Our Next Step in Afghanistan

4 May

Osama Bin Laden’s blood had barely dried on the dusty ground of his palatial Pakistani compound before we as a country considered our next step in Afghanistan, and whether we could now finally declare victory and go home. Philosophically, support (or lack there of) for our current manifestation of the Afghan conflict breaks not along normal partisan or ideological lines, but rather shades of realism: Pragmatics, Blind Wearers, and the simple War Weary.

Pragmatists, such as President Obama, balance the nukes in Pakistan and remnants of Al Qaeda with our growing death toll, and grimly press on, seeing few options. Such sentiment is expressed well by this unnamed administration official:

“I hope people are going to feel, on a bipartisan basis, that when you move the ball this far, it’s crazy to walk off the field,” one senior administration official said. Officials who favor retaining a large troop presence said that while this was a significant victory, the security gains in Afghanistan remained fragile.

Outlying wearers of blinders let either their misplaced faith in humanity or pacifism (on the Left) or dislike of President Obama (on the Right) cloud their thinking, and recommend withdrawal from the conflict for those biased reasons. Thus do Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and George Will all find themselves on the same side of the argument.

The War Weary, where I suspect most of the country lies, doesn’t like to “lose” and doesn’t like 10 year wars that produce casualties at this rate, and are looking for a reason, a sign, a signal, to Bring The Boys Home. Osama Bin Laden’s death looks like just such a portent. I can sympathize. With an unclear mission and vague goals articulated by President Obama, little gain in 10 years, and a Afghan history that points toward hopelessness, one can reasonably ask what we gain by continuing.

When I want to find a new smart, contrarian and/or well considered opinion, I check TED (skip to 10 minutes in):


Those words are as relevant now as when spoken in 2005. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years, 6 since this speech. These ideas are not new (jobs and roads, why didn’t we think of it before!), and in various forms, we have been attempting to implement them under two administrations. Do we have the stomach for a 20 year engagement, if we have seen so little progress after 10? How long do we beat our head against the wall? And what happens when we stop?

Terrors Passed But Not Forgotten

2 Mar

When I was in grade school, I saw this news reel (or one similar to it), of doddering but proud Civil War veterans marching in a 1939 Memorial Day parade. It struck me as chronologically absurd (if technologically possible, of course) that veterans of a war so remote and distant, captured only in occasional posed grainy black and white photos, could be present in an era of video as living and moving beings. Further, my grandparents (if not my parents and aunts and uncles as well) were quite alive and well when the newsreels were being shot, remembered knowing Civil War veterans, and provided a memory only once removed of not just history, but History.


So will my children and eventual grandchildren think of me, I wonder, on the occasion of the United States losing its last World War I veteran, Frank W. Buckles of West Virginia, aged 110 years. We are one of the last countries to lose our link with the Great War. Germany lost theirs (no relation to me, I believe) in 2008, France in 2009, Canada just last year. In fact, world-wide we are now down to two, both British, one a sailor living now in Australia, the other a waitress for the RAF. Each country marked the loss differently. Germany largely ignored the passing, while Britain has noted a multitude who represented different portions of the conflict: for example, Bertie Felstead, the last player of a Christmas Day football match between trenches.

Oh, how has the world changed in 110 years. We know now that Germany, late to building its empire, was looking for a reason to implement the Schlieffen Plan, ten years in the making. The British and French didn’t mind a tidy little war either to solidify their international status. With a continent only planning on when, not if, hostilities would arise, the Germans put their mathematical and planning skills (A number of troops in B railroad cars can travel C miles per day and disembark at a rate of D soldiers/minute to arrive at Paris in E days) to the test first. The massive casualties resulted from 20th century weapons being turned on 18th century troop formations. The slaughter was literally epic.

How distant is that method and manner of the Great War? Any hyperbolic attempt by today’s punditry to link yesterday’s colonialists and war mongers to today’s neo-colonialists, faux empire builders and neo-con hawks are grossly and offensively out of proportion. Human nature, and a national leader’s blood-lust sated at distance, have not changed, nor will they in our lifetimes. But the changing scale of the suffering is immense. The United States lost more soldiers at just the Second Battle of the Marne, where the Third Infantry Division earned its moniker “Rock of the Marne” for its stand with its back against the French river, than in the entirety of our current ten year conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia and New Zealand lost double that at Gallipoli. The technological revolutions in medicine and armor account for some of this. Wounded to killed ratios used to be 2:1. They are now 10:1. Traumatic Brain In jury (TBI) was unknown before the Balkan War, the first time modern western war met modern western medicine, because previously no one with a blast-induced brain injury survived the attack. And of course, in World War I, violence was still largely borne by standing armies. Today, much war suffering is inflicted on civilians caught in between.

If World War I now survives in general public memory, it does so as a cautionary tale. The sheer carnage was supposed to have ended all war, and yet it spawned another one, barely a generation later, still more terrible and destructive. The horrors of the trenches put a new face on a phenomenon that has existed as long as there have been men (and women) in war. In the Civil War they called it Soldier’s Heart, and attributed the symptoms to the prolonged wear of overtight gear and equipment. In World War I they called it shell-shock. The Marines at Peleliu called it was the thousand yard stare. Today we call it PTSD, and it affects many hidden members of our community (thank you to my colleague Chris for his work here).

Which brings us back to Mr. Frank W. Buckles. The men in the trenches saw something that would affect them the rest of their lives. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis stared down the green dragon, the clouds of heavier-than-air chlorine gas that displaced oxygen and suffocated entire units, and determined that the only outlet for their experience was to write fantastical tales that rewrote the endings of their worst days. In later wars, Kurt Vonnegut similarly came unstuck in time witnessing the burning of Dresden, and Joseph Heller’s only logical response was irrationality. Mr. Buckles served as an ambulance driver behind the trenches for less than a year, less than one percent of his total life. In an incredible 110 years, Mr. Buckles travelled the world, farmed 300 acres in West Virginia, and was held by the Japanese in the Philippines as a civilian prisoner of war. Any of these events could have defined his life, especially his time at Los Banos prison camp, where he was captive for 38 months, more than three times longer than his entire time in World War I. And yet it was his first war, the Great War, that drove his later work. I don’t pretend to know whether this was due to his own choice, or luck at being the last survivor, or if he was pulled along like so many of the rest of us, forever and uncontrollably changed by combat. But in his last years he served as sole advocate, a final spokesmen surrounded by ghosts, asking his country to remember a war that only he now could.

Like Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship

28 Sep

It has been a bad two weeks for poor Tim Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury. No, the unemployment news has been no worse than normal. And the stock market has not tanked (nor rebounded). Instead, the problem is that he’s running out of work mates – economic team member #4, TARP chief Herb Allison, just announced he was bailing too.

Add Herb’s name to a list that includes Larry Summers, high profile (why?) economic advisor, budgetary wiz Peter Orzag of OMB and Christina Romer. A mere twenty months into Obama’s administration, the chief architects of the President’s #1 policy priority are lining up to leave, to spend more time with their families and pursue other opportunities.

Well, thank goodness! That must mean the job is done, then. That the United States has kicked high unemployment, avoided a double dip recession, is growing well, and things are on the up and up. Oh, wait, they aren’t? I can’t believe such dedicated public servants would ever quit early. Robert Gibbs says they have been working so hard and are burned out. Don’t you feel bad for them? Unemployment benefits currently last more than twice as long (99 weeks) as these officials have been on the job.

And with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel due out soon to run for Mayor of Chicago, and Political Advisor David Axelrod announcing he is headed back to Chicago as well to start the campaign, what exactly is going on here?

Heaven forefend that I make a positive remark about the previous administration, but like the policies or not, officials saw the process through. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were Bush’s #1 priority, and Secretary Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and General Myers all stuck around for four to six years. Where is the stick-to-itiveness of this round of officials? They aren’t even lasting to the midterm elections.

I can see moving on if the goals of the administration have been accomplished, but we are far from there on the economic front. What achievement is so great that Larry Summers can call it a day?

The biggest win is arguably the TARP, which is a Bush program, not an Obama administration initiative (lest we forget the timeline). Many major banks did not go bankrupt, the credit markets exist, money is being lent, and the government is getting its money back (with a profit) – in this case, the absence of an apocalypse must count as success.

President Obama’s initiatives are more mixed. A round of financial regulation reforms have passed, but we won’t know the true impact for years. Just as Clinton was the beneficiary of the Regan tax cuts, and the Dodd/Clinton Fannie Mae loan rule relaxation mess didn’t yield its ugly underwater mortgage fruit until Bush/Obama, we won’t know whether Obama’s finance regulations will bring fiscal sanity, or CDO Swaps 2.0, until many years down the road.

A second Obama initiative, the whimpering stimulus package, is a more obvious failure. The 2010 federal budget deficit ($1.4 trillion), much of it stimulus to get the economy plugging along again, is roughly equal to $100,000 for each unemployed person in this country (14.9 million). What have we bought with our money? Not a “new” economy or a “green” economy. It has not bought us bridge technologies (new natural gas pipelines), or new technologies (next generation batteries, solar arrays, etc). It has purchased some token investment in car batteries, but far more has been spent on asphalt for those cars to drive upon. Obama’s stimulus legacy will be expanded blacktop that will need resurfacing in five years – I could not have set up a more poetic metaphor. Reports say Cash for Clunkers moved demand up but created no more, the housing rebates seem to have had much the same effect, unemployment is still too high and not falling. Are the Keynesians yet humbled?

The economic team is may be the one most visibly leaving, but they are not the most visibly dysfunctional. Bob Woodward’s new book confirms what we have suspected: significant dissention in the foreign policy ranks, widespread derision of national Security Advisor Jim Jones, battles over turf overtaking those over policy, and that VP Biden is a jerk.

What is the unifying factor? It turns out running a campaign is not the same as running a government. Success in one is not a recipe for success for the other. President Obama’s advisors are either quitting or infighting, and neither is good for the country. Where are the Dem’s best and brightest. Where was the deep bench of Democratic officials waiting out their eight years of Bush to return competence to the government? There was a time when functional experts (Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution being an excellent example) would have come out of the woodwork once there was a party shift of power. Instead, we got Change, and rather than bringing in the Democratic elites, Obama brought his Chicago political insiders. President Obama has from the start been separate from the Democratic Party as whole (watch him sell out Congress for his 2012 re-election). Because of the way he won the nomination, Obama’s public spats with the Clintons kept some of the best and brightest on the sidelines. With Richard Holbrooke as the one notable exception, Obama brought in a Chicago team that is burning out early or fighting too late. Valerie Jerrett’s nearly assured and imminent promotion is a perfect example – what are her qualifications, besides friendship with the President? It is okay for an administration to bring on its insulated team, but didn’t Bush get a lot of flak for moving Texas to the White House?

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An End and a Beginning (Updated)

2 Sep

Operation Iraqi Freedom started on March 20, 2003, in tanks on the Kuwait-Iraq border, in aircraft launching from Saudi and Qatari airfields, and on ships in the Persian Gulf. It ended last night, on August 31st, 2010, in the Oval Office, in a disjointed speech, on national television.

Taking the place of Operation Iraqi Freedom is Operation New Dawn. As more Americans die in Iraq, and as troops stay past the 2011 deadline, and into the 2012 election year, Republicans will rightly ask what is so “new?” President Obama may have handed his opponents a “Mission: Accomplished” banner, which would be unfortunate. Because despite the President’s wish to “turn the page” in Iraq, the country, and our co-mingled troubles, still exist. Note that the excellent Washington Post correspondent, Tom Ricks, in his book “The Gamble” on the Surge, speculated that the major events for which the Iraq War will be known have not yet happened. The war continues, but by a different name.

Still, such a marker is a convenient time to ask how history will judge at least the first act, now that Operation Iraqi Freedom is complete. Here is the opening sentence to the book I would write on the subject:

In an overabundance of caution, and reflecting the vengeful mood of a country still wiping its bloody nose, President Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq, and after meeting only one of the stated goals of the conflict, ended it by staunching the worst of the blood spilt in the civil war he created.

President Obama is not in that sentence because he did not materially contribute in any way to the ability to change the operation’s name last night. It was Bush’s war, for good or ill, and he ended this phase, with the Surge in 2007, a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and the troop draw down starting in 2008. In this example, President Obama is Andrew Johnson, not Richard Nixon. Lincoln ended the war, albeit infinitely more cleanly and decisively, no matter how many Union troops stayed in the South for years afterward. President Obama is due no more, and probably wishes no more, in any event.

My colleague, Alan, wrote a column today on the end of major combat in Iraq, and in it sought to address the run up to the war as the major issue to be discussed today. I respectfully, and overwhelmingly, disagree.

Why? Because America in 2010 is in far more danger of losing a long war in which it is stuck than beginning a new war with mixed evidence. I am more worried about our ability to pacify Afghanistan than our propensity to end up in open armed conflict with Iran or North Korea. Israel may bomb Iran, but we won’t. Afghanistan, however, is another matter. And so the proper topic to discuss today is what actions, by a President, allowed yesterday’s speech to happen, if we wish to see another one cheering our exit from Operation Enduring Freedom.

I understand Alan’s desire to beat the WMD and Neocon Hawk drum. It is effective and popular. Fortunately, I think history will give a more nuanced response. One tiny example; Alan says:

UNMOVIC inspectors under Hans Blix were in Iraq for 111 days, and they never found a single WMD.

United States troops were in Iraq for 2,724 days, and they never found a single WMD.

Alan provides a link for the first and not the second. Why? Because its not factually true. We found lots of chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq [Updated Author Note: misleading reference to all types of WMDs, including bio, radiological and nuclear weapons, removed for the sake of clarity]. We found old nerve agent filled artillery shells in the Kurdish areas, where Saddam committed genocide in the 1980’s and 1990’s. We found weapons caches of empty bombs, mortars and projectiles, with the main chemical agent filler since evaporated, but still plenty dangerous to handle. We found mustard agent filled rounds in roadside bombs, where it was clear that insurgents were not aware of what type of explosive they were using. Soldiers ended up in hospitals with blister agent burns, nerve agent induced nausea, and the Technical Escort Unit, a Army outfit whose job it is to package and transport chemical weapons, stayed plenty busy flying from their hub in Baghdad all over the country. We found WMDs.

What we didn’t find was enough, or of the right type, to justify an invasion, 4500+ Americans lost, 45,000+ injured, and 100,000+ Iraqi’s killed.

But such debates are only relevant today if Secretary Clinton starts war-mongering in the UN about dropping bombs on Iran. The bigger question now is how to find “success” in Afghanistan. The litany of reasons why Afghanistan is a more difficult problem than Iraq is long and well known: it is larger, younger, more divided, less developed, and has a greater history of violence. The Persians, Turks, Brits and Germans (in that order) all recently successfully conquered Iraq. For such a list in Afghanistan, I have to go back several thousand years.

If I look for Hope in President Obama that we will be successful in Afghanistan, I am left with two troubling pieces of evidence from last night:

1) Then-candidate Obama predicted the Surge in Iraq would fail, and he was wrong. Very, very wrong. He predicted the fresh troops would make no difference, and then, when they did, he said military victory with no political reconciliation was no victory at all. Iraq does not have a government – what is different now? He spent too long reformulating the strategy for Afghanistan, only to end up with essentially the same plan he previously derided. The only thing similar between Iraq and Afghanistan is that it is hot in the summer. Just because a Surge was the right strategy for Iraq does not make it right for Afghanistan, especially when the only clear goal I know of for Afghanistan is to start leaving next year.

2) In an Oval Office speech, only the second of his 20 month tenure, on the end of major combat in Iraq, he spent nearly half the time talking not about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the military, or foreign policy, but the economy and jobs. Either he is “taking his eye off the ball,” or has political ADD, or is pandering for elections. I find all three a problem, and I question his seriousness, and whether he considers fighting our nation’s wars a priority. 

Alan wants a return to the Powell Doctrine. Too late – we’ve already broke it and bought it. And anyway, it was the Powell Doctrine that got us into this mess. Let’s have some new ideas.