Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Federal Contracting: a Plague on Both Your Houses!

President Obama signed the $626 billion defense bill recently, and various columnists and bloggers have decried what is or is not in the final version, including various ships, planes, and helicopters that are of no use or are vastly over budget. To me just as big a problem is the federal government's use of contractors. I'm not the only one who has noticed: the President himself asked for $40 billion in contracting costs to be cut over the next two budgets, and CNAS and others have come out with reports, but more attention needs to be paid.
Contractors come in multiple flavors (for the moment I'm not talking about government contracts to buy goods or materials). Some consider themselves "consultants" and swoop in with their MBAs and PowerPoint flow charts from companies like McKinsey or Deloitte, tell the government what they are doing wrong using proprietary jargon, and swoop on to the next project. A second group are essentially mercenaries, like the infamous Xe (formerly Blackwater) and others who serve in and around combat zones, primarily supporting the troops, but frequently overstepping their bounds. I have plenty of problems with those groups, but for now will focus on the third kind of contractors who are, for the most part, seat fillers hired by various agencies to supplement the federal workforce (whether their physical seats are in government buildings or not doesn't really matter, they are intended to supplement or replace federal employees by their mere presence).
I've worked as a "seat filling" contractor before, and I can tell you it is far from the most efficient way of doing things. Federal employees may be notorious for being inefficient and not hard working, a reputation that is normally false, but I can tell you that contractors are generally no better. Many if not most contractors actually want federal jobs, but have been unable to fight through the bureaucracy. Because contractors, usually make more than federal employees, and because the company makes overhead on top of their salaries, they don't normally end up being any cheaper than federal employees. The Bush administration wanted a smaller government and the flexibility to have a surge of workers, but the contractor complexes that have sprouted up around Northern Virginia demonstrate the long-term nature of federal seat-filling contracting. As the contracting workforce grows and the federal government remains stagnant the size of each portfolio of contracts administered by an individual federal employee increases drastically, leading to a lack of specificity, oversight, standards, and quality of work. Many of my contractor friends are bored out of their skulls in their cubicles in Northern Virginia because the over-worked federal employee only has so much time to look over their work, give them new projects, or do much of his own work, so the contractors sit burning contract hours slowly, wasting everyone's time.
The federal government needs to streamline its hiring process and hire the best of these contractors into permanent government service. As the last wave of federal employees starts to retire they will need replacing, so let the new generation start learning on the job. Hiring people who have served as contractors to administer contracts will lead to better performance from both parties. Federal contractors were intended to serve as short term surges for projects. They should actually serve that way rather than as expensive, non-empowered, de facto federal employees who are contracted out simply because they can't be hired quickly enough or to avoid having a bigger government. End the facade, it hurts everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama gave two important foreign policy speeches recently, and the opinion pages and blogosphere can't seem to stop talking about them. I didn't want to have my voice be lost in the immediate aftermath, but now that much of the dust has settled I thought I'd add a few thoughts.
The President's long-awaited speech rolling out his new Afghanistan strategy pleased almost no one who chose to examine it closely. It took too long, it wasn't detailed enough, it was too specific, some of the details were wrong, he didn't focus on Pakistan enough, he focused too much on Pakistan... Jon Stewart made fun of it for being too much like a speech President Bush could have given. Some bloggers complained that he had conflated the Afghanistan and Pakistani Taliban, and that anyone who doesn't understand the difference couldn't possibly come up with a good strategy. The West Point cadets watching the speech didn't seem to know how to respond until the speech stopped being specific and started going in to broad, soaring generalities and hopeful themes - Obama's specialty. In the days following the speech it turned out that few of the specifics were actually totally true. The troop "surge" may not take place until Fall 2010, and they will only "start" to be pulled out in Summer 2011. The speech failed to be all things to all people, and thus was not well received.
President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made up for it in a big way. It was masterfully written and beautifully delivered. Critics called it the best of Obama's career, and certainly the best of his Presidency so far. It spoke truth to the power of the Nobel committee, addressed the oddity of winning a peace prize while leading a nation engaged in two wars, acknowledged previous winners, and defended the use of military force while advancing progressive ideals. It was a perfect encapsulation of the Truman Project worldview - which makes sense since it was written by someone affiliated with the Truman Project. Writers from the progressive side to at least the conservative moderation of David Brooks loved the speech. About all critics of the speech could say was that it was rambling and disjointed. I loved the speech, but the critics are right. Everyone was happy with it because they could read what they wanted into the speech. Dan Drezner made an attempt to map out the various international relations theories referred to in the speech. It was another classic piece of Obama magic: choosing the middle path and creating buy-in from all sides by incorporating their arguments. It made for a powerful speech, but it will be hard to predict his future foreign policy moves based on a speech that left almost every door open.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Paranoid Pakistanis

Given half an opportunity, Pakistanis can be some of the most paranoid people on the planet. They tend to fear that India -- or sometimes the United States -- is behind every single bad thing that happens to them. If a Pakistani stubs his toe it was probably an Indian spy who snuck in and made that crack in the sidewalk. Lou Dobbs would be a big hit in Pakistan; maybe he should do a show there rather than running for president in 2012. Ahmed Rashid has a good article up on the BBC News website on conspiracy theories in Pakistan.
Some people in Pakistan probably should be paranoid. President Zardari should be paranoid; people really are plotting against him, which is understandable given the job he is doing.
I've heard other crazy theories from Pakistanis ranging from the idea that all U.S. technology, especially nuclear technology, contains a secret "off" switch, so that when our Indian overlords give the order we can secretly send out a radio signal and make all Pakistani military equipment cease to work. Or that the militant bombings in Peshawar and elsewhere are not the work of the Taliban, but instead are the work of Blackwater.
The last thing you would want to do is give any kind of credibility to those rumors, right? Imagine how crazy Dobbs and the FreeRepublic folks would go if President Obama accidentally mentioned something about going "home" to Kenya, or said something about going to a mosque.
So who's bright idea was it to hire Blackwater Xe Total Intelligence Solutions (TIS) to work doing "snatch-and-grabs" based in Karachi, Pakistan? Apparently since we officially can't have our military operating in Pakistan, we'll just outsource it to civilians. Let's just hope none of them are of Indian descent.
Categorize this one as "stupid power."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Does The Onion Now Have a Foreign Policy Editor?

That bastion of satire The Onion has been on a roll lately regarding foreign policy. Did they get a new writer or editor with more foreign policy, or is Afghanistan just really easy to mock because no obvious answers exist? Here's a quick round up, but keep your eyes out for others.
"Obama Weighs Options in Afghanistan" -- my favorite is "Not only learn the lessons of Vietnam, but apply them as well"

"Afghan Presidential Election A Celebration Of All Forms Of Government" -- "Afghanistan has become a shining beacon of democracy, theocracy, autocracy, and authoritarianism in an otherwise troubled region."

This video of course is similar to my idea about Call of Duty: Counterinsurgency.
Of course the greatest Onion foreign affairs article ever, written just before George W. Bush took office and proving to be all to prophetic, remains "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over.'" It gets sadder and more true every time I read it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Off Ramps" for Afghanistan

With the "all COIN all the time" crowd calling for 40,000 more troops and years upon years in Afghanistan I'm relieved to know that President Obama is dissatisfied with the current options and is looking for an "off ramp" for Afghanistan. Whether Ambassador Eikenberry's leaked cables were the catalyst for that kind of thinking or not, I'm glad that the President is looking for a way out. The difference between us and the British or Soviets is that we are not seeking an empire, we do not wish to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, therefore our end goal must be leaving, and the strategy has to include doing that as soon as possible while preserving our long-term security.
Steve Coll is always worth reading, so check out his "If we fail in Afghanistan" article. I'm not sure I agree with his second point/scenario especially, but it's an interesting read. Coll is far more pessimistic on the consequences of leaving Afghanistan than skeptics like Stephen Walt. Coll and Walt were on different panels at a RAND discussion on Afghanistan a few weeks ago (Paul Pillar was also excellent), but I would love to have seen them actually debate the issue.
I am not calling for an immediate withdrawal. I would support sending more troops, as long as it is for a purpose and we have a plan for what they will do, but I am very glad that the subject of how and when we can leave is an important part of the discussion.

Police and Counterinsurgency, Home and Abroad

Yesterday's Washington Post had an interesting article on page A3 about students (military officers) from my alma mater, the "elite" Naval Postgraduate School, teaching police in Salinas, California "counterinsurgency strategy, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city" in order to combat Salinas' gang problems.
I'm all for increased civilian-military interaction and sharing of lessons learned. And I certainly don't count myself as an expert in counterinsurgency tactics or operations. But here's the thing: police are supposed to be good at counterinsurgency. The military has adapted to doing counterinsurgency out of necessity, but they are unsuited to it and would prefer to go back to force-on-force operations. Police officers, both in Salinas and in Iraq and Afghanistan, ideally come from the community, live in the community, are committed long-term, know and win the respect of the local population, and can spot people or events that are out of place and a potential threat. Hopefully that's what the article is trying to say: "The thrust of the plan relies on winning the trust of people. In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling 'are still viewed as an occupying force,' said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf."
Even the much-maligned (by me) Michael O'Hanlon seems to recognize that in his Post op-ed today (that IS his point, right? That we need the police to be better in Afghanistan?).
So I hope what my former NPS colleagues are telling the Salinas police force is to learn Spanish, hire more Latino police officers, and involve the community. More firepower is not what's needed, in Salinas or Kandahar.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons: Haven't I Refuted This Before?

Seymour Hersh has an article in The New Yorker asking the tired questions of whether Pakistan's nuclear weapons are safe from capture by al-Qaeda or the Taliban. He asserts that because militants have attacked well-defended Pakistani military facilities, other well-defended facilities, including nuclear locations, could be in danger.
If I'm not mistaken a well-defended U.S. military facility, Fort Hood, was just attacked by someone with insider knowledge of security and facilities, but that doesn't mean that anyone outside of Hollywood screenwriters think U.S. nuclear facilities are likely to be attacked or captured by militants. Indian Maoist naxalite militants have attacked government facilities, but no one worries publicly about the security of India's nuclear weapons. Hersh argues that components are most vulnerable when they are being moved. Hmm, you mean like when nuclear parts are accidentally flown across the country, or mistakenly delivered to Taiwan? Didn't the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force get fired for those mistakes not too long ago? Let's discuss reality here.
Once again, yes, Pakistan's government is unstable. President "Mr. Ten Percent" Zardari may well be forced out of office in the next six months, but that may well lead to increased stability in Pakistan, not less. The Pakistani military is considered a common player in Pakistani society and politics, and is perhaps the most stable element. The nuclear warheads are stored and secured separately from the triggers and the delivery systems, and the Pakistanis have developed extensive nuclear security systems.
If anything Pakistan seemed more unstable back in May, when the Taliban had famously crept within 90 miles of the capital, Islamabad. The New York Times ran a piece quoting various experts as saying the nuclear stockpile was safe. What has changed since then other than Sy Hersh decided this was a good sensational story to write? He dismisses all the expert opinions he finds that run contrary to his view, because "are Pakistan's nuclear weapons safe? Yes" would be a pretty boring article.
I imagine I or someone like me will have to refute some sensationalist account about terrorists and Pakistan's nuclear weapons every six months or so for at least several years to come. Of course it's a valid concern and one that should not be ignored, but it is also unlikely, and Pakistan should be given credit for protecting its arsenal.

Obama's Fort Hood Speech

It's hard picking a favorite speech from a president who is both known for his public speaking and has great speechwriters, but his brief remarks at the Fort Hood memorial service this afternoon is one of the best, especially coming the day before Veterans Day. I encourage everyone to take the time to read or watch it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Management Consultant as Foreign Affairs Columnist?

Foreign Policy blogger and Tufts professor Daniel Drezner went to a management consultant conference and shared his top ten tips, both on his blog and Twitter. All I could think of was how it sounded just like 90% of Thomas Friedman's columns.
4) In Every Coversation with a Client, Mention Your Last Trip to China. This is tricky, as you have to be casual about it, while still drivng home the point that you are intimately familiar with the world's fastest-growing market. Here are some possible ways to get this point into casual conversation: "I was talking to one of our clients in Shenzhen On Monday, and...""I was sunbathing in Chengdu a week ago...""When I went bass-fishing in Chongqing last month...""A funny thing happened when I went to a cockfight in Harbin on Tuesday....""If, like me, you ever find yourself in Tianjin biting the head off of a live chicken...." ...
6) Use Factoids To Distract Amaze Your Audience. To drive home a point that might encounter pushback from the audience, be sure to snap off a statistic that seems related to your point. For example, if you're trying to convince your customers that Western Africa is a more promising market than Western Europe, you can say, "Did you know there are more live births in Nigeria than in W. Europe?" Some other possibilities:"Did you know that in Tokyo, a bicycle is faster than a car for any distance less than 30 miles?""Did you know that the most popular first name in the world is Muhammad?""Did you know that the first product to have a bar code was Wrigleys gum?""Did you know that Jedi is an official religion in Australia?"
7) Put a Modern Spin on Old Cliches. Example: "To paraphrase Keynes, 'In the long run, we're all liquefie-- I mean, we're all liquid.'"

Where Does Afghanistan Go From Here?

As late as two days ago requests for observers to go monitor the Afghanistan run-off election were passing my email inbox; now President Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, has dropped out, cancelling the run-off and handing Karzai a second term he was likely to have won anyway. Wow. Where does that leave the government of Afghanistan?
Weak and corrupt to be sure, but that's nothing new. News broke last week that Karzai's brother Amed Wali, he of the rapidly growing wallet and probably drug and warlord ties, has been on the CIA payroll for years. Abdullah said he dropped out because he didn't have confidence the run-off would be any less corrupt than the first election. That's fair, but I also think Abdullah was unprepared to actually lead Afghanistan. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is said to be attempting to negotiate a place for Abdullah in the government, but I'm not holding my breath.
The run-off was supposed to be another chance to establish some semblance of credibility in the Afghan government. With Karzai still in power without even having to stuff ballot boxes it weakens the U.S. position. We are stuck saying "please be less corrupt and actually try to govern" much like we were stuck for long periods of time asking the Pakistani government to pretty please attack those pesky terrorists hiding in their country.
All of this makes things more difficult for President Obama's still-debating Afghanistan team. I'd still be debating too, as I have talked to and heard from many smart people who disagree strongly on the best course of action. It's another obstacle in a difficult swamp we are negotiating. It's clear that those calling for a rushed decision, like Dick Cheney, were wrong. We need a well-reasoned strategy to allow us to withdraw as soon as possible (even if that is a few years away) and leave behind as little chaos as possible.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Soon is the Winter of Our Afghanistan Discontent

The three main stories about South Asia in the recent news all focus on waiting: for President Obama to make a decision on a strategy and troop levels, for the official results of the Afghanistan election, and for the Pakistani Army to finally begin its offensive into South Waziristan. Waiting is not the worst thing in the world; no matter what is decided on any of those matters the fighting will likely slow to a trickle soon, since Afghanistan becomes even more inhospitable and difficult to fight in every winter.
President Obama is right to take his time discussing his South Asian strategy with as many advisers as he needs and for as long as it takes. With every passing day the critics and think tankers here inside the Beltway pace across their offices and write more and more op-eds bravely criticizing a war many of them once supported and then argued should be left alone in favor of invading Iraq, but it is worth the time needed to come up with a functional strategy. As Truman Fellow Alex Rossmiller points out, the current situation in Afghanistan is not the cliched do-or-die crossroads/critical juncture; we could sustain the current stalemate for many years to come without "losing" or "winning" any more than we currently are. General McChrystal's suspected request of 40,000 additional troops, if approved, would not arrive until around a year from now, and would still fall far, far short of the number needed for a "true" counterinsurgency campaign. Even then, as McChrystal admits, if we don't have an effective partner in the Afghan government even hundreds of thousands of troops spending another decade in Afghanistan would likely do little good.
The much-delayed results of the Afghanistan election were supposed to finally be announced this weekend, but have been delayed yet again. Enough fraudulent ballots are expected to be thrown out that Karzai will fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off. The ideal situation would be for Karzai to accept some sort of power-sharing arrangement situation, but that looks unlikely. Since he has proved to be at best a reluctant partner in actually governing his country, many U.S. leaders would prefer to work around him, but as the recognized leader of Afghanistan that is proving quite difficult. The necessity of propping up and empowering a corrupt, incompetent leader who will only inevitably collapse when we leave is not much incentive for committing more time, money, and personnel.
After over a month of buildup (both actual military buildup and media hype) this weekend the Pakistan Army finally began its offensive into South Waziristan, the home of the Mehsud clan. Since everyone knew the offensive was coming everyone has had a chance to prepare themselves to flee (an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced so far) or fight.
The looming winter will allow all parties time to sit around and think. I think the Pakistani military timed their offensive when they did in order to accomplish just enough that the Pakistani Taliban wouldn't be able to regroup and mount a major counter-offensive and to ensure that the military would not be able to overcommit. President Obama's Afghanistan strategy group will not make a decision before the results of the election are clear. The winter lull is a mixed blessing for the Administration, since no major action will be possible. The President's team should avoid getting distracted by the sniping attacks from neoconservatives all winter and focus on determining the best course of action in a region with no good options.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Big Afghanistan Strategy Rendezvous

I was at East Potomac Golf Course yesterday afternoon when a bunch of military helicopters flew by overhead. I remarked to my playing companions that it was probably Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen headed to the White House for the afternoon Afghanistan discussion. They looked at me like I was sharing top secret information rather than readily available news, but it goes to show that even in DC, where "everyone" is enthralled with the ongoing Afghanistan strategy debate, "everyone" is really just a few of the wonkiest of us.
To recap, so far General McChrystal is arguing for an intensive population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, including an increase of probably 40,000 U.S. troops. Vice President Joe Biden continues to advocate for a troop draw down and a focus on counter terrorism and targeting al Qaeda leadership. President Obama has gathered the usual suspects for regular discussions in hopes of coming up with a coherent strategy. While I have been calling for a defined and articulated end goal and strategy since at least several things we introduced as strategies ago, I applaud the effort now as better late than never, assuming in the end we come up with an actual strategy. So what if it took the farce of an Afghan election to cast doubt on the idea of the Afghanistan government taking over smoothly in a few years and keeping Afghanistan stable, at least we're now discussing it.
Last week Fred Kaplan brought up two key questions the strategy team should answer:
First, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai likely to rally the support of his own people, especially given the massive fraud in the recent election? (If he doesn't rally this support, counterinsurgency is doomed to fail; this, the top U.S. military leaders acknowledge.)
Second, given the vast amount of blood, treasure, and time that a COIN campaign requires under the best of circumstances, are the prospective benefits worth the cost?
And today Marc Lynch countered with five questions of his own. I think all of those questions are important, and I hope they are being discussed in the room, but my big concern is what the end goal is for Afghanistan. The major difference I see between us and the British and Soviets - and hopefully the reason we can succeed where they failed - is that we do not want to occupy Afghanistan any longer than necessary. The goal is for us to withdraw from an Afghanistan that no longer harbors a threat to the world, and I hope the team takes that long term a view of the problem.
It only added to the turmoil when General McChrystal mentioned that he had only ever talked to President Obama once since taking over, and has advocated for his counterinsurgency campaign (which he falsely calls a strategy) in recent talks and media interviews he has done. This has led to debates about whether the field commander should be playing politics and pushing his agenda through the media rather than going through the chain of command. Some have interpreted this as pulling a MacArthur, others have defended him. Obama has yet to pull a Truman in '51 - though he would be justified since McChrystal to me is undermining his Commander in Chief and clearly has said his piece - but was smacked down by Secretary Gates. McChrystal was put in place over General McKiernan because he could supposedly think in bigger and more flexible ways, but so far only seems to follow the COIN orthodoxy.
I'm glad the Afghanistan strategy debate is happening, both behind closed doors and out in the public. It's about bloody time, and by that I mean it's about eight years too late. But McChrystal needs to contribute through the chain of command, the way he has his entire career. I know he's an unconventional warrior, but he can't ambush the President. The principals need to go into the room and spend as much time as necessary, but when they come out they need to speak with one voice, believe it, and execute it. If McChrystal can't get on board if the decision doesn't go his way he will need to be sent home.

Twisted Logic on Pakistan's Nukes

Someone help me understand this: the biggest danger in South/Central Asia is al Qaeda getting its hands on one or more of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda's leadership and many of their fighters are currently in Pakistan. Therefore the argument is we should send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan? I'm not sure I follow the logic chain. Assuming we failed and largely pulled out of Afghanistan, and assuming the Taliban (whose leaders are also primarily in Pakistan) re-take control of much of Afghanistan, and assuming the Taliban welcome al Qaeda back and provide them the oft-mentioned "safe haven" (and none of those assumptions are sure things by the way), they would then be MORE likely to attack Pakistan's nuclear facilities?
When the Taliban famously advanced into the Swat valley, within 90 miles of the capital Islamabad, I argued against the doom sayers, saying Pakistan was not about to collapse. Now the Pakistani military has largely driven the Taliban from Swat and is preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, home to much of the Taliban leadership. Drone strikes have successfully taken out many leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud (leading to this lovely ditty). Pakistan was not about to collapse then, and is not about to collapse or give up its nuclear weapons now. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are safe, and should not be used as a bureaucratic pawn in the strategic debate. I'm all for a vigorous debate on goals and strategies, but let's apply a few sober standards of logic to this strategic conversation.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

CIA's Climate Change Center

For those of you still in doubt about the link between national security and climate change - natural security as some have dubbed it - the Central Intelligence Agency, not best known for cutting edge innovation, has opened a new Center on Climate Change and National Security. It seems to be mostly to predict when and where natural disasters or natural resource shortages will cause instability, but it's a start.

Monday, September 28, 2009

New Thinkers Needed for Afghanistan

Let me get this straight: what we're doing in Afghanistan is not working; the President has been presented with options, basically double down or go for a minimalist approach; the leading commander in Afghanistan says we could be there for 100 years and still fail; we're promising continued support for Karzai even though the main problem is that Afghanistan's central government is corrupt, incompetent, and generally refuses to pull any weight; and the main argument for adding additional troops is that we tried the alternative (a "counter terrorism" approach) under Bush and it didn't work. Really? Only two options exist? The President is right to think about this one long and hard.
Where are the real alternative ideas? Better yet, where are the alternative thinkers, preferably someone under 50 who has actually been on the ground in Afghanistan without a huge protective escort. Gates, Jones, Petraeus, McChrystal, Holbrooke, Clinton, Riedel... all over 50. Is it any wonder that all of their reviews said basically the same thing -- Afghanistan is critical, but we can still win -- without offering a real strategy or real solutions?
Give me someone really outside the box. How about we make Joshua Foust think of solutions instead of criticizing others. Let's get Fred Kaplan in the room. Why isn't someone asking Katherine Tiedemann for new ideas? Ask Craig Mullaney what he would do. Maybe Greg Mortenson could add an outsider's opinion of what to do. For all the talk about how the Obama Administration is full of young go-getters his Afghanistan team is full of old retreads with the same old ideas. I'm far from the first person to say we aren't fighting an eight-year war in Afghanistan, we're fighting a one-year war eight times in a row. You think going back to the same ideas is going to break that cycle?
Fighting in Afghanistan will die down in a few weeks, as it does every winter. That gives us the luxury of a real debate for new ideas. We don't need another strategic review, we need a real strategy, and we should include new thinkers and new ideas in the debate.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Worse Decision Making: Redskins or the Afghanistan Team?

The Washington Post headline this morning blared out: "McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure;'" I wished they had used the headline from below the fold (about the Redskins): "First and Unsure of the Goal."
It was inevitable that General McChrystal's classified review of the situation in Afghanistan would be leaked. It was almost as inevitable that the review, as Joshua Foust put it, contains "absolutely nothing new." The most disturbing aspect of the review is that it talks about the "counterinsurgency strategy." Our commander in Afghanistan thinks that counterinsurgency IS the strategy. Shouldn't that be a red flag? McChrystal's expertise is supposedly thinking unconventionally, but his review is extremely inside the (counterinsurgency) box in its thinking: more troops, more resources, more time, full speed ahead.
At last week's excellent Foreign Policy and New America Foundation event "Covering Afghanistan:A Conversation On How It Looks From the Ground" Steve Coll expressed optimism that President Obama's team was taking a full and deep assessment of the strategic rationale for being in Afghanistan (look for my question and his answer near the end of the video). I'm still more skeptical that new thinking will emerge, though I'm slightly more hopeful after reading the Post's other article today. The key quote is:
The president, one adviser said, is "taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top" of what he called a "logic chain" that begins with setting objectives, followed by determining a methodology to achieve them. Only when the first two steps are completed, he said, can the third step -- a determination of resources -- be taken.
And he should work in that order. It's good to hear that starting to happen, although perhaps it would have been nice to start the process four or five "strategic reviews" ago, or during the transition, or in 2002. It remains to be seen who has a plan to score a touchdown first, the national security team or the Redskins. Better late than never?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Overstating my Power? bin Laden, You're On Notice!

Apparently expressing my frustration that we have yet to catch or kill a given terrorist is enough to get said terrorist killed. Do the world's terrorist-hunting teams all read Smart Influence and get motivated when they see me write about their prey? First I expressed my frustration that we had shot at Baitullah Mehsud repeatedly without hitting him and lo and behold we hit him. Last week Jamie Morgan's guest post talked about the right and wrong ways to fight Noordin M. Top's terrorist group in Indonesia; I'm pretty sure killing Top is part of the right way!
So who's left? Lots of people, for sure, but for now, Osama bin Laden, you're on notice (copyright Stephen Colbert)! I'm officially sick of our inability to capture or kill you. Can't we just look where they are sending his record label checks from his new Auto-Tuned album?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recycled Afghanistan Stories and Ideas

I haven't written much not because I had nothing to say, but rather to avoid getting caught up in the tornado of voices, especially on Afghanistan. The news all seems recycled, and so do the ideas.
  • Afghanistan is corrupt and the election was likely stolen. We knew that was the case, and we knew the elections would probably be stolen.
  • Both Fareed Zakaria and Fred Kaplan had the same brilliant idea that we should simply throw money at the problem by bribing everyone and their brother in Afghanistan.
  • Paul Pillar sums up the "safe haven" debate nicely, but it's nothing I, or others didn't say.
  • Another smart, young officer, Joseph Kerns Goodwin, returned from Afghanistan to tell us how bad the situation is on the ground, which we will likely ignore.
  • A draft of the metrics was released today, and while it appears to be thoughtful and contain a list of good things to measure, it lacks any actual numbers. Don't worry, apparently Afghanistan is like kindergarten, we can keep trying as many reviews and metrics as it takes to get it right. For as long as I've waited for the metrics you might think they would get me excited, but nope, nothing.
  • The COIN crowd keeps arguing that COIN is awesome and the solution to everything and ignoring the lack of a strategy that COIN is supposed to help implement. They are even having a big COIN conference to talk about how important COIN is. Fun! (would they seem even nerdier if we called them numismatists?)
  • Even Osama bin Ladin's message seemed phoned in. "Death to America and Israel, blah blah blah." (although at least one blogger has promised to Auto-Tune the tape; maybe that can spice it up.)
Is it the economy? Is there a down market for ideas right now? Even I feel repetitive: Pakistan is not going to collapse despite the heavy-handed Pakistani military; we need an actual strategy in Afghanistan; we need to work on our smart power; etc, etc.
I'm all for recycling, but this is ridiculous. Wake me up when you're ready to have a non-circular debate.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wrong Answer for Indonesian Terror

Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by Jamie Morgan. The views expressed are her own.

Indonesian officials announced a plan to tighten anti-terrorist laws, which would allow the government to detain suspects for up to two years. The government claims this will allow them to get more in line with the laws of Western nations. (Are two year detention allowances standard in Western nations now?) Additionally, several of the senior-level government Ministers are seeking an amendment to a terrorism investigation law that would allow non-police forces, including the Indonesian Military (TNI), to conduct anti-terror investigations.

All of this is disconcerting for two reasons. First, we are talking about a country that just emerged from a brutal dictatorship 11 years ago. The military was the major instrument of former President Suharto to control the population during his rule, and expanding the military’s powers such a short time after his fall does not send a good message to the population, nor is it a good idea for the fledgling democracy.

Second, and possibly more importantly for the rest of the world, expanding the amount of time the Indonesian government can legally hold terrorism suspects without charge is not going to do anything for its fight against Noordin M. Top’s terrorist group. It actually might harm it. The government needs to focus on identifying the root causes of support for Top’s group among certain areas of the Indonesian population, rather than inflame public opinion against it. The International Crisis Group reports that support among the local population, and even among the less militant terrorist group Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), is not high for Top’s extremist faction. However, if Top’s faction is allowed to continue to infiltrate Islamic boarding schools, it will continue to find the few supporters it needs to plan operations like the July 17 hotel bombing in Jakarta.

Recent revelations connecting Top’s group and various extremist groups in the Middle East and South Asia make all of this even more alarming. Unfortunately, given the lack of general media attention on this issue, I am not hopeful for improvement anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Afghanistan Genie: Wish Three

The war in Afghanistan is a funny thing. Who ever thought that Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, George Will, and Cindy Sheehan would all agree on something? For that matter, who thought that a band of neocons including Sarah Palin and I would basically agree?
But at a time when our presence in Afghanistan is being compared to everything from Vietnam to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (ignoring the many obvious differences) hope and optimism can spring from the most unlikely places. We were all waiting on General McChrystal's strategic review, which apparently will not be released publicly. But Laura Rozen, in her job over at Politico, unearthed a gem dated August 10th entitled "United States Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign for Support to Afghanistan." Wow. Why didn't THIS receive more publicity? A coordinated approach from McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry, what a concept. The plan seems very well thought out, I'm highly impressed. I challenge anyone to read the plan and not be more optimistic than they were before. It leans very heavily on counterinsurgency theory, but it doesn't make the mistake so many Beltway think tankers do of equating COIN with actual strategy.
You may recall that I first wished we would actually hit Baitullah Mehsud with a Predator drone strike after so many tries, and with my second wish asked for actual metrics for success in Afghanistan (and Pakistan). Well guess what? The "Integrated Civ-Mil Campaign" plan contains metrics! Not the National Security Council's metrics, set to be delivered to Congress by September 24th, but pretty good ones. The loquacious Spencer Ackerman has a very nice write up of the metrics.
So what should I wish for with my third wish? A job on the National Security Council? Fifteen minutes alone in a room with Holbrooke to try to talk sense to him? Those seem in the realm of possibility; my other option--magically having the personnel for an actual "civilian surge"--does not.