Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kabul, Afghanistan

The bottom line of what has happened to General McChrystal is that he was betrayed by his aides, who were supposed to be the ones protecting him from this sort of thing. The reporter from Rolling Stone was supposed to have two weeks of access to the staff, but because of the Iceland volcano and the resultant ash cloud he ended up getting stuck with McChrystal's team for a month. During that time the staff essentially "went native" with the reporter and started speaking too freely. If you read the article, all the bad stuff is said by McChrystal's aides, who imply that they are expressing the boss' feelings.

The rumor mill here in country speculates that perhaps McChrystal wanted out and this was how he decided to do it. But that is quite ridiculous, since there is really no bigger disgrace for a military man than to be fired by the Commander-in-Chief. While I understand the political reasons for why Obama removed McChrystal, I think a major blow has been struck to the effort here in Afghanistan. As we speak, instead of concentrating on the fight at a time of year that is the most kinetic we have seen in the past 9 years, the entirety of command is either packing their shit in boxes (as its not just the boss who gets fired but his whole staff) or preparing several weeks worth of briefs for Petraeus when he gets here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You heard it here first. Word here in Afghanistan is that General Petraeus will be leaving CENTCOM to replace General McChrystal as Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan.

In my opinion General McChrystal will survive this ordeal not because he is the best man for the job but because he is the only man for the job. Discussion around the camp fire here in Afghanistan has centered around who would be a suitable replacement for McChrystal and the only name that really holds any water is Lt. General David Rodriguez who came to Afghanistan at the same time as McChrystal to run the ISAF Joint Command (ICJ). The IJC is the operational arm of the coalition here, devoted to running the day to day operations of the war. While General Rodriguez could assume control of ISAF without a large learning curve, this would cause and even larger problem by leaving the positional of operational commander vacant at the height of the deadliest fighting season seen in the past 9 years of the war.

The other four names being floated in the press as possible replacements are all decorated soldiers but not one of them has the background or institutional knowledge required to assume command of a war as complicated as this one.

General James Mattis:
General Mattis is currently Commander of Joint Forces Command. Talk about someone with a past for making outrageous comments to the press. General Mattis is also a marine which will likely disqualify him from the top spot in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps has been the slowest to adopt Counterinsurgency practices, instead preferring to rely on the same battle tested tactics that brought them victory in Fallujah.

LT. General Allen:
As deputy commander of Centcom, General Allen would have a decent understanding of ongoing operations in Afghanistan but there would still be a significant learning curve involved if he were to assume command in Afghanistan. Furthermore, he is a marine and as I mentioned earlier the marine's do not have the best reputation when it comes to counterinsurgency practices.

General Martin Dempsey:
General Dempsey has Iraq experience but Iraq is not Afghanistan. Yes it is true that General McChrystal came to Afghanistan after fighting in Iraq for several years, however, as a Special Forces Commander he had the advantage of being well versed in COIN principles whereas General Dempsey is not.

Navy Adm. James Stavridis:
Is an intelligent man and has proven himself as a skilled commander of both SOUTHCOM and as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR). However, he has very little experience with the conflict in Afghanistan and has had zero experience implementing COIN in the field. Furthermore, the Army represents the vast majority of the troops currently fighting on the ground here in Afghanistan and as a result any successor to McChrystal would have to come from the ground forces, most likely the Army.

Here in Afghanistan the talk in the hallways and cafeterias has been dominated by discussions of what will happen when "the boss" meets with President Obama tomorrow at the White House. There is no question that General McChrystal will offer to resign as a result of comments made by him and his aides to free lance journalist Michael Hastings author of the controversial Runaway General article in Rolling stone. When I initially heard murmuring about this article two days ago I assumed that the comments contained within were a strategic move on the part of General McCrystal and his staff to have their voices heard in order to pressure Congress and the Obama administration to stop playing politics with his war. After conducting more than 50 interviews with experienced military professionals here in Afghanistan, I can tell you first hand that many commanders here echo McCyrstal's point that they are being asked to sell an unwinable position. Setting a deadline of July 2011 for the start of a withdrawal essentially cuts counterinsurgency strategy off at the knees. However, now having read the Rolling Stone article, it is clear that General McChrystal and his staff went native with this reporter, letting their guard down too much to someone who was not to be trusted.

General McChrystal is obviously not the superman that the media had made him out to be. He is a man who has often blundered when it comes to off the cuff remarks to the media. He is however the exact person that America needs running the war in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency doctrine is a relatively new introduction to Afghanistan and there are still many commanders who who do not buy into it. It will take a known warrior like McChrystal, who has more than his fair share of blood on his hands from his days running the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, to convince the most stubborn hold out here that we cannot kill our way out of Afghanistan. Besides his credibility amongst the majority of the troops here in Afghanistan, McChrystal is the only American that President Karzai is known to actually like in the whole country. The Rolling Stone article wrongly depicts General McChrystal as having stolen the diplomatic playbook for Afghanistan away from Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke. However, the plain fact of the matter is that both those men have publicly questioned Karzai's ability to lead and as a result he does not want to work with them.

The Western media has apparently flipped the switch on its collective brain and has begun incorrectly comparing General McCrystal to General MacArther, the commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula in 1951 who was subsequently fired by General Truman for insubordination. General McCystal is guilty of poor judgment obviously but has come no where close to committing insubordination. General MacArthur on the other hand flat out refused to follow several of President Truman's direct orders and was in fact secretly negotiating with influential congressman behind the Presidents back in order to gain approval for the escalation of the Korean War. Had MacArthur not been removed from his command the Korean War may very likely have gone nuclear. General McCrystal has disobeyed no direct orders nor has he sought to subvert President Obama's influence and thus has not committed insubordination.

If I was a betting man, I would bet conservatively on General McChrystal retaining his position as commander of ISAF, however, he is likely to be stripped of the majority of this diplomatic portfolio which will surely be given to Ambassador Eikenberry who will likely become the public face of the war as General McChrystal is ordered to retreat to the background.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I've been following the scandal surrounding the remarks of General Stanley McChrystal fairly closely and have a few thoughts to add to the discussion kicked off by Jeff. I'll leave the decision of whether to sack McChrystal to the President, who said today he will make the opinion based on "how [he] can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making [in Afghanistan]," but I don't think that the issue is the same kind of Rubicon-crossing challenge to the chain of command that Jeff implies in his post.

First, a few misunderstandings bear some brief analysis:

1) General McChrystal will almost certainly offer to resign, but President Obama's acceptance is far from certain.

2) General McChrystal is not new to the media. With fellowship stays at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as briefing the press during the Iraq invasion as the Vice Director for Operations on the Joint Staff, McChrystal should know the media quite well.

3) The vast majority of the quotes came from unsourced aides of McChrystal, not the general himself. TPM has a good summary of the most damning quotes from McChrystal's "Team America." This doesn't excuse their comments, or those made by McChrystal himself, but the Rolling Stone story wasn't just a profanity-laced interview by McChrystal, as some have made it out to be.

3-a) It is okay to vent and blow off steam, even regarding one's superiors, in a high-stress environment like Afghanistan. Doing so is natural, healthy, and far from an offense against the political order or the UCMJ. But that only applies when one does so privately. When you do so on the record to a reporter, no excuses apply.

Simply put, if the President is to fire his commander in Afghanistan, it should be for gross negligence, not purposeful insubordination. General McChrystal showed extremely poor political judgement in allowing the Rolling Stone reporter close access and allowing his staff to vent their frustrations on the record. Some might argue that McChrystal's job as a military commander is not to be political, but I don't think that argument is very strong when you're in a Senate-confirmed position leading the highly visible campaign in Afghanistan.

Of course this latest kerfluffle comes after a similar public disagreement last fall, when McChrystal was publicly chided for contravening his superiors during the President's Afghanistan Policy Review. In the end, President Obama's decision depends on whether he gives McChrystal a second (or fourth, depending on your perspective) chance. We'll see tomorrow.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is ISAF Commander no longer -- at least that's what an unnamed TIME source is reporting.

If he hadn't resigned willingly, he should have been fired. If he resigned under pressure, he got off light. (For those of you living in a cave somewhere, go check out Rolling Stone.)

This morning Gen. Stanley McChrystal was flying home -- past the point of no return. But unlike in 49 BC, this time Caesar's army stayed at the front. The comparisons are flying fast and loose out here in the blogosphere, but whether the new crisis between Pres. Obama and his Afghan commander is the modern parallel of McArthur and Truman seems less important that what has actually happened in the past 24 hours.

Sure, it is satisfying (and required) to berate the General's apparent disdain for things like chain of command and those who disagree with him.

It is fitting to point out that for a special forces guy, McChrystal sure seems to love the media.

It is infuriating that for the second time in a year he has fundamentally challenged the authority of both the SecDef and POTUS in a very public way.

And he should be (and now is) gone.

While, according to this profile, he is apparently no stranger to bad romance; why McChrystal chose to deliver his resignation letter in the Lady Gaga edition of RS is a question for other pundits, the real question, in my mind, is: what now?

ISAF is without a commander, and after a year of taking body punches from the political right on his war decision making, President Obama and Secretary Gates can ill afford a lengthy interview process to pick his successor.

The pick, however...

Monday, June 21, 2010

The US military is buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters in order to equip the Afghan National Army Air Corps, and Congress is not happy about it.

The Washington Post reports:

In a turnabout from the Cold War, when the CIA gave Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels to shoot down Soviet helicopters, the Pentagon has spent $648 million to buy or refurbish 31 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Defense Department is seeking to buy 10 more of the Mi-17s next year, and had planned to buy dozens more over the next decade.

The spectacle of using U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy Russian military products is proving a difficult sell in Congress. Some legislators say that the Pentagon never considered alternatives to the Mi-17, an aircraft it purchased for use in Iraq and Pakistan, and that a lack of competition has enabled Russian defense contractors to gouge on prices.
So what's wrong with buying American helicopters to equip the Afghans?

The most likely alternative candidates, the UH-60 Black Hawk or the CH-47 Chinook, have unit costs of between $10-$15 million and $10-$24 million, respectively. These costs track closely with the $15 million per unit the US government is paying for the Mi-17s. The American aircraft, however, are significantly more complicated than the Russian models - they lack "amenities" like GPS - which would drastically increase maintenance costs. With the goal of creating an Afghan air corps that can operate independently of US support, keeping future maintenance costs at a minimum can't be too far from the minds of US officials.

Most importantly, the Mi-17 works well in Afghanistan. First, Afghan pilots, to the extent that they have flight experience, have it with the Russian aircraft. This fact significantly lowers the learning curve of the new Afghan air corps, accelerating the development of Afghanistan's own armed forces. Second, the Mi-17 is described by US officials as "well-suited for navigating the altitudes of the Hindu Kush mountains, as well as Afghanistan's desert terrain."

"Buy American" is a worthy goal in the abstract, especially when times are tough, but the military's decision seems based on realities on the ground. Congress, led on this issue by Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, has a legitimate oversight role to make sure the military acts as a good steward of tax dollars, but can't lose sight of the larger picture. Winning the war in Afghanistan is more important than steering more contracts to a particular state - the UH-60 Black Hawk is produced by Sikorsky in Stratford, Connecticut.

UPDATE: Apparently my unit cost research was a bit off - the Mi-17 is actually much less expensive than the Black Hawk. The Thai Royal Army recently opted for purchasing three Mi-17s for the price of one UH-60.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The drumbeat of support for harsh sanctions against Iran continues, this time in a featured article from

Sanctions helped South Africa's pro-democracy movement. They can do the same in Iran.
Really?  They did?  Because I seem to recall that the sanctions against South Africa were economically pathetic and insignificant.  They had value as a message from the international community, but the meat of the sanctions did little.  In fact, the ban on arms trade with South Africa, one of the core components of the sanctions regime (along with oil), had the perverse effect of transforming South Africa into one of the largest and most sophisticated arms manufacturers in the world (see Crawford and Klotz for details).

And oil, the second primary focus of the sanctions regime, continued to flow freely.  Smuggling was rampant, and many states chose to defy the will of the international community to exploit a lucrative market.  Ironically, Iran was the main player to do so (see Klinghoffer for more).  In short, the international embargoes on goods had little effect on the apartheid regime, and certainly did not "marginalize and undermine the government" as

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a filmmaker, to substantiate this claim.  Unfortunately, all other supporting claims are from "a growing number of key opinion-makers and activists in the green movement," "other Iranian dissidents and activists," and "Iranian experts and analysts" - an impressive list of anonymous sources.  I understand that personal security is a factor (nobody wants a knock on the door from the basij), but constructing an entire argument on nameless sources is poor analysis, especially when you factor in their dismissal of Mir Hossein Mousavi and other leaders speaking out against sanctions for "for what appear to be tactical reasons."  So the opinion of Mousavi, who was the face of the Green Movement and actually stood for office, can be summarily dismissed, but the thoughts of anonymous "dissidents and activists" are grounds for robust sanctions.

Puzzlingly, the authors paint China and Russia as complicit in Tehran's pillaging of natural resources, yet do not recognize that sanctions are meaningless without full international cooperation.  The U.S. could pass harsh unilateral sanctions on Iran, and would most likely be supported by many European allies.  However, if Russia and, even more, China, could undermine any sanctions simply by continuing to trade.  The growing energy appetite of China and Russian refinement capabilities could comfortably offset the loss of trade from the U.S. and Europe.  In other words, the Obama Administration is constrained in what it can do, something the authors fail to recognize.

Harsh sanctions are not the answer in Iran.  The risk of playing into the hands of Tehran's hardliners by acting as "the Great Satan" is high, and the potential payoff is low, especially without full international support.  More troubling is the idea that the authors speak for "Iranians who yearn for democracy," yet fail to produce a shred of proof that the disparate members of the loosely-affiliated Green Movement would welcome international sanctions.  Dubowitz and Weinthal, and Slate, should know better.

The flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip might not have arrived safely in Gaza, but they did accomplish something. Most of the world has now come out in opposition to Israel's Gaza blockade, and Israel has already begun to ease the blockade.

The calls to end the blockade have been widespread. The EU has called for Israel to lift the blockade, as has the Arab League, and the Red Cross. The US has increased pressure on the Netanyahu government to lift the blockade.

Israel is easing the blockade, promising to make "adjustments" in the policy. These adjustments will be considered by the security cabinet, but are likely to be passed. The new policy would allow "all goods except for weapons and materials that can be used to make them."

But the world shouldn't be too eager to declare the Gaza blockade over, or the Flotilla a success. The language used by Israel, of "easing" the blockade rather than ending it, has been seen by the Arab press as the Israeli version of putting lipstick on a pig. Clearly, taking steps to "ease" the blockade is different than lifting it. And the details of the new Israeli policy remain to be seen. So-called "dual-use" items will still be banned, with Israel to define what constitutes such an item. An overly broad definition of dual-use would still have a severe effect on the people of the Gaza Strip.

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