Archive for June, 2011

Obama’s Misplaced Afghan Triumphalism (orig. pub. in Daily Beast, 6/23/11)

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Obama’s Misplaced Afghan Triumphalism

Announcing the Afghan troop drawdown was more or less a concession of defeat, but you’d never know it from Obama’s speech, which was all victorious cadences—and illogical statements.

by Ann Marlowe | June 23, 2011 1:25 AM EDT

If there is anyone who could make the excellent idea of reversing the Afghan surge sound like a bad one, it’s our president.

“America,” Obama said in his clever and infuriating speech Wednesday night, “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

In other words, we can stop wasting so much money in Afghanistan—and start wasting it at home. Yet, illogically, the president also seemed to say that our objective in Afghanistan was never nation-building, it was denying al Qaeda a safe haven. Part of Obama’s alleged political mastery is that he believes he can make opposites cohere simply by uttering them. Americans no longer believe in nation-building in Afghanistan and do believe we have struck a major blow at al Qaeda by killing bin Laden. So just string those ideas together and ignore the massive waste of American money and lives that occurred on Obama’s watch.

Obama alluded very obliquely to the billions in taxpayers’ money thrown away by subsidizing the Karzai cartel and others with American contracting money. (The Afghan government must move “from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.”) But he never said, we were wrong, I was wrong, we have learned something.

Our national-security establishment appears unable to learn. The graph no one has ever published would overlay the number of troops in Afghanistan and the number of IEDs planted in Afghanistan. They are tightly correlated. In 2010, Afghan insurgents planted 14,661 IEDs, a 62 percent increase over 2009’s 7,228, which was a 120 percent increase over 2008.

More troops means more IEDs, period. More troops not only attracts more of the seemingly infinite supply of young Pakistani and Afghan men to the insurgent cause, it also makes the country more dangerous, which gives the Taliban greater appeal with their promise of order. While Obama spoke of not making Afghanistan a “perfect place,” he ignored the fact that it has gone from being a relatively safe place in 2002 and 2003 to a dangerous place today. Afghanistan was far safer and less corrupt with 10,000 Americans than it is now with 100,000.

But our president is constitutionally, small c, unable not to perceive himself as a winner, and though the occasion was more or less a concession of defeat, the speech was all triumphalism, even to Obama’s cadences. He even used this occasion to make the meandering and inadequate American intervention in Libya seem like a strategy, speaking of our “supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny.”

The speech aimed vainly at Lincolnesque echoes (“With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts”) but thudded to earth with New Age resonances. Obama said, “We must chart a more centered course,” which means exactly nothing; he could have said “centrist” or “self-centered,” both of which were hinted at in that “centered.”

While men and women who truly love freedom die in Syria and Yemen, not to mention Libya, Obama spoke of supporting the Arab revolutions “with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.” In other words, we will support you by living our lives in indifference to your struggle—or even as we help your oppressors, as we seem to have done in Bahrain.

I am as happy as anyone that Obama is calling an end to the surge that has increased violence in Afghanistan—and American military deaths and injuries—exponentially. But with an essentially dishonest president and national-security establishment, it is unlikely that an era of waste and error is ending.

End The Costly War in Afghanistan (orig. pub. in The Daily Beast 6/11/2011)

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

June 10, 2011 | 9:16pm

A new Senate report questions the results of the nearly $19 billion spent in aid to Afghanistan. Ann Marlowe argues that it’s time we stopped throwing money away.

At least one committee in Congress is almost ready to question the mythology of the Afghan war—or at least to put into practice the idea that “counterinsurgency theories deserve careful, ongoing scrutiny to see if they yield intended results,” as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released this week says. This is more than our military has been willing to do. For General Petraeus and his apologists, it isn’t possible that their strategy can be wrong; no, it’s always just a matter of more time, more troops and more money. Another way to put that is to call it what it is: a fantasy ideology.

But luckily for Americans and Afghans alike, it seems that Congress may be about to pull the plug on our spending in Afghanistan, which is $2 billion per week. With Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) circulating a petition among his colleagues asking for “significant” troop withdrawals, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) asking for the same, it seems that Congress is finally waking up to the enormous waste and blind mismanagement of the war.

The senators are surely aware that public opinion continues to shift against the war, with a CNN poll last week showing 39 percent in favor of withdrawing all American forces now, and 45 percent saying troops are no longer necessary, and just 53 percent saying they are.

Now if only our president would show good sense too. Though the report was Democrat-sponsored, Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney distanced the White House from it. Perhaps in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, Obama is more ready to embrace the Afghan war as his. This is a mistake. Carney picked just about the worst possible example to illustrate “significant progress” in Afghanistan: the training of the Afghan national security forces.

This week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee majority staff report warning that our $18.8 billion spending in aid in Afghanistan has produced little—and much of that unsustainable once we leave, because of pervasive corruption and lack of capacity in the Afghan government—will be interpreted by some in partisan terms. But Republicans ought to take it to heart, rather than going down with their intellectual ship. It was, after all, President Eisenhower who condemned “costly small wars” in his 1954 State of the Union address.

This advice has obviously been ignored lately. In fact, spending money became the measure of activity and even success in the Iraq counterinsurgency. Craig A. Collier, a former cavalry squadron commander in Iraq, wrote a scathing attack on the American way of executing a counterinsurgency strategy in Armed Forces Journal last fall:

In 2006 and 2008, we defined “success” in the economic development line of effort as the amount of money spent and number of projects completed. These two measures of performance were the only ones tracked. We did not track measures of effectiveness, such as whether the project was actually completed to standard, was used for its intended purpose, resulted in an increase in tips, a drop in violence or long-term job creation. We would not accept this lack of evidence of success for any lethal operation. We don’t claim that our lethal missions were successful based on the number of patrols sent out or the number of rounds fired.

The portions of the Senate report divulged so far match exactly with what I have seen over 18 visits to Afghanistan. The report says the “single most important step” we should take is to stop paying Afghans bloated salaries to work for us. Well, on my fourth embed to Zabul province a few weeks ago, I learned that the young woman I’d met in November who was getting $350 a month to do a weekly radio program of 40 minutes was still on the U.S. teat. In a province with no defense attorneys for criminal defendants, much less for indigent defendants, we are funding a woman’s radio show at close to $100 an hour.

The Senate report also noted the waste often resulting from the “Performance-Based Governors Fund,” which can give out up to $100,000 a month to Afghanistan’s 34 provincial governors.

This pales compared to the bucks available to those who, with various degrees of sincerity, reduce poppy cultivation in their provinces. Governor Mangal of Helmand has been awarded $10 million in development funds for his province for reducing poppy cultivation by 33 percent in 2009 and 7 percent in 2010. According to his 24-year-old development adviser, Wahedullah Ulfat, he will use that money for a sanitarium to treat 1,000 of Helmand’s estimated 80,000 opiate addicts—20 percent of the male population—and to build a new mosque and a women’s bazaar, including a women’s mosque. There are already two cathedral-sized mosques and one smaller one within a mile of the governor’s palace, but in Helmand, as in many provinces, building gargantuan (and hideous) mosques is a favorite gubernatorial activity. An Afghan-American who’s a former member of parliament, Daoud Sultanzoy, once told me, “There are mosques next to mosques next to other mosques.”

I have previously questioned whether using American taxpayer money to build or re-furbish mosques is even constitutional (see my piece “Madrasses Built With Your Taxes”) and received lots of negative feedback from the American military about it, as though I were single-handedly losing the war by questioning whether building mosques does anything for the Afghan people, much less for the American people.

We have been through a period of what can only be called national madness in our spending in Afghanistan. Much of it has been in the grip of an ideology that held that the way to win in Afghanistan was to try to create a connection between Afghans and their ridiculous government of gangsters by convincing them that it provided the people with valuable services. So the local ministry of religious affairs would give out blankets to men in the fall—paid for by the U.S., but never marked as such. Of course, we were the ones funding and in most cases delivering the services—and we weren’t even reaping the benefit of goodwill. Meanwhile the Afghans knew their government was corrupt and incompetent and wondered why we backed so many thieves.

Perhaps we are awakening now from this bad dream.

How to Help the Anti-Gadhafi Fighters (pub. in The Wall Street Journal 5/31/11)

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

* The Wall Street Journal

* MAY 31, 2011

How to Help the Anti-Gadhafi Fighters

A few American C-130s carrying nonlethal equipment could make a real difference in the ability of the Libyan rebels to fight.


Benghazi, Libya

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last Wednesday that they will not let up their bombardment of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces—but that it’s up to the Free Libyan ground forces to bring this war to an end. There was a subtext of impatience with Libyan efforts in official U.S. rhetoric, as though the Libyans were deliberately sitting on their hands.

Try telling this to the young volunteers who are heading to the front lines without helmets, flak jackets, sleeping bags, communication gear or vehicles.

“That’s the only bulletproof thing I have,” Lou’ai Hatem el Magri joked a bit grimly when I gave him a pair of ballistic glasses I used in Afghanistan. Mr. Magri, 24, had been a senior at Tripoli University majoring in architecture when the Feb. 17 revolution broke out. His prominent, cosmopolitan family immediately left for Benghazi, the revolutionary hub, to do what they could. Now he and some of his friends were going to the front after all of two weeks’ training.

Mr. Magri and his comrades flew to Tunis Thursday morning. They wore civilian clothes: Supposedly their uniforms would be waiting there. The new soldiers were to re-enter Libya from Tunisia to fight Gadhafi’s forces in the western mountains. Because of its remoteness, this active and dangerous front line has been little covered in the press. Gadhafi’s forces here may number as low as 1,000 troops, but they are properly supplied and led, and they use Russian-made “Grad” rocket launchers to fire nine-foot long missiles at a range of up to 10 miles against the inhabitants.

Mr. Magri will be part of just one company of fighters sent by the closest thing to a regular army the Free Libyans have, the Brigade of the Martyrs of the 17th of February. There are other fighters in the mountains; nearly all the military-aged male population of this historically anti-Gadhafi Berber area, not far from Tripoli, is mobilized. Mustafa Sagezli, the brigade’s deputy commander, explained that Mr. Magri and 120 other raw recruits will be led by just two or three experienced officers, using walkie-talkies (good only over a few miles) to communicate since they don’t have field radios.

Mr. Sagezli, an American-educated software entrepreneur in a denim jacket, listed his force: 1,200 fighters between Adjabiya and Brega in the stalemated front, a company of 120 men in formerly besieged Misrata, a company in Jalu, three companies each in Benghazi itself, in Tobruk near the Egyptian border, and in Al Kufra en route to the border with Chad. These forces have just 100 four-wheel drive vehicles, necessary for off-road driving in the desert. With 200 more, Mr. Sagezli says, they could secure the oil fields in the desert.

On April 20, the U.S. committed to provide up to $25 million in surplus military supplies to the Free Libyan forces. But the only goods that have arrived are halal MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)—which Mr. Sagezli explained are unnecessary in this urbanized conflict zone, where civil society organizations are feeding the fighters.

Qatar has provided most of the assault rifles for the Brigade of the Martyrs, which started out with 80 from Gadhafi’s stockpiles. As for heavy weapons, a chemical engineering student named Bu Bakr Al Shekri explained to me at the February 17th Camp that he’s working on a hybrid truck-mounted weapon. And a welder named Tariq Sherif has combined Russian parts found in the rubble of a Gadhafi arsenal—swiveling Dishka machine gun bases with Vladimirov KPV14.5 caliber bores originally on tripods—with an improvised trigger. (See photo nearby.)

Mr. Sagezli is growing his army as fast as he can, but with only 24 trainers, volunteers formerly with the Libyan Special Forces, that’s about 150 fighters every few weeks. Training has expanded from two weeks to three and now four, a figure dictated by the need to slow the pipeline of fighters to match the available weapons.

“Some of our trainees were very angry and demonstrated because they finished training but we didn’t have weapons for them,” Mr. Sagezli said. “If we had the equipment and weapons,” he added, “I would have tens of thousands.”

About six U.S. C-130 military transport aircraft (capacity: 72,000 pounds each) could deliver nonlethal equipment for 2,000 soldiers, according to an Air Force source. The Libyans have the will, and the National Transitional Council governing Free Libya has offered to repay NATO out of future oil revenues for the means. (Because the U.S. hasn’t released frozen Gadhafi assets to the free Libyan government, they have been unable to purchase supplies themselves.)

A larger question is why the U.S. doesn’t provide the Libyan freedom fighters with assault rifles and heavy weapons that could do real damage to Gadhafi’s tanks. The Arab world is watching this war on Al Jazeera every night. They will remember whose support for the emerging Muslim democracies was empty rhetoric, and whose was real.