Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Dispatch from Afghanistan

David Adesnik at Oxblog relays a thoughtful letter from an American Army officer currently deployed to Afghanistan. I wasn't privy to the letter so I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it looks authentic. Among other things, the writer lets us know that we have unfinished business in Afghanistan, and that thousands of our sons and daughters remain committed there.
Soon after arriving at what one Army spokesman called "the most evil place in Afghanistan," my platoon was involved in the largest firefight since Operation Anaconda in March 2002. During a battle that raged intermittently for almost 12 hours, we destroyed close to 40 "anti-coalition militants," but suffered one very painful American casualty. PFC [name deleted], a 19-year-old soldier in my platoon, died from sniper fire while cresting a hill near Lozano Ridge. Coping with the loss of one of our own was the toughest mission my platoon faced during the last 5 months. Men cited for their bravery in the fight were torn by guilt and self-doubt and many still suffer from nightmares. Fortunately for the platoon, we immediately returned to the front lines after a brief period of mourning. After a few weeks of relative calm, we had another big fight south of Shkin on October 25th. We lost no men in our platoon, but had several friendly casualties in a sister unit. Again, my men impressed me with their courage under fire and professional competence. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see my men change over 9 months- watching them train last spring and then execute the same drills with deadly efficacy in combat. Leading my men in combat has been the most satisfying and challenging experience in my career.

Semper nice?

A kindler, gentler Marine Corps emerges to win hearts and minds

The Wall Street Journal has a thoughtful piece today on the training by Marines at Twentynine Palms in the California desert for Iraq, and how such training differs from what most people would expect of this fighting force. The Marines are certainly training for war, and how to kill the enemy when necessary. But they're also training for something less than war -- how to secure and stabilize the nation of Iraq with their iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove.
TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- On a bright winter afternoon in California's high desert, Staff Sgt. Adam Walker gathered his platoon's newest Marines to give them their marching orders for when they get to Iraq: Be nice.

"That's hard for Marines," Staff Sgt. Walker told the young grunts, just four days out of infantry school. "What are you taught in boot camp? Kick ass and kill. That aggressiveness is not going to win in Iraq."

The First Marine Division fought its way from Kuwait to Baghdad last spring, and the first half of the force, some 8,000 Marines including Staff Sgt. Walker's platoon, is slated to return to Iraq in the coming months. They'll likely replace Army units occupying the hotspot city of Fallujah and the rest of Al Anbar province, a volatile Sunni Muslim-dominated area between Baghdad and the Syrian border.

For months, Marine commanders in the U.S. have watched from afar as American and Iraqi casualties have mounted, and they think they know where the Army has gone wrong. So before they ship out, the Marines are undertaking what amounts to a massive deprogramming campaign for their own troops. Put simply, they're teaching them to ask questions first and shoot later.

The plan is a risky one, based on the assumption that even in the areas most hostile to the U.S.-led occupation, local residents can still be won over if American troops treat them with more dignity, patience and understanding. And, the theory goes, as popular support for the U.S. grows, popular tolerance of the armed resistance will fade.

"The vast majority of people just want peace, security, jobs, electricity and the basic things that any people would want," says Lt. Col. David J. Furness, the Marine division's operations officer. "I think we can appeal to that."
Update: Tom Ricks has a good story on the same subject in Wednesday's edition of the Washington Post. There are a couple of great quotes in the story which sum up exactly what's going on here:

. . . speaking on the condition of anonymity, other Marine officers criticized the Army approach.

"I'm appalled at the current heavy-handed use of air [strikes] and artillery in Iraq," one said. "Success in a counterinsurgency environment is based on winning popular support, not blowing up people's houses."

* * *
Some Army officers in Iraq said the Marines' plan shows they are simply trying to capitalize on lessons learned in Iraq.

"I like the Marine approach, and I think it'll succeed," said Army Lt. Col. David J. Poirier, military police commander in Tikrit. "I love our Army, and I will not criticize it, but war is not free of mistakes, and I believe that some of the insurgency is due to families acting out against American forces for deaths occurring as a result of collateral damage."
For what it's worth, the Marine Corps has always been on the cutting edge of counter-insurgency doctrine. They invented the way America fights its "small wars", as Max Boot reports in his book Savage Wars of Peace. The Marine Corps led the way in transforming themselves into a "3rd Generation" force, and have also pioneered much of the thought on "4th Generation" warfare. It does not surprise me that the Marines are willing to put some of those ideas into action.
The latest mud to hit Wes Clark: he's anti-Semitic

Even the NY Times can't resist the temptation to print such drivel

Last week, Joel Mowbray launched a mud salvo against retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic. Gen. Zinni, a former commander of CENTCOM, has recently criticized the "neo-conservative" policy makers in the Bush Administration for their foreign policy decisions (which Zinni was a part of for a while as Secretary Powell's envoy to the Middle East peace process). Mowbray thinks "neo-con" is really just code for "Jewish", because of high-profile Jews in the administration like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. Here's a short bit of his argument:
Technically, the former head of the Central Command in the Middle East didn't say "Jews." He instead used a term that has become a new favorite for anti-Semites: "neoconservatives." As the name implies, "neoconservative" was originally meant to denote someone who is a newcomer to the right. In the 90's, many people self-identified themselves as "neocons," but today that term has become synonymous with "Jews."

And if anybody should know better, it's Gen. Zinni. It is well-known that those who are labeled "neocons" within the administration—whether the number-two official at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, or undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith—are almost always Jews.

Sadly typical is a Business Week article this May that identified Wolfowitz, Feith, Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, former Reagan administration official Ken Adelman and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol—all Jews—as "neocons," yet Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—neither one Jewish—as simply "key allies." Policy beliefs and worldviews were not different between these two groups; only religion distinguishes them.

Given that the "neocons" do not control the Departments of State or Defense nor the National Security Council—gentiles all head those agencies—and given that the White House is clearly run by non-Jews, how is it that Zinni claims that the "neocons" were responsible for the U.S. liberating Iraq? As he explains to the Post, "Somehow, the neocons captured the president. They captured the vice president."
Comes now David Brooks, new center-right columnist for the New York Times, with a new salvo of mud directed at retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark. Brooks picks up the argument right where Mowbray leaves off, extending it to cover Gen. Clark and his criticisms of the neo-cons.
Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Dick Cheney to hunt for humans. The Asian press had the most lurid stories; the European press the most thorough. Every day, it seemed, Le Monde or some deep-thinking German paper would have an exposé on the neocon cabal, complete with charts connecting all the conspirators.

The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century, which has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy. To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles.

We'd sit around the magazine guffawing at the ludicrous stories that kept sprouting, but belief in shadowy neocon influence has now hardened into common knowledge. Wesley Clark, among others, cannot go a week without bringing it up.

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for "conservative" and neo is short for "Jewish") travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President Bush. There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle's insidious power over administration policy, but I've been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he's shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

Analysis: I thought Mowbray's column was a slanderous form of manure when I read it, and I still feel that way. I even opined in a group discussion that "Next thing you know, they'll use this slur against Wes Clark." I didn't think that would actually come to pass, since there's nothing in the record to suggest that either Gen. Zinni or Gen. Clark is an anti-Semite. And for what it's worth, I think Josh Marshall's right that the neo-cons deserve some criticism for mismanaging our foreign policy. Indeed, in all of the reports I've read on both men, the exact opposite is true. Gen. Zinni did yeoman's work as commander of CENTCOM, as described in The Mission by Dana Priest. And he did great work as Secretary Powell's envoy to Israel and Palestine, at a time when neither side wanted to talk. Similarly, Gen. Clark has evidenced a particular sensitivity to Jews and other persecuted peoples (e.g. the Kosovar Albanians) while in uniform. (Arguably, the Kosovo War was about exorcising U.S. and European demons for their collective failure to act during the Holocaust.) Maybe that's because he's half Jewish? Gen. Clark's original last name was Kanne -- his father Benjamin Kanne was Jewish, and he subsequently was raised as a Protestant who converted to Catholicism in Vietnam. I don't think Clark is truly the self-loathing type, and I don't think he's an anti-Semite. But this is convenient mud for conservatives who want to tar two men before the Democratic party.

Anti-Semite is one of the slurs du jour in American politics. It's like "racist" or "sexist" or "former drug addict" -- it instantly tars a person and taints everything they've ever said. And it doesn't have to be proven, since the existence of anti-Semitism is presumed in so many bastions of American society. (Including, I might add, the American military.) Its use reminds me of the old political joke. One political operative says to the other: "Let's just say the guy sleeps with pigs." The other says "But that's not true." The first operative, who I'll name Karl, says "Who cares? The rumor will stick, and he'll spend the rest of the campaign trying to explain that he doesn't sleep with farm animals."

I'm not so naive as to think that such slander has no place or history in politics. It's a dirty business, and anyone with a thin skin should stay out of politics. But the irony here is that the neo-con's defenders are now committing the same bad act with with the neo-cons themselves are charged -- distortion of the facts in order to make an argument. Granted, all the neo-con defenders are doing is bending the record to make a baseless charge of anti-Semitism, while the neo-cons themselves distorted the facts in order to launch a war. But the parallel is still there. It's like one of my law professors says: "When the facts and the law aren't on your side... that's when you really get creative."

Update I: Mark Lewis puts it more directly on his site: "Clark = Anti-Semite??? Or perhaps David Brooks = Jackass." I'll go for the latter. Mark also points us to Josh Marshall's comments on the matter. Josh has written some great stuff on neo-cons and their influence on contemporary American foreign policy, so his commentary is worth reading.

Update II: Kevin Drum adds his voice to the fray, along with Mark Kleiman. I imagine this will be an issue discussed tomorrow night by Wes Clark during his "wireside" chat with several notable bloggers.

Monday, January 5, 2004

Accidents exact a heavy toll from America's military

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on one of the largest problems faced by America's military: the rate at which accidents kill or injure soldiers, and the reasons for these accidents. If you've been following the Iraq casualty announcements, you'll know that a staggering number have died as the result of non-combat wounds. The Times reports that this is nothing new, and that accidents have taken thousands of lives over the last two decades.
The recent increases occurred as the U.S. fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and troops found themselves in treacherous conditions and unfamiliar terrain. Nonetheless, most fatal accidents in the last three years occurred in the United States. In fact, half the fatalities happened in private motor vehicles — exacting a high price in lost soldiers and increased health-care costs.

For a generation, accidents have proved far more deadly than combat or terrorism. Since 1980, more than 20,000 military personnel have died in accidents while fewer than 1,000 have perished in battle, Defense Department figures show.

By its nature, military service is dangerous. Those who enlist do so with the expectation that they may be put in harm's way.

Nevertheless, the military had been steadily reducing its losses due to accidents, cutting its annual fatality figure by 56% between 1991 and 1998. But the reductions stopped the following year, even as private sector companies with high-risk activities, such as commercial airlines, continued to make impressive strides in reducing accidents. With the military rates climbing again, the magnitude of the losses has drawn concern at the highest levels. In May, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld challenged the heads of the services to cut the number and rate of accidents by half within two years.

"World-class organizations do not tolerate preventable accidents," he said. "These goals are achievable.... We owe no less to the men and women who defend our nation."
Analysis: This is a really tough nut to crack. Training for combat must be somewhat dangerous in order to approximate the risks and circumstances faced in combat. Commanders learn to manage risks in their operations -- both safety risks and operational risks. But it's an inexact science at best, and it's very hard to find the balance between realistic training and safe training. Factors such as fatigue, maintenance, weather, and terrain often make this very tricky. It's even harder in combat, where soldiers are forced to go-go-go in order to get the mission done, at the cost of proper maintenance, rest plans, etc. It takes an extremely disciplined force to manage this kind of risk while simultaneously pursuing the mission in the most effective and efficient way possible.

The bottom line is this: deaths caused by accidents are generally preventable deaths (see this essay of the same name), and as such, they're a real tragedy when they occur because they didn't have to occur. Deaths in combat happen, and you're never quite sure you can prevent them because the enemy gets a vote too and combat is chaotic by nature. We may never be able to reduce this number to zero, just as we're not able to stop all fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. But it's a metric we ought to be concerned about for three reasons. First, America's sons and daughters in uniform are a precious resource, and we should worry about any threat that could take them from us. Second, accidental deaths/injuries take combat power (soldiers) out of the fight, and we can't afford those losses. Third, a high number of such accidents is an indicator of other problems in the force, such as deferred maintenance, poor rest plans during continuous operations, poor drivers' training, etc.
India and Pakistan take tentative steps to a lasting peace

One of the biggest news stories of this past week was buried inside the three major newspapers I read, but it deserves mention. The Los Angeles Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had a one-on-one meeting in Pakistan yesterday with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as part of Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan for a regional meeting. The meeting comes as the latest in a series of peaceful overtures between the two nuclear adversaries.
There were no immediate details on the substance of the Vajpayee-Musharraf talks, which lasted about an hour.

Earlier, Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha had described the planned encounter as a "courtesy call." But Pakistani Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed predicted in an interview that the two leaders would agree on a framework for future negotiations between India and Pakistan on a range of issues.

"I think the meeting will be successful, in a positive direction, and there will be something on a composite dialogue," Ahmed said, using a diplomatic phrase for direct talks on numerous issues, not only the disputed territory of Kashmir.

* * *
The last direct peace talks between India and Pakistan ended in July 2001, when Vajpayee and Musharraf came close but failed to agree on a timetable for negotiations at a summit in Agra, India.
Analysis: I'm not as smart on South Asian issues as I should be, considering its potential for war in the next decade. (See RAND analyst Chris Fair's article in the Atlantic Monthly predicting that India/Pakistan will be the source of 2 out of 10 major conflicts in the next decade.) But whenever I see some news like this, I think it's generally a good thing. For whatever it's worth, we do not want a war on the Indian sub-continent, and it's good news for the United States when two regional powers can manage their conflicts with diplomacy instead of force. It would be great to see some sort of strategic framework evolve from these high-level talks, or even some bilateral compact. But at least they're talking, and that's a good sign.

Update: CNN reports that "history has been made", and that India and Pakistan have agreed to a diplomatic framework which will guide future talks between the two nations over the disputed region of Kashmir.