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September 28, 2007


Military Frustration Simmers Toward Some NATO Allies

Lack of Political Will Creating Military Consequences In Afghanistan

By Steve Schippert | September 28, 2007

You won't hear it outside private military circles - at least you won't hear it from them - but long-murmured grumblings are beginning to crescendo regarding some NATO allies' small relative number and timid nature of contributions in Afghanistan. Behind the scenes, such comments and discussions are usually well beyond earshot of the media. It is, after all, a political issue, not a military issue. And the military services are generally careful not to tread into political territory. But the political affairs and decisions of some are beginning to be perceived as having very real military consequences on the ground in Afghanistan.

Though not publicly voiced, the internal military consternation and dissatisfaction stems from various European NATO members' reluctance to actually engage the enemy, a reflection of political leadership rather than the uniformed soldiers actually deployed. This dissatisfaction - primarily shared among US, Canadian and British commanders and troops - is the source of the non-specific reference in a statement from the chairman of NATO’s military committee. Canadian Air Force Gen. Raymond Henault reminded that all of NATO’s member nations agreed to the Afghanistan mission “very clearly and very consciously,” and understood then that it would be a long commitment.

The Canadian General, who has seen his nation's military shoulder its fair share of the burden in missions, blood and lives lost, said ”There is a requirement for burden-sharing in this very significant mission for NATO.” It is a gentle public prodding of what is addressed in far more colorful and direct language privately in military circles. And it's about as close as you're going to hear publicly, too.

The DefenseNews article reported that because of "a fiercer-than-expected Taliban-led insurgency and a mounting troop death toll, some of the 37 nations in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are reconsidering their involvement." The European members' "reconsideration" adds to the oft stated al-Qaeda claim that the West generally, and America in particular, does not have the stomach for a prolonged campaign that includes casualties.

The 'stomach' is reflective of the political will of nations' leaders, which usually can be directly traced - in democracies - to that of their respective populations. Consider from the same article:
There is in particular pressure in Canada and The Netherlands, which are deployed in the dangerous southern areas of Afghanistan, for their mandates in Afghanistan to not be extended. Some of the 37 nations, such as Austria and Switzerland, also only contribute a handful of soldiers to the 40,000-strong ISAF.
It is not beyond reasonable to speculate that, as it is for America, the European troops in question - deployed on the ground and facing the enemy in the field (or, potentially in some cases) - do not hold the same reservations as much of their reluctant populations. Again, it is a political problem, not necessarily a military problem, though the consequences are indeed military in nature. And the additional burden of those consequences are borne by the same troops privately leveling the criticism.

The imbalanced burden sharing goes far beyond simply numbers, and the grumbling that will likely never be directly publicly voiced centers more around the nature of the participation of those troops that are committed by our smaller NATO allies. Some NATO-member deployed contingents are sent with rules of engagement that discourage armed combat with enemy Taliban forces. Indeed, some are known to actually encourage disengagement from the enemy at the soonest possible time, even in self defense. NATO members whose troops are ordered to operate under such rules of engagement, in fact, rarely conduct offensive operations to press the enemy. Some seemingly never.

For instance, when patrols are conducted by such members' forces and they are engaged by an aggressive enemy, the defensive objective can be - and is - perceived as one whose goal is to disengage as soon as possible and retreat to garrison at the earliest avail. This generalized description lies at the heart of the (publicly) unspoken outright frustration of largely US, Canadian and British troops and commanders in theater.

Such NATO-member unwillingness exacerbates other challenges facing Afghanistan and the mission there.

Henault said force needed more maneuver troops, teams and helicopters to mentor the fledgling Afghan forces.

To this end, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, US General Dan McNeill, fears that Afghan troops are 'likely to lose British gains' in Helmand province. "I think there is some chance of that because the Afghan national security forces have not been as successful in holding as we would like them to be," Gen. McNeill said. "We are likely to have to do some of this work again."

With greater commitment from other NATO allies, such gains would be at considerably less risk than they are now as the Afghan National Army (ANA) matures and solidifies as a capable and more independent military force. Such professional military maturation is not something that can be addressed overnight, neither in Afghanistan nor Iraq. But compensating for this known weakness can and should happen responsibly and reflexively through those who have signed on to the Afghanistan mission. But it is not.

Granted the military forces of small nations can never and should never be expected to shoulder the same burdens and commitments as those of the larger nations. But the problem is far deeper than that.

Simply increasing NATO numbers is not the answer. Even if smaller NATO members triple their troop levels in Afghanistan, they cannot simply continue to operate with the current assorted timid and risk-averse rules of engagement policies that often require disengagement and retreat rather than the engagement and defeat of a ruthless enemy. This accomplishes nothing. This much the upstart Afghan National Army can accomplish without much assistance.

Consider the Radio Netherlands report of a 'Tougher Taliban in western Uruzgan' province, neighboring Helmand.
bq. One of the problems the Afghan, Dutch and American troops in Dihrawud district [of Uruzgan] are facing is an enemy which is well-organised, well-trained and heavily armed. Quite a difference from the 'amateur' Taliban militias Dutch and other NATO troops also encounter. General Berlijn:

"We have seen an improvement of their tactics and procedures. A year ago, 'amateur soldiers' was maybe a good way to describe them. We now see they are much better [trained]. (...) We know there are foreign fighters there and we think that these fighters train the Taliban. It's something that we take very seriously."

And while the Dutch contingent is certainly small, the NATO member's Chief of Defence says that the Dutch are "in contact with NATO to see if the NATO chain of command is of the opinion that the region should be reinforced." Why?

General Berlijn declined to reveal the nationality of the foreign fighters in Western Uruzgan. But last week, Radio Netherlands found out in Uruzgan itself that the presence of fighters from Pakistan and Bosnia is known beyond any doubt - in fact, prisoners have been taken from their ranks and handed over to the Afghan authorities. It is assumed that Chechen fighters are also active in Dihrawud district.

Considering the aggressive make-up of the growing number of battle-hardened foreign fighters from Pakistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, the private reaction to such a statement seeking reinforcement is likely a cynical, "Yeah. Try reinforcing Dihrawud with Americans or Canadians instead of from timid central Europeans."

The troops from these nations are professional and capable. It is unfortunate that they are hamstrung by their respective political leadership's unwillingness to confront even al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Afghanistan cannot be popularly dismissed as 'not central' to the 'War on Terror.' This is the former home of those who brought down the Twin Towers and gleefully slaughtered nearly 3,000 civilians who committed the sin of going to work in America. And those fine gentlemen have simply moved next door to Pakistan.

For thousands, no more is the daily commute through the tunnels and over the bridges into the heart of Manhattan. But rest assured, their slaughterers have assumed their collective commute, executing it over the badlands of western Pakistan into the familiar terrains of Afghanistan. And still, much of Europe's NATO members drag their political feet, surely hoping that America, Britain, Canada, Australia and the ever-tough Poles can settle things before they are prodded into any meaningful contribution.

Afghanistan is decidedly not a Blue Hat mission for corrupt and quick-to-retreat UN forces. The conflict-averse leadership of our allies would do well to recognize this, lest the NATO alliance become no more valuable than the paper upon which the pact is printed.

September 24, 2007


Prepare to Flee?

Fall-of-Saigon Parallels Fall Short

By Michael Tanji | September 24, 2007

Speaking to CQ Editor Jeff Stein, former CIA officer Frank Snepp wonders if we should not be preparing for a helo-atop-the-embassy moment in Baghdad.

The swift retreat of the South Vietnamese Army in the face of an enemy offensive was as much of a surprise to American commanders in Saigon as a complete Iraq government collapse is unimaginable to U.S. leaders today, says Frank Snepp, who was the CIA’s top analyst on communist strategy in Saigon in 1975.

“Wishful thinking is a narcotic, and it doomed us, and a lot of our friends, in Vietnam in the last days,” Snepp said . . .

It has become standard practice for both supporters and detractors of the war in Iraq to look back to past wars for parallels. Vietnam is particularly popular, though not always apropos.

True, the Iraqi military is not performing to a uniformly high US-standard, but today’s Iraqi army is not the army of Saddam Hussein; it is in effect the Army of General Petraeus. Those who have witnessed their performance first hand state that Iraq's best units are likely superior to the forces of any neighbor in the Middle East.

The question of national reconciliation is a more vexing problem, but then Vietnam is not where we should be looking for examples. A nation with deep tribal and sectarian divides is almost assuredly destined for devolution in some fashion. As grand strategist Thomas Barnett points out, Iraq is basically the Balkans in reverse. Granted, the Balkans may not be Shangri-la, but it is much more post-war Europe than post-war Southeast Asia.

Given that the Pentagon plans for just about everything, we can be fairly certain a plan exists to get us and our allies out in the event of a catastrophe. As Ambassador Crocker recently pointed out however, our ability to execute the plan in a timely fashion is questionable. This is the military that is using hand-held biometric devices to catalog large swaths of the population; to think that we don’t have copious records sufficient to serve as manifests for an airlift out is a little incredulous. Still, Mr. Snepp has a respectable chance to be proven right given that most plans, no matter how thorough, rarely remain in tact after the first shot is fired. If US forces in Iraq are dealt a spectacular blow, chaos and massacre is not out of the question.

Let us consider one last and very important factor where Vietnam comparisons fall short. The US military in Iraq today is not a draftee army exhausted from over a decade of a broadly unpopular and ill-fought war. The all-volunteer force of today continues to volunteer to fight in Iraq, often en masse. Desertions are almost unheard of. Whereas anti-Vietnam war protests could readily attract tens if not hundreds of thousands - despite multiple My Lai and Nguyen Ngoc Loan-moments over the past four years - more people show up to a Division II college football game than attend an anti-Iraqi Freedom protest.

We should not be overly confident that our transition out of Iraq will be as anti-climactic as our departure from what was West Germany, but neither should we give short shrift to the meaningful progress that has been made in so short a time. Our departure from Iraq is a given, but to think that a repeat of the fall of Saigon is inevitable is too convenient by half.

September 11, 2007


Courage and Leadership

Petraeus and Crocker Reveal Sources - and Absence - in Iraq and America

By ThreatsWatch | September 11, 2007

On September 10th and again today, September 11th, Capitol Hill and the world witnessed some of the most solid, honest and frank discourse on the situation in Iraq. The assessments given by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are noteworthy for several reasons, but we focus on two of the most important here.

To summarize General Petraeus:
  • Al-Qaeda in Iraq is being defeated; in part thanks to us, in part thanks to the Iraqis, who are rejecting al-Qaeds’ violent implementation of ideology by taking up arms against them.
  • Despite the best efforts of Iran, both US and Iraqi forces are also dealing defeats to the Shia militias and affiliated terrorist groups.
  • The Iraqi security forces are not 100%, but they are shouldering more and more of the burden of national security every day.
  • If current successes continue, a modest draw-down of US forces is warranted.
In other words: The surge is working.

To encapsulate the testimony of Ambassador Crocker:

". . . we should not be surprised or dismayed that Iraqis have not fully resolved such issues. Rather, we should ask whether the way in which they are approaching such issues gives us a sense of their seriousness and ultimate capability to resolve Iraq's fundamental problems . . ."


"Iran plays a harmful role in Iraq. While claiming to support Iraq in its transition, Iran has actively undermined it by providing lethal capabilities to the enemies of the Iraqi state. In doing so, the Iranian government seems to ignore the risks that an unstable Iraq carries for its own interests."

In other words: Rome wasn't built in a day. And Iraq's progress, be it slow in many areas, comes despite the efforts of its neighbors and enemies.

If this sounds familiar it is because the editors stated as much in Achieving Victory in Iraq at the start of this year:

We are obliged to leave Iraq in a better state than in which we found it, which means a nation with a form of government not dominated by a brutal dictator, and an environment in which it is safe to walk the street . . .. Such an endeavor will require, among other things, patience and understanding. Thinking that a people long oppressed will suddenly and effectively flourish in a democratic, multi-partisan and secular fashion is to ignore some fundamental realities and engage in the most wishful thinking. Likewise, to dismiss the peoples of Iraq as incapable of developing the requisite character and will to successfully self-govern as a responsible neighbor and potential ally tends toward bigotry and is not in the character of our nation.

The words of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are an unmistakable challenge to those who do not appreciate that politics in Iraq is literally a life-or-death struggle. This challenge offers a clarity unlike the the disdain those who advocate rapid withdrawal have for those who risk their lives to bring about a political resolution. We declared independence in 1776, were not militarily victorious until 1781, and it could be argued that we did not fully solidify as a republic until after 1865. That is a much longer time-frame for military success and political reconciliation than we are affording Iraq and those early Americans faced no sectarian strife, insurgency or foreign proxy war.

The men we call our Founders were in their day in constant danger for advocating liberty and freedom from tyranny. As viewed from our perspective, many Iraqi politicians are a far cry from the Founding Fathers, but in other ways they are more like those early Americans than many contemporary Americans who wield political power today and who safely and freely level criticism without appreciating the risk their Iraqi counterparts have accepted. Whom should we view in a more negative light: the imperfect Iraqi Parliament, struggling to hold on to a nascent democracy; or short-sighted and unsympathetic members of Congress, safe in their own situations and so quick to forget what true courage and leadership are?

September 7, 2007

United States of America

Six Years Later

What progress has a year brought us?

By Michael Tanji | September 7, 2007

Last year at about this time I wrote in the Daily Standard:

FIVE YEARS AFTER the attacks of September 11, 2001, we face many threats at home and abroad, yet our response has been mostly superficial and expedient. One is left to wonder: Are we serious about winning this fight?

For those unwilling or unable to go back and read the entire piece, I'll summarize the key points for you here:

  • Radical Islamists have been at war with us for years but we didn't get serious until the WTC towers fell and the Pentagon became a square.
  • Attempts to fight a politically correct war is only going to result in more dead Americans. Not every Arab or Muslim is a terrorist, but add up all the accused, convicted, and dead terrorists in recent history and the tally is skewed in one direction. Pretending this isn't a reality is asking for trouble.
  • Alternative views about our enemies, their capabilities and their intentions should not be discarded lightly. All the voices in the wilderness that laid out the case against AQ prior to 9/11 could have formed a choir.
  • Wanting to win the war and supporting those who fight it is not evil or hegemonistic; it's called being a patriot. If you don't agree that's fine, but don't blame us for trying to finish what someone else started.

I would like to say that some progress has been made on all of these fronts, but while there are bright spots, the horizon is still fairly cloudy.

We have started to make headway in Iraq thanks to the new counterinsurgency strategy, but we're not nearly as far along as most – even supporters of the war – would like. Thankfully the game is draw, not stud poker; we get a chance to get new cards and we're taking advantage of that fact. It's not a guarantee of success, but it improves our odds of winning. Winning, by the way, is what you cannot do if you are not playing.

Politically speaking we're still a mess. We've recently improved our ability to monitor terrorists thanks to new online surveillance law, but the rending of hair and gnashing of teeth over the effort was staggering in its display. No legislator that actually understands the problem or read the legislation had reason to doubt the need for such capability, but that didn't stop any of them from using the issue as a political football.

We've also not stopped the use of defense or security legislation as a gravy train for pork. The flimsiest of connections to national security serve as justification for under-funding essential projects, and in the bizarro-world of Capitol Hill it is the Pentagon and intelligence community – not bacon-carving legislators - that are lambasted when they present their proposed budgets.

Speaking of intelligence, we've seen progress in the establishment of an intelligence community wiki and the use of internal blogs to promote information sharing and more diverse ideas, but their use is still not prevailing, standard practice. We're in the second decade of the information age, and what is ostensibly the information-centric enterprise is still very much in an industrial-age mode.

The superficial arguments that make up the prevailing discourse about the war is getting us nowhere. If our national leadership – administrative and legislative – consider themselves statesmen vice simply politicians, then the ridiculous rhetoric has to stop. Getting people to take your new initiatives seriously means having to admit that mistakes were made in the past. Crow is not the tastiest dish in the world, but once it is off the table, it can't be used against you. By that same token when progress is made it should not be viewed under the shadow of a reality that does not exist. Abu Ghraib is over and done with, and attempts to revive the story line tend to fall flat for a reason (they're abominable aberrations, when they're not outright lies). It is ridiculously easy to score political points against the opposition without lobbing long-dead horses at them. Getting the majority of the country behind a strategy for fighting those that would end us is more important than getting half of the country behind a particular strategy.

We have witnessed wholesale progress in this past year, but as with any complex endeavor leaps forward in one area are accompanied by set-backs in another. Still, forward progress period beats going retrograde. The ability of our national leadership to discuss honestly and plainly the key issues of the day is still lacking, leaving explanations up to the chattering class and their respective agendas. That's only a good thing if you think all those talking heads are a suitable substitute for connected, representative leadership.

While most in this country are blessed enough to only have to chat about the war, there are other who are actually fighting it. We would all do well to take a lesson from this cadre of professionals; the overwhelming majority of which willingly return again and again to the fight and who re-enlist en masse even in a war zone. They are not advancing an agenda; they are accomplishing a mission on behalf of all of us. As we start the second half of the decade in which everything supposedly changed, that sort of clarity and commitment is something both sides of the issue and the aisle would do well to consider.

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