Category Archives: Afghanistan

President Obama presents Medal of Honor to Army SSG Salvatore Giunta

President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to SSG Giunta in the White House East Room

Following up upon and seemingly answering Jules Crittenden’s previous critique this summer that the United States of America had failed to appropriately honor numerous valorous acts by thus far only awarding the Medal of Honor posthumously during the OIF or OEF conflicts, today President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to SSG Giunta for his incredible actions on October 25, 2007. The citation reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007. While conducting a patrol as team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force. While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted towards cover and engaged the enemy. Seeing that his squad leader had fallen and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid. While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Specialist Giunta’s body armor and his secondary weapon. Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position. Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element. Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative. As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security. Specialist Giunta’s unwavering courage, selflessness, and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy. Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, and the United States Army.

Posted: 16 Nov, 2010

Operation Hollywood: Tinseltown’s recent wave of films on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In the last three years, Hollywood, along with independent film companies and some documentarians, have begun producing films related to the wars against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the conversation has started is a vast improvement from the early years when all that was available were short news segments from embedded reporters and insurgency propaganda.  In the following selection of films, the viewpoints range from the soldier’s view and the families they left behind to the political woes of elected officials trying to manage the conflicts and the public opinions back home. Are they getting the story right? You decide.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

As delighted as I am for Kathryn Bigelow to be the first female to win best director, it is a shame that with so few movies about Iraq, (and still so many misconceptions among the American people) the one that caught so many people’s attention, got so much wrong.

The cavalier and nonchalant actions of EOD technician SFC James displays none of the characteristics of teamwork and esprit de corps of which the US military is prided today. Also, the convoys consisting of one HMMWV rolling out of Victory Base Complex (Baghdad), or the rogue senior NCO sneaking off base, were far from realistic. The consensus from the vet community is that the CGI was good, but the portrayal in this film was embarrassing.

Brothers (2009)

This film, a remake of a Swedish film of the same name, follows a U.S. Marine captain, his wife and two daughters from pre-deployment preps to his assumed funeral, and ultimately to his return from being a POW in the hands of Afghan warlords. His post-traumatic stress becomes uncontrollable when he suspects his ex-con brother has been having an affair with his wife. This film is sure to stir up emotions through the sometimes-graphic displays of post-combat stress on the Marine officer and his family.

The Lucky Ones (2008)

The Lucky Ones follows three Army soldiers, who through coincidence and cancelled flights, end up renting a car together during their mid-tour leave from Iraq.  Both the young male and female soldiers were wounded in battle and all had other battles to confront when they get home.  This film reminds us that no matter our origins, education level, or years of service, veterans have a way of easily creating bonds and being faithful friends during the thick and thin.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

This film blends together a disaffected high schooler receiving advice from his mentor teacher, a US senator with aims for higher office and the probing veteran reporter that nags him, and two deployed soldiers in Afghanistan. I believe the iconic scene in the film is when the two soldiers are completely surrounded by Taliban fighters. It is winter, in the mountains, and one of the men has been wounded. Rather than try escaping on his own, leaving his comrade behind, the battle buddy stays with his wounded friend, a move tantamount to death for them both. This heroic action illustrates the true ethos of never leave a fallen soldier behind.

The Green Zone (2010)

Some may assume that a soldier’s job in combat is to follow and execute orders from above. But what happens when things just don’t add up? This feature film follows Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller during the early months of post-invasion Iraq. Through personal curiosity and determination, Miller discovers that the faulty WMD intel was just a political ploy for invasion.  This film shows the lengths politicians may go to win the public relations battle and the how it effects the service member on the ground.

Lioness (2008)

Many Americans may not be aware that official policy prohibits women from joining MOS (military occupational specialties) that require direct ground combat.  Soon after the conflict and insurgency began in Iraq, it became apparent that women would in fact be needed to help search female Iraqis and conduct other tasks that would be considered taboo for the men.  Lioness is a documentary about the small group of female Army support soldiers who served alongside U.S. Marines in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles in post- invasion Iraq.  The film primarily focuses on their reflections and coping once they redeployed.

The Messenger (2009)

In a directorial debut by Oren Moverman, The Messenger gives a completely new look at conflict as this film follows a captain and staff sergeant who have been assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Just recently returned from his own Iraq deployment, SSG Montgomery struggles to heal from his own battle wounds while transitioning to his new mission of notifying families of the fallen.

Restrepo (2010)

This documentary follows a U.S. Army platoon in the dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan during their yearlong deployment.  Their remote fire base, Restrepo, was named after their fallen platoon medic.  In ninety minutes, audiences will experience the death of a team member, firefights, and the sleep disorders that these young soldiers have to juggle while patrolling the mountains of a country where the enemy is not always clearly apparent.

Western Front (2010)

Writer and director Zachary Iscol fought in Al Anbar, Iraq in 2004 with the U.S. Marine Corps.  Years later he returns to find a different situation, though the experience resurfaces many old memories.  This honest film ends up revealing the nature of war from all sides.

Baker Boys: Inside the Surge (2009)

This documentary follows the final ninety days of a 15-month deployment in Iraq of Baker Company, First Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry Regiment.  A part of the famed 3rd Infantry Division, the deployment, a part of the surge of 2007, was the third round in Iraq for many of the soldiers.  Through four 60-minute episodes, we get an insight into what COIN looks like on the ground and the imprinted scars of battle that appear once back in garrison.

Warrior Champions: From Baghdad to Beijing (2009)

In Warrior Champions, we learn the inspiring stories of four severely wounded Iraq veterans who have truly made lemonade from lemons.  In as little as a year after losing limbs in battle, these athletes trained and competed for slots in the 2008 Paralympic Games.  These four heroes quickly became the symbols of hope and determination for the myriad new patients that arrived at Walter Reed Army Medial Center.

The Tillman Story (2010)

The Tillman Story tells the truth, which was concealed for many years, of the life and death of professional football player turned Army ranger Pat Tillman.  Through dedication and an insatiable appetite for the answers, Dannie Tillman collected evidence and questioned top officials to get the real story leading to the fall of her son.  Pat’s story is ultimately about patriotism and honor- the traits that were not present when top officials used his death as a public relations ploy.

Posted: 27 Aug 2010.

A Response To Nicholas Kristof; We are still at war, let’s fight together.

The one of the Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

The one of the U.S. Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

In a recent editorial for the N.Y. Times Nicholas Kristof plays upon his fiddle a familiar tune; building schools is better for peace than firing missiles.  In the abstract this theme is undoubtedly true.  Collectively we know that education is the key to a better, safer world.  It is not a question of whether building schools is better for peace then firing missiles, the question is actually whether building schools is better for peace in Afghanistan.

Kristof cites a recent report from the Congressional Research Service that states that the war in Afghanistan will cost more than any other war in our nation’s history aside from WWII.  He also cites the recently leaked military documents, which incidentally and sadly may cost both American and Afghan lives, for support that the military strategy is a “mess.” Additionally, according to Kristof, for the cost of one soldier “we could start to build about 20 schools there.” And, interestingly, Kristof states that education has been far better at neutralizing extremism than military power.

Mr. Kristof is not wrong for believing that education is critical and must be an integral part of our strategy for success in Afghanistan.  The problem with his point of view is that he does not accurately depict the brutal reality facing both the Afghan population and the U.S. military.  Kristof should consider a more narrow focus on those actual realities including the fact that many schools have no doubt survived the Taliban due to military provided security.

Surely Kristof has met women like Aisha, an Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban? And for what egregious offense did Aisha receive this punishment? Because she attempted to escape the abuse of family members.   Will these members of the Taliban enroll in school? And will this happen before or after they read their autographed copies of Three Cups of Tea? How long will the education plan take to affect a burqa wearing suicide bomber such as the one on June 11, 2010 who killed two civilians and wounded another 16?

Perhaps the worst part of Kristof’s view of Afghanistan is his rather uninformed depiction of America’s fighting men and women.  Many members of the media with experience embedded with NATO forces would tell you that today’s soldier is a true “renaissance man,” or woman.  The primary skill set of most soldiers is focused on warfighting, but our nation’s current mission has required much more.  Soldiers are taking out the enemy while at the same time providing humanitarian relief, meeting with town and tribal councils, and directing civil reconstruction projects.  It is up to the Afghanistan people to use this blanket of security and stability to form political gains and reconciliation.  The military cannot do this for them, but neither can simply building schools.

Kristof actually gives no evidence in support of his claims. In what situation analogous to Afghanistan, is it true that education has neutralized extremism better than military power? Our nation, despite the economy, is generally business as usual and this makes it easy for us to forget that we are at war.  We are at war with two enemies; one who killed thousands of Americans, lest we forget, and the other who gave those murderers safe haven.  Because the average American civilian has gone back to business as usual, does not mean the enemy has.

Even a cursory glance will leave you empty handed in finding a comparable situation where education has been successful as a unilateral strategy while leaving military assistance on the shelf.  We need only look to Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009.  The 23 year old came from a privileged background and studied at a boarding school prior to his enrollment at University College London.  What aboutKhalid Sheik Mohammed whose time at studying engineering in North Carolina “almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist” according to the CIA.  Or the fact that we know that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from middle class and educated backgrounds.  It seems that it is not a lack of education that is our problem.

When the evil of fascism and racist extremism gripped our world during World War II, should the Allies have redirected our D-Day budget to the building of schools on the cost of France?  Was there a shortage of schools throughout Europe that allowed ignorance to rule the day?  Education is a wonderful and helpful tool to enriching lives and changing attitudes, but when a certain evil of this world rises up we must meet it with our intelligence, our material, and when appropriate our military.

Mr. Kristof says that his “hunch” is that CARE is doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.  But what are the statistics on stability in the areas where these schools are located? Are attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda down in those areas?  If there was a decline in violence was it in the absence of security? This blanket transformation of areas within Afghanistan must have surely led to a wholesale emigration of Afghans to these areas, and how are these schools coping with the surge?

I must wonder whether Kristof is aware of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) working to improve the lives of the Afghan population every day.  There are an almost 30 PRTs established by 18 national governments operating in Afghanistan.   PRTs are commanded by a military officer, usually a Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent and typically include representatives from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, and Defense, as well as the United States Agency for International Development.  The PRT in the Zabul region of Afghanistan completed more than 65 projects over the course of a ten month period from 2009-2010.  These projects totaled more than $40 million and addressed medical education, road reconstruction, and quality of life issues.  In the Helmand province the PRT reopened 40 schools since December 2008 and actually built four of the schools.  Additionally, as of January 2010 pupil enrollment in the Helmand province increased 34% among females and figures showed a total enrollment of 83,995 students.    All totaled there are 103 schools open in Helmand, and in 2007 there were only 47.  The gains and accomplishments by PRTs are the result of years of work to reach out to the Afghan population.  As far back as 2004 military civil affairs soldiers from PRT Tarin Kowt worked as the “connection between U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the people.” This early PRT worked to provide supplies and funds for agriculture, education, and construction.  The sacrifice and work of the American soldier to provide solid and sustainable improvement to the education and economic situation of the Afghan people must not be ignored.  Moreover, I have a hunch that these soldiers are doing quite good at bringing peace to Afghanistan.

My humble advice to Mr. Kristof would be to spend a week with our nation’s soldiers.  Speak with their commanders, speak with the grunts.  Focus less on the words of the elite in Washington and whilst you roll up your sleeves looking at the schools built by Greg Mortenson, roll up your sleeves and look at the work done by the U.S. military.  When you finish please write an op-ed describing what you saw, and this time around I would bet you will have a more balanced and realistic depiction of the military’s role in Afghanistan.  A needed depiction of our countrymen’s struggle to provide assistance.  The women and men of the military are not aliens from another galaxy or robots constructed by the government.  They are people just like you, from places like Yamhill, Oregon, and they are in Afghanistan doing the best they can, in a bad situation, because their President asked them to.

Posted on 3 Aug 2010

Photo: nato.int

Tagged , , , ,

Float like a starfish, sting like a spider

Army Starfish Program

“The Army’s Starfish Program” seeks to promote decentralization as yet another tool to counter decentralized and networked threats.

The day someone becomes CEO of a large corporation, it is classic to warn them about the dangers of hierarchy by saying “yesterday was the last day that anyone will tell you what is actually going on in the company”.  Conventional thinking is that the military is even more hierarchical.  In reality, however, it is impressive how the Army is at the cutting edge of non-hierarchical thinking.

A good example comes from an article in POLITICO about the book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”.

The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given piece is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia.
“This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge,” write the authors of “The Starfish and the Spider,” Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. “It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.”
What caught my eye about the article was that Brafman was asked about his political ideology, but declined to discuss that because “he is doing consulting work with the U.S. Army trying to help it “become more starfish-like.”

A New York Times article describes another way the military is exploring non-hierarchical thinking, by working with Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea“.  Word of Mortenson’s book spread among military wives, including one who sent the book to her husband, LTC Christopher Kolenda.  Kolenda read about Mortenson’s private initiative that built more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, and he and Mortenson began cooperating.  Soon, Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus were urging their husbands to read the book.

As Colonel Kolenda tells it, Mr. Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, became the American high command’s primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the “Kabul bubble”.
The military has found ways to avoid being like the CEO who doesn’t know what is going on.  But they have been careful to ensure that flattening the hierarchy of collecting information doesn’t compromise the hierarchy of command.  Gen. David Petraeus stressed this theme in an April 2009 talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“You have to be careful   . . .   it is great to flatten [the organization] for information, but there does need to be a hierarchy when it comes to people pushing recommendations up, pushing policy decisions up . . . you can’t shove aside a subordinate organization and just take it over.
He also described the importance of taking initiative, citing a sign he saw at an outpost:
In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively!”
When I first met Petraeus in 2006 at an MIT ROTC event, he told me how impressed he was with some of the ROTC graduates who had served with him.  He described how he would give out his card to those who particularly impressed him, urging them to email him if they had something interesting to tell him.  What is even more impressive than this flattening of the information hierarchy is the way he does so, conveying the impression that he has 5 different ideas as to what is important, and making people feel comfortable bouncing a 6th off him, even if they think he’ll disagree.
It is impressive how the military is learning to have a flat information hierarchy, and doing so without compromising the hierarchy of command.  Boxer Muhammad Ali might sum it up as “float like a starfish, sting like a spider”.

This sophisticated understanding of information flows is a real asset, and it will not be surprising if many in the next generation of CEOs are chosen from people who have absorbed these lessons.  Many will have learned the lessons best in the military.  The United States may become more like Israel, where prospective employers care as much about what you did in the military as what you did in university.

Posted on 2 Aug 2010

Photo: army.mil

Tagged , , ,

Petraeus takes command and the dust settles, now what was McChrystal thinking?

We may never know what drove Gen. Stanley McChrystal to say the things he did to Rolling Stone.  But now that the dust has settled we should closely analyze McChrystal’s misstep for hints or suggestions as to what he was really trying to tell us.
By now everyone knows that McChrystal made the fatal mistake of criticizing the civilian chain of command, and for that President Obama accepted his resignation.  McChrystal clearly erred in sharing that he felt that the President was intimidated by his own generals and implying that the Vice-President didn’t have a handle on the Afghan war, and he undoubtedly knows this.  But were his comments regarding senior civilians not in his chain of command meant as a warning?
Military officers are taught from day one to place the care of the men and women under their command first.  McChrystal’s comments hint of man who personally felt that the civilian apparatus was too broken to adequate address the task at hand.  McChrystal is a smart man, and one who spent his career under the radar.  In this highly unorthodox move he broadcast his frustration publicly and openly. Only the General really knows why, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that he chose to make a statement that things are not going quite right in Afghanistan.  Perhaps he felt his strategy did not receive adequate support at home, or that even the best military and civilian minds are struggling to frame a policy to fit the conditions.
There is no real evidence to support the idea that McChrystal purposely ended his career.  Some have even suggested that he and his staff didn’t realize the comments were on the record.
But because it looks increasingly likely that these comments were on the record, and because of his commitment and sacrifice for the country, I don’t think it is a waste to continue the conversation as to why his career ended the way it did.
Posted on 29 Jul 2010

Photo: army.mil
Tagged , , ,

Wikileaks leak an opportunity for frank discussion

President Obama is justified in brushing aside the classified war documents posted on Wikileaks as less than a revelation for the nation’s political discussion, while also deploring their boon to the enemy and the increased danger to our soldiers and allies. Most experts who have reviewed the documents agree with the President.

The trove of classified war documents, however, is impossible-to-ignore authoritative evidence. But of what? The implications are open to interpretation, and eager opponents of the Afghanistan mission are already spinning the data to press their case for hasty American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. For much the same reason that Afghanistan’s opponents tout the leak as game-changing, Wikileaks has given President Obama the opportunity to hold a long-overdue frank discussion with the American people about Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

The President, like his predecessor, has opted to deflect the most disturbing parts of the Afghanistan mission from the American people. Doing so perhaps has protected the mission from reaching a tipping point of popular opposition, but it has also undermined popular understanding of the war and its stakes. As a result, as some war veterans have commented sarcastically, the military has been at war since 9/11, while the country has been at the mall.

In the long run for a long war, an inadequate understanding of the war by the American people cannot sustain the level of national commitment we need to succeed. The media is already reporting growing discontent with Obama’s Afghanistan “Surge”, despite that the execution stage of the President’s strategy has barely begun. It’s time for President Obama to put away the platitudes he inherited from President Bush. Instead, Obama should hold a Melian dialogue with the American people to explain the war’s harsh realities and complexity according to his context as our nation’s leader, so we can deliberately weigh the alternatives as he must. Now that the secrets are in the open, the President can fully make the case that the War on Terror deserves our dogged determination for the foreseeable future because of, not despite, the grim struggle.

A favorite quote of mine from Esquire writer Tom Junod explains the challenge of sustaining America’s will to win at war and the essence of the Wikileaks affair:

The moral certainty that makes war possible is certain only to unleash moral havoc, and moral havoc becomes something the nation has to rise above. We can neither win a war nor save the national soul if all we seek is to remain unsullied–pristine. Anyway, we are well beyond that now. The question is not, and has never been, whether we can fight a war without perpetrating outrages of our own. The question is whether the rightness of the American cause is sufficient not only to justify war but to withstand war’s inevitable outrages. The question is whether–if the cause is right–we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

President Bush allowed his narrative of the War on Terror to be drowned out. The Wikileaks leak has given President Obama the opportunity to convince the American people our cause in Afghanistan is still right and we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

Posted on 28 Jul 2010

Photo: wikicommons

Re-Tooling

GEN PetraeusWall Street Journal does a little chicken-egg on what Petraeus has managed in the last few weeks and what was McChrystal’s work. Basically counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism, though it appears to be a fine, and disputed line. The upshot is WSJ reports a re-tooling is underway with greater emphasis on counterinsurgency, while the White House still wants to hold to its … cough ( political) hawk ptooie, excuse me … troop withdrawal deadline. WSJ figures Petraeus may manage to slow that a little, but not substantially delay halt or reverse. I thought this part was interesting:

Some in the White House advocate a pared-down approach that requires fewer troops and greater emphasis on drone attacks on insurgent leaders. These officials would like to see an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Who’s that?” That is, sounds like that’s who that is.

During the Iraq surge, Gen. Petraeus proved adept at parrying suggestions for a rapid withdrawal and won time to show his strategy could work.

Since then, of course, the surrender enthusiasts got voted into the White House. Makes it more challenging. Especially when they see their political interest, which is to say their primary strategic goal, lying mainly in exit, not success.

People close to Gen. Petraeus said he is unlikely to try to persuade the Obama administration to back off its promise to begin drawing down troops in July 2011. But they do expect him to privately push for troops to be removed slowly, along a timetable that keeps a large force in Afghanistan.
“I think Gen. Petraeus will talk again about putting more time on the Washington clock,” said Peter Mansoor, who served as Gen. Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq and is now a professor at the Ohio State University. “I think we have more time than we think in Afghanistan.”
An effective counterinsurgency strategy can take years, and it remains unclear whether Gen. Petraeus’ approach will work in Afghanistan, where volatile tribal politics, a lack of infrastructure and rudimentary local security forces pose significant challenges.

I don’t know. The first challenge is to make it work in a Democratic White House, where volatile partisan politics, a lack of experience and an at-best rudimentary grasp of security issues …. If anyone can, it’s Petraeus. Obama’s default choice to squelch military insubrdination, a sort of military bigfoot who may have the ability to prevent him and the rest of the current civilian leadership from losing this thing.

NYT, meanwhile, notes that the deadline strategy is a bit of a “double-edged sword.” Goes on to note that confidence is failing, pols and allies shuffling for the door, but fails to connect the dots. A deadline strategy is less of a double edged-sword than a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the leader of the free world has indicated he doesn’t particularly give a damn whether we win this thing or not, why should anyone else?

In other Afghan news:

NYT: Six Afghan police officers beheaded.

AFP: Women in northern Afghanistan retreat behind the veil in fear of Taliban revival.

Guardian: International aid conference underwhelms a jaded Afghan blogosphere.

This one’s interesting. AP:

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban denounced this week’s international conference on Afghanistan’s future, saying the “vague and terrible agenda” shows that the U.S. and its allies intend to abandon the country and blame their ultimate defeat on the Afghan government.

In a statement posted in English on their website, the Taliban said the conference showed that the U.S. “has lost the initiatives and is unable to resolve Afghanistan issue.” The statement was distributed to news organizations by the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors extremist communications.
“Whatever actions are taken in this regard have already been doomed to a failure,” the statement said. “It is evident from the vague and terrible agenda of the conference … that America and the international community intend to pull out of Afghanistan” and blame “all the coming destruction’s, humiliation and defeat on Kabul puppet regime,” meaning the Karzai administration.

Hate to agree with the Taliban on anything, but they might have a point. It almost looks like remarkable clarity of thought on the part of the AP, but rather than any re-tooling to question the Obama admin’s commitment to Afghanistan, they’re just parroting the Islamic extremist line, per normal. (Notable lack of any references to the Taliban’s “deeply unpopular” insurgency, its rising death toll, or its responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths, the kind of boilerplate usually bolted onto any war-related statements the AP takes issue with. After noting a Taliban success in divierting some flights, the article does get around to a BTW mention of some deaths, attributing some beheadings to non-specific insurgents, and the rest of the violence to NATO actions.)

Posted on 24 Jul 2010
Crossposted on http://www.julescrittenden.com

Photo: flickr/soldiermediacenter

Tagged ,

More Like This, Please

Pentagon reviews the actions of a living soldier for a possible Medal of Honor. Washington Post:

The Pentagon has recommended that the White House consider awarding the Medal of Honor to a living soldier for the first time since the Vietnam War, according to U.S. officials.

The soldier, whose nomination must be reviewed by the White House, ran through a wall of enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in fall 2007 in an attempt to push back Taliban fighters who were close to overrunning his squad. U.S. military officials said his actions saved the lives of about half a dozen men.

It is possible that the White House could honor the soldier’s heroism with a decoration other than the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. Nominations for the Medal of Honor typically include detailed accounts from witnesses and can run hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. The review has been conducted so discreetly that the soldier’s family does not know that it has reached the White House, according to U.S. officials who discussed the nomination on the condition of anonymity because a final decision is pending.

Pentagon officials requested that The Washington Post not name the soldier to avoid influencing the White House review. Administration officials declined to comment on the nomination.

Medal of HonorThe not-naming part seems a little gutless. Our admin can’t review courage above and beyond without being swayed by newspapers?

The article goes on to note that all six MOH awards in the Iraq and Afghan wars were posthumous, three for covering grenades with their bodies.* That the Pentagon and White House are willing to countenance the fact that a soldier can show extraordinary courage and live is important not only for the reality it represents but for the message it sends.

Homefront war coverage in our time has focused heavily on death, PTSD, and the poor treatment of soldiers by their own government, while the actual war front coverage has been largely about despair and failure, even when we win. For all the “support the troops,” there has been very little effort to understand and appreciate those who chose this life and have soldiered on through all the setbacks and political vitriol, or to highlight their extraordinary actions and accomplishments. If the White House wants to win the shooting war,** it needs to remember it has a homefront battle that it has been on the wrong side of. Honoring a live American hero, not least one who stood up in selflessly what is now being deemed a failed effort, could be a good start.

Because this American hero fought in what is now a strategically abandoned position. The Post goes out on this note:

There are at least three Medal of Honor nominations, including the one at the White House, working through the system. The three nominees served in sparsely populated valleys in eastern Afghanistan that U.S. troops have abandoned in recent years.

The valleys, which are within 30 miles of each other, are dominated by treacherous, mountainous terrain that frequently allowed enemy fighters to move within close range of U.S. forces before launching their attack. The remote nature of the valleys meant that troops often had to fight for an hour before attack helicopters arrived on the scene to drive back the enemy.

Senior military officials described the fighting in those valleys as some of the toughest since the Korean and Vietnam wars. “It is a very, very challenging fight,” said one military official. “It is sustained lengthy ground combat.”
The relatively large number of potential Medal of Honor nominations emerging from this remote area of Afghanistan also reflected a war strategy that asked U.S. commanders to do too much with too few resources, military analysts said. Frequently troops were overextended in hostile terrain.

“We should be stationing our troops in places where they won’t be earning the Medal of Honor because the population and terrain favor us and we have quick access to air support,” said John Nagl, one of the authors of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine and president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank.

Hard to argue with trying to be smart and avoid getting killed. Nagl undoubtedly knows a lot more about warfighting and counterinsurgency than I do. But ways not to earn the Medal of Honor as a strategic and/or tactical principle starts to sound like the other side of that “Courageous Restraint” coin. A kind of “first do no harm” school of warfighting that has led to complaints that troops are being asked not to protect themselves, and to position themselves where they will not be forced to protect themselves. How about stationing our troops in places where they can effectively kill the enemy, cut off the enemy’s movements and supply lines, and protect the population, and giving them the freedom to do those things? If those happen to be places where someone at some point is called on to go beyond, and earns the Medal of Honor, so be it.

Good point on the air support, though. At last check, the troops in Afghanistan are getting tired of not being allowed to kill the enemy, and some Afghans aren’t crazy about it, either. It gets people killed when you do that.

On that subject, Gen. Petraeus, while you’re reconsidering the ROE, please reconsider that “courageous restraint” thing. Courage takes many forms, all deserving of recognition, but actively encouraging soldiers and commanders to engage in poor decision-making is a bad idea. Previously re that, The Taliban Cross.

*Not to include USMC Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was deemed to have been likely brain dead when he fell on a grenade. His Navy Cross became an issue, which may be the kind of thing the White House is now trying to avoid by keeping it under wraps, with Washington Post enablance.

** It’s far from certain whether the White House actually does want to win, though as some commentators have noted, by naming Gen. Petraeus to run the war, the president effected handed political control of that decision to the military, apparently, hopefully, defaulting to victory. Gutless and accidental, but hey, if it gets the job done …

Posted on 1 Jul 2010
Crossposted on http://www.julescrittenden.com

Photo: WikimediaCommons

Tagged ,

Almost Victorious

Talladega Nights,” reportedly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s favorite, is a crazy fun flick. Unfortunately for McChrystal, the movie he should have paid more attention to was “Almost Famous.”  He might have figured out that what Rolling Stone is all about is stripping people naked and making them appear ridiculous, even while proclaiming there is something noble and uplifting in it all. He might have figured out that, as the rock star in the movie proclaims, Rolling Stone is “The Enemy.” And he might have figured out that, because he isn’t running a rock band, Rolling Stone doesn’t offer the same kind of redemption to a military man, a breed the magazine fundamentally misunderstands and viscerally dislikes. Then he might have figured out that, unlike ”Almost Famous,” where the plane pulls out of its death spin after all the true confessions and the band achieves rock redemption, his plane and all the passengers on it might not. Which is too bad, because there is more at stake here than some rock star’s career. Maybe McChrystal would have thought twice before he allowed Rolling Stone to take control of his war.

UK Telegraph, McChrystal tenders his resignation. But it isn’t over.  ABC’s Political Punch, “McChrystal to Admin Official: ‘I’ve compromised the mission,’” adds, “McChrystal will have a legitimate opportunity to make his case to keep his job, officials said.”

Donnelly and Kristol with some advice to the president: “Don’t waste this crisis.” The likelihood any of those suggestions being taken is not great … particularly the last one:

Most of all, the commander-in-chief must take command.  Barack Obama’s commitment is famously and publicly uncertain.  No one—not his lieutenants, nor his cabinet, nor his generals, nor the American people, nor our allies, nor the Afghans, nor our enemies—can be sure whether the president wants to win the war or just to end the war.

As exemplified by the fact that we are now in danger of allowing Rolling Stone magazine to set war policy.  Speaking of which, given that Rolling Stone is already heavily influencing, if not directing war policy, it is unfortunate that the magazine and its scribbler don’t appear to understand this war. Any of it, start to finish.

The hackneyed analogies of Vietnam defeat and Afghanistan, graveyard of empires, are trotted out early and often. Counterinsurgency is presented to a readership that RS probably rightly assumes is entirely ignorant of the concept, as some novel idea that was only “beta-tested” in Iraq, as if the towering accomplishment there were some minor sideshow. In fact, Hastings’ observations about Afghanistan sound remarkably like the rampant political doom-and-gloom-mongering coming out of Congress and the media re Iraq in the summer of 2007. The Afghan surge prospects are “bleak.” I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of people whose view of history is so skewed they can’t remember the parts they witnessed, and insist on using defeat anaologies that were shown to be meaningless the last time they trotted them out.

As others have noted, the general himself says virtually none of the things that are most damning in the article. With the exception of a mild Biden joke, they are all attributed to unnamed sources and unnamed aides. But McChrystal, in letting RS into his inner circle, gives them a gift. It’s a staff letting off steam that is decribed as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, politcal operators and outright maniacs.” Rolling Stone loves people like that, especially when they are loaded. We get to see them tying one on in Paris, basially with lampshades on their heads. RS tuts, apparently having forgotten the motto of one of its own leading lights. Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” So, we have a gonzo command to fight a gonzo war. Problem?

There are other embarrassingly bad examples of cluelessness. “The Defense Department’s budget is $600 billion a year, while the State Department’s is only $50 billion.” Someone please explain to RS that the State Department doesn’t have any carrier groups, though it benefits greatly from those and other military assets deployed around the globe. That’s the “Big Stick,” not to be confused with the “Speak Softly” part. McChrystal, meanwhile, is declared to have gotten “almost” everything he asked for in his surge. In fact, he got three-quarters, with a deadline and a non-commital comannder in chief plus meddling lesser pols. I’d suggest taking away three-quarters of Hastings’ fee, maybe three-quarters of Rolling Stone’s staff and profits; then let Reader’s Digest and Entertainment Weekly into the RS editorial and publishing offices to make helpful micromanaging policy changes; and see if that feels like “almost” everything RS wanted.

It’s beside the point. In the most fundamental policy aspect of the relationship between the president and the general, there have been no sign of daylight. McChrystal in this article doesn’t complain about the task as his president handed it to him, nor do his aides, whose criticism is leveled at those who have sought to undermine it. He has made the best of a bad deal, going ahead with the kind of determination in less than ideal circumstances we could only hope the commander-in-chief would exhibit in something as critical as national security.

Delving into some actual substance, RS highlights the ROE problems. Here, the article suggests, McChrystal is not only failing to communicate and lead effectively, but his intentions reportedly are being rendered ridiculous somewhere between utterance and executiion. This might have been a more useful area of serious exploration by Rolling Stone. However, Rolling toe isn’t in the business of examining and criticizing the effectiveness of actual policy and strategy. Rolling Stone is in the business of making and breaking stars, and that is what this article is about.

To this end, there is the other rock star in this spectacle. President Obama. McChrystal never actually disparages him in the article, though he and his aides may launch barbs at the bass player, the doo-wap singers and the roadies. McChrystal isn’t the first general to shoot his mouth off … or to preside over a staff that is guilty of making some indiscreet remarks in some unwisely unguarded moments. Many have before. The question is whether this general can still do the job and do it well. The question may also be whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the job as configured, whether the random anonymous jokes and gripes that everyone is exercised about reflect serious problems that need to be addressed.

All that means that Barack Obama will have to be something he has been publicly unwilling to be. A committed, determined and aggressive wartime leader. RS’s own remarks on that make it clear he has impressed exactly no one on that score, even if Rolling Stone doesn’t seem to think winning is possible or particularly important. Hopefully, our president will be presidential enough to figure out that it is important and even winnable, that it is his war and not Rolling Stone’s, and as Donnelly and Kristol suggest, use this crisis to fine-tune it instead of turning it into some kind of bad 1980s hair band’s pyrotechnic spectacle.

Crossposted on http://www.julescrittenden.com

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

Photo: flickr/TheWhiteHouse

Tagged

McChrystal: Pick Your Analogy!

      Whatever may happen to General McChrystal, it is useful to review how others have used military history to make sense of this episode. What we’re witnessing here is the invention of a narrative and the selection process that will determine which historical analogy will prevail; thus, we who make our living from historical analogies, or who rely on them to explain events, must pause and pay our respects.

      The disclosures by Rolling Stone of General Stanley McChrystal’s disparagements of the administration (actually, mouthed more by “unnamed aids”) has set off the usual meme-hunt as bloggers, talking heads, and the general punditry reach deep into their trope bag of historical analogies to pull out some narrative that conveniently has it all: a description of the problem as well as a solution.

  Historical analogies are useful in many ways: they not only explain, but explain with confidence, as the history they purport to convey has already happened; thus, its “lessons” are engraved on the pages of history books and thereby transformed into secular Writ.

      After diligently searching the net, I have discovered that the following analogies seem to be the most popular. Here let me confess to gaming you, the reader. I’m offering you a fixed plot (the Rolling Stone article) but allowing you to select the ending as well as the “meaning” of the MyChrystal episode via the analogy of your choice. To quote McChrystal’s boss, General Petraeus, “Tell me how it ends.”

McChrystal as MacArthur/Obama as Truman. This is the most common historical analogy and has been embraced by commentators of every partisan stripe. There are several reasons for this: First, it’s the most recent of these big events (excepting the termination of McChrystal’s predecessor about which the still-Obama enthralled press had little to say.) Second, there was a popular film and a TV series and many books published about or describing this episode, thereby increasing its usefulness to pundits. Therefore, because the Truman/MacArthur episode was recent in time and recently the subject of mass familiarity, commentators are naturally drawn to its memes that are instantly recognizable to their audiences. Few pundits score big points by citing obscure historical events or absolutely anything that requires a translation.

Ending: Left and Right alike endorse the vindication of the great Constitutional principle of military subordination to civilian authority. For partisans, Obama, having been criticized for lacking passion, will now be seen as a passionate Harry Truman. McCrystal is fired. Obama gets to make stern-but-passionate speech. 

McChrystal as Patton/Obama as Eisenhower. This analogy also draws on simple narrative: Patton slaps soldiers in Sicily; complaints reach Eisenhower; political pressure grows on Eisenhower to fire Patton. But Patton is too valuable to the war effort; thus, Ike prescribes a humiliating punishment, “cleans Patton up” and eventually returns him to duty.

Ending: MyChrystal made to wear a dunce hat; Constitutional principle is sort of vindicated; Obama loses some of his left wing base but may gain more with in independent voters. He will make a speech about how the war is too important to be caught up in personality conflicts.

McChrystal as McClellan/Obama as Lincoln. This has actually shown up among the punditry, although for it to be a genuine analogue, McChrystal would have to be scheming to run for the White House in 2012, and/or writing letters to important Republican politicians undermining Obama administration policy, and/or inadvertently creating fears that he intends to march on Washington with OEF troops and establish a dictatorship.

Ending: McChrystal is relieved, and leaks are put out that cast him in the role of McClellan and Obama as Lincoln. Neither holds water, but with 24 news cycles, memes only have to true for a day. Obama makes a grave speech.

McChrystal as Joe Hooker/Obama as Lincoln. Here President Obama becomes the one influenced by the “better angels of his nature” and not the Stanton-influenced President that actually believed McClellan would march on Washington. Hooker was notoriously indiscreet, and had actually suggested that one cure for the administration’s incompetence was to march on Washington and establish a dictatorship. Lincoln saw through Hooker’s bluster, and when giving him command of the Army of the Potomac, famously said that if Hooker produced victories, he, Lincoln, would worry about the dictatorship.

Ending: This is close to the Patton analogy. McChrystal is retained in the interests of producing victories; he will wear a dunce hat, but it will be shorter in height and for a shorter time. Obama gets to make a Lincolnesque speech. 

      Remember, your choices matter. I suspect that some readers of this piece may go on to become military historians, and one day, may even construct written narratives about the Afghan War. Thus, choose carefully. I wouldn’t want any of you to be forced to admit later that an event isn’t really “like” another event, it’s only like itself. History is hard; the present is harder.