Tag Archives: Iraq

Wrapping up Iraq and Afghanistan

It seems like the collective psyche is determined to suppress memories of Iraq and Afghanistan as our involvement of those two countries continues to diminish.   Everyone culpable for the horrendous mistakes are safely ensconced as professorsdistinguished fellowships, think tank hacks, etc. apparently none the worse the wear for managing the biggest American foreign policy disaster in generations (maybe ever).

The Obama administration decided long ago that ‘looking backwards’ wouldn’t be helpful so there will be no consequences for those who failed us.  But we are, at least, starting to see a fuller accounting of what exactly was done in our name.

Money was thrown away in vast quantities.  I guess we knew this but the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction released a new report recently.  Waste, fraud, abuse.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

Over in Afghanistan, ISAF has decided not to report data about Taliban attacks any more.  It used to but a recent report included a data entry error which significantly changed the findings of the report.

That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons.  First, assuming the data was worthwhile, an accident in reporting (even with the embarrassment of having to admit it) shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that the way to avoid future such incidents is simply to not make future reports public.

If the data isn’t worthwhile (and that’s ISAF’s official reasoning for not publishing future reports) then you shouldn’t continue collecting that data (which ISAF is doing – but why if they say it’s not accurate?) AND you should find metrics which do work.

And then there’s the word which must never be spoken:  torture.

Jane Mayer writes about the need for the Administration to share the findings of the still classified report about U.S. government torture.  There’s a 300 page summary report of the program that was apparently damning enough to convince the next head of the CIA to conclude that he was misled about the effectiveness of the program.  Others have gone further:

Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall stressed, “Inaccurate information on the management operation and effectiveness of the C.I.A.’s detention-interrogation program was provided by the C.I.A. to the White House, the D.O.J., Congress, and the public. Some of this information is regularly and publicly repeated today by former C.I.A. officials, either knowingly or unknowingly. And although we now know this information is incorrect, the accurate information remains classified, while inaccurate information has been declassified and regularly repeated.”

Since prosecutions are out of the question, the least the administration can do is release the report so we can all know what’s been done in our name.  It’s also another datapoint for why the CIA needs to have its operational arm stripped out of it.  No president needs (or should have) a private, unaccountable army.

Kvick Tänkare

io9 has a cool post about abandoned places that are being reclaimed by nature.  This bit about Korea’s DMZ is worth a look.

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In related news, South Korea is applying to make part of the DMZ a ‘biosphere reserve’.   While North Korea is a terrible regime, let’s face it, the day it falls poachers and developers will drive the flora and fauna of the DMZ into extinction.  I’m sure some population will see a buffet of exotic food items, aphrodisiacs and folk remedies to plunder.

Forget the Planet of the Apes…we should be worried about the parrots.

Across parts of Australia, reports have been pouring in of strange voices chattering high in the treetops — mysterious, non-sensical conversations in English… It turns out that escaped pet birds, namely parrots and cockatoos, have begun teaching their wild bird counterparts a bit of the language they picked up from their time in captivity — and, according to witnesses, that includes more than a few expletives.

Can instructions about how to manipulate nuclear armed drones be far behind?

How’d you like to live in a country where a problem that makes the news is that the nation is in the second month of a ‘national butter shortage‘.

As Sweden’s butter shortage enters its second month, the dairy industry is still struggling to meet demand and shelves in supermarkets up and down the country remain empty. Blame is being directed at the new back to basics cooking trend, full fat diet fads and young people turning their backs on farming.

Scientific American has a blog post encouraging scientists to engage with social media.  Linked to that is a presentation the author gave setting forth her argument.  I can’t help thinking that most of what she writes is equally applicable to analysts.

Read this great (yet depressing) article about the winners and losers in Iraq.  Bottom line: It ain’t us…or the Iraqis.

11 severed feet have washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest since 2007.  i09 has a story about it which has this less than comforting line:

Although the mystery centers on feet, there are plenty of body parts that wash ashore all over the world.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…

The New Yorker has an important article about the subjects of whistle blowing, classification and prosecutorial retribution.

Before I go any further, allow me to emphasize that I’m fully aware and supportive of the idea that some information should be classified and those who promise to safeguard and then disclose such information should be punished.

That does not seem to be the issue here.

On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore…In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents… for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.”

The aim of this scheme…was to leak government secrets to…Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.

The problem is that it looks like the information Drake disclosed wasn’t really ‘endangering the lives of American servicemen’ but rather was embarrassing to the NSA.
It’s a very frustrating story which should give you pause considering the willingness, on both the left and the right, to defer all oversight responsibility as soon as someone waves a flag.
Foreign Policy has an article by Dov Zakheim, a self styled original Vulcan in the Bush administration.  In it, he describes the process by which Afghanistan was left to decay after 2002 through neglect and a desire to focus on Iraq.
Zakheim attempts to not make his story a tawdry tell all that settles scores by starting with:
The administration’s shortcomings were not a consequence of criminality, or moral debasement, or stupidity, or a lack of patriotism and good intentions, as so many frenzied anti-Bush ideologues have charged and, to all appearances, actually believe. The shortcomings were instead a consequence, above all, of the inherent novelty and difficulty of the challenges the administration faced but also of deficiencies of management, understanding, and forethought.
Of course, I’d argue that once you’re doing things like, oh, running the most powerful country in the world and waging a couple of wars, ‘deficiencies of management, understanding, and forethought’ definitely fall into the ‘stupidity’ category.
The article just leaves you weary.  There’s nothing new here.  This is all information that was either known or widely suspected but I still find the hubris and incompetence staggering.

[I]n September 2002, it was becoming increasingly clear that the administration was planning to attack Iraq, despite its continued assurances that the United States would not launch a military operation if Saddam complied with demands to open his facilities to U.N. inspectors. That meant that the administration had to continue to fund defense programs without reference to Iraq. It was when Rumsfeld called me into his office to tell me that I would be the coordinator for Afghan reconstruction that I concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter what Saddam, or, for that matter, any other government or the United Nations might do, the United States was definitely going to war with Iraq.

The decision to appoint me reflected not only the administration’s preoccupation with Iraq but its seeming loss of interest in following through on support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The budget reflected the same failure, perhaps even more so.

At the risk of venturing into hyperbole, I think I finally have a glimmer of the frustration and despair people felt in the wake of the First World War.

Wikileaks and classification

When Wikileaks released those thousands of documents about Afghanistan I thought the real lesson to be learned was that we were still classifying way too much stuff.

I’m glad to see I’ve got some additional company now.  Stratfor has come to a similar conclusion after reviewing the Iraq document dump.

By saying there are very few true secrets in the cache of documents released by WikiLeaks, we mean things that would cause serious damage to national security…However, it is important to understand up front that something that causes embarrassment and discomfort to a particular administration or agency does not necessarily damage national security.
Only 204 of the 391,832 documents were classified at the confidential level, while 379,565 of them were classified at the secret level. This demonstrates the propensity of the U.S. government culture to classify documents at the highest possible classification rather than at the lowest level really required to protect that information. In this culture, higher is better. 

There are so many problems resulting from over-classification that it’s hard to even know where to begin describing them all.  I suspect one of the least discussed is the erosion of respect for the whole classification system.  When the mundane is classified then you’re practically begging individuals to take the system in their hands and release information as they see fit. 

The un-Awakening

This American Life has a great episode about life in Iraq today that’s worthy of an hour of your time.  I’m probably a bit biased and susceptible to confirmation bias but it really does reinforce the idea that while the Surge was successful at making Iraq look stable enough for us to get the hell out of there without looking like complete incompetents, the prospect of a stable Iraq is still very far from certain.

Stand out moments for me:

  1. The two Iraqis who describes Americans as ‘using Iraqis like tissues’.  In other words, totally disposable.  Very moving.
  2. The description of a scene where a leader of the Sons of Iraq is brought to a meeting with a group of Americans.  The very Americans, it turns out, who had tortured him for information three years earlier.  And what do these shining examples of the intelligence community say?  ‘Hey, the past is past.  We’re friends now, right?’  The whole incident is so shot through with incompetence and hubris it boggles the mind.
  3. The former ‘Son of Iraq’ so esteemed for his efforts and accomplishments by the military that even the CENTCOM commander (Gen. Petraeus) and other senior military officials recommended he be allowed to immigrate to the U.S.  He was, of course, denied from immigrating to the U.S. and had to pay a smuggler $50,000 to sneak him into Sweden where he now lives.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new narrative since the NYTimes had a story recently about the Sons of Iraq fleeing that group to re-join the insurgency.

…hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

…even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.

Yes, mission accomplished.

If you're in the Princeton area today…Updated!

There’s a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson school that sounds pretty good:

“The Politics and Psychology of Intelligence: Iraq and Other Wars”

October 07, 2010 4:30 p.m. 6:00 p.m.

Location: Robertson Hall Bowl 016
If I can make it there, find me and I’ll buy you a beer.  The code phrase is:  ‘Shiloh sent me’
UPDATE:  Yeah, it might help if I could tell the 6th from the 7th.  Not sure if I can make it tomorrow but if I can, the deal is still on.

Comedy apparently isn't universal

From the NY Times (via Ricks)

An Iraqi reality television program broadcast during Ramadan has been planting fake bombs in celebrities’ cars, having an Iraqi army checkpoint find them and terrifying the celebrities into thinking that they are headed for maximum security prison.

Yeah…Well, call me a stick in the mud but I’m not sure I get the humor here.  I guess it might appeal to a certain demographic (unemployed torturers?  eds.) but really, how far would you take this thing?

Can’t we just send them reruns of Jersey Shore or would that violate the Geneva Conventions?

The beginning of the end…finally

Modern wars may resist definitions of ‘victory’ of ‘defeat’ and they’ll also resist terms like ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ but today was a long overdue milestone with the official withdrawal of the last combat brigade from Iraq.  I’m hoping history refers to this as the ‘Money Pit War’ or perhaps the ‘Distraction War’ (Any other suggestions out there?) but I’m sure it’ll follow the trend of amazingly unimaginative names we’ve been giving conflicts for the past 100 years or so and have some sort of B-movie quality like ‘Gulf War 2′ (Gulf War 3D by James Cameron coming next summer!).

Seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.

And so, what do we have to show for our efforts in Iraq?  Well, Saddam and his thuggish regime are gone, that’s a positive.  Violence continues (admittedly, not at the pace of 2004-2007 but levels that are high by anyone’s standards) and five months after an election, there’s still no Iraqi government in place (those would be negatives).

Long term stability remains in question.  We basically may have just gotten things to a point where we’ll be able to wash out hands of the matter if it all falls apart in a couple of years (see:  1972-1975 – S.E. Asia).

I remain dubious that Iraq will now be a long term fast friend of the U.S. and one has to wonder what, exactly, is our return on investment here.  We used up a lot of resources in terms of soft and hard power and what exactly did we get for it?  If you look at the situation from an idealist perspective, did we bring about a net decrease in human suffering or a net increase in the livelihood of the people there?  I’m just not convinced we did.

Even worse, I don’t think Iraq is going to teach us much.  Sure, for awhile we’ll get more isolationist but despite the fall in support for the war over time, I think two factors are going to keep any lessons learned from sinking in to the American psyche:

  1. You’ve still got a vocal group of people who are going to claim that Iraq was a successful mission that we needed to do.  They’re going to push that message hard.  Hey, they got Nixon to look like a wise statesman and continue to try to turn Vietnam into a victory.
  2. I just don’t think the war penetrated into the lives of many Americans.  Such a small number of people participated, the conflict was just a bunch of talking heads on TV.  Is there any sense among the public that we need to avoid war in the future?  That we need to look for alternative ways to address conflict?  Given the resurgence of talk about attacking Iran, one assumes not.

And so, I say ‘good riddance’ to Operation Iraqi Freedom.  If we aren’t going to learn the lessons from it at least we can stop paying the price of it.

Talking counterinsurgency

Abu Maqawama has a most excellent (yet depressing) post restating the assumptions of our campaign in Afghanistan.  Here they are, in brief.  Read his post to see them in their gloomy and realistic glory.

  1. “The United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan”. Probably False.
  2. “The United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Probably True.
  3. “Afghanistan is a binary conflict between the government and the insurgents”.* Certainly False.
  4. “The provision of social services leads to a reduction of violence”. Mostly false.
  5. “What we do is what matters”.** Mostly false.
  6. “Population-centric counterinsurgency is appropriate for Afghanistan”. Mostly true but perhaps false in one key way.

Spencer Ackerman riffs off that and raises a very important point:

…the American public has never debated, in a rigorous and bloodless way, just how proportional it is to confront a network of a few thousand extremists… through a commitment of something upwards of $300 billion to date and roughly 100,000 troops. The damage that extremist network can export is real. But it’s increasingly insubstantial. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the perpetrator of the most sophisticated al-Qaeda plot in years, had succeeded, he would have killed an order of magnitude fewer people than on 9/11 — 300 people. Out of a nation of 300 million. And that is ultimately how asymmetrical warfare succeeds: what bin Laden calls “Bleed to Bankruptcy.”

I mean geez…I’m still waiting for the honest debate about our strategy now that the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Here’s a video of David Killcullen talking COIN at Google last year.

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Definitely worth watching if you’re interested in the mindset behind our current counterinsurgency policy.

(h/t from Permissible Arms)

I’ve said for awhile now that I’m too close to Afghanistan to make an objective call (or anything that could even be mistaken for one) on the mission there but it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that I don’t really see a good way out of this thing.

Spying in Swedish

Radio Sweden has recently started a new feature called ‘Konflikt’ which is a biweekly podcast which focuses on foreign affairs.  I hadn’t really mentioned it before because its first English language forays were only so-so but the current episode is worth a listen.

In this edition of Konflikt in English we look at espionage in refugee communities here, and its effects for those living with the consequences. Hear about the Chinese spy imprisoned in Sweden just last month, the Assyrians living in Södertälje who found their lives detailed in the secret files of the Iraqi Mukharabat secret service, and find out why the current Swedish legislation just isn’t good enough, according to some.

Foreign intelligence services targeting immigrant communities doesn’t get much play in the press but it clearly goes on frequently.  I imagine the problem is especially difficult with immigrants who have difficulty assimilating, either through language or cultural differences.

There’s also not to much out there on Säpo, the Swedish Secret Police, and this broadcast gives you a bit of a glimmer in what they do and how they do it.

Kinda makes me think of this….

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