I've spent a good part of the last couple of days pondering the question, "What did Bing West really mean in denouncing Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone piece?" Yesterday, I jumped into the question that West (pictured to the right) raised of whether a journalist should be traveling with the enemy. (Short answer: Press coverage of the other side is essential. Being in a situation where you might be complicit in the killing of Americans is not defensible.)
Today, let's look into West's accusations of failed leadership:
Most disturbing was the lack of outrage to Rosen’s sojourn by the
administration, the military, the civilian appointees and the
politicians. Secretary of Defense Gates
is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a
course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision
about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen,
calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! - laments
that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that
transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from
32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the
application of force – killing - is not the objective? A policeman
protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the
population by shooting the enemy soldier. Our military succeeds in
confusing us all by reverting to Rodney King's plaint that we should
all just get along.
When our leaders lack moral clarity and courage, then agnosticism
about our mission in Afghanistan is understandable. Rosen’s conduct is
not the problem; he was taking advantage of American moral lassitude.
Our leaders don’t stand up for the righteousness of our cause. Why not
hang out with the Taliban, if America’s leaders see nothing wrong with
This passage inspired some equally strong responses from other bloggers. Here's our first rebuttal, from Spencer Ackerman:
Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a
military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David
Petraeus means "transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others."
Could this myopia be any more self-refuting? I take back what I said about not reading West's new book, because I can't wait to see how The Strongest Tribe explains away the obvious failures of the killing-our-way-to-victory strategy in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.
Abu Muqawama had even more to say in defense of the senior leadership at the Pentagon:
Aside from accusing the Department of Defense -- en masse --
of lacking "commitment and passion in the cause," West also accuses
Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen of lacking "moral clarity and courage." If
you're Sec. Gates -- getting your teeth kicked in on a daily basis
while trying to fight two wars and keep a military from falling apart
-- how much patience would you have for Bing West's opinion right about
While the paragraphs I've quoted above are not West's best written work, I think it's pretty clear what he's arguing:
At the level of the Secretary of Defense and the JCS Chairman, there has not been a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Gates is reactive. The strategic review should have happened a long time ago.
If we can't "kill our way to victory," what's the point of sending more American troops? I'm reading that section of West's blog post a lot differently than ackerman and Muqawama. West is hardly a babe in the woods about counterinsurgency. He knows that sending soldiers "whose basic training is as riflemen" is not necessarily going to help. They're not trained to be policemen, or civilian reconstruction professionals, or intelligence analysts. The NATO mission in Afghanistan needs to increase all these skills, not just blindly send more soldiers whose training is limited to shooting the enemy. West is arguing against a simple-minded "surge for Afghanistan," when something else is needed--which undoubtedly includes more people who also know how to kill.
People who don't have a clear strategic vision leave the moral playing field wide open. If there's no clear picture of what people should do to create particular outcomes--political, military, and moral--there are no grounds for saying that someone, like a journalist traveling with the Taliban, is doing something wrong.
I don't agree with everything West says. For example, the phrase "American moral lassitude" is a bit too broad for what otherwise sounds like a criticism of the top military and civilian leadership (much like Dereliction of Duty accuses the top brass of failures in the Vietnam War). I also don't think that the US government needed to respond officially to Rosen's article at all.
On the other points, however, I think the critics both misread what West was saying, and in some ways, were definitely wrong themselves. It's specious for Ackerman to accuse West of being against a free press--a little weird, since West is a journalist himself. (And someone who has had some pretty acid things to say about the senior leadership already, in his book on Iraq, No True Glory.) And who cares if Muqawama is right that Gates gets his "teeth kicked in on a daily basis while trying to fight two wars" if he can't clarify what the strategy for the Afghanistan war really is?
West's post does have its faults. On the "how do journalists cover the other side" question, his answer leaves almost no room for a Rosen to do his job. (Robert Farley's rebuttal is still the best I've read on this question.) But on the leadership issue he has a much stronger argument.
The author, Nir Rosen, traveled with Taliban fighters to a meeting with a Taliban commander. While Rosen doesn't actually witness the Taliban fighting US, Afghan, or NATO troops, he very well could have--and in fact, set out with the intent of observing a Taliban attack, if the opportunity presented itself:
They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in
action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating
disputes and providing security against bandits and police.
Some bloggers, including Bing West, took exception with what Rosen did--loud, angry exception. And I largely agree with them.
During war, public information about the other side is critical. Citizens cannot judge the wisdom or stupidity of the war without knowing something about the adversary. Whether the reality of the enemy is better or worse than the caricature that emerges out of ignoramce, the important thing is, the caricature is wrong. It does not tell you what it's really going to take to defeat the adversary. Debates over the war then inevitably collapse into disagreements over the military actions we pursue, with practically no reference to the people who are their target, or the effect these operations have. Ultimately, this kind of one-sided discussion is not really about war at all, but some kind of fictional military engineering problem.
In fewer words, then, it's just important to recognize the importance of getting information about our adversaries. There's no question that, not only is that an important service that journalists can provide, but it's arguably their duty.
The real question, though, is how they go about that task. Interviewing a Taliban commander isn't wrong. Agreeing to accompany Taliban fighters during a mission to kill Afghan or Western soldiers is.
Instead of spilling a lot of my own words about this topic, I urge you to watch the second part of the "Under Orders, Under Fire" episode of Ethics In America. Both this series and The Constitution: A Delicate Balance were filmed in the 1980s. Prepare to be surprised by whom you'll see in these excellent discussions, what they say, and how well they say it.
After starting "Under Orders, Under Fire," you should first listen to the brief but illuminating discussion about torture in war. Then go to the second part, in which the panel wrestles with the problem of an American journalist traveling with enemy soldiers, just as Rosen did. The real kicker comes when a Marine colonel makes the rhetorical question: what happens when American soldiers are in a position to save endangered journalist?
If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture for you, watch this short video of a British journalist and British soldiers caught in a Taliban ambush. Next, imagine yourself as a journalist on the other side of this firefight. If you didn't have doubts whether you should be there...Well, you're a cold-hearted bastard, at the very least.
Bing West goes a little farther than necessary to make his point. Comparing the Taliban (whom I am not defending) to the Waffen SS just gives critics the opportunity to give less weight to the important part of his argument. You don't need "American moral lassitude" to explain one journalist who displayed faulty judgment.
I strongly recommend reading Robert Farley's analysis, which makes many excellent points that I don't need to repeat here. However, I'll make one last observation of my own. Rosen's article just isn't very good. He leaps to broad conclusions about the Taliban from encounters with a small group of them. Not only does that leave him open to the compound fallacy, but it's not impossible to imagine that some of the softer, nicer elements of Taliban life were staged for his benefit.
Even if you take everything he sees at face value, the narrative of the story is, "My wild, dangerous trip to see an ornery Taliban commander." His experience may add to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, but it's too small for the general conclusions about the war that Rosen wants to make.
It's not exactly new. NATO forces and the Afghan government have already been trying to get Taliban commanders to defect to the government side. In some cases, such as Mullah Abdul Salaam, they've been successful. These defections couldn't happen if there were no quiet talks happening already.
Which part of the Taliban are we talking about? Certainly, the Taliban as a movement is vulnerable to a divide-and-conquer strategy. Many of the ambitious clan leaders who have joined the Taliban might drop the mask of revolutionary Sunni doctrine if they get a far better offer. The core of the movement, the doctrinal purists that coalesced around Mullah Muhammed Omar, are a much tougher sell. So, too, would be Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, which seems to believe firmly and sincerely that it will always have more clout as a foil to the Karzai regime than as its ally.
Is the Taliban interested in peace talks? Given their recent successes, Taliban commanders are much less likely to negotiate seriously. However, they might come to the negotiating table simply to be intransigent, and in the process, humiliate the Karzai government. We need to be wary of replaying the worst days of Vietnam War-era talks with the intransigent North Vietnamese government.
What's the Afghan government's interest? Getting the Taliban, in part or in its entirety, to the negotiating table is a means to an end. But what does the Afghan government want from the Taliban? It's hard to believe that Karzai's brother was trying to get the Taliban to surrender. The real topics under discussion might be as prosaic as prisoner exchanges, or as ambitious as a temporary cease-fire.
What's the US and NATO interest? And does it gibe with what the Afghan government wants?
I don't want to sound like a complete party-pooper. The offer of negotiations is important, if for no other reason than to give potential defectors an easier time of quitting the Taliban. However, I'd hate to see expectations get too high, if negotiators spend the first few months arguing over the shape of the table.
In case you missed it, here's the 60 Minutes piece in which a Delta Force officer describes the hunt for bin Laden in 2001. It's an important part of the story of what happened in the early phase of the post-9/11 war against Al Qaeda and US intervention in Afghanistan. (And I still maintain that Not A Good Day To Die should be on everyone's reading list.)
The focus of the piece is the decision from somewhere in the chain of command to cancel Delta's planned attack on bin Laden. Who knows, there may have been good reasons. Perhaps the information about bin Laden's location wasn't as completely solid. Maybe there were fears about extracting the Delta team, once angry Al Qaeda fighters started hunting for bin Laden's killers. Or maybe the reasons were bad.
Nevertheless, it's worth remembering this small piece of the much bigger history of American counterterrorism--especially when we need to judge other risky missions that we assign to special operations forces (SOFs) like Delta. Not every decision to pull the plug is an outrage--as long as there's continued effort to reach the same objective.
American soldiers herded the detainees into holding pens of
razor-sharp concertina wire, the kind that's used to corral livestock.
The guards kicked, kneed and punched many of the men until they
collapsed in pain. U.S. troops shackled and dragged other detainees to
small isolation rooms, then hung them by their wrists from chains
dangling from the wire mesh ceiling.
guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a
center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late
2001. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.
The theme du jour here at Arms and Influence is the price we pay when we play games with the Constitution. Nothing about the 9/11 attacks, or anything that has happened since, has merited a revision of over 200 years of Constitutional interpretation. For example, as I said in the earlier post about Scalia's dissent in the Bournediene decision, the justices who arguing that the executive branch can make up any criminal procedures it damn well pleases, when handling foreign prisoners in foreign lands, won't find any support in the Constitution itself. Nor will Scalia find support, in the Constitution or Federalist papers, for his peculiar argument that, if the Congress and President agree on how to treat these prisoners, the judiciary has no right to review and possibly overturn these policies.
We need these restraints in place to protect us from ourselves. During frightening times, the laws should keep us from doing stupid things. During wartime, the Constitution still applies, and the Supreme Court still has a role to play, other than stepping aside to let the President do anything he deems necessary to protect American lives.
Often, these measures to protect Americans do exactly the opposite. You can go back to Hobbes and Locke for the Ur-arguments about how, without "civil society," people are bad judges of cases in which they have been wronged. We're not in a state of nature today--nor should we construct one, in the name of defending ourselves. We should be preventing the mistreatment of Americans as prisoners. We should be robbing our adversaries of arguments that the United States is a brutal, imperialist power. And we should be preventing another terrorist attack on the United States. These are all compatible objectives.
Swaggering know-nothings who like to cite books they have not read will often pull out Machiavelli's famous dictum that it is better to be feared than loved. However, it's important to read hos whole argument, which Machiavelli, being a good writer, summarizes in the concluding paragraph of that section of The Prince:
Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must
endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.
Which is why the title of the book is The Prince, not The Thug.
[Thanks to Steve Taylor for the original link to this news story.]
Democracy Arsenal has an outstanding table contrasting the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among many points of comparison--number of American troops, overall cost, amount of public support--the critical one might be the two alliances.
Success in counterinsurgency depends on staying power, which in turn increases substantially when Americans aren't fighting alone. Only half the troops in Afghanistan are American soldiers. Because we went to war as part of NATO, instead of a goofy "coalition of the willing," the United States is enjoying the support of 36 countries in Afghanistan, as opposed to only 20 countries in Iraq.
The Iraq war has been a long, expensive, violent reminder that multilateralism helps more than it hurts.
Less snarky view: Karzai's office may need a few independent sources of information. Leaders in other counterinsurgency wars, such as Ramon Magsaysay during the Huk Rebellion, had similar programs, if for no other reason than to increase the appearance of government responses. (Magsaysay actually followed up on many of the complaints, however.)
Ultimately, any program like this depends on the power, influence, and energy of the leader in question.
Remember Afghanistan? Other than the occasional, information-free story about Taliban bombings or NATO operations, we don't hear much from The Forgotten War. Obviously, there's way too many important things to say about flag pins and senatorial mistresses to waste our time discussing a war we've been fighting for the last six years. Or, at least, that's how the US news outlets treat Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, history marches on. This post at Arrgghhh! shows us what we're missing. If every news item now has to have a presidential election spin, it's also a snapshot of what the next US president will be facing. Whatever happens in Iraq--stay, leave, draw up, draw down--we'll still be in Afghanistan. However, we won't necessarily have a national consensus about what we should be doing there.
The news item quoted at Castle Arrgghhh! might be accurate reporting, or it might be wishful thinking wrapped in a press release. Either way, it's a picture of what should be happening--and still could.
Pashtun or Tajik, Afghans are tired of decades of war. They're sick of the Taliban mucking up their lives. A lot of expatriate and refugee Afghans would also like to return home. An ANA capable of the operation described is well within the realm of possibility, all stereotypes about the Afghans aside.
If I were making a run for the White House (again with the election!), I'd make Afghanistan a big part of the debates. Turn any national security discussion into a detailed discussion of Afghanistan. Here are the people we abandoned once before, and we're abandoning again. Here is where the mettle of the United States in the Islamic world is being tested. Here is where we can learn how to fight these small but challenging wars a lot better than we are now. Unless you have a real strategy for Afghanistan, you're yet another irresponsible American politician.
Take a few minutes to read this Intel Dump post. It's the sort of informed, measured discussion of military affairs that's increasingly important during this election season.
Yes, American soldiers have recycled the enemy's weapons in every war they've fought. No, the frequency with which they're forced to do it in Afghanistan is not an excusable sign of "warfare as usual." Quite the opposite--it's yet another sign of how the war in Iraq has hurt the war in Afghanistan.