Monthly Archives: May 2011

The New Face Of War

The New Face Of War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 26, 2011

The assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden did more than knock off America’s Public Enemy Number One, it formalized a new kind of warfare, where sovereignty is irrelevant, armies tangential, and decisions are secret.  It is, in the words of counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, “an astounding change in the nature of warfare.”

It is also one that requires a vast intelligence apparatus, one that now constitute almost a fourth arm of government that most Americans are almost completely unaware of.  Yet, according to the Washington Post, this empire includes some 1, 271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies in more than 10, 000 locations across the country, with a budget last year of at least $80.1 billion.

“At the heart of this new warfare,” notes the Financial Times,” is high-tech cooperation between intelligence agencies and the military” that blurs the traditional borders between civilians and the armed forces.  And it fits with the U.S.’s penchant for waging war with robots and covert Special Forces.

But, by definition, the secrecy at the core of the “new warfare” removes decisions about war and peace from the public realm and relegates them to secure rooms in the White House or clandestine bases in the Hindu Kush. When the Blackhawk helicopters slipped through Pakistani airspace, they did more than execute one of America’s greatest bugbears, they essentially said another country’s sovereignty was no longer relevant and consigned Congress to the role of spectator.

Over the past several decades U.S. military theorists have clashed over how to use the armed forces, though it is a debate that gets distorted by the requirements of industry: the U.S, does not really need 11 immense Nimitz class aircraft carriers, but the Newport News Shipbuilding Company—and the aerospace giants that fill the flattops with fighter bombers—do.

The arguments have revolved around three different approaches, the Powell Doctrine, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, and the Petraeus Doctrine.

The Powell Doctrine is essentially conventional warfare a-la-World War II: massive firepower, lots of soldiers, clear goals. This was the formula for the first Gulf War, which, after a month of bombing, lasted only four days. But it is a very expensive way to wage war.

The Rumsfeld Doctrine merged high tech firepower and Special Forces with a minimal use of Army and Marine units. It also relies on private contractors to do much of what was formerly done by the military. The doctrine routed the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and quickly knocked out the Iraqi Army in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Once the shock and awe wore off, however, the Doctrine’s weaknesses became obvious. It simply didn’t have the manpower to hold the ground against a guerilla insurgency. The 2007 “surge” of troops in Iraq, like last year’s surge in Afghanistan, was an admission that the doctrine was fundamentally flawed if the locals decided to keep fighting.

The Petraeus Doctrine is old wine in a new bottle: counterinsurgency. In theory, it is boots on the ground to win hearts and minds. It draws heavily on intelligence—what Gen. David Petraeus calls “bandwidth”—to isolate and eliminate any insurgents—and attempts to establish trust with the locals. It is cheaper than the Powell and Rumsfeld doctrines, but it also almost never works.  Eventually the locals get tried of being occupied, and then counterinsurgency turns nasty. Building schools and digging wells give way to night raids and targeted assassinations that alienate the local population. According to U.S. intelligence, the current counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan is failing.

So, what is this “astounding change” that Nagl speaks of? If you want to put a name to it, “counter-terrorism” is probably the most descriptive, although with a new twist.  Like counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism has been around a long time. The Phoenix Program that killed some 40,000 South Vietnamese was a variety of the doctrine. Phoenix, too, paid no attention to sovereignty. During the Vietnam War, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols secretly went into Cambodia and Laos.

In recent years, the U.S. clandestinely sent Special Forces into Syria and Pakistan in a sort of shadow war against “insurgents.” A number of other countries have done the same.

But the Obama administration openly admits to sending a Special Forces Seal team into Pakistan to assassinate bin Laden, and it was prepared to fight Pakistan’s armed forces if they tried to intervene. And when Pakistan asked the U.S. to curb its use of armed drones in Pakistani airspace, the Central Intelligence Agency said it would do nothing of the kind.

It is as if counter-terrorism reconfigured that classic line from the movie “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges, we got drones and Seals.”

The principle behind counter-terrorism is eliminating people you don’t like. There is no patina of “hearts and minds,” and the new strategy makes no effort to practice the subterfuge of “plausible deniability” that has deflected the ire of target countries in the past.

While clandestine warfare is not new, the boldness of the bin Laden hit is. Certainly the people who planned the attack wanted to make a statement: we can get you anywhere you are, and impediments like international law, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Charter be damned.

“Targeted assassinations violate well-established principles of international law,” says law professor Marjorie Cohn. “Extrajudicial executions are unlawful, even in armed conflict.”

From the U.S.’s point of view, the doctrine has a number of advantages. It is cheaper, and its expenses are generally hidden away in a labyrinth of bureaucracy. For instance, the $80.1 billion figure is only an estimate and does not include the cost of the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan, or Homeland Security.

Recent moves by the White House suggest the administration is putting this new strategy in place. “Petraeus’s appointment to head the CIA is an important indication that the U.S. wants to fuse intelligence and military operations,” a “senior figure” at the British Defense Ministry told the Financial Times.

In the past the division between military and civilian intelligence agencies allowed for a range of opinions. While the U.S. military continues to put a rosy spin on the Afghan War, civilian intelligence agencies have been much more somber about the success of the current surge. That division is likely to vanish under the new regime, where intelligence becomes less about analysis and more about targeting.

The new warfare opens up a Pandora’s box, the implications of which are only beginning to be considered. What would be the reaction if Cuban armed forces had landed in Florida and assassinated Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch, two anti-Castro militants who were credibly charged with setting bombs in Havana and downing a Cuban airliner? Washington would treat it as an act of war. The problem with a foreign policy based on claw and fang is that, if one country claims the right to act independently of international law and the UN Charter, all countries can so claim.

In the end, however, the biggest victims for this “new” warfare will probably be the American people. Once an enormous intelligence bureaucracy is created—there are some 854,000 people with top-secrecy security clearance—it will be damned hard to dismantle it. And, since the very nature of the endeavor removes it from public oversight, it is a formula for a massive and uncontrolled expansion of the national security state.



Filed under Afghanistan, Middle East, Military, Pakistan, Syria

War Crimes and the Bombing of Libya

War Crimes & the Bombing of Libya

Dispatches From The Edge

May 16, 2011

According to the New York Times (5/16/11), Gen. Sir David Richards, “Britain’s top military commander,” is proposing that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) target Libyan “infrastructure,” including electrical power grids and fuel dumps, in government held areas.

Frustrated by the two-month old stalemate, Gen. Richards told the Times that “The vice is closing on [Muammar el-] Qaddafi, but we need to increase the pressure further through more intense military activity.” The British are playing a major role in the bombing campaign, and Gen. Richards was in Naples, the command center for the war in Libya, when he talked with the Times.

The Times went on to write, “The General suggested that NATO should be freed from restraints that precluded attacking infrastructure targets.”

Let us be clear what “infrastructure” means: “The fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants and schools”(Random House Dictionary, Second Edition).

Now let’s see what the 1977 Protocol Addition to Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 say on the business of attacking “infrastructure.”

“In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

Part IV, Section I, Article. 48

“It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuff, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works…”

Article 54

“It is prohibited for the Parties to the conflict to attack, by any means whatsoever, non-defended localities…”

Article 59

In short, you can’t bomb power plants, electrical grids, water pumping plants, or transport systems that service the civilian population, even if the military also benefits from them. As Article 50 states: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals that do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

The pressure to step up the bombing and widen the delineation of targets reflects the fact that the war has turned into a stalemate. “We need to do more,” Gen. Richards told the Times, “If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Qaddafi clinging to power.”

That last statement appears to be a violation of United Nations Resolution 1973, which called for “protection of civilians,” a “no-fly zone,” “sanctions,” a “freeze of assets” and an “arms embargo.” Nowhere does 1973 mention regime change and getting rid of Qaddafi.

So are we being dragged into a war whose goals violate UN Resolution 1973, and whose means violate the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts?  It is hard not to answer that question in anything but the affirmative.



Filed under Africa, Middle East, Military

Why is the NY Times Censoring Afghan News?

Why is the New York Times Censoring Afghan News?

Dispatches From the Edge

May 16, 2011

On May 12, the New York Times did a very curious thing.

In an article entitled “Indian and Afghan Leaders Forge Deeper Ties in Meeting” by Alissa J. Rubin and Sanger Rahimi, the newspaper failed to mention that during his visit to Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had endorsed peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai.

The Times’ piece—buried on the back pages—led with an agreement by the two governments to “move ahead on a strategic partnership” and then prattled on about aid. The words “Taliban” and “talks” never appeared.

In contrast, a May 13 Reuters article led with “India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, backing Kabul’s peace plan to reconcile with the Taliban-led insurgents.” According to Reuters, the Prime Minister said, “Afghanistan is embarked upon a process of national reconciliation. We wish you well in this enterprise.”

A BBC broadcast also led with the “Taliban talk” news, and the print version put it in the third sentence. To date the New York Times has yet to report the fact that India abandoned its previous opposition to opening talks with the Taliban.

How could the Times miss a story like that? There are only two explanations. One, that the two reporters are the kind that would have asked Mary Todd Lincoln if she liked the play. Two, that the reporters put the breakthrough remarks into the story, and an editor in New York took them out.

As a whole, Times coverage of the Afghan War has not been very good, certainly not nearly as good as the reporting by the McClatchy newspapers, let alone the international press. But their reporters have rarely demonstrated incompetence, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that Rubin and Rahimi are not good reporters. They could have missed what is probably the most important development in the past year—if so, time for reassignment to the Metro Desk—but it is much more likely that higher ups in New York left it on the cutting room floor.

Bad news sense? Maybe, but than again, maybe not.

On May 14, the Times wrote an editorial entitled “Pakistan After Bin Laden” where the following paragraph appears:

“The Obama administration also needs to take a harder look at military aid to Pakistan, to determine what is vital for counterterrorism and what might be tied to specific benchmarks, like apprehending the Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, and members of the Haqqani network.”

In short, the Times is arguing that Pakistan should take out the very people whom the Karzai government will need to talk with in any negotiations with the Taliban.  There is an old rule in the business of negotiations: don’t arrest or kill the people you want to talk with. That is, unless you don’t really want to have talks. The Israelis have developed this into a science: as soon as it looks like there are going to be talks between Israel and the Palestinians, they build some new settlements, knowing that the provocation will torpedo any negotiations.

The Times is a strong supporter of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which consists of attacking the Taliban in order to weaken them prior to a political settlement. The idea is that if they are first beaten up, the insurgents will be more pliable during negotiations.

However, since the Taliban show no signs of throwing in the towel—indeed, U.S. civilian intelligence agencies pretty much agree that the war is going badly and the situation is not likely to improve—the Times’ position is a formula for continuing the war.

The 2010 “surge” of troops into Afghanistan has been largely a bust. The south, where most troops went, is quieter, but hardly pacified, and insurgent attacks have increased in other areas of the country, particularly in the east and the north. This past year has been the deadliest for both Coalition troops and Afghan civilians.

Is what the Times wants? Indeed, wants it so badly that it won’t report that there has been a major diplomatic breakthrough? If you don’t print the news that you don’t like, it didn’t happen?

Boy, that’s a relief.


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Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, FPIF Blogs, India, Military

The Great Game’s New Clothes

The Great Game’s New Clothes

Dispatches From The Edge

May 5, 2011

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Ladin was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Ladin was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Ladin may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.”  The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.”  Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Ladin. Well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

“We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do/

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too”

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.



Filed under Afghanistan, Central Asia, Europe, FPIF Blogs, India, Iran, Middle East, Military, Pakistan