Samstag, 26. Juni 2010

Afghanistan - Still Ill-equipped?

This is a debate going on for quite a while now and DER SPIEGEL is adding the latest news on this part of the Afghanistan war-effort: The German Army still operates insufficient equipment in Afghanistan. On April 15th four German soldiers were killed in a firefight with insurgents in the Northern part of Afghanistan, partly due to insufficiently armoured vehicles (the vehicle in question being the YAK).

The YAK is a vehicle often being used by German medics and belongs to the more recent equipments that made their way to the German Armed Forces. One of its virtues is its light armour in contrast to the lighter UNIMOG the army had used as an emergency vehicle before - though the YAK would still qualify as a truck and not an APC. I remember a colonel from the medic rapid reaction force telling me a year ago at a panel I have had with a couple of parliamentarians that the YAK was a pretty good vehicle and that he believed the troops under his command would be well protected by it. Apparently though, the truck needs some improvement. However, it will never protect its crew against RPG-fire.

What we need to keep in mind is this: there will always be a trade-off between armour and protection on the one hand and deployability and weight on the other. In this case insufficient equipment is not due to a lack of effort. The YAK was introduced precisely because the medics needed upgraded protective vehicles. The disturbing news is something else: Medics have become a target, I've heard officers complain that they had to camouflage the red crosses on the trucks - they were attracting deliberate Taliban fire.

Donnerstag, 24. Juni 2010

And Now: The Fallout

Well McChrystal is out and that's probably a good thing. Meanwhile, John Hudson at the Atlantic is afraid that the second casualty of the Rolling Stone-article is the access of the press to the military in Afghanistan. He is probably right in suggesting that the military will be more cautious with whom it is giving access and to what extent. But the suggestion that this is something bad does not at all convince me. First, the journalist's job is not supposed to be easy - there is a reason they call it investigative journalism in the first place. Second, lets not forget, there is a reason the military lets journalists in - to get their side of the story across. Shutting journalists out will have an even more damaging impact than the Rolling Stone-article. So don't you worry.

Meanwhile I've taken the time to watch Obama's announcement again and I have to say, I like him when he is angry. He looks more determined, certain and straigtforward and he surely is. I have to say, I am afraid, that I do not garner much hope to see him so much on the offensive in the future. But its the first time he looked really presidentual to me. Though: I still would have fired McChrystal for cause.

Mittwoch, 23. Juni 2010

And Out He Is - Goodbye to McChrystal

I would not necessarily have loved, but I would, nonetheless, have wanted to be a fly on the wall of that particular meeting in the Oval Office. Well, I wrote last night that Obama would have to fire McChrystal - and indeed out he is. However, though I liked part of Obama's announcement, I would have expected the President to a bit more determined. For instance, I would not have accepted McChrystal's resignation. I would have rejeceted it and than fired him. Would that not be a little harsh, you ask? No, by all means, I am rather unemotional on this one. There is plenty of reason to fire McChrystal for cause:

Last night I wrote that there are parallels to Douglas MacArthur, but throughout the day I have had a different thought. I had to think of Colonel Kurtz, the U.S. field commander, who was to be assassinated by a U.S. captain in the great movie Apocalypse Now. Like Colonel Kurtz, it seems that McChrystal has surrounded himself with officers loyal only to him and not the administration they are supposed to serve. Like Colonel Kurtz, he has taken shortcuts whenever that seemed to have helped him get what he wanted. And finally, like Colonel Kurtz he has had a peculiar relationship with the people he was supposed to protect. Instead of letting the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan or ambassador Holbrooke take the lead when dealing with the Afghan authorities, he did it himself, trying to enhance Karzai's credibility but in reality breeding another sort of strange loyalty.

Back to the real world, McChrystal has also undermined a core principle of democracy: civilian leadership. He has ridiculed the French, who after all have had to suffer more than forty casualties. To put it differently, letting him resign was a sort of gratitude, but it would have fitted the authority of the office of the President had he fired him.

Dienstag, 22. Juni 2010

McChrystal Going? - It Isn't Just a Turf War

Stanley McChrystal might be leaving his post very soon, perhaps it is only a matter of hours right now. President Obama is simply going to have to fire him, as a matter of principle and to protect the authority of the Oval Office. Because, well, when you serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States you have a constituency of one. From watching Robert Gibbs' press briefing today one gets the sense that the White House is pretty pissed about the story (The Runaway General) published by the Rolling Stone. Thats saying something, because Gibbs is an uncharacteristically cautious Press Secretary. But this particular story is not the entire picture. McChrystal was strongly criticised for quite a while now; he has been accused of letting his troops fight with one hand tight behind their backs, most prominently by war correspondent Michael Yon, who lost his post as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan probably due to McChrystal's interference. And bloggers on military affairs were not exactly excited about McChrystal from the very start. Moreover, it seems that the initiative that could have come from the surge in troops ordered by President Obama has been lost to infite delays in Marjah and Kandahar.

The opening salvo is devastating enough, here is the first quote of the well-written article by Michael Hastings:
McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him. 
"The dinner comes with the position, sir," says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn. 
McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.
"Hey, Charlie," he asks, "does this come with the position?"
McChrystal gives him the middle finger.

But what is far worse is not so much McChrystal's stance on the administration, it is the impression one gets of the administration itself. Here is another part of the article that leaves some questions about the process by which McChrystal was picked. Here, Hastings recalls the first meeting between President Obama and McChrystal in the Oval Office:
"It was a 10-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."
It is more than that, however. Hastings makes pretty up to the mark observations. Following a description of McChrystal's staff getting drunk in Paris, he observes:
The assembled men may look and sound like a bunch of combat veterans letting off steam, but in fact this tight-knit group represents the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan. While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves into the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal's team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan. "It jeopardizes the mission," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports McChrystal. "The military cannot by itself create governance reform."
This is not simply confusion, it is even more than a turf war. There apparently is a lack of civilian leadership in the Afghanistan-effort. There are two many chiefs on the civilian side, the result being that McChrystal is conducting a strategy that might work, but that does not have a civilian equivalent. Moreover, U.S. ambassador Eikenberry and McChrystal are at loggerheads and work to undermine the authority of the other. The more one reads of this and recalls all the blunders of the past twelve months, the more one wants to toss the entire band overboard (There is already some speculation on who might replace McChrystal).

There is an interesting historical precedent: Douglas MacArthur was a hero after his successful landing at Incheon in the Korean War. But after his initial success he was making mistakes of historic proportions, to say the least, and was famous most for his insubordination. There are some remarkable parallels between MacArthur and McChrystal, only that McChrystal might not have a military triumph such as MacArthur's at Incheon. Nonetheless, for the Obama administration this controversy over McChrystal's eventual departure might be an opportunity to drop the nonsense-deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Obama-administration will have to take the opportunity anyway: Obama has repeatedly stated that Afghanistan is "his" war, this now might be the time to get things right: a new leader for the war effort in Afghanistan would need time for his strategy to work, even if it resembles the current COIN-strategy (There were signs that the timeline will be eased since tuesday, even without the current controversy over McChrystal). By the way, when MacArthur was finally sacked by President Truman that move sealed his presidency and his numbers drooped to historic lows. For Obama, it will take a little more effort to avoid the same fate.

nota bene: Ink Spots has the best comment on why McChrystal needs to leave.

Montag, 21. Juni 2010

Breakfast of Champions

Well, I do realise that this week is still a very young one, but I will be spending another night writing on a book project of mine. I am writing a recollection of all the travels I've made in recent years to absurd places and I remember quite vividly a warm and sticky October night on the terrace of the Ibis-hotel in Lomé, Togo, close to the beach of the Gulf of Guinea. We were having a dinner-party hosted by the Chief of Staff of the Togolese army and I had a good glass of Johnnie Walker Black, a blend that has accompanied me ever since and here is why, as a little tribute to you (and more so to myself, to be honest) - the words of the great Christopher Hitchens:

Sonntag, 20. Juni 2010

Obama's NSS - How We Are Going to Do Anything and Everything All at the Same Time

"Our strategy goes beyond meeting the challenges of today, and includes preventing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of tomorrow." No, this is not from my poetry-album. This cookie-fortune strategic wisdom for the future is from the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States. I realised today that I have written a couple of times about just how much I anticipated Obama's NSS and that now it is published I haven't lost a single word about it. So this might certainly not come as a surprise to you, but your humble blogger was a bit disappointed by it. And here is why:

1. I do know that the NSS is an official document by the White House and will openly be scrutinised. So I do not expect a document totally about stratgy. But the NSS is not even attempting to formulate a strategy. It is not even a statement of principles. It openly advocates an utopia. It is not even about the priorities the United States have. It is about the United States being the most important global power and remaining just that by, well, by doing things. 

You might ask for an example. Well, how about defeating al-Qaida, which by the way is the only moment where the NSS at least tries to be specific. So here we go: "We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa'ida and its affiliates through a comprehensive strategy that denies them safe haven, stengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a brankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity." How will that work, you ask? Well, among other things, we will be "establishing new practices to counter evolving adversaries." Will we always be looking for a United Nations Security Council-mandate when we do so, you want to know? Maybe, because our position is that we will be seeking broad international support by "working with such institutions as NATO ad the U.N. Security Council."

Let us shift back to President George W. Bush for a moment, who was more outspoken when it came to the underlying rationale of his NSS. Claiming that "America is at War", the Bush-administration put forward a strategy that claimed to be in line with the legacies of Ronald Reagan and perhaps more importantly Harry Truman. In his strategy Iran, for instance, was not simply following a different path, which it could abandon easily and at any time. Bush understood that Iran threatened U.S. interests not only because of its WMD-programme, but more so because it was a tyranny. The 2006-NSS clearly stated that the survival of liberty at home increasingly depended on the survival of liberty abroad. In doing so it recognised that the ultimate liberty was freedom and it was in that notion that the GWOT was a war of ideas. One does not need to agree with that, but it was in itself a comprehensive understanding of what drove the world and its conflicts.

2. The NSS is wishful thinking at its best. It is not before page 43 that the relationship with China is explicitly mentioned. Which is fascinating since much of the first fourty pages were spent describing the "World As It Is". Well, in the perception of the White House, the world as it is, is not really about the rise of others, as Fareed Zakaria once put it. Instead it is about the US underpinning the international order. How that is supposed to work when China is the world's leading exporting nation is a question you might want to ask. But do not look for an answer in the NSS.

3. To top it all: now that the United States is about to do anything everywhere, the White House considered it to be a good time to talk about spending. Because, well, with such a deficit U.S. power will not underpin the international order forever. So, we are going to cut spending. It is here, where the reader finally has to realise that this isn't so much a strategy as it is one of Obama's lofty speeches. Which might also explain why all of a sudden expanding health care is part of the national security narrative. Next time, let us do something really bold: let us establish world peace. Since proclaiming it is the better part of valor, we can do that, right?

Freitag, 18. Juni 2010

Most Recent Publication on Somalia

It appears to me that I haven't yet written a short advertisement on my most recent publication on Somalia. Well, here we go: In the first issue of this year's African Security Belachew Gebrewold and I have contributed a piece on Somalia and Regional Security Complex Theory, arguing in a nutshell that the concept of state failure doesn't help us to understand the situation in Somalia at all and that the concept should hence be abandoned when trying to analyse Somalia. Instead we focus on an order beside the state. The bottom line of our argument is this: The challenge for social and political sciences is to describe the order that unfolded after state collapse in Somalia, whereas the concept of state failure only allows for a description of the situation by referring to a period that ended in 1991.

Mittwoch, 16. Juni 2010

"Misunderestimating" the Reading on Iran

On his blog Sec&Def Europe Frederik has taken the opportunity to write a little more on Iran and the coverage of events there following the presidential elections of June 2009 and that certainly is a good opportunity to poke him a little (that we seem to make a habit). His point of departure is an article by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett in today's Foreign Policy, in which they accuse many if not most writers to get the situation in Iran wrong—and here Frederik concurs—because they let themselves be driven not by facts but by their personal political agendas. The exception of course being the Leveretts themselves, who modestly claim to have given an accurate picture of the events and the situation in Iran—by the way, how did I miss that?

I always marvel such accounts for I have often believed that it would be a pretty big challenge to top my own arrogance in claiming to have given the best analysis. You might imagine that it is always a relief to find someone has managed to do just that. Though I am willing to admit that there has to be more than one sheriff in town, I am nonetheless afraid that I have to profoundly disagree with the Leveretts and Frederik on two fundamental points, even on the point that I might loose whatever modesty I may still be able to claim myself.

First: Are the Leveretts really implying that there can be objective coverage of events anywhere in the world? Are they really trying to tell me that they have mastered to relinquish all personal believes and experiences when reporting and analysing a situation? Now this is of course a ridiculous claim, it is also, I dare say, a frightening one. Why should it be desirable that someone who, let us say for the sake of the argument, has spent years in North Korea and has watched North Korean society, ditches his entire knowledge and tries to report objectively, that is without any personal contextualisation or any contextualisation at all? Not only would that reporting be sterile, it would simply be impossible since clearly we are—if we recall our modesty for a moment—incapable of escaping our past, education and experience and luckily so. The challenge is not, as the Leveretts want us to believe, to report in a non-selective manner—that I might remind them is impossible—but to report in a way that allows others to disagree and to check your reading and come up with a counter-narrative. This is a matter of principle and the Leveretts fail utterly in this respect.

Second: Claiming, as the Leveretts have, that the allegation of electoral fraud in last years presidential elections is based largely on a Chatam House report and not on a broad base of academic research and opinion is simply false. I remember quite vividly an e-mail I received a couple of hours after the first election results were in, in which one of the experts on Iran laid out his “reading” on the elections. I won't go through his points in detail, suffice it to say, he was absolutely certain that a massive fraud had taken place. His name was not Ali Ansari. His name was Juan Cole (who by the way has a brilliant blog himself), hardly someone who is suspicious of feeding a neo-conservative reading of Iranian politics. The point is this: The Leveretts do not need to agree with my line of argument or that of many others as much as I do not need to agree with their reading. Suggesting, however, that theirs is right and ours isn't because they've got the facts and we haven't is a bit silly, really. Or, if modesty is to prevail, it is an approach that lacks scholarly education. Narratives and counter-narratives are a vital part of getting the picture straight.

"End of Claims - End of Conflict"

The President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is not running for another term and that certainly is a setback for the Middle East peace process. In his recent visit to the United States he explained in great detail the agreements he has reached with Ehud Olmert, when both were in serious negotiations over a final peace settlement (mind me, does it need to be said that of course these serious negotiations—perhaps the most promising in the past ten to fifteen years—took place on the watch of the Bush-administration? I am just saying). He even agreed to have a third party under the leadership of the United States present to implement such accords. So I am not exactly thrilled that he is leaving the scene and that for once the settlement seems to fail over Israeli politics and the idea that the conflict could best be managed rather than solved comprehensively.

Sonntag, 13. Juni 2010

Modern Classics in War and Warfare - II

Victor Davis Hanson is one of the most prominent American military historians of our times, he has written more than a dozen books in this noble occupation and contributed to the understanding of war and warfare like only few others have. This is all the more outstanding since Hanson is a classicist and came to study war only by coincidence. He draws huge lines in history, frequently comparing the many struggles of ancient Athens with the United States fighting the war on terror. In an earlier, equally fascinating book ("An Autumn of War"), he argued that not fighting Iraq's dictator in 2003 would have been tantamount to refusing to fight Hitler once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Clearly being one of the staunchest supporters of the Bush-administration's foreign policy, he reminds us in his most recent book "The Father of Us All" that the most serious threat to the United States does not emanate from foreign powers. Arguing that ultimately it is the American ingenuity that enables the United States to prevail in wars, he warns that it is the retreat from liberalism that would undermine U.S. supremacy in the world the most, that giving in to religious demands on curtailing research and development would be a bigger threat than an aggressive North Korean posture or an amassed Middle East army. Needless to say, he is right, when ultimately concluding:
"Innovative military technology, then, is not so much a catalyst of change as much as a symptom of a dynamic military that understands that new weapons still operate within the eternal laws of conflict."

Mittwoch, 9. Juni 2010

China - The "Über-Realist Power"

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert D. Kaplan, contributes an interesting piece on China's rise, arguing that its geography will make it both a land and sea power. He of course is right, but then again this is by no means anything spectacularly new and it is hardly an impressive analysis. His piece, however, gets more problematic where Kaplan draws conclusions from his reading of Chinese policies. Characterising China as an 'über-realist power', he argues that China primarily aims to deny the U.S. navy easy entry into the Western pacific and that against the rising profile of Chinese naval power, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia are bound to counterbalance China's rise (The guys at "War is Boring" follow this very closely):
"This is why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's rejection of balance-of-power politics as a relic of the past is either disingenuous or misguided. There is an arms race going on in Asia, and the United State will have to face this reality when it substantially reduces its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq."
So far, so good. So, what is his basic idea to counter that? Well, withdrawal of major U.S. military assets to the Oceanic islands, like Guam, creating basically a not-so-much-over-the-horizon force and increase aid to allied states in the region:
"Strengthening the U.S. air and sea presence in Oceania would be a compromise approach between resisting a Greater China at all cost and assenting to a future in which the Chinese navy policed the first island chain."
Which is where problems really begin, U.S. allies won't respond well to the U.S. giving in to an  as of yet merely theoretical Chinese naval presence. Such a strategy would seriously undermine U.S. credibility, but more than that: Kaplan himself argues that China is not preparing for eventual war with the United States. Beijing, in his reasoning, simply wants to increase its military posture in order to avoid a confrontation, hence the 'über-realist power'. So, why in the world, should the U.S. cave when it isn't even being seriously challenged with eventual war? More importantly, however, such a strategy would seriously harm U.S. interests. Chinese-U.S. relations are in relatively healthy shape, though they have suffered a bit since Obama took office in the White House. But Obama's predecessor had left him a good legacy and improved relations with all Asian countries, including the People's Republic. Obama should continue this policy, not least because it has worked remarkebly well under George W. Bush.

Dienstag, 8. Juni 2010

Goodluck in Nigeria

Nigerian politics have always been difficult to read, the country's political balance is challenging and with a religious conflict in the North and various smaller secessionist movements the future of Nigeria seems to be in a constant limbo. The recent struggle to give the country an effective government headed by Jonathan Goodluck was just another indicator for the eternal Nigerian chaos. At least initially. Goodluck has meanwhile imposed some steps that taken together amount to an impressive reform agenda and he is not turning a blind eye to the conflict in the Niger Delta (the country's most entrenched conflict) and is putting pressure on the oil firms working in the Niger Delta, as New Africa Analysis has learnt:

Under the new legal framework, an entity called the Nigerian Content Monitoring Board will be established and will oversee the supervision, coordination, implementation and monitoring of industry policies and practices. All multinational oil companies will be required to set up local offices in the areas they operate in, offices which will be responsible for management and decision making in the relevant areas. The awarding of licences for new exploration and business would also be geared to give initial consideration to local independent companies and service providers.