Category Archives: Afghanistan

Some thoughts on Robert Gates’ recent remarks

I like that headline. Sort of 19th century-sounding in its plainness. Anyway, moving on…

Back on the previous post, Phillip said:

This is somewhat indirectly related to issues raised by #1, but I couldn’t help wondering what you made of Sec’y Gates’ remarkable speech at West Point last week:

And I responded in a comment that seems worth a separate post, to wit…

Phillip, I had several thoughts about Gates’ remark (which, for those who missed it, was “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”):

  • First, my facetious reaction — Asia? Africa? Middle East? So that leaves what? Europe? Australia? South America? Antarctica? Quite a sweeping set of eliminations. Next thing you know, we won’t be able to go war anywhere, and he’ll be out of a job. Golly, I wonder if the world will cooperate with us on that, and make sure, out of sympathy to our preferences, that the next crisis demanding a deployment of U.S. ground troops happens in, say, Sydney. MayBE, but it seems unlikely.
  • I like Robert Gates (here’s a column I did about him in 2006), have liked him ever since he became CIA director in the 80s (and especially liked him when he delivered us from the disaster of Rumsfeld), so he has my sympathy. And I fully understand why someone who’s had the challenges he’s had as SecDef.
  • From a pragmatic standpoint, what he says makes all the sense in the world. That’s why the option we’re looking at in Libya is a no-fly zone — you know, the mode we were in in Iraq for 12 years during the “cease-fire” in that war against Saddam that started in 1990 and ended in 2003. It’s manageable, we can do it easily enough (we and the Brits are the only ones with the demonstrated ability to provide this service to the people of Libya and the world). Air superiority is something we know how to assert, and use.
  • Ground forces are a huge commitment — a commitment that the United States in the 21st century appears politically unwilling to make. If you’re a pragmatist like Gates — and he is, the consummate professional — you consider that when you’re considering whether the goals are achievable. We’ve demonstrated back here on the home front that we’re unable to commit FULLY to a nation-building enterprise the way we did in 1945. It takes such a single-minded dedication on every level — military, economic, diplomatic — and that takes sustained commitment. One is tempted to say that there’s something particular about Americans today that prevents such a consensus — our 50-50, bitter political division, for instance — but really, this is the norm in U.S. history. The anomaly was 1945. It took two world wars for us to bring us to the point that we could make that kind of commitment.

So there you go. I had another bullet in mind, but was interrupted (blast that person from Porlock!), and it hasn’t come back to me yet. Please share your own thoughts…

I’d like to see Obama COMMIT to something

My friends at The State were right today to praise the fact that President Obama is working with Republicans on a compromise on taxes and unemployment benefits. But they were equally right to be unenthusiastic about the deal itself.

On the one hand, it’s good that we’re not going to see our economy further crippled by untimely tax increases (even if all they are are restorations to pre-Bush levels). And it’s good that the jobless needing those benefits will have them. (At least, that these things will happen if this deal gets through Congress.) On the other, we’re looking at a deal that embodies some of the worst deficit-ballooning values of both parties: tax cuts for the Republicans, more spending for the Democrats.

It’s tragic, and bodes very ill for our country, that this flawed compromise stirs such anger on both partisan extremes: Some Democrats are beside themselves at this “betrayal” by the president. (Which bemuses me — as y’all know, I have trouble understanding how people get so EMOTIONAL about such a dull, gray topic as taxes, whether it’s the rantings of the Tea Partiers who don’t want to pay them, especially if the dough goes to the “undeserving poor,” or the ravings of the liberal class warriors who don’t want “the undeserving rich” to get any breaks. Why not save that passion for something that really matters?) Meanwhile, people on the right — such as Daniel Henninger in the WSJ today — chide Obama for not going far enough on taxes.

In this particular case, I think the folks on the right have a bit of a point (some of them — I have no patience for DeMint demanding the tax cuts and fighting the spending part), but it doesn’t have to do with taxes — it has to do with the president’s overall approach to leadership, and a flaw I see in it. Henninger complains that these tax cut extensions are unlikely to get businesses to go out and invest and create jobs, since the president threatens to eliminate the cuts a year or two down the line.

That actually makes sense (even if it does occur in a column redolent with offensive right-wing attitudes — he sneers at Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”), and I see in it echoes of the president’s flawed approach in another important arena — Afghanistan.

Here’s the thing: If keeping these tax cuts is the right thing to do to help our economy, then they should be kept in place indefinitely — or “permanently,” as the Republicans say. Of course, there is nothing permanent in government. The next Congress, or the one after that, can raise taxes through the roof if it chooses.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that the cuts won’t be permanent, because nothing is in politics. The problem is that the president is, on the front end, negating whatever beneficial effect might be gained from extending the cuts by coming out and promising that they won’t last.

One of the big reasons why the economy hasn’t improved faster than it has this year is that businesses, small and large, have not known what to expect from the recent election in terms of future tax policy with these tax cuts expiring. People were waiting to see what would happen on taxes before taking investment risks. (Even if the liberal Democrats were to eliminate the cuts, knowing that would be better than the uncertainty.) And even with the election over, the future has remained murky. The best thing about such a deal between the president and the GOP should be that it wipes away those clouds and provides clarity.

But the president negates that by saying yes, we’ll keep the cuts in place, but only for a short time. You may look forward now to a time when there are unspecified increases. And Henninger has a point when he says:

But if an angry, let-me-be-clear Barack Obama just looked into the cameras and said he’s coming to get you in two years, what rational economic choice would you make? Spend the profit or gains 2011 might produce on new workers, or bury any new income in the backyard until the 2012 presidential clouds clear?

Ditto with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What good is it to say we’re going to stay and fight NOW if at the same time you give a future date when you’re going to leave (or, as the president has said, start leaving)? What are they going to do? They’re going to sit tight and wait for you to leave on schedule.  (And yes, pragmatic people may take comfort from the fact that the president has allowed himself lots of wiggle-room to stay there — but the harm has been done by the announcement of the intention to leave). Every effort should be taken to make one’s adversaries believe you’re willing to fight them forever (even if you aren’t), if you ever hope to achieve anything by fighting.

The problem in both cases is trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too — making a deal with the Republicans without one’s base getting too mad at you, or maintain our security commitment without (here comes that base thing again) freaking out the anti-war faction too much. What this ignores is that out in the REAL world, as opposed to the one where the parties play partisan tit-for-tat games, real people react in ways that matter to your policy moves: Business people continue to sit rather than creating jobs; the Taliban waits you out while your allies move away from you because they know they have to live there when you’re gone.

What would be great would be if Barack Obama should commit for the duration to something. He should have committed to a single-payer approach to health care from the beginning. Going in with a compromise meant that we got this mish-mash that health care “reform” turned into. He should commit to a plan on the economy, and not undermine it by saying he’s only going to do it for a little while. And most of all, he should commit to Afghanistan, and not try to mollify his base with dangerous deadlines.

What the president does, and even says, matters. He needs to recognize that, pick a direction, and stick with it long enough to have a salutary effect. Whatever their ideology, that’s what leaders do. And we could use some leadership.

The president in Afghanistan: Where would YOU draw the line on security?

Following our discussion on WikiLeaks, I thought I’d pose this…

Note that President Obama just slipped unannounced into Afghanistan. This, to me, is appropriate and laudable.

But I ask you: Do you think you and I as citizens had a “right” to know in advance that he was going there? And would a Julian Assange, to your thinking, have had the “right” to tell you about it in advance?

And if you think not, then WHERE would you draw the line? I draw it here: It is up to duly constituted authorities to make such decisions about the security of official information, and not up to self-appointed individuals or organizations such as Assange or WikiLeaks. When they presume to take such decisions upon themselves, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of national and international law.

Would you draw it somewhere else? And if you would, in what way is that consistent with our being a nation of laws and not of men?

John Wayne, born on the 4th of July, hangs tough

A friend and co-worker brought this story to my attention today:

… Staff Sgt. John Wayne Walding of Groesbeck, Texas, that is.

In April 2008, Walding and nine other Special Forces Soldiers from a 3rd Special Forces Group assault team were attacked by the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin while searching for insurgents in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley.

Over the six-and-a-half-hour firefight, more than 150 insurgents were killed. The members of the assault team were each awarded the Silver Star in December 2008 for their courageous actions.

Walding, one of several team members injured, took a bullet through his right leg under his knee.

“I ripped off my boot lace and literally tied my leg to my thigh to keep it from flapping around,” he said.

After his injury, Walding knew he wasn’t going to give up and leave the Army. He also didn’t want to spend the rest of his career behind a desk.

“You don’t become a Green Beret because you ‘kind of like it,’ you become a Green Beret because you love it, and can’t imagine being anything else,” he said.

While recuperating, Walding worked as an assistant instructor at 3rd SFG’s sniper detachment at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he refused to lower his personal standards because of his injury. But in order to become a full-time instructor, he had to complete the Special Forces Sniper Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School….

Of course, he completed the course. Kind of makes me think I should shut up about my stupid sore thumbs

The Koran-burning church, and other foolishness

By now you’ve heard about it. I tend to look at it from the perspective of Gen. David Petraeus:

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top American commander in Afghanistan has warned that plans by a small Florida church to burn copies of the Koran on Saturday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, could play into the hands of the very extremists at whom the church says it is directing that message.

Burning copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, “would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence,” the commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Echoing remarks the general made in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, he said: “It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort. It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.”…

Somebody needs to find a way to talk some sense to those rockheads down in Florida. Unfortunately, sense is one thing I’m sure they are adamantly determined not to hear. Folks like that are allergic to it, or something. The fact that it’s senseless provocation is what appeals to them. Or maybe I’m wrong. The pastor says he hasn’t changed his mind, but is praying about it. Here’s hoping the Almighty answers him with a big, booming, bone-rattling NO, so that even he can hear it.

One of the really unfortunate things about modern global communications is that when some marginal, fringe doofuses that no one in this country would pay attention to acts out this way, it gets reported to other idiots on the other side of the world, who use it as an excuse to riot and generally raise hell, which makes the idiots over here feel justified, and so the foolishness continues, one generation into the next… (I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would have been a blogger today).

Basically, what we have here is a low-rent version of the allegedly sophisticated “journalists” in Europe who proved how free and enlightened they were (to each other) by specifically commissioning cartoons designed for no other purpose than to be of maximum insult value to conservative Muslims. And thus another unnecessary cycle of violence was launched. (The Enlightened Ones would justify themselves by saying that the violent reactions were unjustified. Of course they were unjustified, you twits. They were also entirely predictable, and your provocation of it was entirely unnecessary.)

I mean, if you just start with what Mamanem taught you before kindergarten, you don’t go around poking fun at the way other folks do church. Sure, if you’re a Baptist, you know what those Methodists do down the street isn’t REAL baptism, but you don’t make fun of them because well-bred people don’t do that. Well, this is like that, only with AK-47s — we have a practical reason not to unnecessarily inflame irrational passions. It’s not just rude, but stupid.

And when it endangers our troops in the field — and Gen. Petraeus is absolutely right to point that out — it is inexcusable.

Why did I write this? I don’t know. I set out thinking this would be a good thing to discuss, but then as I was typing, I thought, “What’s to discuss?” So I threw in the cartoons stuff. I know some of y’all will argue with me about that, but the point is the same, from my perspective.

Soldier? You mean “sailor,” right?

Don’t suppose we should expect Slate to know anything this basic, but when it said:

Manhunt Is Underway for Captured U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan

Western forces have launched a massive search for two U.S. Navy personnel who went missing Friday….

… it really meant, “U.S. sailor.”

Yeah, OK, technically, the SEALs are kinda like soldiers — supersoldiers, but soldiers. And nowadays even sailors and airmen are being trained in basic infantry tactics so they can do convoy guard duty because of the lack of regular dogfaces in our all-volunteer Army. And obviously, these guys were not on the water at the time of the incident.

But still, there is a difference. It’s pretty bad when a marine is called a soldier, but a sailor? Come on. That’s a distinction that’s existed forever.

Next thing you know, Slate will call its rifle a gun…

Good news is, Petraeus knows how to do the job

On the one hand, it’s a great shame for someone who by many accounts is a fine officer to lose his job. Insubordination is insubordination, but it’s not a happy day for America when the president has to bust the top guy in a war zone where things haven’t been going well.

On the other hand, at least we know Gen. Petraeus knows how to get the job done if anyone can. He is literally the man who wrote the book on counterinsurgency, and he showed he could put his theories into effective practice by saving the mission in Iraq.

Frankly, I sort of hated to seem him bumped upstairs to MacDill, leaving implementation of his plans to subordinates. As hairy as things are in Afghanistan, it’s good to know it will be run, on the scene, by the guy who knows how to turn things around.

Other thoughts?

Is the M4 a lethal weapon (to the user)?

Something Burl wrote in a comment reminded me of this story the other day:

WASHINGTON — In the chaos of an early morning assault on a remote U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips’ M4 carbine quit firing as militant forces surrounded the base. The machine gun he grabbed after tossing the rifle aside didn’t work either.

When the battle in the small village of Wanat ended, nine U.S. soldiers lay dead and 27 more were wounded. A detailed study of the attack by a military historian found that weapons failed repeatedly at a “critical moment” during the firefight on July 13, 2008, putting the outnumbered American troops at risk of being overrun by nearly 200 insurgents.

Which raises the question: Eight years into the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, do U.S. armed forces have the best guns money can buy?…

I’ve sort of wondered for years why this country couldn’t simply produce a weapon as simple, as effective, as cheap, and most of all as RELIABLE as the AK-47.

I read part of the recent book by Larry Kahaner about that remarkable weapon (one of the many books I’ve read “part of” while drinking coffee but not buying anything at Barnes & Noble, my favorite leisuretime activity), and it reads like pretty much an indictment of the free enterprise system. The way it developed was this: A soldier in the Red Army, dissatisfied with what guys like him had to rely on in battle, decided to design a multi-purpose infantry weapon that would get the job done, and always work. So he did, the Soviets mass-produced it, and it became the number-one weapon in the world, the favorite of rebels, terrorists, thugs, and child soldiers everywhere.

It’s cheap; it’s ubiquitous. It puts a LOT of high-impact bullets on a target in a big hurry, so you definitely don’t want to go up against one if you can help it. It’s simple, and easy to maintain. It requires so little skill — and upper-body strength — to operate that it makes a child soldier into a particularly dangerous person.

In other words, it’s pretty horrible. But it’s a way better weapon, in lots of ways, than anything we’ve mass-produced.

We’ve heard about the troubles with the M16 since Vietnam, and the M4 is its descendant. The M16 fires a lower-weight slug at a high velocity, so it rips up whatever it enters — although it doesn’t have much knockdown power. (In Black Hawk Down — the book, not the film — a Delta team member gripes about the M16 because when he shoots somebody who’s shooting at him, he wants to see the guy go down.)

Meanwhile, nothing ever seems to go wrong with Kalashnikovs, no matter what you do to them. The story Burl told matches one I’ve heard before:

A friend (now deceased) who was part of the Army test team for the M-16 told me this anecdote.
He thought the M-16 was delicate and undependable, told the Army so, he was told to shut up and buy stock in Colt.
A few years later, he’s in command of a firebase in Vietnam, and they’re clearing a kill zone. The bulldozer uncovers a dead Viet cong who has buried for a year or so, along with his AK-47. Dave jumped down in the hole, said “now here’s a REAL weapon,” and cocked the muddy, rusty AK, pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
It fired.

So — are our soldiers taking unnecessary risks because of inadequate weapons?  I’d be interested in particular to hear from Capt. James Smith and others who have actually taken the M4 into battle (that’s him below getting his ACOG zeroed in on arriving in Afghanistan — at least, I think that’s an M4).


Eight years ago today


What is there to say on the 8th anniversary of the attacks on America? I suppose I could say the same things I said on the 7th, and add what I said a couple of days before that.

Or I can quote what President Obama said today:

“Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still,” Mr. Obama said. “In defense of our nation, we will never waver.”

And add what he said back in August, to a VFW gathering in Phoenix:

The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight and we won’t defeat it overnight, but we must never forget: This is not a war of choice; it is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda could plot to kill more Americans.

With more than a few out there faltering, I thought it would be good to bring those words to the fore.


Blaming ze Germans

Looks like we’ve found an old favorite bad guy upon whom to blame the recent incident that led to a large number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan:

BERLIN — A U.S.-German rift over a deadly airstrike in Afghanistan on Friday escalated, as U.S. commanders accused the German military of undermining guidelines that seek to avoid civilian casualties.

U.S. military officials questioned why the German army had called in an airstrike when German troops weren’t under fire from insurgents, as well as German forces’ intelligence that led them to think civilians wouldn’t be hurt.

German defense officials said Monday that the airstrike on two hijacked fuel trucks in Kunduz Province was necessary to avert a threat to a German army base, and stood by their assessment that the strike killed 56 Taliban insurgents. Afghan and Western officials have said between 70 and 130 people died, including many civilians….

An investigation needs to go where it goes, and place the blame accurately. But it occurs to me that it’s hard enough to get the Germans to come out an fight at all these days, so the more heat we put on them, the more likely the Germans are to just go home — particularly with the trouble Chancellor Merkel is having these days…

If we choose to go the way of the Soviets…

I continue to be astounded that suddenly relatively sane people are talking about quitting in Afghanistan, given the consequences of such a course that immediately run through my head when I contemplate it (something I had no cause to do until recently).

Bret Stephens of the WSJ wrote of some of them this morning in a piece headlined “The Afghan Stakes.” An excerpt:

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A little less than a decade later, the Soviets left, humiliated and defeated. Within months the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the USSR was no more. Westerners may debate whether credit for these events belongs chiefly to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Charlie Wilson or any number of people who stuck a needle in the Soviet balloon. But in Islamist mythology, it was Afghan and Arab mujahedeen who brought down the godless superpower. And if one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?

Put simply, it was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that laid much of the imaginative groundwork for 9/11. So imagine the sorts of notions that would take root in the minds of jihadists—and the possibilities that would open up to them—if the U.S. was to withdraw from Afghanistan in its own turn….

Personally, I didn’t need Mr. Stephens’ piece to help me imagine what would happen. If you do, I urge you to go read it.

Joe Biden, prophet

Charles Krauhammer made the point most clearly, in his column for today:

The Biden prophecy has come to pass. Our wacky veep, momentarily inspired, had predicted last October that “it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama.'' Biden probably had in mind an eve-of-the-apocalypse drama like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, Obama's challenges have come in smaller bites. Some are deliberate threats to U.S. interests, others mere probes to ascertain whether the new president has any spine.
   Preliminary X-rays are not very encouraging.
   Consider the long list of brazen Russian provocations:
   (a) Pressuring Kyrgyzstan to shut down the U.S. air base in Manas, an absolutely cru-cial NATO conduit into Afghanistan.
   (b) Announcing the formation of a “rapid reaction force'' with six former Soviet re-publics, a regional Russian-led strike force meant to reassert Russian hegemony in the Muslim belt north of Afghanistan.
   (c) Planning to establish a Black Sea naval base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, conquered by Moscow last summer.
   (d) Declaring Russia's intention to deploy offensive Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Poland and the Czech Republic go ahead with plans to station an American (anti-Iranian) missile defense system.

But you know what? I didn't use the Krauthammer piece on today's page. After all, you sort of expect Charles Krauthammer to say stuff like that. Folks like bud are more likely to be persuaded by Joel Brinkley, who is the kind of guy who writes stuff like this:

    Even with all the anti-American sentiment everywhere these days, most people worldwide know America to be a decent, honest state. For all the justified criticism over the invasion of Iraq, the United States is now beginning to pull its troops out. For all the international anger and hatred of George Bush, the American people elected a man who is his antithesis.

Set aside the silliness of saying Obama is Bush's "antithesis" — I point you to all the evidence of "continuity we can believe in," such as here and here — and consider my point, which is that Joel Brinkley is decidedly not Charles Krauthammer. Anyway, here's some of what Mr. Brinkley said, in the column that appears on today's page, about how Obama is being tested, although he managed to say it without being snarky about Joe Biden:

    America’s competitors and adversaries are certainly not greeting President Obama with open arms. During his first month in office, many have given him the stiff arm.
    Pakistan made a deal with the Taliban to give it a huge swath of territory in the middle of the country for a new safe haven.
    North Korea is threatening war with the South.
    Many in the Arab world who had welcomed Obama are now attacking him because he did not denounce Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
    Iran launched a satellite into space, demonstrating that it has the ability to construct an inter-continental ballistic missile to match up with the nuclear weapons it is apparently trying to build.
    There’s more, but none of it can match the sheer gall behind Russia’s open challenge to Washington.

Just to give you yet another perspective that I did NOT use on today's page, here's what Philly's Trudy Rubin had to say about that deal that Pakistan cut with the Taliban:

       The deal was cut with an older insurgent leader, Sufi Mohammed. Supposedly, he will persuade tougher Taliban, such as his estranged son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, to lay down arms. Pakistani defense analyst Ikram Sehgal told me by phone from Karachi, "They are trying to isolate the hard-core terrorists from the moderate militants. I think it is a time of trial, to see if this works."
       Critics say the deal is a desperation move, made by a weak civilian government and an army that doesn't know how to fight the insurgents. "The Pakistani army has been remarkably ineffective," said Dan Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the army, which is trained to fight land wars against India, lacks the counterinsurgency skills to "hit bad guys and not good guys."
       As a result, many innocent civilians are killed, leading locals to accept the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. (That may account for the warm welcome Sufi Mohammed re-ceived in Swat after the deal; poor people are desperate for the violence to stop, whatever it takes.)

So wherever you are on the political spectrum, if you follow and understand foreign affairs, you know that Obama is indeed being tested. Big-time. And it remains to be seen whether he passes the tests. I certainly hope he does.

Capt. Smith sits this one out

Ran into James Smith this morning at breakfast, and expressed my surprise that Vincent Sheheen was running for governor and he was not.

He said he just couldn't afford the time away from his family. As you'll recall, he was separated from the wife and four kids for about a year and a half, most of it fighting those folks President Obama calls the Tolly-bon. He said his wife was supportive, but he couldn't stand to miss the time with his kids. He said a Soapbox Derby event over the weekend (or was in Pinewood Derby? I get those mixed up) underlined that for him; if he were to run for gov, he'd miss such events.

On other matters, I mentioned I had thought of him and the other guys of Team Swamp Fox last night, because I've been watching (via Netflix) the HBO series "Generation Kill," based on the book by the same name by a Rolling Stone correspondent embedded with Force Recon Marines on the tip of the spear in the Iraq invasion in '03. The Marines, who were veterans of Afghanistan, talk about that experience a lot, and are sometimes nostalgic because the way they had fought on that front made more sense to them.

Anyway, I need to get together with Rep. Smith sometime and talk at greater length; I haven't had a chance to do that since he got back.

Obama’s news conference

Did you watch it? What did you think?

As usual, I think the new pres handled himself well. The guy's just chock full o' poise. I also think he made some good points selling portions of his stimulus plan — particularly the green energy and medical records parts.

And as usual, when I force myself to watch one of these things, I sympathized with him and what he was trying to say, and got really irritated at some the stupid, facile, superficially provocative questions the media reps asked. For instance, I know we're supposed to think Helen Thomas is cute or something because she's so old, but what the hell did she mean by "so-called terrorists" (which the president politely called her down for, by setting out quite clearly what a terrorist is). And did she really want the president to blurt out, in response to her hectoring (see how she kept asking it, talking over him?), who in the Mideast has nukes and who doesn't? What did she expect him to say, something like "Oh, you mean, besides Israel?" Does she think a new president should gab with her, in front of the country, about whatever juicy tidbits he's picked up at those cool intel briefings?

And who was it, the CNN guy? who asked, as this guy's walking in the door and beginning to turn our resources more fully toward a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, "Hey, when can we leave Afghanistan?" What kinds of questions are these? Are they randomly chosen from questions overheard on the street, or what? What sort of intelligent answer could anyone possibly expect from such a question?

And The Huffington Post? A blog? A representative of Arianna Huffington gets a question, as opposed to… I don't know… the Chicago Tribune? What do they do, drag these names out of a hat? Or is it, "let's give one to a serious newspaper, one to a network, throw in a blog, and if there's a little old lady in tennis shoes we'll give her a shot, too?"

I've never really liked the combination of journalism and theater that is the news conference… all that posturing and primping before one's peers and the folks at home, everybody trying to impress somebody, and mostly persuading everyone as to what idiots they are. The very few such events I attended as a reporter, I kept my mouth shut rather than be part of the show. If I couldn't find out what I needed to know before such a cattle call, I wasn't doing my job. Later, as an editor, I told reporters they'd BETTER have the whole story ahead of time, and preferably have it filed. They should then attend the show on the remote chance that something would come up they didn't know already. They were not to ask questions during the conference unless they couldn't get them answered any other way (which they should regard as a failure), for the simple fact that they'd better know a LOT more than the TV and radio types who live off such events, so why should they get to feed off your good questions?

It occurs to me as I reminisce that I was not the easiest editor for a reporter to work for… probably a good thing I defected to editorial in 1994, and left all that behind.

Oh, well. I think I'll read some Moby Dick and go to bed.

So when do we invade Pakistan?

OK, so now Iraq was a bad idea, because Obama was against our going into Iraq, and the people (except for 46 percent of them) voted for Obama, so that’s the new truth. Right?

And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

See? I’ve always said I love Big Brother.

But here’s my question: When do we invade Pakistan? You know, that’s where al Qaida is and all, as certain people keep telling us. As one of my interlocutors said back here, "Al-Qaida was not in Iraq until we got there." Which prompted me to say:

If al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and we can’t get AT them in Pakistan, on
account of the fact that Pakistan gets really, REALLY upset when we go
in there after them, and they’re a sovereign country and all (which
doesn’t bother ME; I still think it was a good idea to follow the enemy
into Cambodia in 1970, but presumably a lot of folks who voted for
Obama Tuesday disagree, although not necessarily Obama himself, which
is another topic), then isn’t it kind of a good thing to draw them into
Iraq, where we happen to have troops to fight them?

Sorry about the long sentence, there.

Re-education is never an easy process, and as you see, I’m a particularly hard case.

You see, I forgot for a moment that Obama is all for doing a Cambodia and chasing al Qaeda into Pakistan, so in that sense we really didn’t need to go into Iraq (I still think we should have, for other reasons, but let’s stick with this point for now).

At least, I think Obama’s OK with that. That was the impression I had back in August 2007, when I wrote:

BARACK OBAMA was right to threaten to invade Pakistan
in order to hit al-Qaida, quite literally, where it lives. And as long
as we’re on this tack, remind me again why it is that we’re not at war
with Iran.
    OK, OK, I know the reasons: Our military is
overextended; the American people lack the appetite; the nutball factor
is only an inch deep in Iran, and once you get past Ahmadinejad and the
more radical mullahs the Iranian people aren’t so bad, but they’d get
crazy quick if we attacked, and so forth.
    I can also come up with reasons not to invade Pakistan, or even to talk about invading Pakistan. We’ve heard them often enough. Pakistan is (and say this in reverent tones) a sovereign country; Pervez Musharraf
is our “friend”; we need him helping us in the War on Terror; he is
already politically weak and this could do him in; he could be replaced
by Islamists sufficiently radical that they would actively support
Osama bin Laden and friends, rather than merely fail to look
aggressively enough to find them; fighting our way into, and seeking a
needle in, the towering, rocky haystacks of that region is easier said
than done, and on and on.
    But when you get down to it, it all
boils down to the reason I mentioned in passing in the first instance —
Americans lack the appetite. So with a long line of people vying to be
our new commander in chief, it’s helpful when one of them breaks out of
the mold of what we might want to hear, and spells out a real challenge
before us…

Anyway, this seems particularly relevant at the moment, because Obama just won the election — perhaps you heard about that — and on Election Day itself, I read this in the WSJ:

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani officials warned U.S. Gen. David Petraeus
that frequent missile strikes on militant targets in Pakistan fan
anti-American sentiment in the country, an ally in the fight against

The new U.S. commander of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq met
Pakistani officials, including Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar
and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, as part of his first international
trip since taking over U.S. Central Command three days earlier….

So what’s the new Commander in Chief going to tell Petraeus to do about all that? Keep up the pressure on al Qaida and the Taliban in their Tribal Area hidey-holes? Or back off in deference to our ally?

I’m sorry to interrupt everybody’s warm and fuzzy feelings about how we’ll be at peace with all the world now that Obama is going to be our president, but I’m ornery that way. I’ve got this habit of noticing that the real world has this way of intruding upon us…

Meanwhile, back in the world: We’re now having firefights with Pakistan

Folks who have been looking back and forth between the presidential election and the crisis on Wall Street, only to see the two merge, may be surprised to know that things have gotten hairier over on the Afghan-Pakistan border. We’ve been sending commandos and other assets after al Qaida over there (you may recall that’s where Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding out), and Pakistan has been getting madder and madder over it.

And now, apparently, we’re shooting at each other … although Pakistan claims it was just shooting flares at our helicopters — to start with, anyway .

I just thought I’d mention this in case there is a debate tomorrow night, and in case anybody thought there wasn’t anything important besides the economy to talk about.

Seven years on

Seven years ago this week, I was filled with optimism. Not everyone responded to the events of 9/11/01 that way, but I did.
    Yes, I was mindful of the horrific loss of human life. But nothing could change that; my optimism rose from what I believed would come next.
    Surely, I thought, we could set aside foolishness and use the unprecedented resources our nation possessed — military power, certainly, but also our economic dominance and perhaps most of all the strength of the ideas upon which our nation is built — to make future 9/11s less likely.
    By “foolishness” I mean a number of things. Take, for instance, our insatiable appetite for oil produced by nations that consider fostering al-Qaidas as being consistent with their interests. (Joe Biden has a great speech he’s given around South Carolina for years about the incalculable opportunity wasted by George W. Bush on Sept. 12, when, instead of urging us to every sacrifice and every effort toward transforming the energy underpinnings of our economy, he told us to go shopping and delegate the war fighting to the professionals.)
    But the greatest foolishness was the pointless, poisonous partisanship that militated against focusing the nation’s resources toward solving any problem. It should have been the easiest to set aside. It’s not that I read too much into those Democrats and Republicans singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps; it’s that partisanship is based on considerations that are so much less substantial than the realities of 9/11. Those attacks should have melted away party differences like the noonday tropical sun burning away a morning mist.
    But partisanship is an industry that employs thousands of Americans — in the offices of Beltway advocacy groups, in the studios of 24/7 cable TV “news” channels, in party headquarters, on congressional staffs and in the White House. And they are much better focused on that which sustains them — polarization for its own sake — than the rest of us are on the interests we hold in common.
    They lay low for awhile, but as most of us went back to shopping while our all-volunteer military went to war, the polarization industry went back to work dividing us, hammer and tongs. They tapped the powerful emotions of 9/11 to their purposes, and led us to levels of bitterness that none of us had seen in our lifetimes.
    But what did I expect to happen, seven years ago? Nothing less than using our considerable influence to build a better world. Go ahead, laugh. All done now?
    In an editorial the Sunday after the attacks, I wrote that “We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term — military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.” That meant abandoning a lot of foolishness.
    Take, for instance, our policy toward the Mideast. Our goal had been stability above all. Prop up some oppressive regimes and come to terms with others; just don’t let anything interfere with the smooth flow of petroleum. Saddam upsets the equilibrium by invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia? Send half a million troops to restore the status quo ante, but don’t topple his regime, because that would upset the balance.
    But 9/11 showed us that the status quo was extraordinarily dangerous. It produced millions of disaffected young men, frustrated and humiliated by the oppression that we propped up. Things needed to change.
    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed part of the equation well in Cairo in 2005: “For 60 years the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.” The New York Times’ Tom Friedman took it further, speaking of the need to “drain swamps,” the figurative kind that bred terrorists the way literal bogs breed malaria.
    But instead of leading a national effort on every possible front — the military speaks of our national power as being based in the acronym DIME, for “Diplomatic,” “Information,” “Military” and “Economic” resources (those who put their lives on the line are wise about these things) — we’ve spent most of the past seven years bickering over the military aspect alone. This argument between the antiwar left and the hawkish right has so weakened the national will to do anything that we came close to failure in Iraq, could still fail in Afghanistan and are helpless in the face of Russian aggression in the Caucasus and Iranian nuclear ambition.
    So how do I feel about our national prospects today, given all that has happened? Forgive me, but I am once again (cautiously) optimistic, based on a number of signs, from small to momentous:

  • Dramatic improvement in Iraq — thanks largely to the “surge” that he belatedly embraced after four years of floundering — has changed the national conversation, and led President Bush to speak of starting the process of moving troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, the battleground even the partisans can agree upon.
  • Last week Secretary Rice sat down to solidify a new understanding with Moammar Quaddafi of Libya, the once-intractable sponsor of terror whose mind was changed by the Iraq invasion.
  • The choice for president is between two men who gained their respective parties’ nominations by speaking to the deep national desire to move beyond partisan paralysis. (I realize they would lead in different directions. But if either can lead a national consensus toward implementing his best ideas, we will be better off — if only for having had the experience of agreeing with each other for once.)

Yes, the threads of hope to which I cling are delicate, and cynics will regard me as laughably foolish. But the alternative is not to hope. And that, given the potential of this nation, would be the ultimate foolishness.

Go to

9/11 plus seven years

The way we split up duties on the editorial board, Cindi Scoppe handles scheduling. For instance, she maintains "the budget," which has nothing to do with money — it’s newspaperese for a written summary of what you plan to publish in upcoming editions.

A couple of weeks back, Cindi put a bold notice on the budget to this effect: 9/11 ???? Beyond that, she’s mentioned it a couple of times. Each time I’ve sort of grunted. The most recent time was Monday, and I felt compelled to be somewhat more articulate. I explained that I hate marking anniversaries. Such pieces are so artificial. The points one might make 365 days after an event should not differ from what you would say the day before, or the day after — if you’re saying the right things.

Nevertheless, I’m kicking around a column idea, one that I’m not sure will work. If I can pull it together between now and Wednesday morning, we can run it Thursday.

Actually, it’s a couple of column ideas. One would simply be a bullet list of things to think about: the movement of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan would be one bullet, another would be Osama bin Laden, another would be the state of the NATO alliance — or something like that. Something acknowledging that it’s tough to isolate One Thing to say on a topic so complex.

The other would be to hark back to the editorial I wrote for the Sunday after 9/11 — 9/16/01. In it, I set out a vision of how the U.S. needed to engage the world going forward. A key passage:

We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term – military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.

There’s nothing profound about it — it seems as obvious to me as the need to breathe. But America is a long way from embracing the concept holistically. We seem to lack the vocabulary for it, or something.

A couple of months ago, former State staffer Dave Moniz — who is now a civilian employee of the Air Force with the civilian rank of a brigadier general, operating out of Washington — brought a couple of Air Force guys to talk broadly about that service and how it’s doing these days. In passing, one of them mentioned the concept of DIME (which refers to "Diplomatic," "Information," "Military" and "Economic" as the four main elements of national power), which apparently is widely understood among military officers these days, even though it doesn’t enter much into civilian discussions.

We’ve wasted much of the last seven years arguing about the legitimacy of the exercise of military power, to the exclusion of the other parts. It’s sucked up all the oxygen. Occasionally we talk about "soft power," but as some sort of alternative, not as a necessary complement. And as long as our discussions are thus hobbled, it’s tough for us ever to get to the point of accomplishing the overall goals of making the world safer for liberal democracies:

    But we are going to have to do far more than simply project military power. We must help the rest of the world be more free, more affluent and more democratic. Advancing global trade is only the start.
    We must cease to regard "nation-building" as a dirty word. If the people of the Mideast didn’t live under oligarchs and brutal tyrants, if they enjoyed the same freedoms and rights and broad prosperity that we do – if, in other words, they had all of those things the sponsors of terror hate and fear most about us – they would understand us more and resent us less. And they would, by and large, cease to be such a threat to us, to Israel and to themselves.

With rescue workers still seeking survivors in the smoking rubble of the twin towers, it didn’t occur to me that the military part would be such a political barrier. I couldn’t see then how quickly political partisanship would reassert itself, or how quickly we would split into a nation of Iraq hawks and the antiwar movement.

I’m encouraged that the surge in Iraq has been successful enough — Gen. Petraeus was thinking in DIME terms as he suppressed the insurgencies — that we are prepared to redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. (Which reminds me of something I often thought over the last few years when antiwar types would talk about "bringing our troops home." I didn’t see how anyone would think we could do that, with the battles still to be fought against the Taliban. The most compelling argument those opposed to our involvement in Iraq had was that it consumed resources that should be devoted to Afghanistan. Obviously, as we turn from one we turn more to the other — not because we want to exhaust our all-volunteer military with multiple deployments, but because until we have a larger military, we have no choice — no credible person has asserted that Afghanistan is a "war of choice.")

You know what — I’m just going to copy that whole Sept. 16, 2001, editorial here. Maybe it will inspire y’all to say something that will help me write a meaningful column. Maybe not. But I share it anyway… wait, first I’ll make one more point: What the editorial set out was not all that different from the concept of "Forward Engagement" that Al Gore had set out in the 2000 campaign to describe his foreign policy vision — although after he unveiled it, he hardly mentioned it. Too bad that between his own party’s post-Vietnam isolationism and the GOP’s aversion to "nation-building," we’ve had trouble coalescing around anything like this.

Anyway, here’s the editorial:

Published on: 09/16/2001
Edition: FINAL
Page: A8

IF YOU HAD MENTIONED the words "missile defense shield" to the terrorists who took over those planes last Tuesday, they would have laughed so hard they might have missed their targets.
    That’s about the only way it might have helped.
    Obviously, America is going to have to rethink the way it relates to the rest of the world in the 21st century. Pulling a high-tech defensive blanket over our heads while wishing the rest of the world would go away and leave us alone simply isn’t going to work.
    We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term – military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.
    Essentially, we have wasted a decade.
    After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, there was a vacuum in our increasingly interconnected world, a vacuum only the United States could fill. But we weren’t interested. After half a century of intense engagement in world affairs, we turned inward. Oh, we assembled and led an extraordinary coalition in the Gulf War – then let it fall apart. We tried to help in Somalia, but backed out when we saw the cost. After much shameful procrastination, we did what we should have done in the Balkans, and continue to do so. We tried to promote peace in the Mideast, then sort of gave up. But by and large, we tended our own little garden, and let the rest of the world drift.
    We twice elected a man whose reading of the national mood was "It’s the economy, stupid." Republicans took over Congress and started insisting that America would not be the world’s "policeman."
    Beyond overtures to Mexico and establishing a close, personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, President Bush initially showed little interest in foreign affairs.
    Meanwhile, Russia and China worked to expand their own spheres of influence, Europe started looking to its own defenses, and much of the rest of the world seethed over our wealth, power and complacency.
    Well, the rest of the world isn’t going to simply leave us alone. We know that now. On Tuesday, we woke up.
    In the short term, our new engagement will be dominated by military action, and diplomacy that is closely related to military aims. It won’t just end with the death or apprehension of Osama bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell served notice of what will be required when he said, "When we’re through with that network, we will continue with a global assault against terrorism in general." That will likely mean a sustained, broad- front military effort unlike anything this nation has seen since 1945. Congress should get behind that.
    At the moment, much of the world is with us in this effort. Our diplomacy must be aimed at maintaining that support, which will not be easy in many cases.
    Beyond this war, we must continue to maintain the world’s most powerful military, and keep it deployed in forward areas. Our borders will be secure only to the extent that the world is secure. We must engage the help of other advanced nations in this effort. We must invest our defense dollars first and foremost in the basics – in keeping our planes in the air, our ships at sea and our soldiers deployed and well supported.
    We must always be prepared to face an advanced foe. Satellite intelligence and, yes, theater missile defenses will play roles. But the greatest threat we currently face is not from advanced nations, but from the kinds of enemies who are so primitive that they don’t even have airplanes; they have to steal ours in order to attack us. For that reason, we must beef up our intelligence capabilities. We need spies in every corner of the world, collecting the kind of low-tech information that espiocrats call "humint" – human intelligence. More of that might have prevented what happened last week, in ways that a missile shield never could.
    But we are going to have to do far more than simply project military power. We must help the rest of the world be more free, more affluent and more democratic. Advancing global trade is only the start.
    We must cease to regard "nation-building" as a dirty word. If the people of the Mideast didn’t live under oligarchs and brutal tyrants, if they enjoyed the same freedoms and rights and broad prosperity that we do – if, in other words, they had all of those things the sponsors of terror hate and fear most about us – they would understand us more and resent us less. And they would, by and large, cease to be such a threat to us, to Israel and to themselves.
    This may sound like an awful lot to contemplate for a nation digging its dead out of the rubble. But it’s the kind of challenge that this nation took on once before, after we had defeated other enemies that had struck us without warning or mercy. Look at Germany and Japan today, and you will see what America can do.
    We must have a vision beyond vengeance, beyond the immediate guilty parties. And we must embrace and fulfill that vision, if we are ever again to enjoy the collective peace of mind that was so completely shattered on Sept. 11, 2001.

We will kill Harkonnens together

James Smith is a very nice guy, and he’s also a Democrat in the post-Vietnam era. These undeniable facts lead to a sense of dissonance sometimes when he talks like a soldier. I’ve noticed this several times in the couple of years since he joined the infantry.

I noticed it again yesterday during his address to Rotary. Now that I’m writing about it, I forget exactly who said the words that kicked off this train of thought, although I remember the context. Maybe James said it, or maybe it was said by one of his comrades during a video clip he showed us. No matter. It was part of his presentation, and I know I have heard James say the same thing at other times.

Anyway, the context had to do with fighting alongside Afghan allies. These are a people bred to unbelievably (by Western standards) harsh deprivation ever since Alexander the Great was there. The dry, stark landscape is practically lunar, and the person you speak with today could get his head cut off and his body left in the dust of the road (there is only one paved road running through the entire province, and you stay off of it because a beaten path invites IEDs) as a warning, just because he spoke to you.

James speaks warmly of the bonds between his men and the Afghan police they work with. He repeatedly says any one of them would have taken a bullet for him. At one point in the presentation, either James or the guy on video, speaking of those allies, mentioned this thing that binds them: They "kill Taliban" together.

Normally, James speaks of the bond in terms that wouldn’t make delicate civilians — especially peace-minded fellow Democrats — wince, such as mutual self-sacrifice (that willingness to take a bullet) or the way the children of the country inspire him to believe in its future. But one gets the impression that among soldiers (and national police), the "kill Taliban together" thing is either said often, or is so understood that it doesn’t have to be said.

When it came up Monday, I immediately thought of Dune. Similar landscape, and the bond that the Atreides sought with the Fremen (too late to save the Atreides, unfortunately) was so very much like this one. There is the passage in which a small band of surviving Atreides form an ad hoc alliance with some Fremen, and the key affirmation that they are now allies goes like this:

    "We will kill Harkonnens," the Fremen said. He grinned.

A Rotary meeting is about as far as you can get from the surface of Arrakis. But I get the impression that Afghanistan is not.

Capt. Smith speaks to Rotary

Capt. (Rep.) James Smith spoke to the Columbia Rotary Club about his experiences in Afghanistan. Some highlights:

  • Before the speech, the club recognized my colleague Chuck Crumbo for the job he did reporting, in country, on the exploits of the 218th Brigade. Chuck accepted the well-deserved honor with typical modesty.
  • Capt. Smith told the story again of how he, at age 37, bucked the system by insisting that he be allowed to quit the JAG Corps and join the infantry — after being inspired by a visit to Ground Zero in NYC. The system bucked back, and in fact finally told him that he would have to resign his commission and start over as an enlisted man in basic training, keeping up with the 18-year-olds. Obviously, they expected him to say, "Never Mind." But he accepted the challenge, went through basic, worked his way back up to captain, and ended up leading a team that fought the Taliban alongside Afghan national police forces. (The poor-quality video below, from my phone, is the part when he was telling the story of going to Basic again.)
  • Yes, he did say the phrase, "If I run for governor." Interestingly, the subject was brought up by arch-Republican Rusty DePass. Rusty’s son served with Capt. Smith in Afghanistan, and he has warned his Dad that if the captain runs, he’s going to support him.
  • Also in the audience was Joe Wilson, and this provided another example of how military service bridges partisan gaps. (It’s a pet theory of mine that the partisan bitterness of this generation results from politics now being dominated by the post-draft — and especially post WWII — generation, and they lack that shared experience to teach them that we’re all Americans first, not Democrats or Republicans.) Anyway, Rep. Smith made a point of mentioning that Joe was his C.O. back in his JAG days.
  • As in his e-mailed reports you read on this blog, James exhibited his characteristic optimism about the future of Afghanistan, based on his experience with the children of the country. Whenever they’d roll into a village, he’d send his second-in-command to talk to the village elder, then go question a 10- or 11-year-old himself. The elder, trying to walk a tightrope between the Coalition and the Taliban, would blow smoke, such as "We last saw about a dozen Taliban a couple of weeks ago." The kid would give the straight intel, along the lines of "There were two dozen, and they rolled out of here the moment they saw you coming, just minutes ago."

It was a compelling presentation (particularly the part about how his team tracked down a Taliban leader who had been terrorizing the region), and I wish I’d had the resources at hand to have gotten the whole thing on video — good-quality video. Sorry about the lousy quality of this below…