Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 12:22 am

Eye on the ball

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 12:22 am
Tags: , ,

The stink over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging remarks about his commander-in-chief remind me of something: that I’m old enough to remember when David Stockman got his education.

I don’t mean his college degree, which he got in 1964 or thereabouts. I mean his experience as Ronald Reagan’s first White House budget director — and with the national media and his fellow Republicans — after he talked to William Greider of The Atlantic, perhaps too candidly, about his work.

What Stockman actually said was almost forgotten immediately. What the press insisted on talking about, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was: What would happen to David Stockman? In particular — and, God, how tired I grew of hearing this phrase — would he be taken to the woodshed? In other words, the most important story in U.S. government for — well, I don’t remember how long, now, because it was almost 30 years ago, and it was probably only days, but it seemed at the time like months — was, “Will some bureaucrat keep his job?”

Not “Is the government doing what it is supposed to?” or “Is the government doing what it’s doing cost-effectively?” or even “Do the people who are running the government know what they are doing?”

No, it was all about David Stockman’s Job.

(And people think TODAY’s news media suck.)

See if you can guess what it was that Stockman said that actually got people all het up in the first place. Go on. If you weren’t there at the time, you’ll never figure it out.

Well, it was this.

The main idea on which Ronald Reagan had campaigned in 1980 — cutting top marginal income tax rates would stimulate business and industry enough to generate a net increase in revenues — was bogus. During the campaign, Stockman said, he’d never believed all that strongly in the idea in the first place, and once he got into the actual business of crafting a budget, he knew it was crap.

Now, a news media that had the first idea of what it was doing might be expected to pounce upon, pursue, expand upon and analyze the idea that the signal piece of ideology behind a president’s historic, overwhelming electoral victory was fraudulent. That, however, was not the news media we had.

Had we had that media, we might have learned much sooner (perhaps even before the 1980 election) what Stockman finally told us in 1986, long after he had left government: The President of the United States didn’t have the first damn idea what he was doing with the budget.

Michael Kinsley summarizes in his New York Times review of the book:

There are repeated scenes of the President sitting in amiable silence through policy discussions until some word or phrase -”Medicare,” perhaps, or ”oil depletion allowance” -sets him off on an anecdote, usually revealing that he has totally misunderstood the preceding conversation. A reference to the Cabinet’s failure to cut personnel costs leads to a long and familiar anecdote about filing cabinets. Senator Bob Dole comes by to plead for cuts in programs other than welfare. Mr. Dole utters the word, ”welfare.” Mr. Stockman thinks, ”I wish he hadn’t said that.” And sure enough, ” ‘Bob’s getting at the same thing we found in California,’ the President observed right on cue. He went on to make a point precisely the opposite of Dole’s.”

Cabinet members take skillful advantage of the Commander in Chief’s capacity for befuddlement. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis convinces him that quotas on Japanese cars are not a violation of free trade because Government regulations have hampered American producers. (Japanese cars must meet the same regulations, of course.) Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger shows up for a meeting intended to settle whether the defense buildup should be $1.46 trillion over five years or only $1.33 trillion. His chief prop is a cartoon of three soldiers – one, a pygmy without a rifle, representing the Carter budget; one, ”a four-eyed wimp . . . carrying a tiny rifle,” representing $1.33 trillion, Mr. Stockman’s defense budget; and one, ”G.I. Joe himself . . . all decked out in helmet and flak jacket and pointing an M-60 machine gun,” representing $1.46 trillion. This is how Presidential decisions are made.

This information would have been helpful to know in real time. It certainly would have been helpful to know before the 1984 election, although I doubt it would have made any difference.

I tell this story because we’re in a similar situation with McChrystal and his disrespectful staff: we’re focusing on whether one guy will keep his job.

In fact, he probably should have lost it long ago:

After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn’t read the recommendation closely enough – a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.) A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman’s death. “If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public,” he wrote, it could cause “public embarrassment” for the president.

“The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat’s true actions,” wrote Tillman’s mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the “golden boy” of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

Two years later, in 2006, McChrystal was tainted by a scandal involving detainee abuse and torture at Camp Nama in Iraq. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, prisoners at the camp were subjected to a now-familiar litany of abuse: stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud. McChrystal was not disciplined in the scandal, even though an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times.

As the article points out — and unwittingly illustrates — McChrystal has been a media favorite, for reasons probably only a forensic psychiatrist could explain: Even while writing an article that exposes McChrystal, Michael Hastings says the Tillman scandal “would have destroyed the career of a lesser man” (emphasis added).

Well, should McChrystal lose his job? Probably, for two reasons: 1) Active-duty service members, who matter who they are, are forbidden from publicly criticizing the commander-in-chief, no matter who he/she is. 2) This isn’t McChrystal’s first such mistake. He publicly criticized the counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan developed by Vice President Joe Biden — who, like him or not (and I think he’s kind of an ass), has a lot more foreign-policy experience than McChrystal does. Not to say that McChrystal is bad at what he does. Quite the opposite. But what he does, or has done, mainly, is black ops, which is, at best, one tool among many in a comprehensive counterinsurgency program and at worst just flat illegal.

But to focus only on McChrystal’s insubordination is to miss a much bigger picture: McChrystal’s — this country’s — counterinsurgency strategy is failing in Afghanistan. In all fairness, that’s not for lack of trying on McChrystal’s part:

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

In fact, the response from his command has been even more negative:

Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

And if the U.S. were winning hearts and minds, perhaps — perhaps — the U.S. casualties might be worth it. But that isn’t happening:

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN [counterinsurgency] theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

We’ve been in Afghanistan longer than in any other war. The person whom we went to war to get, Osama bin Laden, is still alive and not even in the country anymore. The best minds in U.S. counterinsurgency have been set on the problem of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and have come up dry. McChrystal is failing. The U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is failing. It is time to bring the troops home.

That is the fact that matters most. Whether or not Stanley McChrystal gets to keep his job or retire with the thanks of a grateful nation, while certainly important to Stanley McChrystal and those who love him and work with him, is not, ultimately, an important national concern.

The media couldn’t keep their eye on the ball in the David Stockman case in 1981. They won’t keep their eye on the ball this time. And more people, American and Afghan alike, will die unnecessarily because of it.


Monday, November 9, 2009 8:18 pm

One question about sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan …

Filed under: Reality: It works — Lex @ 8:18 pm
Tags: , ,

… and it’s not me asking, it’s The Wall Street Journal: Where are they going to come from?

Hint: It ain’t gonna be the kids.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 8:26 pm

War without end

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:26 pm
Tags: ,

The minute I saw the headline on this story, I not only knew what it was going to say, I knew who had written it:

McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” …

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.

This leak, no surprise, appears to have been a Pentagon response to Obama’s stated skepticism of the need for more troops in Afghanistan. And it’s also no surprise that Woodward’s the one who got it. Woodward is, of course, the go-to guy for Establishment figures wanting to get their story out with a minimum of critical pushback. It’s a heckuva way to run a career that broke big with Watergate, but Woodward got co-opted a long time ago.

More importantly, although I am no expert, I think there’s reason to believe that McChrystal might be wrong: that “victory,” recognizable as such, may no longer be possible in Afghanistan, if indeed it ever was to begin with.

The good news, such as it is, is that the administration appears to be doing what its predecessor either couldn’t or wouldn’t do: define its goals, THEN decide what resources would be required to achieve them and carry out a cost-benefit analysis:

The president, one adviser said, is “taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top” of what he called a “logic chain” that begins with setting objectives, followed by determining a methodology to achieve them. Only when the first two steps are completed, he said, can the third step — a determination of resources — be taken.

“Who’s to say we need more troops?” this official said. “McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we’re doing against al-Qaeda.”

And there’s the rub: Is our goal defeating terrorists? Is it the larger goal of protecting the Afghani populace? If the latter, we’re going to need help from the Afghanis themselves. And that’s where we get what might be the worst news of all:

Training security forces is not cheap. So far, the estimated cost of training and mentoring the police since 2001 is at least $10 billion. Any reliable figure on the cost of training and mentoring the Afghan army since 2001 is as invisible as the army itself. But the U.S. currently spends some $4 billion a month on military operations in Afghanistan.

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn’t the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to “operate independently,” but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of “Basic Warrior Training” 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it’s a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets — and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn’t come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It’s not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it’s himself as well.

Combined with training inappropriate for the nature of the battle, weaponry inappropriate for the dusty environment and the lack of a cause for which Afghanis truly want to fight, this whole thing is shaping up to be a national disaster for the U.S. and a national catastrophe for Afghanistan. And I don’t think a few tens of thousands more U.S. troops are going to fix that.

UPDATE: Which does NOT mean that the correct thing to do is up the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND. But supposedly that might be exactly what the military asks for.

And if they do, it’s time for Congress and Americans to Just Say No.

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