Honey, I Shrunk the Kingdom (Politico.eu May 21, 2015)

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On foreign policy and defense, David Cameron’s UK is behaving like a second Belgium.

LONDON — During the British general election Ed Miliband scored a hit that few noticed. In a speech at Chatham House he accused David Cameron of pursuing an “isolationist” foreign policy that has led to the “biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation.”

It’s the sort of charge that you might expect to hear from a Tory backbencher on the Right. But the Labour leader was actually echoing warnings from centrist establishment sources like the Financial Times, which ran an editorial in February worrying about “Britain’s drift to the foreign sidelines” pointing out that “as global challenges mount, the UK is increasingly absent.”

The Economist, equally Europhile and internationalist, was even tougher on the Coalition. In a scathing leader titled “Meet Little Britain, a shrinking actor on the global stage” it said that a cautious post-Tony Blair foreign policy would be understandable but that David Cameron has been “not so much cautious as apathetic, ineffective and fickle.”

Shrinking Clout

Witness a paradox. Even as the British economy has strengthened, and even though London is more than ever a global hub, and even though the UK has access to reserves of human capital unequalled in Europe, British power and influence has gone into steep decline since Cameron first became prime minister.

That decline was not an issue during the election campaign. The only foreign policy matter the Tories were keen to talk about was a referendum on membership of the EU — prompted by the need to counter UKIP.

But the decline has been been noted by the UK’s friends and enemies around the globe. And there was embarrassing proof of it only 48 hours before Britons went to the polls, when the US Navy began escorting British commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Britain had discreetly asked for ships to be chaperoned after Iran seized a cargo ship flagged to the Marshall Islands on April 28. The request was an admission that the Royal Navy has shrunk to such a size that it can no longer protect British shipping in the strategic waterways that were, until recently, a British zone of influence. This zone includes: Yemen, to whose collapse the UK has had no response. Britons had to be evacuated from Aden by Indian and Chinese vessels.

Although these manifestations of British weakness and the Cameron government’s seeming indifference to Britain’s influence escaped notice in the UK , previous ones did not.

David Cameron saw no reason to get involved with the emergency talks about Ukraine that saw Angela Merkel and François Hollande rush to Moscow. This was despite the fact that Britain was one of the three guarantors of Ukrainian security (in return for that country giving up its nuclear arsenal) under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Any hopes that Cameron’s refusal to get involved in Ukraine might soothe British relations with the Putin regime were quickly scotched as the UK became the subject of increasingly aggressive probes by Russian bombers and warships.  Cameron’s apparent unconcern about Ukraine prompted the recently retired top British commander in NATO, General Sir Richard Shirreff, to complain that the Prime Minister is a “bit player…nobody takes any notice of” and that Britain is becoming “a foreign policy irrelevance.”

Shirreff might also have pointed to Cameron’s notable absence from the international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. Or the fact that despite Cameron’s typically impressive rhetoric about the “generational threat” from Islamist radicalism (a phrase he used in support of the robust French intervention in Mali) the UK has done considerably less than other Western states to combat it.

The UK’s contribution to the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has been in the words of the Commons Defense Select Committee “strikingly modest.”

Much smaller countries like Denmark have contributed more troops to train and advise Iraqi Kurdish forces, and the Netherlands has deployed more fighter jets. The UK is limited in its ability to carry out airstrikes by the shrinkage of the RAF to only 6 fast jet squadrons, down from 11 during the first Gulf War. Outside the Kurdish region of Iraq, the UK has only three personnel training and advising Iraqi forces; Australia, Spain and Italy have sent 400, 300 and 280 troops, respectively.

No account of Cameron’s retreat from the world would be complete without reference to the scuttle from Afghanistan while claiming a mission accomplished.

British allies in ISAF were dismayed by the UK’s decision not to play a role in the successor to ISAF — Operation Resolute Support. In the UK’s absence, the lead in that 12,000-man effort is being taken by Germany, Italy, Turkey and the US.

The Cameron government decided to limit future military assistance to a small team working at the Afghan National Army Officers Academy, nicknamed the ‘Sandhurst in the Sand”. Rumors from inside the MOD say that the Cameron government is planning to renege even on that minimal commitment.

Allied disappointment in Afghanistan was dwarfed by the sense of betrayal among the thousands of Afghans who have worked with British during the last decade; the latter were understandably baffled by British assertions that the war in Afghanistan is “over.”

Vanishing Soft Power

There was a point early in his first term when Cameron sounded as if he were inclined to follow an assertive foreign policy. Although he had at first treated foreign affairs as primarily the promotion of British commerce, the Arab Spring caught his imagination. By early 2013, Cameron had become an early advocate of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya and enthusiastically supported the French campaign in Mali. There was even some excited talk of a “Cameron Doctrine.”

But things changed rapidly after Cameron lost a Commons vote in August 2013 that would have authorized limited intervention in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Stung by the defeat, the Prime Minister seemed to turn against foreign affairs in general. Even after a British aid worker was decapitated by a (British) ISIS executioner, he was reluctant to join in any international intervention against the organization.

Any doubt about the low priority of foreign affairs after the Syria debacle should have been dispelled soon after the sudden resignation of William Hague as foreign secretary in July last year. Cameron proceeded to hand the office once held by Canning and Castlereagh to a party apparatchik named Philip Hammond, who had not previously shown any particular aptitude for (or interest in) foreign policy, and whose previous tenure at the Ministry of Defense was unimpressive even by the low standards of Tory defense secretaries.

But there is an argument that Cameron and his team were never really interested in foreign affairs in a traditional sense. Why else would they have been so sanguine about imposing severe cuts on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) soon after taking office?

The “Cameroons” cut the FCO’s annual budget by almost a third from an already inadequate £2.4 billion in 2010 to £1.7 billion in 2014. As the FT pointed out, the sum is less than the UK spends subsidizing the heating of pensioners.

Embassies and consulates have closed and diplomatic missions have shrunk. This means that the UK will have less intelligence on which to base foreign and security policy, and that the UK’s “soft power” — much boasted of by Cameron at the beginning of the last government — will diminish.

The Cameron government’s failure to give the FCO adequate resources has been particularly damaging for British interests in Latin America. Relations with Chile and Brazil, key allies during the Falklands War, have been neglected despite Argentina’s aggressive rhetoric about the Falklands and the likelihood that Russia may soon sell Buenos Aires game-changing warplanes.

The cuts to the FCO budget, like the even more damaging defense cuts (about which more later), cannot simply be explained by economic necessity.

After all, the Cameron government simultaneously increased spending on the already much bigger Department for International Development (DfID) by more than £2.5 billion pounds per annum. (This year the DfID budget will actually hit £12 billion in total, in accordance with the goal of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on aid).

Ring-fenced from austerity measures to which all but two other government departments have been subject, the Foreign Aid behemoth is now so lavishly funded its staff have had difficulty making good use of its wealth.

Cameron justified giving additional billions to DfID with the claim that foreign aid can prevent war, terrorism and mass migration (he has never distinguished between development aid and humanitarian/emergency aid and may not even be aware of the difference).

However, successive reports have found that DfID’s spending is inefficient and often fails to accomplish much good in the countries where it works.

It is not clear if Cameron truly believes that foreign aid has a magical ability to bring about global stability, or if it’s merely the only form of foreign engagement that he feels comfortable dealing with.

But if he and his circle were truly as interested in the projection of British Soft Power as they have been in softening the Tory brand, you would expect them not to put all their eggs in the Aid basket and to have boosted expenditure on the Foreign Office and the British Council, and above all on the BBC’s World Service.

The latter has long been the most important source of British soft power. But during the last five years its influence has diminished, thanks to swingeing budget cuts. In 2011 for example, World Service radio stopped broadcasting to Asia in Mandarin Chinese. It had been doing so for 70 years and its news reports played an important role during the 1989 Democracy protests.

If that weren’t bad enough, in 2014 the government also switched the source of the World Service’s funding from the Foreign Office budget to that of the main BBC, where it is an orphan vulnerable to that Corporation’s internal politics (and, therefore, further cuts).

It’s almost as if the Cameron government were unaware of the regard in which the World Services’ broadcasts are held in many parts of the world, that it reaches at least 170 million people a week even after the cuts, and is unconcerned that countries like China, Russia, Qatar and Iran are all heavily investing in international broadcast networks explicitly inspired by the World Service.

Vanishing ‘Hard’ Power

British hard power has also been devastated since 2010 by deep, ill-considered cuts in a defense budget that was already too small for a country with the UK’s commitments, standing and global interests.

Britain’s NATO allies were horrified by the debacle of the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review. Its arbitrary 8 percent cut in the overall defense budget resulted in what was arguably a 30 percent cut in capacity across all three services. Its recommendations were clearly determined by Treasury priorities rather than any informed consideration of the country’s current and future needs. Even the liberal Guardian’s defense correspondent called it “an embarrassing and unseemly shambles.

Few foreign observers could understand the logic behind the rush with which the country’s only aircraft carrier was scrapped and all the Royal Navy’s and RAF’s Harrier jets were sold off at fire-sale prices to a bemused but grateful US Marine Corps.

Critics pointed out that simultaneous cuts in the Army’s troops to pre-Napoleonic levels might be appropriate if all international signs pointed to a new global era of peace and harmony. But they made rather less sense given the upheavals in the Middle East, the increasing belligerence of Russia and the many indications that the world is becoming more a dangerous place.

US officials have publicly expressed worry about the British defense cuts and the likelihood that the UK is ceasing to be a “full spectrum” ally able to deploy a division-sized force alongside American troops in a future conflict. They included Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, Chief of Army Staff Ray Odierno and President Obama himself. You might have expected Cameron to be embarrassed by the latter’s admonishment, but the American warnings seemed to have had little effect on government direction. Only a month before the general election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that UK defense spending will likely drop below 2 percent of GDP. The latter is not only required by NATO membership, it’s the amount that experts consider to be the absolute bare minimum for the “special relationship” to continue.

Already, the US military, despite its affection for and ties to the UK’s armed forces, increasingly sees France as its primary partner abroad. Paris has more influence in Washington than at any time since the 1950s, despite the French economy. It is also reaping the other benefits of being perceived as Europe’s leading military power — including the sale of Rafale jets to Qatar, India and Egypt. Having recently opened a Naval base in Abu Dhabi, France can protect its cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

‘Not Good At Foreigners’

There are cultural and personal explanations for Cameron’s retreat from the world.

While it may not be true that his marketing gurus perceive the military as irredeemably “uncool” and spending on it as unhelpful for the Conservative Party’s “detoxification” agenda, it is easy to get the impression that George Osborne and some of his colleagues believe the country’s armed forces are a rather silly indulgence in the modern world.

“There are no votes in defense” (a quote attributed to Philip Hammond during the campaign) and also no votes to be won on foreign policy. That is not a perception limited to the Tories, but something everyone in Britain’s political class now believes.

Of course, you hope that even the most cynical politicians will, at a certain point, look beyond their self-interest and balance what wins votes with what seems best for the national interest. As Iain Martin pointed out, it’s impossible to imagine Margaret Thatcher thinking that “There are no votes in defense.”

Another factor may be what the British media calls the Cameroons’ “essay-crisis” approach to government. This is a reference to the habit of many Oxbridge undergraduates to postpone engaging with important assignments until the night before they’re due. Insider accounts from inside Downing Street confirm that Cameron’s way is to deal with political challenges at the last possible minute. Because Cameron is clever and lucky, it’s an approach that often works. But good foreign policy tends to require medium to long-term planning, calm consideration, and timely advice from a range of experts.

Another explanation for the retreat may be that Cameron recognizes that he is just “not good at foreigners” in the sense that his unquestionable political and people skills do not travel well. Unlike Tony Blair, he has not forged strong bonds with any important foreign leader. Moreover his failed attempt to stop the selection of the Anglophobic Luxembourger Jean-Claude Junker as European Commission President bodes ill for his promised renegotiation of the UK’s place in Europe.

The UK’s withering global influence may further decrease British leverage within the EU, making it less likely that Cameron will win concessions that has promised the public. That in turn increases the possibility that the UK electorate may vote to the leave the EU in the referendum Cameron promised largely in order to neutralize the threat from UKIP.

Will Things Change?

After five years of Coalition rule the UK is now punching well below its weight. In spite of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a nuclear deterrent, the second largest population in Europe, the fifth largest economy in the world and globe-spanning commercial, cultural, institutional, military and political interests, Britain is behaving like a second Belgium.

It may be that the man who is most responsible for this will now seek to turn the situation round. After all, now that he has a solid majority and his ongoing premiership is assured, Cameron no longer has to worry about LibDem sensibilities, tomorrow’s opinion polls or the state of the Tory “brand”. He has the opportunity to be a global statesman as well as a successful domestic politician, and it is possible that he may be guided in that direction by one of the ablest members of his cabinet, Justice Minister Michael Gove, who has a deep, long-abiding interest in foreign affairs, and who really should have been William Hague’s successor at the Foreign Office.

Unfortunately the portents for change are so far not good. Philip Hammond was reappointed to head the Foreign Office, and Defense Minister Michael Fallon (who provided one of the few laughs of the campaign by accusing Labour of being weak on defense) has also kept his post.

In the past the ability to wield both hard and soft power has enabled Britain to achieve good things in the world, to stand up for human rights and the rule of law, as well to as protect her own citizens and interests. If Britain continues to hemorrhage both its European and American alliances, it won’t be able to do these things, and David Cameron’s legacy will be an isolated, enfeebled, much-diminished country.

Jonathan Foreman, the author of Aiding And Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures And The 0.7% Deception, is a commentator in London.


Strange Days - On the UK election

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            It’s refreshing to experience a general election in which the polls and the pundits are proved massively wrong.

            It’s especially invigorating when the stakes are as high as they were on thursday. After all, a different result could have had huge domestic and international ramifications in fairly short order, beginning with a collapse of the pound and perhaps culminating, in theory, in the UK’s nuclear disarmament and departure from the UN Security Council.

            But the unexpectedness of the final result also makes you wonder how disconnected from the electorate the political and media classes really are. The whole computer-assisted modern apparatus of marketing, polling and focus grouping seems not to work as well as advertised when the country is in the midst of a tectonic political shift.

            Among other things, the election proved that the celebrated “detoxification” of the Tory brand was not, in fact all that successful. But it indicated at the same time that that Tory “toxicity” may not really matter, at least in the current economic and political climate. After all, tens of thousands of people apparently lied to pollsters and journalists about their intention to vote conservative, and then went ahead and ticked the Tory box…

            That said, one great danger for the new government is that Cameron may believe that the resulting Tory victory was attributable to his own qualities and actions rather then the unattractiveness of the Labour alternative combined with the surge of Scottish nationalism.

            It seems likely that millions of people in England and Wales were simply unwilling to gamble Britain’s relative prosperity and low unemployment on a return to the old-fashioned socialism believed in by Ed Miliband. Others weren’t willing to gamble on a socialist project if it was to be led by such a smug and untrustworthy-seeming young man.

            In the old industrial cities of England, a significant number of traditional working class Labour voters who might have supported Miliband’s economic policies were probably alienated by the way the Labour leader personified the domination of the party by upper-middle-class metropolitans like himself.

            The fact that Miliband’s personal toxicity was not fully reflected in the polls or  journalistic coverage suggests that both operated with some kind of pre-existing bias in favour of the Labour party.

            In Scotland, the problem with Labour was different: a population steeped in 1970s-style socialism was no longer willing to vote for a local Labour party that had become offensively complacent, lazy and corrupt after years of unchallenged dominance.

            Indeed one of the underlying themes of the 2015 election, and one that Cameron and other party leaders will ignore at their peril, is the deepening alienation of many working class voters from both the “London-centric” political and media elite, and from established party machines in the big cities 

            It is an alienation that simultaneously manifests itself in UKIP votes in England – more than three million of them, and in 1.5 million SNP votes in Scotland, 50% of the total cast there. It’s easier to overlook the former than the latter because of the weird distorting effect of Britain’s “First Past the Post” system as currently constituted: with the SNP getting 58 seats for 1.5 million votes, and UKIP getting one seat for almost 4 million votes.

            The fact that UKIP won fewer seats than expected and that its leader Nigel Farage failed to get in and had to resign, should not distract observers from the fact that UKIP proved itself to be a truly national party, gaining significant votes all over England and Wales, and often coming in third or even second place. There’s also little question that many UKIPers, especially in the South, voted tactically, their desire to keep out a Labour-led coalition overcoming their disillusion with or dislike of David Cameron’s Tories.

            It now seems possible that Labour could go into catastrophic decline in much the same way that the Liberal Party did in the years after World War I, despite having played a dominant role in British politics for more than half a century. Certainly the results from London suggest that Labour may become more and more reliant on the votes of immigrant communities and racial minorities.

            At the same time, if UKIP survives Farage’s resignation or if another alternative party should emerge that can appeal to white working class voters who are tribally allergic to the Tories, then Labour’s vote may well shrink much further in the midlands and industrial North. 

            As for the LibDems, their extraordinary rout felt like karmic punishment for their hypocritical and dishonest refusal to support customary redistricting of electoral boundaries while in the Coalition with the Tories. The actual mechanism of their defeat though, seems to have been partly a matter of tactical voting by a British public that had a taste of coalition government and doesn’t like it. But it may also have had a lot to do with the disillusionment of those voters who foolishly believed before the formation of the Coalition that the LibDems were principled outsiders, unsullied by and immune to the compromise and corruption that comes with political office.

            Some of the lessons offered by the election are contradictory. In large parts of the Kingdom, many voters seem to have made a cool calculation that their material interests would be served by the continuation of relatively responsible, cautious and competent economic management, an option which was offered by only one main party. But elsewhere, and especially in Scotland, large numbers of people were motivated by intense political emotion and by concerns about identity and national pride. All of the latter were noticeably absent from the campaigns by the Westminster leaders. But then none of the three are as obviously talented and appealing as the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

            But the big reveals are yet to come. For instance, will a David Cameron unrestrained by coalition partners behave differently now that he has an actual majority?  Critics within the Tory party have long worried that he lacks a vision for the country, that the only thing he believes in is own suitability for the top job. Arguably he has never had to demonstrate political courage by leading public opinion or standing up for a potentially unpopular person or policy, all of which may be necessary if he is steer a country rattled by a massive electoral shifts. 

            It is possible that Cameron will decide that the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems vindicates his “essay crisis” style of leadership, his faith in “branding”, his lack of interest in foreign affairs, his downgrading of the armed forces, and his insistence on a lavish foreign aid budget at a time of austerity elsewhere. 

             But now that there are no LibDems to blame for broken promises, humiliating compromises or the shambolic execution of government policy, Cameron will find himself under much more pressure from Conservative MPs whom he prefers to be quietly deferential and whose opinions he has shown little respect for.

            At the same time he will have to confront a new SNP bloc that is considerably further to the left than the Labour party, and which because of its youth, inexperience and Anglophobia, (not to mention its desire to break up the Union, not necessarily shared by all SNP voters) may turn out to be a disruptive force in Parliament.

            More important, Cameron and his team are going to have deal with national challenges that make questions of NHS funding and mansion taxes seem insignificant. Not least the constitutional reforms that may be needed to keep the country together. But there are also other important issues that went all but unmentioned by everyone during the campaign: foreign alliances, immigration, defence, freedom of speech, foreign aid, the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, social cohesion, and the special relationship with the United States, all of which demand a vision of the country the UK is going to be and the role it will play in the world.

In Honour of General Election Day….

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A brace of pieces I did for James Delingpole’s Breitbart London site in the run-up to today’s General Election. 

The first is about the Resistible Rise and Fortunate Fall of Lutfur Rahman, former mayor of Tower Hamlets and Britain’s answer to Boss Tweed, the founder of New York’ Tammany Hall machine. It’s real subject is the arrival in the UK of South Asian-style electoral fraud, the naive vulnerability of the British election system to such fraud, and the remarkable inadequacy of the police response to voter intimidation. It’s here or here: 


The second piece is about the permanent Establishment that retains at least cultural hegemony regardless of election results, and which is not the Establishment of yesteryear. It’s here or here:


Signing OFF on Human Rights (Standpoint, June 2010)

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Oslo Dispatch

There are not many occasions in life when you feel honoured to be in the same room as someone. However, it happened to me several times during the three days of the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). The first was when Mukhtar Mai arrived. She is the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by a local council in the Punjab after her brother allegedly dishonoured a neighbouring tribe. Rather than committing suicide afterwards as is customary, she defied threats and won in court. With her compensation she launched a women’s welfare organisation. 

Women of valour: Mukhtar Mai and Kasha Jacqueline 

Then there was Lubna al-Hussein. She is the Sudanese woman who was arrested and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers. As she told the forum, about 43,000 women were arrested in 2008 in Khartoum alone for such crimes. Unlike most of them, she had the money and influence to free herself. She chose instead to remain in prison and demand a full trial, knowing that because she was a UN employee, the case would get international attention. She said that what prompted her to choose that path — which has forced her into exile — was the sight of two teenage girls arrested with her. Both were Christians from the south with no family to call for help. “One of them was so frightened when they said she would get lashes that she wet herself.” The case was hugely embarrassing to Sudan’s Islamist government, which eventually freed her. 

Less well-known but just as inspiring were two other speakers. A Ugandan activist, Kasha Jacqueline, has been threatened with murder because she is battling a proposed law that would inflict the death penalty on homosexuals and imprisonment on those who fail to report homosexuals to the authorities. “I’m so glad I’m here,” she told me with a smile as we looked around the opening reception in Oslo’s town hall. “I just hope they don’t kill me when I go home.”

That sentiment was echoed by a short but redoubtable woman called Guadalupe Llori. She feared returning to Ecuador even though she is the elected governor of a large province and was a member of the same left-wing alliance as the country’s President, Rafael Correa, a staunch ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Llori had made the mistake of supporting striking oil workers in her province who were protesting against the government’s failure to build promised roads. Correa responded by accusing her of terrorism, sabotage and corruption and sent commandos backed by tanks and helicopters to arrest her. Llori then spent nine months in prison where she was subjected to forced labour and beatings. The country’s human rights sector, much of which has long links to Correa and his party, did nothing to help her. Because Correa is seen as a progressive hero by the Western Left, international organisations largely ignored her. 

It is that kind of failure by the older, larger human rights establishment that led to the founding of the OFF two years ago. Essentially, it is an alternative human rights conference, in that it genuinely embodies what such organisations used to be about: it celebrates the fight for freedom of speech, belief and association and unlike some of the more politicised human rights groups, it highlights persecution regardless of the identity or ideology of the perpetrator. 

None of this may sound particularly “alternative”. But in recent years some in the “human rights community” have become so exercised about alleged or genuine victims of America, Britain and their allies in the “War on Terror” that they find it hard to become equally excited about Vietnamese Buddhist monks, North Korean concentration camps or Mauritanian slaves. Others have become less focused on supporting dissidents in distant dungeons, and more interested in wider “progressive” issues such as globalisation, economic inequality and environmental degradation.

When Irene Khan, the former secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in 2005 that Guantánamo Bay was “the gulag of our time”, it revealed a sad ignorance of the vast degradation machine that killed many millions of people. It also sent a signal to those in the real gulags of our time — the Laogai system in China and its equivalent in North Korea — that their plight might not be a priority for Amnesty. 

OFF aims to restore the balance and highlight causes that are too often ignored or forgotten. And unlike events such as the UN’s notorious “Durban II” conference at which Iran’s President Mahmoud 
Ahmadinejad railed against the US and Zionism, it provides an intimate space for dissidents and human rights defenders from around the world to meet each other, to talk to internet entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, journalists and to draw inspiration and encouragement. 

OFF is the brainchild of Thor Halvorssen, a 34-year-old Venezuelan-Norwegian filmmaker and head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Halvorssen has been involved in free-speech causes since his days at the University of Pennsylvania, but founded HRF after his mother was shot and wounded by government agents at a peaceful demonstration in Caracas. He hopes that the OFF will become the “Davos of Human Rights”.

Among the two score speakers this year were Garry Kasparov, Rebiya Kadeer, the leader in exile of China’s Uighurs, Mart Laar, who led Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan, anti-slavery campaigner Benjamin Skinner, Yemeni  journalist and political prisoner Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani and the former Malaysian cabinet minister and now opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed on false charges of corruption and sodomy. 

Ibrahim was responsible for some of the event’s better moments of black humour, joking that Malaysia had “freedom of speech but not freedom afterspeech”. He also recalled being beaten by the country’s inspector general of police and admonished the audience: “If you’re going to take power, make sure that your inspector general is not too strong. That way if one day he beats you up it won’t be fatal.”

I had wondered if the event could possibly be as powerful as the first forum last year, when I had witnessed Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso take out his dentures and explain with a gummy smile that during his 30 years of imprisonment by Chinese occupation forces his torturers jammed an electric cattle prod into his mouth again and again until he lost all his teeth.

Lubna al-Hussein and Lubna al-Hussein

As it turned out it was almost too overwhelming. There may be a limit to how much suffering — and how much courage — you can hear about first-hand in a short space of time, even when delivered with remarkable calmness and modesty as was mostly the case. Indeed, one of the strange things about a gathering like this is how little anger and how much forgiveness you encounter. That said, there was outrage, especially in the presentation by Sophal Ear, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, now a political scientist in California. His quiet fury was directed not so much at the regime that murdered his family and so many of his fellow countrymen but at those including Noam Chomsky who have defended the record of “Democratic Kampuchea” long after the truth was out. 

There is also surprising lightness and optimism to be found among these people whose lives — sometimes by choice — are so difficult or perilous. The Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez is essentially confined to her house, has been beaten up in the street and has to upload her postings by texting them to supporters who can get internet access. Yet her videoed message from Havana could hardly have been more cheerful.

Norway has long been friendly to Cuba, and for some Norwegians, watching her and then listening to longtime political prisoner Armando Valladares was not a comfortable experience. Even the representative of Amnesty Norway looked twitchy when Valladares reminded listeners that all dictatorships are bad, whether in Chile or Cuba, and noted that he had been in prison for 18 years before Amnesty even recognised that there were political prisoners in Cuba and adopted his case.

At the first forum last year, a Norwegian author shocked me by asking if it was true that the forum was organised by “American Jews”. The agenda in front of us included speeches by a Turkish Kurd, a dissident from Uzbekistan and Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. Then I realised that what made her sources suspicious of OFF was that it was not devoted to the usual suspects. As a local journalist explained to me, in Norway talk of human rights violations begins and ends with Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. 

There is also the fact that Norway tends to be nervous and politically correct when it comes even to mentioning human rights violations in the Muslim world or in Islamic communities at home. OFF has no such bashfulness. As the North African human rights activist Nasser Weddady told me: “They are a new scene. They are very young and yet they have a real understanding of the challenges of human rights in the Muslim world. They’re not implicitly saying that Muslims are barbaric and backward and not be held to equal standards. They actually care about these nascent civil societies in places like Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania that no one pays much attention to. And that’s inspiring for people like me.”

Nevertheless, OFF seems to be overcoming the initial suspicion of Norway’s left-oriented government and human rights establishment. This year there were fewer newspaper articles wondering if the presence of Venezuelan opposition figures was proof of CIA sponsorship of the forum. Moreover, the country’s best-known author, Asne Seierstad, introduced some of the speakers, and the City of Oslo, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International Norway and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all lent support to this year’s event. 

Between sessions, the speakers and the audience had coffee on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, which Ibsen was said to visit twice a day. It overlooks the Norwegian parliament building and the square in front of it, which on most days hosts a small demonstration. Compared to London’s Parliament Square, there is little traffic and no visible security. The absence of walls, armed police and X-ray machines is startling, as powerful a reminder of how much life has changed in the UK as the sight of the gleaming royal yacht in Oslo’s harbour. 

Last year in front of the Parliament there were supporters of the Tamil Tigers, waving banners and shouting. This year, there were Iranian communists, though they were outnumbered by noisy gaggles of Norwegian students in bright red overalls taking part in “Russ“, the country’s traditional two-week celebration of high-school graduation. But all the activity in the square came to a halt when Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev arrived at the Grand Hotel in a flurry of sirens, police motorcycles and black limousines for a meeting with the Norwegian government.

The presence of Medvedev’s security men during the Forum cannot have been pleasant for participants such as Kasparov, Vladimir Bukovsky and the Chechen lawyer Lidia Yusupova. One Russian critic at the conference felt sure that his room had been broken into and searched while Medvedev’s FSB were in town. 

I wondered if coming to a conference like this may have made Yusupova — whose former colleague Natalya Estemirova was assassinated last year — and others less vulnerable at home. However, on the second morning of the event Diego Arria, the courtly former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN and key witness in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, discovered that Chávez had sent police to seize his farm. 

The grim past and uncertain future of so many of the delegates gave the final event of the conference all the more meaning. It was a speech by Lech Walesa. With characteristic simplicity and good cheer he assured his audience that the impossible really can be achieved, even by an ordinary electrician from Gdansk. As he spoke, I looked at Lubna Hussein, Yusupova and the others and they seemed to be growing in their seats.


Blandinavia! (Daily Mail September 2005)

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Another day in paradise but no one is smiling. Winter, with its long hours of darkness, has not yet come to Norway. The sun is still shining on its breathtaking landscapes and stunning people. But a persistent gloominess pervades – a sense of discontent that prompts one to wonder just what it is that people need to be happy.

Norway is, after all, officially the best place in the world to live. A United Nations survey published this week ranks it first among 177 countries for the fifth year running – Britain managed a lowly 15th. But having spent a week among its charming population in their delightfully clean cities and fjordic idylls, I am not convinced the quality of life here is any better than elsewhere in Europe.

And it soon ceased to surprise me that Edvard Munch, the painter responsible for that iconic work of art, The Scream, was Norwegian. At times, I knew how he felt and agreed with one Australian expat who described Norway as ‘bloody Blandinavia’.

The first sign all is not well in the state of Norway comes at the elegantly-designed airport in Oslo, when all the tall, tanned, and apparently placid Norwegians on your flight from London descend on duty free like starving wolves.

Alcohol, like so many other things here, is taxed so highly – and is so vital to the native idea of a good time – that it would be simply unthinkable to cross a national border without your regulation two litres of booze.

The Norwegians drink like Vikings, in vast amounts, very noisily, before tumbling out of bars in the early hours, women as drunk as men –

perhaps the last remnant of Norse heritage.

Beer at £8 a pint

Yet, unlike our own binge drinkers, the Norwegians only give in to their thirst on the weekend – they cannot afford to do it more often. Beer, at £8 a pint, let alone wine or vodka, is a luxury.

The 4.5 million here may be among the richest in Europe, thanks to the profits of North Sea oil, but the cost of living is so high that anyone not on a Norwegian salary feels like a pauper.

Thousands cross to Sweden every weekend just to buy groceries. The land of the midnight sun is also the land of the £30 pizza, the £4 latte and the £6 sandwich. Cars cost two to three times as much as in the UK and petrol hit the equivalent of a pound a litre some time ago.

But the cost of living is ignored by the UN. It prefers to focus on access to education and medical care, welfare, high life expectancy and low infant mortality, good maternity and paternity leave, and strong pensions. Norwegians are by temperament and tradition obedient and law-abiding, accepting that their Government has their best interests at heart.

Despite this, any Norwegian will tell you that with a top tax rate of 64 per cent and VAT at 25 per cent, many are perplexed by the fact that children in state schools must pay for their own books, that there is a shortage of doctors, nurses and policemen, and waiting lists for medical treatment, while concerns about immigration are beginning to bite.

Some will also point out that the longevity of Norwegians (men live on average to 76; women to 82) doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the healthcare system. This is a country populated by the staggeringly fit, who go hiking and biking all summer, and in winter enjoy cross-country skiing. Walk down any street here and the only fat people you are likely to see are foreign tourists.

This is all the more remarkable given what Norwegians eat. You can find traditional Norwegian food like elk, reindeer and salmon if you look hard enough, but this is a country that basically subsists on fast food. It’s no joke to say the national dish is pizza.

“I was amazed in my Norwegian class that one of the first words they taught me was ‘Grandiosa’ – the name of the leading brand of frozen pizza,” says Bruce Bawer, an American writer living in Oslo.

Trend towards foreign foods

On the other hand, having tried ‘torrfisk’, the ancient dried and salted cod snack, which smells evil and is like gnawing wood, the trend towards foreign foods becomes more understandable. The Norwegians may be wealthy but don’t live like it, due in part to the fact that, until recently, they were very poor. Until they discovered North Sea oil in the mid Sixties, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Even countries like Italy, theoretically much poorer, feel much richer.

With their tradition of la dolce vita, people eat, dress and drink far better. The Norwegians know this too well. I was told again and again how much they would like to live in countries like Greece and Spain where they flock on holiday. And many women – a startling number of whom would give your average supermodel a run for her money – have a distinct preference for Mediterranean men.

“The most beautiful girls here will sleep with any Greek waiter or Spanish taxi driver,” said Per Andre, a 33-year-old teacher. He says they are haunted by the belief their lives are dull and they do, indeed, inhabit Blandinavia.

On the surface, things look good. The Norwegian economy is thriving. Inflation is negligible, interest rates are at a record low of just 2 per cent, and unemployment (at 3.7 per cent) is the world’s lowest.

However, there are many hidden drains on the economy – one of the biggest being people taking bogus days off or ‘sickies’. It’s almost impossible to sack anyone under Norway’s social legislation, and when companies want to get rid of someone they end up having to negotiate costly sick leave.

Nor are Norwegians especially entrepreneurial. Many successful businesses are run and staffed by Swedes, Danes and other immigrants. This is particularly true of service industries.

And as in Britain, the Norwegians are just waking up to how some immigrants have exploited lax border controls. What was a taboo topic is now an incendiary issue as Norwegians confront the fact they have given asylum to extremists who despise their way life, men such as Mullah Krekar, the founder of an Al Qaeda-linked group called Ansar Al Islam.

The government has made moves to expel Krekar. In turn, he has threatened Norway with terrorist reprisal, telling the Arab Al Jazeera TV network that ‘Norway will be punished’ if it expels him to face trial in his native Iraq.

Bogus marriages are also a growing problem in Norway’s immigrant communities, with one Arab man caught undergoing ‘marriage’ to his own mother in order to get her into the country. The Norwegians are finding these growing problems difficult because they are proud of their tolerance and multiculturalism. They are also extraordinarily patriotic and fly the flag everywhere.

They may have surrendered their own cuisine to fast food, adore British TV and almost everyone speaks fluent English, but they have kept local dialects, costumes and traditions. Independence is key to their sense of nation. Having been ruled by Denmark from 1387 until 1814, by Sweden from 1814 to 1905 and then occupied by the Nazis for four-and-a-half bitter years in World War II, the Norwegians are not about to join anyone’s superstate.

They have repeatedly defied their own political elites to reject EU membership – the last time in 1994 – and would do so again. Not that refusing to get on the EU train has meant sacrificing prosperity, or the friendship of other countries. Norway enjoys brisk free trade with the eurozone.

Nor is there any rush to forget World War II for the sake of being ‘good Europeans’: the Norwegians are proud of their resistance movement – unfortunately more people are familiar with the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling – and still grateful to the British and Americans for saving them. Norway has much going for it and the Norwegians are, on the whole, beautiful, prosperous and healthy. Millions of people would love to have what they have.

But I’ve seen more joy and laughter in desperately impoverished villages in Africa than I did in Oslo. And I found myself missing the chaos, bustle and even the scruffiness of Britain. Troubled we may be in many ways – but Bland Britannia we ain’t.




COIN Wars - On Daniel Bolger's "Why We Lost":(Commentary Magazine, April 2015)

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Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
By Daniel P. Bolger
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages

The shooting wars may be drawing to a close, but the war about the wars continues to rage. The latest salvo is Why We Lost, a provocative book by Daniel P. Bolger, a U.S. Army lieutenant general who retired in 2013 after 35 years and three major commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism,” Bolger writes in the preface. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

Bolger’s confession may center on an arguably premature assertion of defeat but it certainly promises writing of a directness, self-awareness, and skill seldom encountered in books by former generals. What’s more, it suggests a bracing and much-needed critique. Is it?

Why We Lost turns out to be every bit as gripping as you would hope, thanks to a writing style that is sharp, astringent, and refreshingly jargon-free. (Bolger, who has a Ph.D. from Chicago and taught at West Point, was an accomplished author long before he received his star, having published a thriller as well as several works of military history). But it falls short as both a confession and an indictment. Although the book’s subtitle describes “A General’s Insider Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Bolger’s work is not autobiographical. Neither is it a treatise or policy argument. Instead Bolger offers a fast-moving narrative history of the two major military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, interspersed with vivid stories of “in the weeds” combat taken from various recent memoirs and histories. These tales, which include accounts of exhausted and enraged soldiers breaking the laws of war, seem intended not just to give a flavor of the fighting but to illustrate the agonizing difficulties of battling insurgents and therefore the supposed wrongheadedness of forcing American soldiers do it.

What the stories don’t do, however, is back up Bolger’s central claim: that the campaigns were lost, and that they were lost because of “poor strategic and operational leadership” by himself and his fellow generals. Nor does Bolger go into much detail discussing specific errors of judgment by his fellow generals. After a while, Bolger’s insistence that generals take the blame for political and strategic decisions—which were actually made in Washington by presidents, cabinet officers, or the joint chiefs—feels almost masochistic.

In fact, one of the odd things about Why We Lost is that Bolger’s talk of “losing” and “failure” tends to be undermined by a narrative that demonstrates how impressive the U.S. Army is at adapting and learning from its mistakes, at least compared with other large bureaucratic government organizations. Bolger himself admires how the Army rapidly developed a talent for combining intelligence with special operations in order to capture and kill terrorists.

He also touches on the impressive fact that junior commanders not only quickly realized that fresh approaches were needed in Iraq but also experimented with techniques that were eventually codified in the Counterinsurgency Strategy and Field Manual championed by General David Petraeus—which resulted in the Surge and the Sunni Awakening that turned around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007.

Even odder, Bolger’s own account suggests that some of the worst reverses of the Iraq war took place not because of poor strategy, poor structure, or poor decisions made by generals—but thanks to unpredictable mistakes made by less powerful individuals. Prime examples include the worldwide scandal that erupted as a result of a few prison guards and their horrible behavior at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the recklessness of private military contractors who brought about the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.

But Bolger’s storytelling is so skillful that it almost doesn’t matter if his arguments contradict one another. The first half of the book, which deals with the war on terror before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is especially entertaining, not least because it is free of political correctness and diplomatic scruple. After describing how General Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief commander of the 1991 Gulf War, acceded to Saudi demands that American troops based in Saudi Arabia abjure not only alcohol but also Christian and Jewish insignia, he explains that “the Saudis did not see themselves as hosts.” He continues:

In their own eyes they were customers, buying Americans and other defenders in much the same way they hired hundreds of thousands of Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani contract laborers to build their homes, run their oil wells, and clean their streets…Schwarzkopf agreed to the King’s directives, and the Americans accepted substantial Saudi financing and, later, material support…so the transactional relationship looked very clear to the Arab authorities…the House of Saud had rented the best armed forces in the world.

Bolger is also good on the attitudes and actions of Saddam Hussein in the wake of his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi dictator, he says, drew important lessons from the American victory, our rapid departure from the conflict, and Schwarzkopf’s naive decision to let Saddam’s regime continue to use its attack helicopters. Most critically, he understood the “operational importance” of propaganda and the possibilities of 24-hour cable news: It was relentless CNN footage of the “Highway of Death,” along which Iraq’s military retreated from Kuwait, that prompted the eventual cease-fire. As Bolger points out: “Rarely have rapists and pillagers garnered such thoughtful consideration.”

But when Bolger reaches the 9/11 attacks, he turns his sardonic wit on the U.S. government. Something had to be done, of course, but, he says, the question that planners didn’t want to confront was, “Who was the enemy?” While it was al-Qaeda rather than its Taliban hosts who still threatened America, “the quasi-conventional Taliban furnished a much more appropriate target set for U.S. firepower.”

And yet Bolger has little time for those who lambast the Bush administration and the military under Donald Rumsfeld for the fact that Osama bin Laden and his entourage were not killed or captured in the Afghan caves of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001. Given the terrain and the weather, America “could have deployed the entire 10th mountain division” and still been unable to close off every ratline” into Pakistan.

Bolger’s critique intensifies with his account of the first days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Some of the mistakes he highlights were unquestionably just that. One of the most astonishing was that General Tommy Franks, in charge of the invasion, and his staff failed to set up a clear chain of command in newly conquered Iraq. They envisaged a civilian headquarters called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), to be run by retired general Jay Garner, which would “coordinate” with the Army’s V Corps headquarters during the six months or so it would take Iraqi society to get back on its feet. This meant no one was in charge.

As Bolger relates, this arrangement was soon replaced by an equally hazy one. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador to the Netherlands, took over the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority. V Corps was replaced by a new military headquarters led by Ricardo Sanchez, a newly promoted lieutenant general who had never commanded a division in combat. According to Bolger, when Bremer issued his controversial orders dissolving the Baath Party and the country’s army, he did so without consulting his military opposite number.

Regardless of who was in charge, Bolger believes the underlying situation was impossible. “Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-Baathification orders, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there oozing pus and bile,” he writes. “With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency.” (Like many commentators on the war, Bolger often seems blasé about the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia under the Baathist regime and the dominance of the Sunni minority.)

Bolger has a peculiar soft spot for General John Abizaid, who commanded the U.S. Central Command during that first vital year of the occupation. Given Abizaid’s inability to see that the heavy-handed, crudely “kinetic” approach of the U.S. military was quickly fomenting an insurgency, Bolger’s regard is hard to understand. The reason only becomes apparent in subsequent chapters, when Bolger reveals his loathing for David Petraeus, who took over the American effort in early 2007. It’s a loathing so intense that it targets not only Petraeus’s person but also the counterinsurgency doctrine he championed and everyone associated with it. At the same time, any general, who, like Abizaid, prominently opposed Petraeus and his team of maverick soldier scholars, or who opposed the surge, gets an automatic high rating from Bolger, no matter how unsuccessful his command really was.

Much of this animus seems to be a matter of personality. Petraeus, as Bolger points out, had risen quickly thanks in part to what he sees as shameless networking. “He had more connections than ten of his peers, and he wasn’t shy about using them,” he writes. Petraeus possessed “inordinate” ambition and was a skilled and assiduous “self-promoter.” Indeed, according to Bolger, Petraeus was a member of “the AAA club,” which he defines as “that careerist self promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms: Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes.” Bolger makes sure to remind the reader of Petraeus’s relative lack of height, as if that might be the key to his character flaws.

This antipathy corrupts Bolger’s analysis of the Iraq war. After he condemns the generals for trying the same failing policies year after year, he pours scorn on those such as Petraeus who not only tried something different but were so successful that the war was virtually won when the Obama administration decided to abandon it.

That said, when Bolger’s perspective is not distorted by this odd animus, he points out problems most civilian authors have failed to notice. These include the fact that the Army underwent a major structural reorganization—becoming a force based on “brigade combat teams” rather than divisions—in the middle of the war, and that its personnel-rotation policies undermined unit cohesion until 2004.

Bolger is particularly perceptive about the way “information warfare” turned out to be a force multiplier for the other side in Iraq. He considers the grotesque photographs from Abu Ghraib the equivalent of a huge battlefield defeat. And he explains how the Marine Corps’ efforts to retake Fallujah in April 2004 were essentially defeated by Al Jazeera news teams. The Qatar-based network’s carefully curated footage of destruction and suffering so rattled both the Tony Blair government and Iraqi politicians that the United States had little choice but to halt the operation.

Unfortunately, insights like these play a smaller role in the book than do attacks on COIN and its champions. Though Bolger himself once advocated for more COIN training, he now insists that the military must pursue only “short, decisive conventional wars, for limited ends.”

It’s a view that mirrors a way of thinking that first became Army orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Apologists for that failure, led by the historian Russell Weigley, maintained that the “American way of war” was “big war” involving the use of overwhelming force and high technology to annihilate the enemy. COIN, they argued, is incompatible with our national character and talents, and should not be studied, lest familiarity lead to use.

This was and is nonsense: The United States has successfully fought many “small wars”—starting with the campaign against the Barbary Pirates.

It is understandable that commanders of Bolger’s vintage would dislike tricky “low-intensity operations” and prefer that the military be used only in Desert Storm–style pitched battles against easily crushable Third World armed forces. Unfortunately, U.S. interests may require riskier forms of military action, especially now that America’s enemies are often too smart to challenge her in conventional army-to-army battles. And the fact is that in Iraq many U.S. commanders—and their troops—turned out to be very adept at using forms of warfare that required cunning, cultural awareness, intellectual flexibility, a willingness to delegate authority, and the skillful application of relatively limited force.

Bolger may have a point, however, when he says that one of the greatest mistakes our generals made was to assume that the politicians at home would go along with a decades-long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, he maintains, don’t do long-term active military commitments. Bolger believes the generals should have argued for immediate pullouts after overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam regimes.

Some experienced and thoughtful people in the military share Bolger’s view. It’s an understandable argument given the tremendous difficulty and cost of Afghan nation-building. It seems likely, however, that had the United States and her allies pulled out in 2002 after installing Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan would have returned quickly to the chaos and civil war that characterized the pre-Taliban era. And Pakistan probably would have ensured that its favorite fundamentalist terror groups and the rump Taliban retained power. This would have cast a pall over America’s swift victory and might have emboldened other regimes giving sanctuary to anti-American terrorists.

It is also far from clear that the campaign in Afghanistan has been lost. America and her coalition allies have achieved much there despite various mistakes. And there are encouraging signs from Afghanistan, despite the opportunities offered to the insurgents by the premature drawdown of coalition forces and President Obama’s insistence on a 2016 withdrawal. We could still lose in Afghanistan. But if the campaign ends in defeat, it is likely to be a self-inflicted and unnecessary one, like the one the Obama administration oversaw in Iraq. Although Bolger’s book was completed before ISIS took Mosul, ISIS’s rise to power surely casts doubt on his belief that an even more premature withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces would have had more benign results for the region or American interests.

Despite all these caveats, Why We Lost serves an important purpose as one of the first salvos in the military’s historiographical battle to make sense of the past decade. It also sets a high literary bar for the books that will follow and answer it.



What American Sniper Gets Right (Weekly Standard.com Jan.25 2015)

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American Sniper is easily the most authentic looking and sounding movie that Hollywood has made about American troops at war since Black Hawk Down.

You can tell within minutes of its beginning that the filmmakers cared to get the details right, that their military consultants weren’t the usual Vietnam veterans that the studios often turn to, and that Clint Eastwood and his team actually listened to what their advisers had say.

Troops “stack” correctly outside buildings before they charge in to clear them.

Army, Navy and Marine uniforms are in the correct camouflage pattern for each of the lead character’s deployments (the U.S. Army alone has changed pattern four times since 9/11).

Thanks to careful research by screenwriter Jason Hall, the language is up to date and sounds real: There are no anachronistic references to “FNGs,” “Spec 4s” or “foxholes,” no-one says “embrace the suck” and almost every phrase spoken by the troops on the ground rightly uses the f-word as an adjective or adverb.

Both background details and the course of the plot feel equally authentic. Soldiers chew tobacco. SF guys spend lots of time pumping iron. Elite troops who have been issued with satellite phones for work purposes only, habitually use them to call their families. No one runs off and finds himself alone in an Iraqi city or has no apparent chain of command as in The Hurt Locker.

And the Baghdad of the movie looks considerably more like the real city than the versions depicted in that movie or Generation Kill.

Moreover, the makers of American Sniper took care to capture some of the (fascinating) technical aspects of real-life sniping (unlike the team behind Jarhead, a lazy, smug film that foolishly and shamelessly borrowed tropes from Vietnam war films like Full Metal Jacket).

 The movie gives you at least some sense of the extent to which a sniper’s talent and skills are about considerably more than mere coordination of hand and eye. They are mental and psychological: hence the yoga-style breathing techniques that snipers use to counteract adrenaline spikes and to slow their heartbeats. (Anyone interested in the art and science of sniping should read John Plaster’s classic book on the subject.)

American Sniper is also pretty accurate in its all-too-brief depiction of certain types of Post Traumatic Stress. In particular it gets right that aspect of PTS that is fed by regret and guilt at not being able to save comrades who were grievously wounded or killed. (Oddly enough it does not try to catch another aspect—one captured brilliantly by The Hurt Locker—namely, the overwhelming sense of anticlimax many soldiers feel on returning to a civilian existence unlikely to provide the intensity, camaraderie, and meaning that they felt while on deployment.)

None of this is to say that American Sniper is perfect as a depiction of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, as a depiction of the campaigns in which he took part, or as a depiction of the work of Special Forces. For one thing it weirdly shortchanges Kyle’s impressive commitment to helping other veterans with PTSD—Eastwood refers to it with just one brief scene featuring mutilated soldiers on a firing range.

For another, the movie unrealistically gives little sense of the Iraqi military role in the later years of the war and the extent to which U.S. units worked side by side with Iraqi forces. In a strong piece for the Guardian, one American veteran complained that the film makes the usual Hollywood error of depicting special forces troops as quasi-supermen. That seems an unfair charge, though the film does perhaps exaggerate the superiority of SEALs over ordinary Marine infantry, in particular in a sequence that shows Kyle teaching Marines the basics of clearing buildings.

Oddly enough Jason Hall’s version of Kyle makes the sniper rather more of an unthinking or intolerant patriot than he really was. In real life Kyle was a thoughtful man who apparently did not blame his fellow-sniper Mark Lee’s death on the latter’s disillusionment with the war as expressed in a letter read out at his funeral.

Even more significant, the film invents an incident in which Kyle has to shoot a child carrying a grenade. While Kyle did, according to his memoir, once have to shoot a woman with a grenade, he actually wrote in the book “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I’d have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.”

However, all that said, by the standards of Hollywood movies, American Sniper is all but unique in the way it combines effective storytelling with rigorous authenticity. 


It may well be the former—the fact that the movie is so well-made and has been so popular—that has caused American Sniper to be the subject of much more ideologically-based criticism than either last year’s cruder Lone Survivor or Hurt Locker.

A considerable number of American commentators and Hollywood voices, not all of them as consistently foolish (or irrelevant) as the dishonest documentarian Michael Moore, have lambasted Sniper as jingoistic or propagandistic.

This may say more about the political culture in which those critics operate than the film. After all, in the U.K., liberal and left-leaning critics have tended to like the film and to see it as carrying a powerful anti-war message.

Much of the disapproving reaction to the film by the likes of New York magazine’s David Edelstein seems to have more to do with what the film does not show than what it does.

Most importantly, Eastwood’s movie does not depict American troops raping or murdering civilians, torturing prisoners, killing each other, or committing any obvious war crimes. This is of course a departure from movieland norm (as represented by Redacted, Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) in which such things are presented as the norm. Nor are U.S. military personnel portrayed as valiant victims exploited and betrayed by a ruthless conspiracy of Washington chickenhawks, as in Green Zone.

It is true that the film makes no overt effort to show Iraqis in a positive light and doesn’t even feature any members of the Iraqi armed forces with whom hundreds of thousands of American troops routinely worked after 2004. Eastwood is clearly less interested in painting a representative picture of the real war than in crafting something akin to a Western, albeit a modern, revisionist Western in the tradition of his own Unforgiven.

On the other hand it is surely an exaggeration to argue that the Iraqis in the film are merely threats, targets and dangerous savages—even if the lead character does use that term.

The scenes in which Marines break into houses and terrify families make for very uncomfortable watching. They are clearly intended to evoke sympathy for the Iraqis, even those who are working with the insurgency. You’d have to be a fool not to see that Eastwood is, subtly or by implication, evoking the inherent brutality and cruelty of any occupation and counter-insurgency, no matter how well-intended or lawfully carried out.

Moreover the fictional Iraqi super-sniper against whom Kyle carries out a kind of duel is not depicted as especially evil or villainous: He’s just an enemy soldier doing his job extremely well. 

On the other hand, the al Qaeda commander and his henchmen—who are based on real people—are depicted as men of astonishing cruelty and ruthlessness. They use the blackest methods of intimidation to compel civilians to support them; at one point you see a child murdered by electric drill in front of his father.

Unfortunately there is nothing exaggerated or untrue about this scene. AQ and its insurgent allies frequently did that kind of thing and worse.

If some critics are uncomfortable with or ignorant of that reality, or would just prefer a simple narrative in which Americans are murderous fascists and the insurgents are victims/good guys/Middle Eastern Minutemen, then it is surely they not Eastwood who have a taste for propaganda.

But it would be surely be more constructive for them to calm down and see American Sniper for what it is: an exciting, moving film based on one man’s rather unusual military career, one that also highlights the postwar difficulties faced by even the most fortunate, best-trained and most effective warriors.

Jonathan Foreman was an embedded war correspondent with U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.


The Warthog Lives! (The Weekly Standard Jan. 25, 2015)

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Happily, the Air Force has failed again in its crusade to kill off a great plane

This December saw the climax of one of the more peculiar conflicts in Washington. It was a battle over an Air Force plane. But it was not one of those standard-issue Washington procurement battles in which congressional bean counters seek to kill off a hugely expensive project that the relevant military branch insists is vital for American security. It was almost the opposite: The politicians were trying to save a weapon system, and the service brass, together with one of America’s aerospace giants, were trying to get rid of it.

The ungainly but effective A-10 Warthog


The weapon in question is the A-10 ground attack plane, officially the “Thunderbolt II” but widely known as the “Warthog.” It has been around for more than three decades. It’s one of the outstanding successes of modern American military aircraft, and its effectiveness in recent wars has made it beloved by American and allied troops.

The effort of the Air Force to retire prematurely this storied plane has few parallels, not just because it has faced dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress, but because it has lasted 25 years and has its origin in what looks like a troubling moral and intellectual crisis among Air Force leadership.

Every service has its cultural eccentricities, its strategic fashions, its technological fetishes that cause it to see defense priorities in terms of its parochial interests. But the obsessional Air Force campaign to get rid of the A-10 suggests an especially perverse set of priorities. After all, the A-10 has been one of the great airborne success stories of the last two wars, and even now is enabling the United States to battle ISIS in Iraq in a way that is not just far more economical than flying fast jets from distant aircraft carriers or bases at the other end of the Gulf, but highly effective.

Ask anyone who has served on the ground—or worked near ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—what aircraft they would prefer to come and give them close air support and they will say the A-10. They don’t just love the Warthog because it is deadly, though the distinctive “Brrrap” sound of its 30 mm cannon is dreaded by the likes of the Taliban. Ground troops prefer it because planes like the F-16, the French Mirage, and the British Typhoon are just too fast to carry out genuine close air support efficiently and safely and are much more likely to kill them—or civilians—by mistake.

Even early in the Iraq war when U.S. forces called for air support, some 80 to 90 percent of the requests specifically asked for the A-10. In 2006 a leaked email from a British Army officer involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province prompted a political storm in the U.K. by talking about near misses of his own troops by RAF fast jets and praising the Warthog. “I’d take an A-10 over a Eurofighter [Typhoon] any day,” said Maj. James Loden of the Parachute Regiment. U.S. soldiers have similar stories. One experienced NCO in Afghanistan told National Defense magazine, “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target.”

The pilots of fast jets, no matter how good they are, simply have less time to see what is happening on the ground. They are more reliant on technology that can go wrong, and there is little question that they are more likely to inflict friendly fire and collateral damage casualties.

USAF brass don’t like to admit this. That’s partly because they tend to look down on both the A-10 and the mission for which it is so suitable, but also because it implicitly undermines their massive, desperate public relations campaign on behalf of the troubled, hugely over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a high-tech multirole plane that they claim, unconvincingly, will be able to replace the A-10 as a close air support aircraft.

Quite apart from the unlikelihood that the Air Force would ever want to risk a fragile $200 million stealth jet “down in the weeds” on low-level missions against ISIS, the Taliban, or their equivalents, it makes little sense to replace a plane designed specifically for a task with one that may be fundamentally unsuited for it. As Pierre Sprey, who played a key role in designing the F-16 and the A-10, has written, “As a ‘close air support’ attack aircraft to help U.S. troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over U.S. forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground.”

This is not to say that there are no valid arguments for replacing the A-10 at some point—especially if America’s armed forces start facing different enemies using more effective antiaircraft technology than the Taliban or even Syria have at hand. But it’s surely bizarre to go to the mattresses to get rid of an aircraft without having anything in the pipeline that can truly replace it.

The A-10’s original purpose was to give U.S. forces a chance of stopping vast Soviet tank armies if the Warsaw Pact invaded Western Europe. Accordingly, the engineers at Republic-Fairchild built a uniquely rugged aircraft around a powerful automatic cannon. The plane is ugly and ungraceful, but it can take off and land on rough airstrips close to the combat zone and requires relatively little maintenance. It has a long “loiter time,” making it ideal for search and destroy missions. It can take an astonishing amount of punishment from ground fire, its cockpit offers unparalleled visibility, and its pilot is well protected by a titanium armored “bathtub.”

The USAF, however, never embraced the A-10. It hadn’t really wanted the plane in the first place, but it had to field something like it or face the probability that the Army would demand the right to field its own fixed-wing aircraft. (Theoretically the Army has been forbidden to fly fixed-wing planes since the so-called Key West Agreement of 1947, which divided permission to field aviation assets between the older armed services and the new U.S. Air Force.)

As the Cold War came to an end, the Air Force saw an opportunity to mothball its 300 A-10s. But then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the A-10 was deployed against Saddam’s armored divisions. Its success was so dramatic—even as other, faster, more expensive jets like the British Tornado failed—that its retirement had to be postponed.

The A-10 then turned out to be equally useful in the Balkan bombing campaigns, during which primitive Serbian air defenses were able to shoot down one of the latest, stealthiest, most expensive U.S. aircraft.

By 2003 the USAF had managed to hand off its A-10 fleet to the Air National Guard. Once the second invasion of Iraq had begun, however, there could be no question of not using the Warthog to provide close air support to coalition ground forces.

In the next few years, A-10s, mostly flown by Air National Guard pilots, became the mainstay of these missions both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force and Navy used plenty of other aircraft types, and the Army and Marine Corps used their Apache and Cobra attack helicopters in support of ground troops, but the A-10 turned out to be the ideal counterinsurgency tool.

Even more frustrating for those who wanted to get rid of it, efforts to dismiss the A-10 as merely a “single-mission airframe” have been undermined by its surprising utility for other missions besides tactical ground attack.

In the Balkans it proved to be useful for combat search and rescue. During the first Gulf war, besides shooting up thousands of Iraqi tanks, the A-10 also shot down enemy helicopters, making it a star of what the military calls -“Battlefield Air Interdiction.” In Iraq and Afghanistan the A-10 turned out to be excellent for Forward Air Control (guiding other aircraft and artillery fire) in the tradition of Vietnam-era planes like the Mohawk and Bronco.

Right now in Iraq, A-10s are carrying out not just close air support but also the search and destroy sorties that the Air Force calls strike coordinated armed reconnaissance (SCAR) missions, for which it is ideally suited, unlike fragile, fuel-guzzling F-35s or even F-16s.

In 2013 the Air Force brass thought they could exploit the sequester to finally retire the A-10. Sure there was still fighting in Afghanistan, and mothballing the A-10 would mean using fast jets in its place, with all of the attendant downside, but the political opportunity was too good to miss. Indeed, it looked for a while like the A-10 was doomed. It didn’t help that the plane has no big aerospace lobby behind it, the last A-10 having been built in 1984 by a company that no longer exists. But Senator John McCain, supported by the Army and veterans’ groups, began a congressional insurrection on its behalf.

It was an uneven struggle. The Air Force and the Pentagon as a whole, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pushed for the plane’s mothballing. Again and again they assured Congress that the A-10’s retirement would be no great loss as the soon-to-be-ready F-35 is more than capable of doing everything the A-10 does. Of course, the Air Force knows perfectly well that supersonic jet fighters are not well-suited to the down and dirty jobs that the A-10 does so well. But admitting that might mean admitting the shortcomings of the troubled F-35.

Certainly the ruthlessness of the USAF’s efforts to retire the A-10 during the last two years seems to be a byproduct of the service’s ardent commitment to the F-35 and its terror that the latter might be canceled or cut. You can see this in the way that the Air Force has dishonestly redefined “close air support” so that the term includes dropping bombs from high above the clouds, and also in its shiftiness about when the F-35 will be deployable.

The Air Force, like the Navy and Marine Corps, has plenty to be nervous about when it comes to the F-35. It is not only already the most expensive weapons project in history and late by almost a decade, there are many people within the defense establishment and even the Air Force who think it a misconceived and wasteful procurement catastrophe. 

Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

Perhaps the Air Force should have realized this earlier, and fought for a top-of-the-line plane without a fat waist that makes it slow to cross the sound barrier and all but incapable of agile maneuver. Instead it has put all its trust in the F-35’s “stealth” characteristics—i.e., its low observability by certain kinds of radar, and the way its sensors enable it to engage enemy aircraft beyond visual range. If everything works well, the F-35 can spot an enemy far away and then destroy it with a long-range missile and not have to worry about being slow and ungainly.

However, the F-35 is only stealthy from the front, and even then its cross section is readily observable by old-fashioned low-frequency radars, still used by the Russians and many other countries. Moreover, while stealth technology was exciting and seemed as unbeatable as a Harry Potter invisibility cloak back in the 1980s when the F-35 was conceived, in the 30 years since, adversaries have been working on clever countermeasures and/or developing their own stealth planes.

But even before the F-35 program, with all its implications for the reputations, promotions, and future employment of USAF brass became publicly problematic, the Air Force disliked the A-10, for reasons that had little to do with mission effectiveness and much to do with considerations like aesthetics, self-image, and interservice rivalry.

The A-10 is an ugly, unglamorous aircraft and therefore unappealing to those whose world is steeped in the “knights of the air” mythology of air-to-air combat. It is relatively simple and inexpensive—and therefore has little added value for officers who might want to curry favors with the aerospace industry.

Moreover, despite its age, the A-10 is relatively inexpensive to fuel and operate. That sets a bad precedent for an organization that has struggled to justify the purchase of fragile high-tech aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 that often need days of repair after each mission.

Finally (and perhaps most damning of all), the point of the A-10’s existence is to support personnel from rival services: The Warthog does the grubby job of assisting soldiers and Marines in their work. But the USAF is traditionally and primarily interested in two missions far removed from such tasks—strategic bombing and air-to-air combat.

It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.

Last fall, the Air Force tried a final gambit. Its spokesmen claimed that the F-35 program would be even more over budget and delayed if the A-10 weren’t “divested.” The latter’s defenders responded that getting rid of all 280-odd A-10s would save enough money to buy just 12 F-35s.

But the USAF wasn’t done yet. It claimed in November that the F-35’s crisis was a matter of maintenance personnel shortages and that the program could not flourish without the 800-odd maintenance people who currently work on the A-10. This was not true. As the well-informed War is Boring website quickly pointed out, there are thousands of maintenance personnel working on other aircraft types (including rarely used B-1B bombers and F-15 interceptors) who could easily be diverted to support the F-35.

Fortunately, Congress wasn’t gulled, and the latest National Defense Authorization Act forbade the USAF from retiring the A-10. It helped that the politicians fighting for the A-10 included not just McCain but also Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, whose husband flew A-10s in Iraq, and Representative Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who herself flew A-10s in combat. 

ISIS also played a role in saving the A-10. A single squadron of Warthogs would have been enough to stop the ISIS blitzkrieg into northern Iraq—especially given that during the summer the Islamist force moved in long, vulnerable convoys of pickup trucks. Though it will be harder to dislodge ISIS forces now that they are hiding in Iraq’s towns, the Pentagon has deployed an Indiana National Guard A-10 air wing to Iraq, where it has been in action supporting Kurdish forces.

While the A-10’s supporters have won for now, the underlying problems with the Air Force remain. There’s an argument to be made that if it is institutionally unwilling to take seriously the mission of delivering close air support to American troops, as seems to be the case, then it would make sense to abolish its near-monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft and hand the A-10 over to a resuscitated U.S. Army Air Corps that would be pleased to have it.

 And perhaps the USAF should also give up other unglamorous tasks that are about supporting soldiers, sailors, and Marines. It could become a smaller force that operates interceptors, strategic bombers, tankers, and America’s strategic missiles. It’s a solution that could keep the fighter jockeys happy (at least until they are all replaced by unmanned aircraft) without undermining the effectiveness of America’s military as a whole. Of course, it would be far better if the service simply came to its senses and made the national interest, rather than the promotion of the F-35, its first priority.

Afghanistan, We Hardly Knew You (The Daily Beast, Dec 8, 2014)

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It took more than a dozen years for the Afghan and NATO forces to really understand each other, but all that will soon be history.

KABUL, Afghanistan — One of the first things you notice at an Afghan National Army training base is that there are roses everywhere. There are lovingly tended flower beds along each road and surrounding every barrack. The machismo of Afghan male culture apparently coexists with a little-noted passion for gardening. Not only are the center dividers of Kabul’s traffic-choked main avenues lined with well-kept rose bushes, but when you stop at checkpoints in the capital’s “Ring of Steel” you often see brightly colored flowers growing out of the top of Hesco barriers, the giant blast-proof sandbags that are one of the transforming technologies of the “War on Terror.”

 It’s the sort of juxtaposition that makes you wonder, when you first see it, whether the ways of the Afghan soldiers and those of the Westerners who’ve trained them can ever really fit together. And the announcement Saturday that the United States will be keeping an extra thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan for a little longer than planned—a total of 10,800 troops in the first few months of the new year—makes the question seem just a bit more critical. There have been so many stories of “green on green” and “green on blue” killings, when Afghan soldiers and police have opened fire on their fellow troops or their Western colleagues in ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.

 But the blast barriers themselves, like the roses, are so ubiquitous that once you’ve spent some time here you forget to register them or what their presence may imply about how people and institutions deal with the ordinary insecurity of life. The same applies to other visual cues that tend to go unremarked.

 For instance, another thing you might notice at an Afghan National Army (ANA) training base is that very few Afghan soldiers on it are carrying weapons. There will be some sentries with American-supplied M16 rifles, and the foreign trainers may be carrying guns, but the great mass of troops are unarmed.

 By contrast, at ISAF installations almost everyone you see is armed, including civilian contractors. Men and women who have never gone “outside the wire” at ISAF HQ in Kabul (except to travel to or from the airport), who are unlikely ever to do so, and who are protected by multiple layers of carefully designed military security, nevertheless carry pistols strapped to their hips.

The rules that allow the bearing of arms even by civilians at ISAF bases—and the fact that almost everyone who can chooses to do so—presumably expresses not just a rather extreme and fearful approach to “force protection” but also an understandable desire on the part of rear-echelon folk to look and feel warlike and badass. Both sartorial tendencies also reflect one of the most striking aspects of life in Afghanistan and that is a lack of trust, or rather a lack of trust of anyone who is not an immediate member of your family and tribe.

 You don’t need a deep knowledge of Afghan history to have a sense that this is not a new or recent phenomenon: all you have to do is fly over the country. The big visual difference between Afghanistan (and Pakistan’s Pashtun frontier lands) and similarly mountainous or desert regions in, say, India, is that here there are high walls around everything. Every dwelling of any size, every farm outside the city (and it’s true also of many houses inside the city) is a fortress, a castle and perhaps a jail, too, at least for some of the females within.

 In Kabul you rarely see people shouting at each other or getting angry in public.

It’s hard to know if this mistrust is justified, if without walls and weapons no man could expect to live undisturbed regardless of traditional honor codes. But of course, many middle aged and older Afghans have more than enough experience of violence and disorder to be cautious.

On the other hand, one of the striking things about urban life here is that it is much quieter and more civil than its equivalent in Pakistan or India.

 In Kabul you rarely see people shouting at each other or getting angry in public. When on another trip here I once started to lose my temper with an Afghan colleague, the young Afghan fixer who was showing me around cautioned me to calm down, explaining that it would be dangerous to make an Afghan man lose face publicly. It is a bit like the stories you hear from American prisons in which inmates are surprisingly polite or at least careful not to bump into each other in the line for lunch, because any kind of perceived insult has to be answered with extreme violence. When I was in Kabul last year I was told about a female staffer at one of the big foreign aid organizations who publicly reprimanded one of her house servants. Her agency had to take her out of the country that very evening after it was made clear that the servant had sworn to kill her.

Some of the more notorious “green on blue” attacks have their origin in such outraged honor. rather than in ideology or Taliban infiltration. The foreign advisers engaged in training troops long ago learned that Afghans can take mortal offense at the use of obscenity and certainly at being called “motherfuckers” or something similar. But unfortunately some of the foreign troops performing guard duty can be less culturally sensitive: last year an Australian soldier provoked a fatal incident at a joint training base just outside Kabul by insulting an Afghan soldier.

 In general, though, one of the things that is abundantly obvious if you visit the many bases where ISAF troops are training and advising the Afghan military and police, is that at this point, the NATO-led forces really do “get” their clients and are profoundly familiar with Afghan culture in all its good and bad manifestations.

 Many officers and men from the 48-odd ISAF countries have done multiple tours, speak some Dari or Pashto, and have developed a deep affection for Afghanistan along with a relatively intimate knowledge of local ways. It makes it seem all the more unfortunate, that having finally achieved such understanding, most of those personnel are leaving.

 ISAF is shrinking and will be gone by the end of the year; already only 30,000 foreigners remain from a force that once numbered 150,000. To the dismay of Afghanistan’s newly elected President Ashraf Ghani, and of many other people here ranging from ISAF commanders to leaders of Afghan civil society, the follow-on NATO-led mission, named “Resolute Support,” will have a maximum of only 12,000 troops and will itself be shut down within two years, regardless of the political, military and economic situation in the country.

It took years and many costly, bruising lessons to cultivate in the blighted soil of this country, the trust and mutual respect that you now encounter between Afghans and Internationals; soon these hard-won connections will become irrelevant and fade away like, well, like roses withering in blast barriers.

The Afghan Handover (The Weekly Standard Nov.17, 2014)

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It’s not too late for the president to rethink his arbitrary end date


With less than two months to go until the end of the mission, the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul can feel a little forlorn. You still encounter an amazing mix of uniforms, headgear, ethnicities, and accents, with Macedonian troops brushing shoulders with soldiers from Mongolia. The gym is still packed at all hours. There are still civilian contractors walking around with pistols strapped importantly to their hips. But the national support element clubhouses are empty, the PXs are closing, and some major ISAF participants like the Canadians are long gone. An organization that was once so large its operational command hadits own separate base at Kabul airport and was in command of 150,000 troops from 48 nations—a quarter of the world’s countries—is shrinking rapidly.

U.S. Army Black Hawk at Kabul airport

In a huge and complicated engineering operation, vast bases are being closed and stripped, or handed over along with their power and water plants to Afghan forces who may or may not be able to staff and operate them effectively. ISAF, which had already largely shifted during the course of 2014 from a combat mission to one described as “train, assist, advise,” is now down to 34,000 personnel; there will be less than 12,000 by the end of the year.

Of course, the war is not over. Come January, ISAF will morph into a NATO-led partnership called Resolute Support Afghanistan. “A noncombat mission in a combat environment” as one foreign colonel called it, Resolute Support is supposed to train, advise, and assist Afghan security institutions in what you might call their higher functions: budgeting, corruption oversight, civil-military relations, recruitment, strategy and planning, and intelligence gathering.

The plan is to have a hub in Kabul or Bagram and four or five spokes. The Germans will run the training and advisory command at Mazar in the North, the Italians will do the same in Herat in the West, and the United States will be in charge of the other bases, which are likely to be in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram.

Planning for the new mission, including raising the required number of troops, was severely delayed by ex-president Karzai’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement and Bilateral Security Agreement, and also by the election crisis over the summer. NATO is now frantically trying to ensure that it has the 12,000 soldiers it calculates are the minimum needed for the mission to work. If it doesn’t get the full complement of troops from NATO and 14 partner states, Resolute Support will be cut down to only four spokes. That would not be a good thing, either for the training mission or for the wider goals of the alliance in Afghanistan.

After all, America and its allies need their own sources of intelligence in Afghanistan. This is not simply because Afghan corps commanders have a tendency to exaggerate Taliban numbers in an effort to get more funds and more support. It’s also because the drawdown has prompted neighboring states—some concerned about the vacuum, others malevolent—to increase their activity in Afghanistan.

The Resolute Support advisers also need to be able to defend themselves should things go wrong. Although the safety of the foreign advisers will ultimately depend on the Afghan Security Forces, there is a “force protection” element built into Resolute Support; it is not clear if it is nearly large or strong enough.

The rebranded NATO-led organization will shift the training, advice, and assistance from the tactical realm to Afghanistan’s ministries and corps commands. The hope is to make the Afghan government and military leadership capable of sustaining their 350,000-strong forces in the field.

This will be a considerable challenge. For a host of cultural, political, and historical reasons, it can be much easier to teach Afghan soldiers infantry tactics and weapons handling than to impress the essentials of modern logistics, joint operations, and fire support on their senior commanders, or to get the generals and politicians to ensure that soldiers and police are consistently, adequately paid and supplied with food, water, and fuel.

On the other hand, one of the things that quickly becomes apparent if you spend time at ISAF headquarters in Kabul or in the regional commands, or if you visit 
the specialized bases where ISAF personnel are “training the trainers,” is that after more than a decade in the country, and many mistakes, ISAF’s advisers really “get” Afghans and Afghanistan.

The learning curve was long and was not helped by rotations of troops and units that all but ensured the frequent loss of hard-earned institutional knowledge. The ISAF personnel you meet these days, however, are not only impressively able and experienced (it’s common to meet officers, enlisted troops, and civilians who have done multiple tours) but also movingly devoted to Afghanistan.

As you might expect, they have few of the illusions that beset many of the first commanders and aid workers who arrived here in 2002; but neither do they tend to be so cynical about getting things done “the Afghan way” that they’re willing turn a blind eye to rank incompetence and corruption.

On the Afghan side, if you speak to the generals about international assistance you inevitably hear a litany of requests and complaints—they need more heavy weapons, more close air support, and of course more money. Relay those complaints and requests to ISAF commanders and you’re likely to hear depressing and comical anecdotes, such as the recent discovery by an ISAF officer of an Afghan Army warehouse filled with brand new NATO-supplied high-tech anti-IED devices. The Afghan National Army did not know it had been supplied with these devices because the troops that accepted delivery were essentially illiterate and had no idea what was in the boxes.

As time goes on, though, such debacles seem to be less frequent, not least because illiteracy is dramatically lower both in the army and in Afghanistan in general. It’s now easier for the government and the military to hire people who can fill out the forms upon which tasks like the supply of spare parts depend and use the computers that are the basis of all the management systems that ISAF has tried to teach.

A combination of accumulated effort and accumulated cultural awareness has enabled ISAF to transform the way the Afghan Army is paid. Some 85 percent of the soldiers now have salaries paid directly into personal bank accounts they can access through ATMs installed at all the big Afghan bases. This is a revolutionary change, as formerly they were paid in cash from money supplied to their corps commanders—with all the potential for mischief that you might expect. Many Afghan soldiers are said to believe that they were given a 25 percent pay raise this year; they weren’t, it was just that for the first time they got their full salaries unaffected by the generals’ skimming.

It’s not a foolproof system. It’s possible that some generals and defense officials will figure out a way to input nonexistent personnel or whole ghost units into the system and take their salaries. But it’s one of several instances in which ISAF advisers have come up with mechanisms that make government more efficient while removing opportunities to steal or otherwise abuse the power of the state.

Another example is the way the British officers who set up and advise the Afghan National Officers Academy (sometimes called the “Sandhurst in the Sand” after the U.K.’s equivalent of West Point) established a selection system highly resistant to the usual nepotism and tribal influence. All candidates who come to the academy at Qargha are given randomly assigned identity numbers before they take a week of physical and academic tests. Only one person on the entire base has the list that matches numbers to names—the British colonel in charge of the training team. That means that the Afghan commander and his staff can honestly tell any powerful individual who contacts them hoping his influence will ensure the selection of a particular candidate that they are simply unable to game the system for him.

On the purely military side of things, thanks to years of hard work by NATO and ISAF trainers and advisers, units of the Afghan National Army not only can fight in an organized and effective way, but are often more proactive than they used to be. This, along with the shift to “Afghan-led” operations, is one of the reasons why Afghan Security Forces suffered higher casualties this year. Not only was the 2014 “fighting season” Afghan-led and largely successful, but the security forces managed to protect a massive double election process that the Taliban had sworn to disrupt.

On the other hand, the United States and ISAF allowed the ANA’s better units to get used to being ferried to the battlefield in American helicopters and to have highly effective ISAF close air support on speed dial; next year they will have to do without both. They do have helicopters of their own—and will have more, along with a score of Tucano ground attack planes—but beginning in 2015 the Afghan Army and police will no longer have even the possibility of consistent support and backup from first-world air forces, and no one knows how they will do.

In general, Afghan realities are complex and confusing. The more you talk to people here, the more contradictory stories you hear, and the harder it is to get a sense of how things are really going. Some people say with confidence that the Taliban is increasingly fractured and has lost much of its raison d’être with the departure of most foreign forces; others insist that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura retains enough influence to be a useful interlocutor. Some foreign officials scoff at the way their Afghan counterparts blame insurgency and terrorism on Pakistan’s intelligence service; others regret the failure of Washington and its allies to put more pressure on Islamabad to stop sponsoring terror groups like the Haqqani network. 

On the one hand, corruption, incompetence, and a leadership culture shaped by a toxic combination of Soviet-style and Central Asian warlordism are rife in the Afghan military establishment. On the other hand, the tactical skill and courage of much of the Afghan Army is undeniable. Some senior ISAF and Afghan Army commanders insist that the Afghan Local Police program, which enlists villagers in local defense forces, has generally been a success; others are equally convinced that the ALP are unreliable at best and prone to banditry and moonlighting for the Taliban.

Still, even off the record, the ISAF commanders both at the top and in the training missions tend to be relatively optimistic about the direction Afghanistan is going. They draw considerable comfort from the performance of the Afghan Security Forces during the 2014 fighting season, and in particular during the two elections. If there was ever a time in which the Afghan military might have split along ethnic and regional lines it would have been in between the two elections. The fact that nothing of the sort took place arguably outweighs an ongoing lack of cooperation between the army and the country’s many police forces and the ability of insurgent groups to carry out high-profile attacks in some areas.

They can see that in terms of trends within Afghanistan time is on their side. With every passing year the proportion of the adult population that is young, literate, and either urban or connected to the world beyond the village by mass media, mobile phone, and Internet grows by leaps and bounds, while the backward conditions that created warlordism and then the Taliban are becoming a distant memory.

Some see signs of an osmotic influence. Many Afghans have had more than a decade of exposure to professionalism, to a modern, Western style of military leadership, to the advantages of merit-based promotion, and to organizational cultures that prize individual responsibility.

If you go to, say, the Afghan special forces training base at Camp Commando on the outskirts of Kabul, you can see the effect of this. The officers there from the commanding general down are fit and serious with little sign of that well-fed indolence that indicates high status in many Middle Eastern and Asian societies. While there are still some older generals in the Afghan Army who sport airborne or ranger patches in empty imitation of American advisers, the officers and NCOs here wear patches they have actually earned at elite schools in the United States or Europe. They come back from those crucibles with fundamentally altered ideas of rank and hierarchy.

That said, the ISAF and NATO leaders here were all shaken to some degree by the election crisis and by the way that Karzai’s delay in signing the Status of Forces and Bilateral Security agreements risked a total pullout of foreign forces. The fact that the Taliban was unable to obstruct the election and the dispute was finally resolved in the form of a nascent national unity government was therefore reassuring.

They are also all well aware of the political problems here that will require international involvement and large-scale donation for decades to come. For instance, there is no way that Afghanistan with its limited government revenue could by itself sustain security forces of any significant size for decades to come. They fear, as do many Afghan politicians, that without foreign military forces on the ground, and with new crises emerging in the Middle East and Africa, Western donors may lose interest in the country.

They also think that the timeline of the new mission is far too short. NATO has not specified an end date for Resolute Support. Theoretically it could last until the end of the Bilateral Security Agreement two decades from now. But in practice it is set to finish by the end of 2016, because of President Obama’s insistence that all U.S. troops be gone by then. His plan for half of the U.S. contingent to be pulled out by the end of 2015, regardless of conditions on the ground, essentially rips the heart out of the whole exercise. It will leave the training mission understaffed and largely undefended.

The president’s politically determined end date for Resolute Support, like his previous 2014 deadline, undermines the mission in several ways. It will encourage the insurgents, who know they just have to hold on for two years. It discourages ambivalent allies and supporters in Afghanistan and abroad. It will demoralize soldiers and civilians who know they will have to leave regardless of where their mission stands. And it may well encourage a cynical “screw-it” attitude on the part of personnel who understandably don’t want to be killed or maimed for a cause that the U.S. government clearly does not believe in.

The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has indicated that the duration of Resolution is too short. Senior NATO leaders, both military and civilian, Afghan government officials, and members of civil society, the people at the top of the international aid effort here, and even the reflexively cynical Kabul press corps, all agree. Even the governments of India and even Pakistan have expressed their concerns about the 2016 pullout to the U.S. government. All of them are hoping against hope that the disaster of Iraq will inspire the president to revise his decision. Certainly you would think that all that has happened in Syria and Iraq might prompt the administration and its supporters in the U.S. media and think-tank world to be less complacent about the fate of Afghanistan.

The one thing that has given hope to many people here at ISAF is that Germany’s Angela Merkel is said to have given a classified briefing to the Bundestag in which she said that Germany would push for a longer mission. If President Obama could be persuaded by her example to go for a condition-related date of departure, rather than the rigid deadline he has so far embraced, then perhaps the vast amount of effort and sacrifice, blood and treasure, spent in Afghanistan will not have been given in vain.