Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Did the United States Commit War Crimes in Afghanistan?

The medical relief group Doctors Without Borders called for an international investigation into the US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan today. A US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan last Saturday killed 12 medical workers and at least 10 patients at a hospital operated by the group. President Obama offered an apology for the airstrike, which commanders asserted was “a tragic, terrible mistake.”

But Doctors Without Borders has said that that strike “cannot be brushed aside,” it is requesting an investigation under the Geneva Convention. It hopes that such an investigation will clarify the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Any investigation would require the consent of both the United States and Afghanistan, neither of which appears ready to move forward with such an independent investigation.

What do you think? Did the United States violate the Geneva Convention in the Afghan airstrike? Should an impartial international investigation take place? Why? And if a violation is found to have occurred, how should US engagement in Afghanistan change?

Are Lone-Wolf Terror Attacks Preventable?

A key leader in Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) released video yesterday celebrating the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the attack on the “Draw Mohammed” Contest in Texas, and the Chattanooga shooting in the United States. The video also calls for new lone-wolf attacks against targets in the United States. The video features Abu al-Miqdad al Kindi, who escaped custody from a prison in Yemen, has become a key leader and spokesperson in AQAP. On the same day, Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s chief bomb maker, released a statement via AQAP’s Twitter account echoing the call for additional strikes against the United States.

The ability of organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State to radicalize followers in the West to carry out individual, decentralized attacks represents a significant threat. And American security officials have long fretted about the danger posed by lone-wolf attacks. Unlike more complex operations like those of September 11, lone-wolf attacks are significantly cheaper to carry out and less likely to be exposed. While lacking the large-scale impact of more complex operations, lone-wolf attacks nevertheless generate the publicity and state of fear that is the goal of the terrorist groups.

What do you think? Are lone-wolf terror attacks preventable? What should the United States and other countries threatened by such attacks do to help prevent them?

The Expanding ISIS Threat

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack against a bank in Afghanistan, killing at least 33 people. ISIS claimed the attack was targeting government officials cashing paychecks. If ISIS is responsible for the attack, it would represent a significant expansion in the organization’s reach, which had historically been confined largely to Syria and Iraq. It also highlights the ongoing challenges faced in providing security in Afghanistan.

The expansion of ISIS also highlights a shift in the balance between terror organizations, with al Qaeda apparently in decline and ISIS clearly on the rise.

What do you think? What factors account for the increasing reach of ISIS? Has ISIS replaced al Qaeda as the primary terror threat in the region? Why? And what, if anything, should be done to address ISIS’s growing reach?

Implications of the Israeli Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party defined pre-election polls and won a resounding (and surprising) victory in yesterday’s election, capturing 23.2 percent of the popular vote (and 30 seats), finishing well ahead of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, which garnered 18.7 percent of the vote (and 24 seats).

Polling data had suggested that Netanyahu’s party would lose control of the Knesset (parliament), causing Netanyahu to tack to the right in recent days. In campaign interviews over the past few days, Netanyahu declared his strong opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, effectively declaring there would be no two-state solution during his tenure. He also promised to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, the portion of the city viewed by Palestinians as the future capital of their country. Earlier, Netanyahu had also declared a hardline stance against Iran. On all three issues, Netanyahu broke with the United States. The results are also likely to catalyze pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move forward with a human rights lawsuit against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

What do you think? How will Netanyahu’s reelection affect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program?

Afghan Elections

Elections in Afghanistan took place this weekend, with turnout reportedly high. The Taliban threatened to disrupt the elections, in which eight candidates are vying to succeed outgoing President Hamid Karzai.  But despite the threats, more than 12 million Afghanis cast ballots.

The ballot is widely seen as key to determining the future of Afghanistan. Among the eight candidates, two are seen as the leading contenders. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah—generally seen as a reformer—is the leader of the National Coalition and a long-time opponent of outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is running as an independent but has come out in support of a strategic partnership with the United States. And finally, Zalmai Rassoul was Minister of Foreign Affairs and is a close ally of President Hamid Karzai. If no candidate wins a majority of the ballot—an outcome that seems likely given the large number of candidates running and the three-way division among frontrunners—a runoff election would be scheduled for May 28.

Pedagogy: The International Relations of Star Wars

The Battle of Hoth

The Battle of Hoth

Over the past week there has been an outstanding exchange at the Duck of Minerva blog exploring the international relations and military strategy of Star Wars.

It all started when Wired Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman explored the Battle for Hoth.  His analysis carried real world implications for counterinsurgency strategy, most notably observing that religious fanatics should never be placed in wartime command, and hegemonic powers tend to underestimating an insurgency’s ability to keep fighting.

The comments on Ackerman’s post are worth reading in their own right. One, for example, reads,

Have you even served with the Imperial forces? Sure it’s easy to take potshots from your military blog in some no-name star system while the fleet and its legions fight the rebel insurgents, but combined space/air/ground operations are a lot messier than any infographic could ever portray.

Even with the Empire’s full spectrum dominance of the battlespace, you can’t just leverage fleet assets which are optimized for ship-to-ship combat into a large scale ground invasion force. A Star Destroyer might have more firepower than the entire militaries of less advanced worlds but you still need a proper ground assault ship to support infantry landings.

Unfortunately, the do-nothing blowhards in Coruscant couldn’t get funding for the promising alternative designs from Sienar Fleet Systems and we ended up (as usual) with Kuat Drive Yards’ overpriced, overdue, and underperforming AT-AT mess.

Others continue in a similar vein. Then we get the Duck of Minerva’s responses.

First, we have Robert Kelly examined the five biggest strategic errors of the Empire, with a hat-tip to counterinsurgency strategy.

Then Steve Saideman considers the command structure of the Empire from the principal agent problem, drawing important lessons for Nato strategy in Afghanistan.

Finally we get Patrick Thaddeus Jackson examining the challenges post by the Empire’s command structure and the weakness of its military strategy against the Rebel Alliance. In doing so, he explores the tradeoff between material and ideological interests in foreign policy.

Outstanding stuff. Great fun, and an interesting way to use pop culture to think about global conflict.

Is It Time for a Draft?

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was serving on his fourth extended deployment in a war zone when he allegedly murdered 17 Afghan civilians. Could such tragedies be prevented by enacting the draft?

The revelation that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who has been charged with murder in the deaths of 17 Afghan civilians, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan on four extended deployments and may have buckled under the strain has rekindled a debate about the need for compulsory military service in the United States.  The New York Times on March 20 featured a debate among six experts on the topic “Would a Draft Reduce the Number of Post-Traumatic Stress Cases?”  You can read the full arguments of the six debaters here, but some of the highlights are as follows.

(1) Reviving the Draft would Bring Relief to an Overburdened Military.  Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb argues that America’s current all-volunteer force was never intended to serve as a warfighting force: “The all-volunteer force is, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when he was on the verge of reversing President Carter’s decision to reinstitute draft registration, a peacetime force.  When this nation gets involved in extended conflicts, Selective Service must be activated or else the strain on the all-volunteer force will be too great.”   Former Army Officer M. David Rudd agrees that a tiny segment of the population is bearing an unsustainably heavy burden: “During World War II approximately 9 percent of Americans served. That number shrank to less than 2 percent during Korea and Vietnam,  and less than 1 percent during the Gulf War.  In this post 9/11 era, it’s remarkable that less than one half of one percent of Americans serve.”

(2) A Draft Would Produce a Military More Representative of All Americans, Which Would Close the Growing Gap Between the Military and Civilians.  Former Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati points to the socioeconomic and racial divide between those who serve in today’s military and those who opt out: “The era of conscription has been replaced by today’s ‘economic draft,’ leading to a disproportionate share of working-class families bearing the burden of military service. It’s a dangerous thing for a democracy to impose military service on the least advantaged members of its society. It means that the 99 percent of Americans who don’t wear the uniform today are disconnected from the service.”

(3) A Draft Forcing the Sons and Daughters of Prominent Officials and a Broader Cross-Section of the Public to Serve Will Induce Greater Caution About Involvement in Wars.  Lawrence Korb argues: “Calling up some of the 20 million men who are registered with Selective Service would also have forced the American people to ask questions about the necessity for, or potential costs of, the wars, and likely would have prevented the killings of which Sergeant Bales is accused.”  And M. David Rudd notes that the current situation leaves too many leaders woefully ignorant of military life: “Perhaps most important, though, leaders across both parties in Washington with little exposure to military life can result in unrealistic expectations and policies that leave commanders with little if any choice but to continue to stretch an increasingly vulnerable fighting force, with tragic consequences.”

What do you think?  Is a draft a good idea?  Which of the above arguments (if any) seems convincing, and why?  Or would America be better off scaling back its sweeping foreign policy ambitions, as some critics contend, so that achieving its goals no longer requires huge numbers of men and women to be deployed abroad?

Poll: Is the War in Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

With President Obama’s controversial decision to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, rising tensions between the U.S. and the Karzai government, and public relations victories for the Taliban in the form of Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes killing Afghan civilians, the situation in Afghanistan has been growing more and more tenuous.  In this context, last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could be seen as the last straw that decisively breaks the back of the counterinsurgency effort and makes it impossible to achieve NATO’s goals in the region (including the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a stable government).  Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (left) is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.

Three weeks ago in this blog we considered the implications, for the Afghanistan War, of the Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties.  The main theme of that blog post was that Counterinsurgency (COIN) Warfare requires a very different strategy than conventional warfare, and that events which would not matter greatly in conventional war may become pivotal events in a COIN campaign.  Since COIN requires “winning hearts and minds” and convincing civilians to support the government rather than the insurgents, the government (and any external forces–such as NATO–seeking to prop it up) must avoid civilian casualties and heavy-handed tactics, must be seen to be on the side of the people–by providing services and security–and must carefully guard their reputation and public image.

These requirements explain why the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier last week–an event of minimal strategic importance (harsh as it may sound) in the context of conventional warfare–threatens to derail the entire U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. An article in yesterday’s New York Times makes these risks clear:

“The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.”

It is worth quoting again one of the paradoxes of COIN (as written by General David Petraeus in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual):

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

It appears the soldier responsible for this massacre was not merely exhibiting poor judgment or training but may have been suffering from mental illness, perhaps triggered by the extreme stress of war and multiple deployments.  But that doesn’t matter in COIN warfare: perceptions become reality, and if this attack looks like an intentional, cold-blooded attack on the Afghan people by an overbearing foreign occupying power (an army of infidels, the Taliban would argue) then that is what it is, for all intents and purposes.  It is sobering to think of how much lies outside the control of the generals in COIN warfare, and how the actions of a single disturbed soldier can undermine the efforts of so many others.

After a decade of U.S. and allied blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan, is this how the war ends?  With an unceremonious NATO retreat, the collapse of the Karzai government, and the return of the Taliban?   Or can the U.S. and its allies still salvage this war?

Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Afghans protesting against the United States after American soldiers burned Korans as part of a garbage pile at Bagram Air Field.

President Obama has apologized for U.S. soldiers’ “mistakenly insulting the Koran” by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, but anger and violence against U.S. troops has escalated over the past several days.  This comes on the heels of a NATO airstrike that killed eight young Afghans, for which NATO offered its condolences.

These developments would be “bad public relations” for NATO and the U.S. in any war, but they take on added strategic significance in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare–the type of campaign NATO is pursuing in Afghanistan.  Whereas in conventional warfare the objective is to crush the enemy quickly and decisively, COIN warfare is less about military victory and more about “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian population.  Specifically, the goal is to provide security and basic services to the civilian population so they will support the government and stop supporting the insurgents.  As the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, when the government is corrupt, autocratic, or incompetent or military force is used in a heavy-handed way–especially if civilians are killed–the population will tend to turn against the government and into the arms of the insurgents.

American and allied military leaders understand the imperatives of COIN warfare, but these requirements are easier to describe in theoretical terms than to implement in a war zone.  Two key “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” from Chapter 1 of the Counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus seem particularly relevant to the current difficulties in Afghanistan:

Paradox #2: “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is.  Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.”

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

Are the U.S. and its NATO allies on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan?  With the Obama administration’s decision to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, is it inevitable that the population will turn back to the Taliban out of fear or necessity?  What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide in favor of the Karzai government and its external supporters?