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October 28, 2011

A Glimpse at the Future of Afghanistan

Capt. Michael Gagnon teaches Afghan children how to fist bump in the Helmand River Valley of southwestern Afghanistan, Oct. 21. Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., commands a team of roughly 20 men dubbed “Task Force Nomad.” Over the next several weeks, the task force, a subset of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the valley.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Last week, I like to think I had the opportunity to glimpse at the future of Afghanistan.

“Yo, Gimme some chocolate,” said the Pashtun boy.

Four English words and a spirited request for candy demonstrated the effects of a decade of American presence in the region.

“Yo,” answered Capt. Michael Gagnon, a logistics officer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. He responded in Pashto that he didn’t have any.

As of last week, I had been in Afghanistan roughly two and a half months and I’d hardly seen any Afghans.

My role as a combat journalist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) means I don’t have the opportunity to interact with the population the way other forces do, but nonetheless, I was eager to be on the ground.

I traveled to the Helmand River Valley to spend a few days with Gagnon, who is on his third Afghan deployment in two years, and his small team, operating out of Patrol Base Alcatraz to construct helicopter landing zones for the small outposts here.

Having spent the last two months in the desert, I found the Helmand River Valley weird. I hadn’t seen a tree since July when I left North Carolina for Afghanistan. The thin strip of lush vegetation surrounding either side of the Helmand River was surreal to me, and I was eager to explore it.

In the midst of constructing a helicopter landing zone for one of the countless patrol bases that dot the heavily-populated valley, Gagnon, myself and the rest of the team encountered a group of curious Afghan children.

An Afghan child shields his eyes from the sun outside a village in the Helmand River Valley.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

A special operations unit occupied the compound where we constructed the landing zone, and they coexisted with a small town.

Dozens of Afghan children, ranging in age from about 3-13 would stop and offer a high-five or see if we had candy.

These boys were as curious and playfully mischievous as any children anywhere.

Cpl. Eliud Reyes, a military policeman with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, had a bag of Jolly Ranchers he decided to share. He gathered them in a huddle and knelt down in front of them.

Cpl. Eliud Reyes prepares to pass candy out to a group of Afghan children in the Helmand River Valley. Reyes, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., is a military policeman with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. He is currently tasked with providing security for “Task Force Nomad."
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

Reyes clutched the bag of candy in one hand and held up his index finger with the other.

“One,” he said sternly, presumably in the interest of demonstrating fairness and preventing fighting among the children.

“Three,” yelled back a child in the back of the group, laughing and brandishing three fingers.

It was clearly not their first go at this.

Pretty much every single kid took his allotted piece of candy, hid it in his clothes, then stuck his hand back out, holding up one finger and looking at the Marine with pleading eyes.

Those kids hustled Reyes for his candy pretty well, and frankly, it was refreshing.

In an abstract, foreign place with cultural differences difficult to relate to, it was nice to see some of the same kind of stuff I did when I was young.

As one of the master sergeants out there put it, “kids are kids.”

We left those kids with a few handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and a lesson on how to fist bump, but they gave me a warm feeling on the potential for this region.

Later, back on Alcatraz, an Afghan National Army truck drove up and parked nearby. It was riddled with bullet holes. I decided to get a photo.

I’m 22 years old and the two soldiers in the truck looked younger than me. I greeted them with a smile and a wave, showed them my camera and asked if I could photograph them.

They smiled back, shrugged, and offered me a piece of pomegranate.

Like me, they came of age in this war, though certainly in a far different manner.

It was not long ago that they would have been following patrols or greeting Marines in pastures asking for candy. Now, like the rest of the youth here, the fate of this nation is in their hands.

Two young Afghan National Army soldiers at Patrol Base Alcatraz, their truck riddled with bullet holes.
-- Photos by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

I appreciate the feedback I received last week; I hope you all stay posted as I chronicle my experiences as an enlisted Marine in Afghanistan over the next several weeks.

Cpl. Jones' first entry - My Path to Afghanistan

To contact me with feedback or questions, email me at brian.adam.jones@gmail.com. To learn more about the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), visit the Facebook page.


The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Defense or United States Marine Corps.

Can Exceptionalism Guide U.S. Foreign Policy?

Writing in National Review, Marion Smith takes issue with Stephen Walt's take-down of America's exceptionalism. In it, Smith offers proof of why the U.S. is uniquely virtuous among nations:

How about the American commitment to end European imperialism in North America, leading to the Monroe Doctrine? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worked so that neither Spain nor France reclaimed their revolting colonies in Latin America. At the same time, America rebuffed British attempts to secure an imperial foothold in North America through an Anglo-American military alliance. Despite America’s military weakness, Adams — the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine — believed it would be “more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly” and reject an alliance, rather than appear to “come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” By championing the cause of the newly independent Latin American republics in Europe, and being the first established nation to recognize the new nations, a young U.S. advanced its principles abroad, promoting a new system of “justice” for one-third of the globe.

Of all the places to defend morality in American foreign policy, Latin America (!) following the Monroe Doctrine would be about the last place I'd start. That aside, Smith offers some forward-looking guidance:

Rejecting the source of our goodness — our true principles — will dash any hopes for future greatness. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” In the 21st century, Americans need to learn from the examples of our earlier statesmen who prudently applied our exceptional principles to the constantly changing circumstances of international affairs.

So what would this mean in the case of, say, Bahrain, where the government has murdered its own citizens and jailed doctors who cared for wounded protesters? The Obama administration had signaled it would go ahead and sell them U.S. weapons anyway, but has now held that up pending a State Department review on human rights. Is forgoing that sale the exceptional thing to do?

October 27, 2011

Iraq and Iran

Reading the various accusations that the Obama administration has surrendered Iraq to Iran, I think it's worth keeping this in mind:


By nature of religious affinity and geography, Iran was always bound to play an outsized role inside Iraq. As several people have pointed out already, the era when Iranian influence was at its lowest ebb inside Iraq was when a Sunni autocrat ruled the country. Moreover, in a democratic Iraq with a loser political structure, Iran is going to have far more levers of influence inside Iraq. It's unavoidable.

This underscores, I think, a lot of the naivete that drives the "stay in Iraq" policy advocacy. Follow the chain: the U.S. has to knock off a Sunni Arab dictator, and has to install a democratic government in its wake, and has to install a democratic government that is friendly to Washington's strategic priorities, and has to create a political system immune from too much influence from its neighbor, and has to commit tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the effort indefinitely irrespective of America's balance sheet.

It's also worth stating the blindingly obvious: Iran increased its influence inside Iraq under the nose of roughly 50,000 U.S. troops from 2008 on (and over 150,000 before then). The U.S. may have "beaten back" some Iran-affiliated militias during and after the Surge, but it never "defeated" them. Keeping 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops in the country to chase Iranian agents and their Iraqi sympathizers around southern Iraq is hardly going to do the trick, and in an era of tighter resources, it's a rather decadent waste of time and money. I do think a Lebanon-style civil war, with Iranian-funded Shiite militias battling Saudi-funded Sunni militia (and Turkey bombing the Kurds in Northern Iraq) is a distinct possibility, which is why the removal of U.S. troops is ultimately a wise choice.

October 25, 2011

Iraq and the Arab Spring


There's been plenty of rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the Obama administration's announcement that U.S. troops would be leaving Iraq. The principle line of complaint seems to be that the Obama administration didn't find a clever way to make an end-run around Iraq's democracy to keep substantial number of combat troops in the country (there will still be an Army Division-sized contingent of guns-for-hire under State Department command).

One could point out the hypocrisy of those who once hailed the birth of Iraqi democracy now complaining about the will of the Iraqi government, but I think this is also a very clear harbinger of where the Arab Spring is going - if it does indeed succeed at replacing despots with democrats.

In other words, it's going to almost impossible in the short-run to have a strategic relationship with many democratic countries in the Middle East of the kind that would satisfy the demands of sustaining U.S. hegemony in the region. The curious dynamic of the Arab Spring in the U.S. is that many of those who would champion U.S. hegemony in the region are also cheering on the revolutions. It seems increasingly clear that, in the short-run at least, the U.S. is not going to have both.

(AP Photo)

October 21, 2011

Is Libya a Model?

"NATO got it right," Vice President Joe Biden said. "This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward."

But the NATO model also was beset by shortcomings, including uneven participation and inadequate supplies, fuel and targeting intelligence. World leaders have yet to decide what role they will play in the next days of Libya's struggle, as the country tries to unite disparate militias and form a government.

Future interventions may not look the same and may not involve NATO. Some could involve little air power and more special operations troops on the ground. Others could involve U.S. forces training indigenous forces.

But the common elements will be a small footprint and little time to plan the mission, administration and military officials said. - Julian Barnes and Adam Entous

I think a lot of the talk about whether Libya is a model begs an important question - a model for what? Both the initial war in Afghanistan and this longer conflict in Libya validate the idea that precision airpower, special forces and large numbers of allied indigenous fighters on the ground can run a regime out of a country. If this is our objective, then clearly, Libya, like the initial toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, is a vindication.

But it is certainly not an ideal model for creating a stable, post-war state in Libya. If we're willing to leave that job up to the Libyans come what may, that's one thing. But I suspect that, like in Afghanistan, the bar for "success" is going to move inexorably toward political settlements and national institution building - areas that the "Libyan model" as presently constituted can't address.

Will China Conquer the Moon?

Robert Bigelow thinks they will by 2025:

At the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, Bigelow laid out a timeline of a wild-west-style Chinese takeover of the moon, calling China "the new gunslinger in Dodge." Bigelow's timeline notes China's increasing success in space projects, up to and including last month's launch of the Tiangong Space Station module. He further declares that the moon's abundance in helium-3, a possible future fuel, but more importantly that "claiming" the moon would be a major glory moment for China. The timeline suggests that China will complete surveys of the moon, withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and formally claim the moon as part of China. Bigelow even suggested diverting 10 percent of the defense budget--some $60 billion--to preventing this moon theft.
I think there's a better chance that China's Communist Party could implode by 2025, but you never know.

October 20, 2011

"Psychological Pendulums"

Gates offered a last-ditch case against intervention, arguing that Libya had little strategic value. He warned that the U.S. often ended up "owning" what happened, pointing to Kosovo and the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq. He said he was wary of getting involved in a third Muslim country, and feared "a stalemate."

The president answered these arguments himself. According to one participant's summary, Obama said: Look, the question of who rules Libya is probably not a vital interest to the United States. The atrocities threatened don't compare to atrocities in other parts of the world, I hear that. But there's a big "but" here. First of all, acting would be the right thing to do, because we have an opportunity to prevent a massacre, and we've been asked to do it by the people of Libya, their Arab neighbors and the United Nations. And second, the president said, failing to intervene would be a "psychological pendulum, in terms of the Arab Spring, in favor of repression." He concluded: "Just signing on to a no-fly zone so that we have political cover isn't going to cut it. That's not how America leads." Nor, he added, is it the "image of America I believe in." - Michael Hastings

President Bush took his lumps for many a facile assertion about the regional impact of removing Saddam Hussein from power, but the rationale offered by President Obama here is just as tenuous. It is also demonstrably false. NATO's intervention in Libya has not rolled back counter-revolutionary forces in Syria or Bahrain (or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt). Gaddafi's death, welcome though it is, won't change that either - whatever momentary fillip it gives protesters in the Arab world is not going to change the balance of forces in the region. In fact, watching Gaddafi's bloody carcass being hauled around may convince the region's autocrats to crack down harder lest they find themselves similarly discomfited.

It's also worth reflecting on the threshold this administration set for risking the lives of American military personnel. It's true that the NATO mission in Libya was fairly low-risk compared to the range of options available, but it still carried serious risks. Imagine if a U.S. plane had been shot down by Gaddafi forces. Would President Obama explain to a mourning family that their son or daughter had to die because the president was concerned about the "psychological pendulum" of the Middle East?

Should the U.S. Trim Aid to Israel?

Via Andrew Sullivan, Walter Pincus makes the case:

Nine days ago, the Israeli cabinet reacted to months of demonstrations against the high cost of living there and agreed to raise taxes on corporations and people with high incomes ($130,000 a year). It also approved cutting more than $850 million, or about 5 percent, from its roughly $16 billion defense budget in each of the next two years.

If Israel can reduce its defense spending because of its domestic economic problems, shouldn’t the United States — which must cut military costs because of its major budget deficit — consider reducing its aid to Israel?...

I think this is the wrong way to look at this question. The overall costs of U.S. aid to Israel is, in dollar terms, tiny relative to the very large budget holes that eventually need to be filled if the U.S. is to balance its books. And some of that money circulates back into the U.S. economy (specifically to the most needy of recipients, U.S. arms manufacturers), so it's not really having a material impact on the American balance sheet in the same way that entitlements, tax policy or big-ticket nation building missions do.

You can make the case that Israel no longer deserves to be the largest recipient of U.S. aid due to strategic reasons - either Israel's declining strategic value to the U.S. or the elevation of another country's value relative to Israel - but that's not a case Pincus makes.

After You

Bahrain’s foreign minister has a pointed message for President Obama: You’ve denounced Iran’s plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and warned that Iran “will pay a price.” But what is the U.S. actually going to do about Iran to show that it’s serious?

“We’re asking the U.S. to stand up for its interests and draw the red lines,” Sheikh Khalid Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini foreign minister told me. He referred to Iran-sponsored attacks on American forces in Lebanon and Iraq and asked: “How many times have you lost lives, been subject to terrorist activities and yet we haven’t seen any proper response. This is really serious. It’s coming to your shores now.”

Khalifa’s worries about American power echo what you read these days in the Arab press, and hear privately from Arab officials. But the Bahraini official, who’s in Washington this week talking to U.S. officials, was unusually blunt in the interview at his hotel suite. - David Ignatius

We frequently hear that humiliation is a major problem in the Arab world but the leaders of the Gulf monarchies apparently feel no compunction about hiding behind the United States while goading it to fight their battles.

October 19, 2011

My Path to Afghanistan

1st Lt. Austin Skinner, the platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, searches a vehicle during drug interdiction operations in southwestern Afghanistan, Aug. 18.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

My path to Afghanistan was as unpredictable as America’s.

I didn’t deserve a single opportunity afforded to me, and I had several. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Maryland and New York City. I graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire before starting college at Hofstra University on Long Island.

My biggest issue as a teenager was that my laziness exceeded my intelligence. I had no work ethic, no discipline and a frail, selective concept of morality.

The older I got, the more I realized I needed to tear things down and rebuild them the way I wanted them.

At 20, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Two years later, an Air Force C-17 Globemaster carried me from Manas Air Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. I looked out the small window on the door of the plane as the landscape below gradually shifted from snow-capped mountains to barren desert.

I landed in that desert late one summer morning, blasted by hot air as the back ramp of the Globemaster opened.

My mission is to communicate the efforts of the Marines here to the American public.

I’m a corporal in the Marines, and a combat journalist for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).

I’ve grown a lot over the past couple years, and I owe it all to the Corps. I am a direct and proud reflection of some truly great Americans in uniform I have had the opportunity to encounter.

I stepped off the plane and onto the ground excited to begin the work of communicating the work of Marine aviation in southwestern Afghanistan.

2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) serves as the aviation combat element for the southwestern regional command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, so Nimruz and Helmand provinces, a region of tremendous strategic value.

Our area of operations borders both Pakistan and Iran. It includes much of the Helmand River valley, Marjah, Sangin and Lashkar Gah.

The Wing is headquartered on Camp Leatherneck, a sprawling outpost in the center of Helmand province. Adjacent to Leatherneck lies Camp Bastion, a British-run base that serves as a major hub for aviation here.

On my first mission in Afghanistan, I flew on a CH-53D Sea Stallion on a drug interdiction operation.

Loaded up with infantrymen, the behemoth helicopter flew hard and low over the Afghan desert, on a mission to stop vehicles and search them for drugs or weapons.

I was there to help communicate how such operations limit the enemy’s ability to move and finance their efforts.

Sitting in the helicopter’s canvas seat, I adjusted my flak jacket and listened to the pilot through my headset, as the aircraft sped toward a suspicious truck. I chambered a round in my rifle and clutched my camera. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I was anxious.

Much of the sand out here has the consistency of talcum powder, and it covers everything. When the aircraft touched down, its rotors blasted the sand away, exposing cracked and weathered earth beneath it. I followed the grunts off the aircraft.

As the next 20 minutes proceeded without incident, I learned a little about the war out here.

We were in the middle of nowhere, just cracked earth for miles. An AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter circled overhead. The Marines quickly set up a perimeter and approached the truck with rifles at the ready.

It was a single cab pickup truck. White paint probably fresh before my lifetime had given way to rust stains from thousands of miles of trekking across the Afghan desert.

As the three Afghan men approached the Marines, they made it clear they weren’t armed. The Marines met the men with a smile and a handshake, with a flair for the diplomacy essential for a successful counterinsurgency.

I think the Marines have adapted well with the world after 9/11. The modern day enlisted Marine is a critical thinker with diverse skills and the ability to lead, analyze and execute military, diplomatic and humanitarian challenges.

In the next several weeks, I intend to highlight my experiences as a junior-enlisted Marine in a military shaped by counterinsurgency operations, in the place that started it all.

I’m excited to chronicle my experiences as a Marine in Afghanistan over the next several weeks on RealClearWorld.

To contact me with feedback or questions, email me at brian.adam.jones@gmail.com. To learn more about the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), visit the Facebook page.


The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Defense or United States Marine Corps.

How Many Wars Should the U.S. Fight at Once?

Michael O'Hanlon thinks the prevailing paradigm of preparing the U.S. to wage two major wars simultaneously is obsolete:

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has just said that he must continue, even in an era of severe defense-budget restraint, to plan U.S. ground forces with an eye toward being able to handle more than one at a time. This puts him right in the center of the modern U.S. defense-planning consensus.

After the Cold War ended, defense secretaries as disparate as Cheney, Aspin, Perry, Cohen, Rumsfeld, and Gates (in other words, all of the last six) built their combat force structures around a two-regional-war logic—or at least that goal. They would usually describe the most likely adversaries as Saddam Hussein and the Kims of North Korea, though other scenarios were envisioned as well.

What's interesting to note about this "two major war" construct is that at the time we actually were engaged in two major ground campaigns, we didn't do such a great job of it despite supposedly decades-worth of planning and investment. That's not because the U.S. wasn't able to deliver relatively swift defeats to enemy forces on the ground but because the military mission quickly changed into one of post-war reconstruction, stabilization and nation building. The Pentagon can ditch the two wars concept all it wants, but its the civilian leadership that will ultimately call the shots and get the wars they - not the military - want.

U.S. Forces May Really Be Leaving Iraq

Yochi Dreazen reports that the U.S. pull down is for real and is being driven by an Iraqi desire to see U.S. forces leave:

“The message we’re getting, to be frank about it, is, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,’” a senior military official said in a conversation on Sunday.

U.S. officials publicly insist that Washington is continuing to discuss a possible troop extension with Baghdad, and it's possible – though highly unlikely at this late date – that a deal will be cobbled together to allow several thousand American troops to remain in Iraq past the end of the year.

Privately, though, U.S. military officials with direct knowledge of the informal negotiations, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, say the two sides have never been close to an agreement and that the talks have effectively broken off in recent days. Two officials said in separate interviews this weekend that the most recent sticking point had been Iraq’s insistence that any remaining U.S. troops receive no legal immunity from Iraqi courts -- an absolute non-starter for Pentagon officials concerned about the possibility American soldiers could be arrested and put on trial in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld took a lot of heat over the handling of the U.S. occupation of Iraq but he did hit on one important insight that was never really internalized by his administration: American forces are "antibodies" on foreign soil. They are welcome on a utilitarian basis - to protect one faction or sect against another - but outside of those functions, there doesn't appear to be a genuine enthusiasm for a prolonged U.S. military presence by Iraq's Arab population (the Kurds are a different story).

October 18, 2011

New Polls on Trade, China Currency

The National Journal took the measure of U.S. sentiment of both the recently concluded free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, as well as Senate action on China's currency manipulation:

When asked if they supported or opposed the congressionally approved agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, voters were just about evenly divided, with 38 percent supporting the accords and 41 percent opposing them. A full 21 percent of voters didn’t know enough to answer or refused to say.

While the overall number of voters was divided fairly evenly, the differences among subgroups were stark. Men favored the agreements 46 percent to 38 percent; women opposed them 44 percent to 30 percent. Although Republicans are sometimes thought of as being more pro-trade, 41 percent of GOP rank-and-file voters polled opposed the agreements. The number was slightly higher for Democrats: 45 percent of them opposed the treaties. When it comes to education, 44 percent of college graduates supported the agreements and 31 percent opposed them. Among those with some college or less education, 45 percent opposed the trade pacts and 35 percent supported them—perhaps reflecting views on the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign competition.

Voters were similarly divided about a proposed measure that would slap tariffs on Chinese goods if Beijing is found to be manipulating its currency. Overall, voters were evenly divided on the measure, with 44 percent supporting it and 41 percent opposing it. College graduates supported the sanctions measure, 57 percent to 30 percent. When party affiliation was factored in among college grads, Republicans were the most supportive of the measure: 62 percent of them backed the bill and only 24 percent opposed it despite the widespread opposition to higher taxes in the Republican Party. Among Democrats and independents, the support for the measure was a bit lower. There was less enthusiasm for the punitive sanctions among voters who were not college-educated, although Republicans once again led the way; 44 percent of GOP voters with no college degree backed the bill, compared with 37 percent for Democrats and 40 percent for independents.

Interesting partisan split on the China question.

Afghans View NATO as Occupiers

Fully 60 percent of Afghans fear that the country will descend into civil war once NATO forces leave, but over half see the Western alliance as occupiers. A new survey carried out be the Konrad Adenauer Foundation has found that the mood in Afghanistan is worsening.

The troops are there, according to the mission statement, to "provide a secure environment for sustainable stability." But 10 years after NATO entered Afghanistan to drive out al-Qaida and beat back the Taliban, a majority of the local population has come to see the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as little more than occupiers.

According to a survey published on Tuesday by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 56 percent of Afghans now see the foreign troop contingent as an occupying force. Furthermore, only 39 percent of those surveyed said they saw ISAF as a guarantee for security, well down from the 45 percent result found in the same survey in 2010. Fully 60 percent think that the country will descend into civil war once NATO forces withdraw. - Der Spiegel

Now as I understand the pro-Victory crowd, the solution to this is to tell the Afghans we're never going to leave their country, ever.

BlackBerry Goes Down, Dubai Gets Safer


As many of you may know (especially if, ahem, you're following our new tech site), BlackBerry suffered a massive global outage last week. Apparently, the brief blackout lead to a dramatic increase in driver safety in Dubai:

In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents.

On average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, while in Abu Dhabi there is a fatal accident every two days.

(AP Photo)

Did Israel Pay Too High a Price?


The release of Gilad Shalit has been greeted with mixed emotions in Israel and for good reason. To secure his release, Israel has agreed to free close to 1,000 members of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, although many of them will be sent into exile. A 1,000:1 ratio would seem to encourage further hostage taking, which has led some Israeli analysts to speculate that Netanyahu agreed to the deal so that he would have a free hand to strike at Iran, since Hamas could not retaliate by murdering Shalit.

(AP Photo)

Why the U.S. Fails With Pakistan

AEI's Thomas Donnelly unearths what I think is a good insight into why the U.S. has so much trouble convincing Pakistan to do what Washington wants it to do:

Pakistan’s problems are deep; indeed, they are embedded in the country’s very identity. But our strategic interests are equally deep. The war in Afghanistan and the rise of India are indicators that the balance of power in South Asia​—​like the balance of power in Europe, the Persian Gulf, or Pacific Asia​—​is emerging as a core security concern of the United States and an increasingly important test of the international system.

A coherent American strategy rests on convincing Islamabad of three things: that the United States has come to South Asia to stay; that India’s rise should be met with strategic cooperation, not competition; and that playing a “China card” won’t work. [Emphasis mine]

I don't think it's plausible to argue that America's interests in Pakistan run as deep as Pakistan's "very identity." Can you imagine what an outside power would have to do to change Washington's conviction that America is an exceptional nation created to spread freedom to the far corners of the Earth? Neither can I, which is why any strategy predicated on such a fundamental revolution in another country's political identity is destined to fail.

October 14, 2011

Maybe It Is Too Stupid to Believe

As a counterpoint to my post about the potential for Iran to simply have made a bone-headed miscalculation, Stephen Walt says the plot is so flimsy and ramshackle as to raise serious questions:

But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.

Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?

Fair point. If we accept that this plot was conceived and executed at the highest levels of Iran's government, then it does make you wonder why would they entrust it to this guy.

October 13, 2011

Iran: Not a On a Roll

The Islamic Republic can't seem to do anything right these days:

An attempt by Iran to launch a rocket carrying a live monkey into space in September has met with failure, stalling the country's program to pursue a human spaceflight capability, according to press reports.

The Iranian Space Agency reportedly attempted to launch a Rhesus monkey into space atop a Kavoshgar-5 rocket (Kavoshgar means "Explorer" in Farsi) during the Iranian month of Shahrivar, a period that ran between Aug. 23 and Sept. 22, according to an Agence-France Press report.

"It Makes No Sense"

Hillary Mann Leverett raises a lot of skepticism about the alleged Iranian assassination plot in the interview above. She returns to one theme repeatedly - that it's unlikely Iran was behind the plot because such an attack would make "no sense" from the perspective of Iran's national security interests and strategy. And I agree, on the face it, it sounds nutty. But I don't know how exculpatory this argument really is.

It's a well established fact that governments around the world and throughout history have done things that, on the surface, do not make much sense. To take an example close to home, I would suggest the U.S. government made one such mistake by invading and occupying Iraq. Your mileage may vary, but the point is that even on grave matters of war and peace, errors, misjudgments and miscalculations aren't all that rare. Nor do we have any reason to believe that Iran is uniquely competent in this regard. Iran's government is a human institution, despite its clerical pretenses, and is subject to the same human faults and miscalculation as any other regime.

In this case "doing something stupid" may indeed make perfect sense.

Iranian Motives

Will Inboden:

To be sure, there are also ample reasons to argue against a military response at this time, and the United States must be equally careful about gratuitous escalation and unforeseen consequences. But the severity of this threat is significant enough, particularly in what it reveals about Tehran's new strategic calculations about its latitude to target the United States, that we at least consider a kinetic retaliation among the options. [Emphasis added]

I think this is the nub of the issue and what makes the details of this assassination plot so strange. Several people who know far more about Iran's Quds force than I do have made the point that it's an almost comically amateurish plot. That bolsters the argument that it was a "rogue" element acting beyond its remit. In that case, it's too early to draw any conclusion about Iran's "strategic calculation" much less make a potentially consequential response on the basis of that conclusion. On the other hand, every organization makes mistakes, even catastrophic ones, and so sloppiness shouldn't necessarily foreclose the possibility that this was approved at the highest level.

In that case, the administration does have an urgent priority to restore some measure of deterrence to the U.S.-Iran relationship.

October 12, 2011

America, Iran and Red Lines

Joby Warrick sheds some light on Washington's thinking regarding the Iranian terror plot:

While acknowledging they did not have conclusive proof, the U.S. officials said they were convinced that Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameinei were at least aware of the plot’s general outlines.

“We do not think it was a rogue operation, in any way,” a second official said. But he added: “We don’t have specific knowledge that Suleimani knew about specific” details of the plot.

The officials said American investigators theorized that the operatives’ sloppiness reflected Iran’s inexperience in working in North America, where even the globally networked Quds Force lacks connections and contacts. But they said the oddly brazen nature of the plot may also may have reflected the naivete of the clique of hard-line clerics that has come to dominate Iran’s leadership in recent years.

“These leaders have no Western experience, and they have a great misunderstanding of the United States,” the second official said. “They don’t understand where the red lines are.”

But with four hits in as many years on Iran's nuclear scientists, I dare say the misunderstanding is mutual.

Russians Find Bigfoot

According to the Guardian:

The vast Siberian tundra holds untold mysteries, from once-secret nuclear installations to alleged UFO crash sites.

Now, a team of scientists say they are "95%" sure that Russia's wintry expanse is home to the mythical yeti, otherwise known as the abominable snowman.

More than a dozen scientists and yeti enthusiasts flew in from Canada, Estonia, Sweden and the US to exchange findings with their Russian counterparts at a day-long conference in the town of Tashtagol, some 2,000 miles east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region. Locals there have reported an increase in sightings of a creature in recent years.

A two-day expedition to the region's Azassky cave and Karatag peak over the weekend "collected irrefutable evidence" of the yeti's existence there, the Kemerovo government claimed in a statement. "In one of the detected tracks, Russian scientist Anatoly Fokin noted several hairs that might belong to the yeti," it added. Scientists also found footprints, a presumed bed and various other markers.

It's kind of reassuring to know that despite all the turbulence around the world, people still have time to be "Yeti enthusiasts."

Israel Apologizes

Don't tell Mitt Romney:

Israel is to apologise to Cairo over the deaths of six Egyptian policeman, according to an announcement which coincided with news of an Egyptian-brokered deal for the release of Gilad Shalit.

The apology was expected to be formally extended on Wednesday.

Will the appeasement never cease?

October 11, 2011

Khamenei and His Caporegime


Michael Rubin explains why Iran's Byzantine power structure may complicate the U.S. response to an alleged plot to kill a Saudi envoy on American soil:

Iran is a dictatorship, but not in the style of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority, and his word is gold, but he doesn’t simply give his minions orders and expect them to be carried out. Rather, according to experts’ estimates, he presides over an office that includes several hundred, or perhaps a couple of thousand, commissars who are inserted at every level of every bureaucracy, and they stove pipe information back to him. Whenever he disapproves of a debate or a proposed action, he will shut it down. Whatever rises to the surface, however, he implicitly endorses. Because he rules by veto power, however, Western intelligence agencies will never find a smoking gun. This will, in turn, lead to a policy debate about whether the perpetrators of the plot were simply rogue actors.

The DEA and FBI have been building this case since May, so if a "smoking gun" linking Khamenei to the plot were available I think we'd have heard about it by now.

That said, these charges, should they hold up, still raise some serious questions about the Iranian power structure and its motivations even without Khamenei's fingerprints. While Max Fisher and Steve Clemons have been engaging in a smart debate over whether or not such a plot is in Iran's best interest, they neglect to ask another critical question: Who's determining Iran's interests these days?

(AP Photo)

Judging the Reset

Putin’s return should serve as a wakeup call for President Obama and his advisers. The “reset” policy profoundly misreads not only why U.S.-Russia relations chilled in the first place, but also what is truly required to improve them. The problem was not U.S. rhetoric or actions, but the nature of the Russian regime. U.S.-Russian relations will not be on a firm footing until Moscow changes its strategic outlook and the Russian people are truly free to choose their own leaders. [Emphasis mine] - Jamie Fly and Robert Zarate

The U.S. arguably accomplished something similar to this during the Cold War. That took six decades to accomplish and still produced a Russian polity that outrages American conservatives. Could it be that Russia's "strategic outlook" is less malleable than Washington strategists would prefer?

October 10, 2011

The Real Iraq

Daniel Larison has a very good take-down of Jackson Diehl's claim that Iraq is what Syria would aspire to be:

Iraq has a semi-authoritarian government ruled by a sectarian majority leadership. Iraq has suffered hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced internally or sent into exile, and it continues to be classed among the unfree nations and non-democratic governments of the world. Is that what Syria might hope to be?

One might also add that present-day Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But really, what's the point? Since the surge, Iraq war boosters have taken an "other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" attitude toward the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis that resulted from the invasion and resulting insurgency. Syrians may view a civil war or armed insurgency as preferable to the murderous rule of Bashar al-Assad, but it's hardly because things look so rosy next door.

War Through Strength

My general rule is to discount most of what is said during campaign season since: 1. politicians will say anything to get elected; 2. events can (and should) meaningfully change positions once a candidate becomes an office-holder.

That said, since Mitt Romney's foreign policy speech is being hailed by many neoconservatives as a welcome return to American strength, it's worth pointing out that it's built on a non-sequitor:

Third, the United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict. Resort to force is always the least desirable and costliest option. We must therefore employ all the tools of statecraft to shape the outcome of threatening situations before they demand military action. The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors and to defend our allies and ourselves. If America is the undisputed leader of the world, it reduces our need to police a more chaotic world. {Emphasis mine}

While I certainly wouldn't argue with the need to retain military supremacy against would-be adversaries, the highlighted section isn't true. If America acts in the manner described by Romney - which is a role it has followed arguably since 1990 - it means a constant resort to policing the world by force. Since the later half of the Cold War and its aftermath, when American power was at its apex, when America was "indisputably" the leader of the world, the pace of American military interventions and conflicts soared.

The "peace through strength" philosophy would be appealing if it were actually true, but in the current application there's very little that's peaceful about it. It would be one thing if the U.S. retained a preponderance of military power but only used it when absolutely necessary. That would truly be "peace through strength." But the variety being peddled by Mr. Romney and his cheerleaders is the perpetuation of war and interventionism in the name of maintaining hegemony over the world. The "peace" part is not much in evidence.

Korean Lawmaker Makes Drunken TV Appearance

Bad form:

Rep. Shin Ji-ho of the governing party resigned as a spokesman for the Seoul mayor candidate of his party. He appeared Friday on a TV talk show under the influence of alcohol. He often gave roaming replies to questions, a clear indication that he went on air after drinking.

He claimed that he was not intoxicated as he took a shower after drinking alcohol before appearing the show. However, his remarks were sometimes pointless.

To be fair, many (most?) politicians make pointless remarks while perfectly sober.

Poland Voters Confirm Tusk's Government


By Alex Berezow

ELBLAG -- On Sunday, Poles went to the polls to vote for a new Parliament. Initial projections indicate that voters approve of the current government, and Donald Tusk will return to Warsaw as Prime Minister. Most likely, the current coalition (Tusk's center-right Civic Platform party and the centrist Polish People’s Party) will continue to govern with President Bronislaw Komorowski, also originally from Civic Platform.

This is good news for the European Union. Civic Platform favors further integration into the EU, as well as adopting the euro at a future date.

There are four other points of interest:

First, Donald Tusk's party is the first in history to be reelected to a consecutive term.

Second, Poland is a very conservative country, as approximately 70 percent of votes were cast for the center-right Civic Platform or the far-right Law & Justice party.

Third, Janusz Palikot, a disaffected former member of Civic Platform, formed his own political party and received approximately 10 percent of the popular vote. It is difficult to define him politically, as he presents himself as a pro-business, social liberal who dislikes everybody else in government.

Fourth, Law & Justice, the party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski (twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski who was killed in a plane crash in 2010), received about 30 percent of the vote. He is a far right-wing politician who has spent the last few weeks spreading conspiracy theories about Angela Merkel, such as her desire to annex parts of Poland and her chancellorship being due to help from the East German secret police.

Alex Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience.

(AP Photo)

October 7, 2011

The Afghan War's Original Sin

In Kabul and Washington, the push is on to wind down a fight that on Friday will mark its 10th anniversary. U.S. officials, who are facing a future of fewer troops and less money for reconstruction, are narrowing their goals for the country. The constrained ambitions come amid pressure from the Obama administration to scale back the U.S. commitment at a time of flagging public support. - Washington Post

There's a telling scene at the 10 minute mark of this Frontline documentary on Afghanistan that I think speaks volumes about our situation there. In it, a former Taliban commander who has flipped sides to support the government has a conversation with a village elder not knowing his microphone is still on. Watching it, one gets the sense that there were two possible outcomes for the U.S. in Afghanistan in October 2011 - a massive effort to police, secure and rebuild the country costing trillions of dollars and entailing the deployment of close to a million coalition forces to seal the borders with Pakistan. Or a sharper pull out that left in place some intelligence collection and the bribing of Northern Alliance fighters to keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda rump on defense. The disastrous hybrid that the Bush administration pursued and that the Obama administration doubled down on has made us even more enemies in Afghanistan without accomplishing all that much.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Terror's Existential Threat

I think when we frame issues of the cost of terrorism and the magnitude of the threat, things like this need to figure fairly prominently:

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

Surely a power that would never be abused by this or any future administration...

October 5, 2011

China Is Not America's Banker

Speaking of busting China myths, Arthur Kroeber does a nice job with one persistent meme:

China is not in any practical sense “America’s banker.” China holds just 8% of outstanding US Treasury debt; American individuals and institutions hold 69%. China holds just 1% of all US financial assets (including corporate bonds and equities); US investors hold 87%. Chinese commercial banks lend almost nothing to American firms and consumers – the large majority of that finance comes from American banks. America’s banker is America, not China.

It is more apt to think of China as a depositor at the “Bank of the United States:” its treasury bond holdings are super-safe, liquid holdings that can be easily redeemed at short notice, just like bank deposits. Far from holding the United States hostage, China is a hostage of the United States, since it has little ability to move those deposits elsewhere (no other bank in the world is big enough).

China Does Not Have a Successful Engagement Policy

In recounting the ten myths of America's China policy, Dan Blumenthal cites as a myth the fact that the U.S. is engaging with China:

This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, we do have an engagement policy with China. But we are only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large--the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). We do need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least one billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. We do not engage them. Our presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps us from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings, and often with groups who are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. We do not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society--underground church leaders, political reformers and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. We do not.

What an odd thing to say. As I understand Blumenthal, the point of engaging Chinese lawyers, activists, religious leaders, etc., inside China is to put pressure on the Communist Party and get them to change their policies. As Blumenthal notes, when Chinese officials come to the states, they meet with people "who are critical of U.S. policy" toward China, but has that changed anything about how the U.S. governs itself or behaves toward China? Blumenthal cites no evidence to suggest it has, so this can hardly be called a "successful" engagement on China's part, can it?

U.S. Veterans Views on War

A new poll from Pew Research takes the pulse of U.S. veteran's views on war as compared to other Americans:

While Americans remain supportive of their all-volunteer military (only one half of 1% of the population has been on active duty service in the past decade), the length of the conflicts has reshaped attitudes toward war and sacrifice, the survey found.

Nine out of 10 expressed pride in the troops and three-quarters say they thanked someone in the military. But 45% said neither of the wars fought after the September 11, 2001, attacks has been worth the cost and only a quarter said they are following news of the wars closely. And half of the public say the wars have made little difference in their lives....

More than half of post-9/11 veterans also felt that too much reliance on military force to combat terrorism leads to more terrorism. On this topic, the public view was nearly identical -- 52% said too much force is not a recipe for success.

Post-9/11 veterans were keen supporters of nation-building with 59% supporting those roles for America's service members. But only 45% of the public and pre-9/11 veterans thought the military should be involved.

October 4, 2011

Which Countries Invest the Most in R&D?


According to new figures from the OECD, Israel leads the way in investing in research and development, while Switzerland earns the most patents-per-percentage of GDP spent on research efforts.

October 3, 2011


Alexander Downes has a good piece studying the history of regime change and whether it works. You really should read in full but I'll pull out this:

Regime change is nothing new to the United States. Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the United States has been the world’s foremost practitioner. Of the roughly one hundred cases of externally imposed regime change in that period, the United States has been responsible for more than twenty. These are only the “successful” attempts.

Talk about exceptionalism! And you would think with all this practice we'd have gotten it down by now...

Saving the Eurozone With Credit Default Swaps

Wolfgang Munchau sees danger with Europe's chosen relief mechanism:

There exist only two categories of solutions to the crisis: a fiscal solution or a monetary one. Politics blocks the first, European law blocks the latter. The CDO is an alluring idea from the perspective of a technocrat who has to come up with something that satisfies current political preferences and that respects perceived or actual legal constraints. On the surface, it appears as if a CDO was a third category in itself. But that is not the case because it ultimately dumps the burden on the ECB, just as the subprime mortgage CDOs became a liability for governments.

As I have argued previously, European laws and current political preference are inconsistent with the survival of the eurozone. Something will have to give.

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