Antiwar.com’s Jason Ditz delivers the punch line.
The Battle of Waterloo was a decisive defeat for the Emperor Napoleon: his losses forced his abdication, restored King Louis XVIII to France’s throne, and sent the former emperor away for the rest of his days in exile on the isle of Saint Helena. In other words, it destroyed him.
From then on, meeting one’s “Waterloo” has become a catch-all for ruinous defeat against an insurmountable opponent.
For Slate military writer and author Fred Kaplan to draw such an analogy from the once-vaunted counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, sanctified and pursued by once-Gen. David “King” Petraeus for the U.S Army and for the whole of the military (if not the entire U.S government’s efforts overseas) from 2007 through 2011, it’s well, a big deal. For years, COIN was shoved down our throats as the new American Way of War. Careers in the Pentagon thrived –and were thwarted — based on who “got it” and who failed to be a willing Team COIN player.
But just as fast as COIN madeth, COIN tooketh away. Kaplan wrote about this evolution in his new book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Hindsight is fun, but one gets the sickly feeling that it would have been nice if more mainstream writers had stuck their necks out to complain about the lack of the emperor’s clothing when it really counted (like six years ago). Kaplan was one of the few who had, writing pieces like this in late 2006, when plans for Petraeus’s Iraq “Surge” were all the rage among the establishment hive in Washington.
Regardless, Kaplan is getting some “I told you so” time, now, and had this to say recently in a Q&A interview on Small Wars Journal (quite notable for once being the go-to site for the COINdinista crowd at its height):
Afghanistan was COIN’s Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama’s policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed–at least by the standards that justified the president’s surge of 33,000 extra troops–then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals–Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others–who are trying to preserve “the lessons of 11 years of war” (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a “core mission,” ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations. ….
… When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who’s out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.
…(military adviser) David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: “it is folly,” he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it’s petty clear the regime isn’t interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers “must” make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn’t know to make during its first year in office – and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.
The take home point for me here is that Petraeus was thriving politically for pushing the COIN template on Afghanistan instead of advising the President to do otherwise, which would have been more in keeping with the fundamentals of COIN these “COINdinistas” had been warbling about all along. Politics and the thrall of proving COIN in the latest mission had taken priority and the gamble became their Waterloo.
Kaplan’s book has been lauded for its detail in tracking the counterinsurgency strategy from the inside, but it’s taken some criticism, too, mostly for not being tough enough on Petraeus. This review on the Kings of War website (hardly a bastion of antiwar writers) calls it “too dependent on the tale told by ‘the insurgents’ and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy ‘friends of Petraeus.'”
As I have not read the book myself, I cannot say whether this is true and if I do read it — which I am more compelled to do now — I will report back. In the meantime, just having reviewed Nick Turse’s book on atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, I was intrigued by Kaplan’s references in the interview (and book) to the West Point “Sosh Mafia” clique which had been formed after World War II and had continued to influence Army doctrine and policy under Petraeus (West Point ’74) today:
The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George “Abe” Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who’d served as General Marshall’s aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters – hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the “Lincoln Brigade” (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group’s knowledge of politics, economics, society and war – and the connections among them – made the idea resonate. The networking they’d picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved – and, in most cases, had its roots in — the Sosh mafia.
In Kill Anything That Moves, Turse refers to West Point too, but he talks about the “West Point Protective Association (WPPA),” active under much more ominous circumstances:
“In 1968, twenty -two out of the twenty-four principle commanders and staff officers in the U.S Army were all graduates of that prestigious military academy. Protecting West Pointers was thus essentially tantamount to protecting the military itself as an institution. Not surprisingly, quite a few West Point graduates implicated in war crimes saw the allegations against them conveniently disappear.
So out of the ashes of Vietnam came Petraeus and the young Turks of the Sosh Mafia. Into the ashes of Afghanistan goes COIN, the hive now officially (and finally) declares.
It’s one thing to acknowledge failure, but it’s another to learn from it. Are we smart enough to anticipate our next Waterloo? Or are we still too dependent on the Sosh Mafias, and the Petraeuses of the military to avoid it?
Let’s hope that newly minted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will live up to some of our expectations and not be afraid to tell it like it is. Let’s start with Afghanistan. We just found out today that an alleged data entry glitch in the Pentagon program that spits out regular assessments like the number of Taliban attacks on our forces prompted the Department of Defense to issue too-rosy proclamations on the progress of the war there.
From Robert Burns at The Associated Press on Tuesday:
The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.
In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.
“This particular set of metrics doesn’t tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it’s unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems,” Little said.
I hate to be cheeky, but why start now? The Pentagon and the war’s top commanding officers have been quite up front all along that winning the hearts and minds of the domestic audience was just as important — if not more important (in order to keep the money and the recruitment flowing) — than its PR successes with the Afghan people. At its peak in the year 2009, for example, the military was spending upwards of $4.7 billion a year on “strategic communications, ” which included $1.6 billion for recruitment and $547 million for public affairs at home. The military planners meant business.
With that kind of investment in “good news” it was no surprise over the years to hear generals completely buff and polish the truth about troop casualties and our tactical successes against the enemy. Especially in Afghanistan. There was always a silver lining or some sort of perfume to mist over what were clearly underwhelming statistics, if not bad news altogether. The worst was when nearly three years ago, Gen. David “Surge!” Petraeus, then commander of U.S and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, actually tried to tell congress that the use of IEDs by the Taliban against U.S forces had “flattened,” when really it was the worst year for our troops in terms of blast injuries,ever. From Gareth Porter in September 2010:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, Petraeus asserted that the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban had “flattened” over the past year and attributed that alleged success to pressures by the U.S. military, and especially the increased tempo of Special Operations Forces raids against Taliban units.
Data provided by the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), however, shows that IEDs planted by Afghan insurgents killed nearly 40 percent more U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of 2010 than in the comparable period of 2009.
The data also show that Taliban IEDs wounded 2,025 U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of this year – almost twice the 1,035 wounded in the same months last year.
In the Journal interview, Petraeus said that the data on violent incidents in Afghanistan indicate a slowly improving security situation.
Almost a year later, I juxtaposed Petraeus’s rosy picture (he left his command for the CIA in the summer of 2011) and chronicled on these pages some the year’s worst IED stories:
According to the most recent data, there was a 120 percent rise in wounded soldiers undergoing amputations from 2009 to 2010 (75 cases to 171 cases, the steepest increase being in the last four months of the year). There was also a dramatic hike in soldiers suffering amputations of more than one limb and genital injuries, and an overall increase — 40 percent — in IED fatalities year-over-year.
As of Aug. 1, there were 158 IED-related coalition deaths (the vast majority American) in 2011, according to data posted at iCasualties. There were 368 such fatalities in 2010.
A year after that, I demanded the military “tell the truth already” about the newest “signature wound,” the “dismounted complex blast injury” that was rendering U.S and coalition troops not only legless but childless for life. At the same time, Afghan soldiers were being accused of killing coalition troops in increasing numbers of “green on blue” attacks. Then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker (he too, has since jumped ship) and now outgoing Gen. John Allen, did the rounds on television to assure everyone that things were running smoothly. “I think we have made tremendous progress,” Crocker told the BBC at the time.
Fast forward to December 2012, the Pentagon gives the 7 percent “decline in attacks” figure we now know was “flawed” to Congress in their mandated report of the war’s progress. Not sure if that will be changed now. Also in December, according to the AP, Panetta was telling reporters that “violence is down” for 2012, and Afghan forces “have gotten much better at providing security” in areas where they have taken the lead. “Overall,” he added, the Taliban “are losing.”
That narrative was carried over into last week’s UN report that civilian casualties are down year over year in Afghanistan. But, again, no surprise, the UN’s findings were actually a mixed bag: violence against women was up, as were attacks on civilians by “anti-government forces,” and U.S drone strikes had increased, too — from 243 in 2009 to 494 in 2012. That means more civilians killed by drone: 6 civilians killed and three wounded in five incidents, up from just one incident in 2011, according to the AP.
While the spin has largely been unsuccessful – most people believe the war was a waste, and we don’t hear much confidence that the government there is going to hold it together when we’re gone — but it hasn’t been helpful, either. It has blurred our vision, placated our fears and white-washed bad news for far too long.
Let’s hope that Hagel won’t feel the need to prettify the obvious. He should know better, more than most, that burying the lessons of the past merely damn us to repeating them in the future.
This week Marine Corps General John Allen joined a long and lamentable list of American leaders who have succumbed to the ancient affliction that conventional rhetoric has deemed the “graveyard of empires.” He is not the first, but given that the United States seems to be on a real trajectory — finally — for an exit out of Afghanistan, Allen may be the last who have broken vaunted career trajectories on the jagged cliffs of this war-ravaged land. A place, many say now, we should have left years ago rather than toiled away and spent so much blood and treasure to recreate, unsuccessfully, in our own image.
That image has taken quite a thrashing since U.S forces first invaded this Central Asian tinderbox to destroy the Taliban, which sadly, Washington helped to birth 20 years earlier (at that time, it was the Soviets’ turn to crash and burn). What had been widely understood, right or wrong, as a mission to avenge 9/11 and to prevent another one from happening, quickly evolved into something not so easily defined: controversial, elusive, corruptive and dangerous. The U.S and allied partners dragged into this quagmire have lost 3,257 lives since 2001. Meanwhile, there is still no official count of the thousands of Afghan civilians killed or ultimately displaced by the 12 years of fighting. They, too , have been sucked into the sands of time, but no, not forgotten.
When Allen first took over command in 2011, he had big boots to fill in the person of Gen. David Petraeus, whose mythology far outsold his actual performance as commander of U.S and coalition forces in Afghanistan. If a frustrated, uninspired, reactionary tour marked by continued American casualties and no clear light at the end of the tunnel was the bar set by Petraeus, Allen certainly met it. However, Allen beat Petreaus on the time it took for him to first announce his retirement from the post (last spring) — eight months into his commission.
And also like Petraeus, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal before him, Allen is ending his government career not unscathed by the taint of shame and embarrassment. He was caught up in the scandal that brought Petraeus down. Though a recent Pentagon report eventually found no conduct “unbecoming to an officer,” the married Allen took a big hit last fall when it was revealed that he had exchanged hundreds of emails (some supposedly racy and flirty) with a married Tampa socialite who spent a great deal of time cultivating self-interested relationships with top Army officers, including Petraeus. That whole tawdry tale was exposed when she went to the F.B.I complaining of threatening emails, which we now know to have been sent from the married Paula Broadwell, an acolyte and biographer and mistress of the married Petraeus. So it wasn’t bullets nor battlefield defeat that brought these men down — including McChrystal who, in the rarefied air of his insulated world of self-importance and bravado, dressed-down the president and his men to the wrong reporter — it was hubris.
To say Allen’s surprise retirement from the Marines had nothing to do with all of this would be to ignore everything that had come before. He is walking away from a prestigious new commission as head of NATO. Ending his career here, right now, is a curious decision.
Afghanistan is a timeless epic that unfolds in ways that only Shakespeare could do justice. And not only generals: a host of diplomats, from Ryan Crocker to the late Richard Holbrooke, have tried in vain to exercise onto this foreign land what on the outside world would’ve been considered peerless skills of statecraft, politics and negotiation. Dashed hopes, even death, was all it wrought.
There are so many reasons why the U.S did not “win” Afghanistan, but in this context it has certainly become a place where men who thought it would be a step toward both personal and career fulfillment, found it to be a graveyard instead.
From Roots Action:
Meticulous researchers have documented that U.S. drones are killing many innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Drones are making the world less stable and creating new enemies. Their remoteness provides those responsible with a sense of immunity.
Weaponized drones are no more acceptable than land mines, cluster bombs, or chemical weapons. The world must renounce and forbid their manufacture, possession, or use. Violators must be held accountable.
Continue reading “Ban Weaponized Drones from the World”
Carolyn Eisenberg and Gael Murphy sent this late last night. Please share. Eisenberg and Murphy are co-conveners of the United for Peace and Justice Legislative Working Group.
By Carolyn Eisenberg and Gael Murphy
Some readers probably heard on the news how the Democrats were hopping mad when the House Republicans voted recently to overturn the “sequester” on the Defense budget, enacted at the end of the year as part of the deficit reduction deal. With that money restored, House Republicans cheerfully went about their business of making up the difference by slashing food stamps, Medicaid for children, federally supported Meals-on-Wheels for the elderly and other vulnerable programs. Democrats were united in opposing this move and promptly incorporated it into the campaign narrative of hard-hearted, mean-spirited Republicans, whom they are determined to challenge and expose come November.
But one odd thing occurred last week. In the House Armed Services Committee, when the Republicans put forward a sequester- busting $642.5 billion for the 2013 Defense Authorization bill, Democrats on the Committee overwhelmingly supported it in a lop-sided vote of 56-5.
Continue reading “Action Item: Civics 101 — Cutting Defense Means? Not Voting for $642.5 Billion for the Military”