Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ category

For A Good Time In Tucson…And Then Tn Charlottesville.

March 11, 2016

[Obligatory sound track]

Way late with this post, but if any of y’all happen to be in the Tucson, AZ area this weekend, I’ll be doing a bunch of stuff at the excellent Tucson Festival of Books.  It’s truly an all-in event; just an outrageous amount of book love crammed into two days.


My own motes in this maelstrom come at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. both days.  On Saturday, I’ll be participating in a couple of panels, “Genius: Lives in Science” in the morning and “How We Got Here: Histories of Science” in the afternoon.  Sunday morning I’ll be doing a workshop/Q & A on science writing — how that will go will depend on who shows up and what they want to talk about — and in the afternoon we’ll be on to “Our Nearest Neighbors In The Solar System,” a chance to talk Planet Nine, Kuiper Belt Objects, those funky moons that orbit the Pluto-Charon system…and maybe just a bit about our should-be, could-be, never-was friend, Vulcan.

Some come by if you can.  And check out everything else going on — or rather, as that’s more than any one person could manage, check out what you like.

Also — an author’s plea.  If you happen to have read The Hunt for Vulcan (so nice I linked it twice) do tell your friends, and if you’re feeling extra generous, pop up a review on Amazon, or whatever social media venue floats your boat.

Also, also:  for anyone in the Charlottesville, VA vicinity next week, I’ll be talking at the Virginia Festival of the Book as part of a panel on “Mysteries of the Cosmos.”  That’ll be on Friday, March 18 at 4 p.m.  That’s another great celebration of writing, reading and the wondrousness of words; it too has an amazing line up of authors, with only yours-truly mucking up the joint; and a spring weekend spent in sight of the Blue Ridge is never wasted.

And just to broaden out the thread — how about talking about what you’re reading now.  For me, I just finished work in a genre I don’t usually read much: N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogywhich I enjoyed a lot, and to which I turned after being truly wowed by her The Fifth Season — a novel of geophysics, race, love and vengeance. I’m not sure what the next novel will be just yet.

My non-fiction jones is being fed by a dual read of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Humboldt’s New World and Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of Americaand a nightly, just-before-bed dip into Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson — which is just wonderful, a poet diving into another poet’s life and work in a bravura demonstration of criticism as high art.

What’s on your pile?

Image: Simon Luttichuijs, Vanitas still life with skull, books, prints and paintings by Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with a reflection of the painter at workbetw. 1635-1640.

Over There. Over Here.

April 17, 2012

The Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for 2012 goes to Massoud Hossaini for this photograph.

The Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for 2012 goes to the Denver Post’s Craig F. Walker for this series.

I’ll save for another post what these images say — again — of the permanent war brigade in our polity, and especially for those members of 51st Chickenhawk Division whose fighting position is behind a laptop in some LA coffee shop.

That is all.

Over There

January 30, 2012

While I have so recently been reminded by our friends in the 101st Chairborne that I’m some arugula-chomping, word-chopping, bubble-bound faux-American, it happens that even folks from my particular corner of Alinskystan talk to people whose daily life is as real as it gets.

Which is to say that one of my friends most often in my thoughts is an infantryman to the bone, decades in uniform, absolutely dedicated to the idea of service and his men.  He’s an enlisted man, on his third tour in the Iraq/Afghanistan long war — and you can take this to the bank:  if you or your child had to hump up some hill where folks sought to do him ill, you’d want my friend there too.  He’s one of nature’s sergeants, I’m trying to say, the kind of guy who knows what he’s doing to some very deep level, and takes the use of that knowledge as an obligation he owes anyone under gaze.

In December, I wrote him a quick note — just a “happy holidays – hope you’re OK” kind of thing.  When I got his reply, I asked for permission to post it here — which I’ve just received.

My friend speaks for himself. I’m not going to gloss it further except to say this:  I’m past tolerating being told by comfortable American Exceptionalists about the necessity of the next war, or the war after that.  My friend and his friends carry the load for all such  Dulce et Decorum posturing.

So.  Notes from Over There:

I am still in Afghanistan in [Deleted] province at an altitude of [Deleted] feet. We have no heat in our bee huts (plywood shacks that sleep six), the temperature at night is in the low teens. They tell us they are working on getting a heater.

It is a tough tour.  We lost six men to an IED three days before Christmas, [not his unit] we worked closely together and I knew them well. We have lost twenty Americans since I arrived. Today I was on an air mission we flew high into the mountains in a heavily Taliban controlled area, luckily we had no trouble. War is a strange thing, going out on missions almost everyday and not knowing if it will be your last day on earth.

We work with the provincial governors and sub governors to build roads, bridges, schools, and give out humanitarian aid, but the leaders steal most of the money and little gets down to the people. I am out in the boonies, we fire artillery all day and night and they rocket us. Soldiersare killed and wounded almost weekly, the call goes out over the loud speaker all this type or that type of blood report to the aid station. I have carried wounded on to helicopters in the field and carried others off the helicopters back at base. It always makes my eyes water and heart hurt to see their broken bodies. It is surreal. I will finish my tour in [Deleted], I had a short leave home in [Deleted]. It is interesting; we raid villages at night and capture terrorist responsible for the bombings, we caught the ones who killed the Polish the night before last.

I am fine. I am an old soldier, and still tough, I plan missions and lead them and so far, thank God, I have not lost one of my men. The fighting in Ramadi Iraq was more bloody, but this place is no joke either. I will never understand why nations go to war, I know the politics, countries do bad things, but it is so ugly. I now have a collection of faces of men that I knew who have been killed in action that live in my head. I am sorry to write like this but I guess I was feeling philosophical.

I hope you join me in sending every good wish and hope to my friend.  That is all.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Soldier, undated — first half of the seventeenth century.

Live Blogging Andrew Bacevich at MIT’s Starr Forum, 9/14/2010

September 14, 2010

To begin in a couple of minutes, a live blog of BU Professor (and former career US Army office) Andrew Bacevich, speaking at MIT on his new book, Washington Rules.

Actual blogging to come as the events unfold….

4:30 MIT Poly Sci Professor Barry Posen kicks off the proceedings, usual props for the speaker, acknowledging Bacevich’s formidable productivity, and a quick sideswipe at Princeton. (“Neither of us were too badly damaged by the experience [of teaching/studying there]

4:35 Bacevich [B henceforward] begins.

2 questions:  Why are we in Afghanistan? Why were we in Vietnam.

B says:  Both questions have common answer.  Washington stubbornly adheres to a security consensus

first — we adhere to what he calls the American credo, and second, we accept the strategic trinity.

The credo holds that the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.  Not, he says, arbitrary choices of words — this is what our leaders say, the same vocabulary.

Trinity — about power, and power projection to support global interventionism.

Together credo and trinity drive American attempts to police the “American century.” Trinity gives credo teeth; credo gives trinity legitimacy

Problem is that hte rules of this interaction don’t work — in fact these “Washington Rules” are counterproductive.

By promising safety, permanent war reduces it; by promising to defend the American way of life, adherance to the credo/trinity pair bankrupts it.

What should replace it, asks AB?

Turns to the preface of the Constitution — pointing to the need to secure “the blessings of liberty” for ouselves, much less our posterity.

IE — he says America should be America; if that makes us an exemplar, great, but should not make such side benefits the primary goal.

He argues for new trinity:  what is the primary duty station for American soldier:  America.

He concedes (his word) that we may need to send US soldiers abroad and keep them there at times.  But the assumptino should not be that primary duty station should nto be chain of bases around the world.

Second:  We should reserve the use of American power for the defense of American vital interests.  Admits that the term “vital interests” is a tricky one — but insists that whatever the final list should be limited one. Shouldn’t do what we are doing now, to define every damn thing (my word) as such an interest.

Third thing:  need to emphasis the just war tradition to justify the use of American force…In that tradition, we should employ force as a last resort, in self defense.  Crucial thought:  keep in mind the “limited utiltity of the us of force” and must keep in mind the “unintended conseqquences” and keep in mind that the costs will be much greater than initially anticipated in each entry to war.

Next question:  how likely is it that we will switch from current “Wash Rules” to BAcevich’s formulation?

Not likely:  status quo benefits Washington establishment, MSM, the whole usual suspects, even if it does not do so for the country.

But second, perhaps more troubling reason:  that has to do with us, the American people.  We have been too long conditioned to the idea that departure from these rules will lead to disaster, isolationism.  We don’t, thus, have the capacity to ask crucial first order questions about whther or not the status quo works.

4:45 — question time.  (Boy, does AB know how to deliver a brief.  Once you learn how to get on that bicycle, I guess you never forget how to ride.)

First question:  Have matters changed, e.g. in such historcal examples as the Spanish American War — there was not a great deal of debate about intervening to liberate Cuba, but there was plenty of debate about the annexation of the Philippines that followed.  This not just about strategic implications, but was informed by a deep seated sense that this form of expansion was somehow different.  Questioner follows up by saying that debate did not stop the decision to annex from going forward.

AB replies that yes, policy is made in Washington, but the only way that DC can truly be challenged, given the benefits that accrue w./in the village, then that opposition will have to come from outside.  See, for example, the debatees about interventions in both WW I and WW II. The issue is not whether when hte people speak they are right or wrong, but that there were times when the hinterland’s deference to Washingoton did not hold as strongly as now.

Q: What do your critics say against what seems to this questioner is a strong case. AB :  they say that the world needs policing, and only the US can play that role.

Posner steps in and says, that yes, this is one of the stock answers. People do say that when we aren’t involved, the world does go to hell, and we ahve to intervene anyway, and its more efficient to pre-emptively get involved.

AB picks up:  people try to cite history to support such arguments. They say that the successes posl 1945 should be creditied to US willingness to use military power.  There is evidence that there is some truth, that US projection of power did work post ’45 in many instances. But the argument is that post early Cold War, these Washington Rules are not subjected to scrutiny, and if they don’t hold (my extension of the argument) we wouldn’t/couldn’t know it.

Goes on to say that 2 party system is failing, because instead of getting a real in-Washington debate, because Dems and Repubs both have, for different reasons committed themselves to internationalist intervention.  Plenty of empirical support for that view in your humble bloggers view.

Q: Why don’t the Democrats do bette r– and could you critique the Obama adminstration on this regard.  Also, what about the CIA memo released via Wikileaks that said biggest help to US policy in Afghanistan was US and European apathy:

AB:  Why do Democrats subscribe to the national security consensus. Cynically, because Democrats have come to believe that they cannot afford to look like national security wimps.  We have the lesson of McGovern, and Carter, sort of (though aB thinks the charges against Carter are specious) …and then on the ohter side Bill Clinton, the draft dodger (said archly) who said again and again in speeches said he could use military as needed, maintaining the strongest military.  Democrats are unprincipled and cowardly. Repubs, unprincipled and lunatics. Not a happy situation.

What about Afghanistan — apathy as al Quaeda’s friend?  The problem is that there is this bizarre notion that staying or “winning ” in AFghanistan is the key to preventing the next 9/11.  Think for three seconds and you realize that this is bogus.  Not true that radical jihadism is concentrated in AFghanistan.  If magician David Petraeus could wave a wand and make Afghanistan a liberal democracy tomorrow — would that end threat of radical jihad?  There is a threat , AB says, but don’t think it’s existential, nor does he think that occupying this or that country is the solution to that limited threat.

But ever since George Bush declared GWOT, we’ve somehow lost hte ability to think coherently here.

How to reduce apathy?  Got to have skin in the game. Could shut war down in heartbeat if people in DC told rest of us how much the war would cost each of us to keep running the war.

The disgraceful, irresponsible, immoral policy we follow is to put the cost of this war on to future basis. If we actually paid for wars as we go, we’d get very different outcome.

Christopher Lydon stands up to ask about the Philippines example again, pointing out how anti-Imperialism then included folks like Mark Twain, William James (who anticipated Jeremiah Wright by saying “God Damn America for what it is doing in the Philippines”)? What would it take to get that kind of anti interventionist movement now.

AB:  Don’t know what it would take.  Look in the last election 2 candidates, Paul on the right and Kucincich on left and the MSM dismissed them.  MSM is at least largely at fault — e.g. when NY Times asks Wolfowitz what he thinks about the end of combat mission in Iraq. Why? What can Wolfowitz say — why not some thoughtful reflection at that time.

Reinforces AB’s concern/disdain for media that does not or cannot accept or recognize the degree to which tehy are captive to conventional thinking.

Q:  Should US get out of Afghanistan entirely? What is US responsibility given US prior record of training of mujahaddin against the Soviet Union, those who have now mutated, (some of them) into Taliban.

AB:  Don’t think leaders of a great power sit around a coffee table and ask “what is the right thing to do here” — self admitted cynic.  Shouldn’t kid ourselves that our leaders see moral issues as more than peripheral.  But what are those obligations in the case of Afghanistan? Given all the places we’ve been involved and have done harm, and presumambly have obligations to make harm good — why should Afghanistan come first. In my view, Mexico should come at the top of the list.  We’ve been involved there for longer, more intimately there than in Afghanistan.  Took TExas ec. from Mexico, and they are now under seige because of our drug appetite and our lax gun laws arms the Mexican drug bosses.  Why not Mexico?

And even if you think that Afghanistan should come first — why do you think war is the right way to discharge that obligation.  Should we continue to wreak violence in that country.  Why not a policy that said any Afghan woman (e.g. reference to the woman on Time magazine who had her nose slashed) turn themselves in to a US authority and get flown to SF to be safe.  You know that’s not going to happen…

But if perpetuating the war is the right way to go?  Will you go? Will you pay for it?  Or is the argument about k eeping war going really about “my conscience is bothering me and it will make me feel a bit better to send someone else’s kid over for his of her fourth or fifth tour.”  Let’s have a serious conversation, not one that is about maybe sleeping a little bit better if we just keep war going…

5:15:  Veteran for peace speaks…talks about US as pooerly informed about history; engages in state sponsored terrorism; and folks never get the true cost of war, the deaths and disasters that attend on modern war.  How do we get folks to deal with cost of war.

Answer:  Asking the same question as Chris Lydon did.  Deeply troubling one.  Why don’t we do so? Part of the answer is that life is tough.  We have 9.6 % unemployment; people struggle to put 3 squares on teh table and raise kids; want to find a job, or keep it. I can empathize with the idea that Americans have lots on their minds other than worrying about the latest UAV attack on Afghanistan.  That’s not a satisfying answer….(he says).

In defense of history, though — history as it is being written now is not cheerleading.  Vast amount of literature that is critical and informative about how we have blundered into the conflict w. Islamic world.

But historians do not have much influence.  Even that which does get read does not do much to dislodge mythic history that we imbibe w. mother’s milk and that politicians repeat endlessly.

I (AB) was just reading Hilary Clinton’s speech to Council on Foreign Relations – awful, full of cliches.  You say to yourself that without question H. Clinton is very intelligent, how can she say such things?  And the answer is I don’t know.

Q:  What about the new phenomenon of the rise of the right — Tea Partiers and folks like Glenn Beck — what are the consequences of such a rise?

AB:  I hesitate to answer …but what the hell:   My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the TP will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

you may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Repub party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party [TL here  — pretty sure this is too optimistic]

Also can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and is the most troubling part of our current politics.  Seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans woudl deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Q: What about grand strategy implications for a reduction of US military power to where AB thinks it ought to be — in reference to Europe etc.  Wouldn’t it be a waste to give away our military power.

AB:  true that we spend less now as a % of gdp on money at height of cold war.  Spending much more in constant dollars.  Also, then we had balanced budgets now trillion dollar defictis.  (Now spending 5% of GDP vs. 10% of 50s GDP)  This statistic is often trotted out — is BS.

To the larger grand strategy question — do so gradually, not in one fell swoop.  Survey the world and see where security threats are at a low ebb and where the existing capactiy of nations to manage their own security is high…and the answer is Europe.  Not nothing, but not much threatens Europe. They have an aversion to paying for their own security; we need to wean them of that.  If we gave them 10 years to figure out how to defend themselves, and then we withdraw form NATO and NATO devolves into a regional security alliance.

Asia —  not so clear.  The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans all want us there. If we were to rapidly withdraw, could trigger an arms race and other bad things — and I wouldn’t so quickly pull out there.

I’m not as concerned about Chinese rise to pwoer.  They are not historically expansionist.  They are not the one establishing 4 star commands in Latin America and Africa. We are.

5:30:  Question about what AB thinks about the surge as an unearned propaganda bonus to the right.

AB:  Advocates of Iraq war want to talk about surge rather than missing WMDs  — “let’s not adjudicate the war”.  Surge itself was successful in some limited sense — some violence reduction occured in its context, but not clear if more troops or more bribes to Iraqi leaders did the job.

But purpose of surge not simply to reduce violence, but ot bring about political reconciliation — and that’s where the jury is still out.  Everyone knows that the insurgency is still there; may be growing in strength. But question is whether the Iraqi security forces can handle it,a nd can political classes govern themselves.  Not yet a victory…could be but can’t know now.

What about Cuba policy?  AB:  Cuba policy has long been stupid becuase it has been a domestic political football.  Long been known that Castro revolution is a failure.  Our job is to do whatever we can, which may not be much, to make sure that the chaos of the passing of that revolution is minimized.  (Returns to quesiton of moral obligations….what do we owe the Cuban people.  Tough question.)

Q:  Are we playing Bin Laden’s game? A: yes.

I don’t know that I would credit everything that has happened since 9/11 to Bin Laden’s strategic genius.  Our bad judgment has something to do with it.  But yes :  we are spending ourselves into the poor house. We are losing a lot of American lives and ruining more — and it is difficult to understand the sense of it all.

Q:  Do you think it possible that the consensus lasts because the American people approve of this belief.

AB:  yes, beacuse there is a tendency to defer to Washington and a tendency that national security experts have real expertise, adn that they have access to info we don’t, and therefore we should trust Washington’s consensus…and that there is no alternative to playing this forward role, for fear of isolationism and an increasingly chaotic world.

AB argues that this belief is not supported by evidence, but we can’t see that evidence in front of faces.

Q: What are Washington Rules (AB — “did you come in late?”) and if you say we should keep troops in Asia when we shouldn’t in Europe, why not stay in AFghanistan, which is so obviously volatile?

Wash rules:  1 US exclusively called upon to lead shape liberate transform orld.  @2 trinity must maintinat global mil presnece, configured for power projection and should do so.

Re AFghanistan:  yes, it’s volatile, but US interests are fairly small there. Doesn’t make sense to spend lives and money when we have more important interests elsewhere.  Have a limited number of chips, and have to choose where to spend them.  Some do say that Afghanistan is a vital interest — but AB does not have much regard for that view.

Q: given that Tea Partiers are elements of Christian nationalism, what is the role of Christianity in this debate.

AB says that he is a practiciing Catholic, (a church, he says, that is so thoroughly discredited by pedophilia scandal that it has nothing to say to thworld, which depresses him greatly).  But Christians should just be Christians, he says — Do justice and love neighbor. (Props to Unitarians and Quakers).

Q:  Why did we invade Iraq:

AB — Wolfowitz told truth in VF  that bureaucratic consensus  was made up of many parts, of which WMDs were just the one they all agreed to foreground.

That said, there was an overarching strategic ambition:  the GWB admin was committed to preventing another 9/11, without withdrawing from ambitions to exert hegemony over greater middle east.  In order to both, given their high level of confidence of US military power, they calculated they could employ that power to transform middle east.  Afghanistan is not the place to begin such a transformation, but Iraq was perfect:  Saddam was a bad guy, with a weak military, and that there was (remarkably erroneously believed) that Iraq was largely secularized with a nascent middle class that could serve as the basis for a new Iraq.  That all this was grossly misunderstood doesn’t change, AB says, the fact that the GWB administration pursued the war in the context of these beliefs.

And with that, we end.

For All Those Who Have Died In Misconceived Wars of Choice Since 9/11

September 11, 2010

Quick hit link love

August 5, 2010

This one probably slipped by most people, as it showed up in that bastion of mass media attention, The Boston Phoenix, but Professor, née Colonel Andrew Bacevich gave a sharp and important interview to their reporter, and you should read it.

The key take away: wars fought because we’ve been fighting them are (a) futile, and (b) demand sacrifices of those committed to giving them for reasons inadequate to that devotion.

On a happier note, for those wishing to enjoy some truly happy snark on the idiocies of nativism from a historical point of view should check out this piece by that foundational journalist, Daniel Defoe, pointed out to me by the admirable Thony C of Renaissance Mathematicus.

That’s it for a busy Thursday afternoon.  Sons and in-laws await, and so I’ll steal a much better writer’s farewell until tomorrow.

Image:  Hans von Gersdorff, “Battlefield Wounds” in Feldbuch der Wundarznei, 1517

Why understanding e-mail might matter for a President

September 11, 2008

Lovable Liberal has a very smart post up that drills into Bob Woodward’s new book.  LL focuses on the claimt that the reduction of violence in Iraq derives not from the so-called surge, but from, primus inter pares, a targeted assassination program.

That’s part’s been well covered, of course, but LL makes a deeper argument:    such a campaign requires — as Woodward himself implied (see LL’s post for details) — a major technological effort to extract the intelligence needed to track and fix the intended targets.

If so, and I think LL is himself on target here, then this is a genuine success for an approach to war that emphasizes the use of machines, money and smarts instead of our side’s lives to achieve our ends.

It also — and here I’m going past LL’s argument — provides another reason why John McCain would be a terrible choice for commander in chief right now.

That is: by this time I think even the neaderthal wing of the blogosphere would be forced to concede that McCain is not exactly what you would call a technology-savvy indivdual.  I mean, we’re not talking about a mad lack of gaming skillz, or a peculiar lack of interest in Python coding. E-mail, man, e-mail.  This is someone who as of a month or so ago still had to have his staffers explain that he was “aware of the internet.”

I’m so relieved.


Now this stuff got a flurry of attention at the time McCain’s chisel-and-slate approach to modern communications first bubbled to the surface, but Woodward’s story and LL’s gloss point to why this stuff actually matters.

Recall that McCain has famously said that he “knows how to win wars.”

Actually, as this latest story suggests, he does not.

What McCain knows  how to do, at its most charitable, is start wars, and then when they go south, to escalate them in the hopes that enough Americans at risk can correct the errors of the old men who sent the first lot of Americans in harm’s way.

In that McCain is fully embedded in what strategic thinkers now somewhat derisively term “The American Way of War.”

The fact that he has now embraced the simplest end of counter-insurgency and “small-wars” ideas does not correct for the underlying problem that (a) he has no grasp of the historical, political and social context of the conflicts he wants to fight (which is why the “success” of the surge ™ has not actually produced the political outcomes sought, nor the commercial benefits we once sought) as even a few of the more honest of his supporters will now agree….

And that (b): Experience doesn’t help if it’s the wrong experience.

I’m just saying:  you can’t be ready on day one to be Commander in Chief running conflicts in Afghanistan, the Pakistan borderlands, North Korean nukes and all the rest if you can’t send your grandchild a birthday e-mail.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

*reposted because it is (a) right on target and (b) too quantitatively fascinating** not to watch twice.

**40 rods*** to the hogshead is the equivalent of 10.48 feet to the gallon, which may or may not say volumes about McCain’s energy policy.

***It is worth noting (really? –ed.) that a rod is also a pole or a perch.  You heard it here first (or second.)

Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition

July 3, 2008

The running theme of this blog is the importance of being able to count. Genuinely elementary arithmetic, if actually applied, is the foundation of scientific thinking, and scientific thinking is how we arrive, however imperfectly, at reliable guides to experience in the world.

That said, this post is another in my informal series arguing that because John McCain can’t count, can’t take advantage of the tools of analytical thinking, he is unfit to be President. A corollary of the argument I’m about to make is that the latest news out of our multiply mismanaged foreign wars provides independent support for General Wesley Clark’s argument that Senator McCain’s military career has not given him the experience needed by a President.

What’s the news?

This: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, yesterday told reporters that the US military has run out of troops, that it cannot dispatch more units to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise, unless and until the US draws down its forces in Iraq.

What does this have to do with counting, with analytical thinking? Here is John McCain, from his campaign website, on the”success” of what he calls “The McCain Surge” of US troops in Iraq:

Today, our new counterinsurgency campaign is showing signs of success, and John McCain believes we can still prevail in Iraq if Washington politicians exercise resolve not panic.

Remember: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics (a quote attributed to General Omar Bradley).

Leave aside the question of whether or not the surge is working even in its own limited sphere. (There is, sadly, a very strong argument that its primary accomplishment has been to prop up an unpopular, inept, Iranian-leaning government, leading to a decrease in US power, and an increase in that of our primary regional rival. See Michael Massing’s latest from Baghdad for the depressing details.

(As an aside: I don’t usually link to David Brooks, who I regard as a fact-deprived, innumerate writer, but his column of June 24 illustrates the problem of punditry without a grasp of the details. Massing’s on the ground report demonstrates why just about everything Brooks says is wrong in this particularly empty bit of triumphalism. (Find one actual testable claim in it, and I’ll give you a lollipop.)

Back on track: the question isn’t just whether or not the surge can work in a local sense, but whether it does now or ever did make sense in the context of the larger war in which we were and are engaged.

The answer was and is no — because the ground forces at our disposal were insufficient for the task of fighting in Afghanistan at the level of intensity required even before the surge began, and more or less everyone in a responsible position knew it.

The military equivalent of the green-eyeshade folks knew in in 2004, as Sy Hersh documented way back then, that the diversion of resources to Iraq threatened operations in that first theater of engagement — the one that actually hosted those who did us harm on 9/11, the ones whose presence on the border was disrupting a key ally, which also happened to be a genuinely nuclear armed Muslim-majority state.

They certainly knew in late 2006 that John McCain and the rest of the armchair generals, those daring knights of the keyboard (h/t Ted Williams) who called for winning in Iraq by shoving a brigade here and a battalion there, were talking tactics, and ignoring logistics.

At that moment, Afghanistan was already receiving scant attention. The Taliban and its allies were already resurgent. Pakistan was already spiraling into political turmoil. The war we failed to finish was and is now in danger of being lost — and no professional, no one who understood the hard data of what it takes to keep boots on the ground, had any reason to doubt what would follow a further starving of this campaign to pour more resources down the sump of Iraq.

This isn’t higher math; this is arithmetic.

And what of McCain? He has focused his claim on the Presidency on the assertion that he has more experience than his rival, especially in military matters, which is certainly true. But General Clark raised in public the issue that a lot of folks have wondered about for a long time: what is the impact of that experience on McCain’s judgment and decision-making.

Now, Admiral Mullen has given us the sadly obvious answer: not much good. It helps to be able to count.

The half a percent solution follow up: Obama’s Afganistan numbers.

February 22, 2008

By now most of the blogoliterate crowd has probably had a round or two of the argument on a statement by Sen. Obama in last night’s debate. In the context of defending his capacity to serve as Commander in Chief, he pointed to the fact that the decision to go to war in Iraq had specific consequences. For example:

…It has diverted attention from Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001.

I heard from a Army captain, who was the head of a rifle platoon, supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq. And as a consequence, they didn’t have enough ammunition; they didn’t have enough humvees.

They were actually capturing Taliban weapons because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief. Now that’s a consequence of bad judgment, and you know, the question is on the critical issues that we face right now who’s going to show the judgment to lead. And I think that on every critical issue that we’ve seen in foreign policy over the last several years — going into Iraq originally, I didn’t just oppose it for the sake of opposing it. I said this is going to distract us from Afghanistan; this is going to fan the flames of anti- American sentiment; this is going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives and overstretch our military, and I was right.

Senator Obama is here providing a blunt example of the consequences of magical thinking trumping elementary arithmetic. I’ve picked up the current controversy from Philip Carter at Intel Dump and John Cole at Balloon Juice, both of whom (a) confirm Obama’s statement, and, (b) especially in Carter’s case, deepen the critique on the point I’ve tried to raise in this post. That is:

Afghanistan is going badly right now — and has been for a while. But people who read too much of Boys Magazine (or perhaps a stray columnist, straining to bend a dimly remembered, perhaps unread Rudyard Kipling to support his cartoon version of war and the world) still believe that the old school try, pluck, and a handy Predator or two are all it takes to prevail in combat or in so-called Grand Strategy.

But they don’t call it “military science” for nothing. It may be — it is — a highly imperfect discipline. Even so, people who have actually spent time on this stuff, and especially those who (unlike me) have tested what they have learned in the face of the enemy, know that 24 soldiers can’t do the job of 39 on any sustained basis. To succeed in war — or really in just about anything of consequence — you have to be able to look at the data head on. You have to be able to count.

We haven’t seen that faculty much in use at the top levels of our government (or much of the media) for a while. It’s past time we did.

Image: Richard Caton Woodville (The Second) “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.