A Sunday summary

Lots of things have been piling up and I’m still plowing through some work and errands to run today — then the next two days will be pretty heavy at work before I fly out for Terrastock on Wednesday. I’ll be doing some sort of blogging on the road, more on that later, just maybe not as actively!

So for now, some quick thoughts and a couple of links:

  • It is perhaps perversely appropriate that as we move into the final months of the current presidency the battleground where it all started following 9/11, Afghanistan, now proves itself to be on shaky ground once more. Complaining about how it seems the US has given up trying to find Osama bin Laden ignores the history of the region — the whole point is that it is easy to hide there, after all, and any student of past occupations of the area over the centuries can be summed up as ‘thin veneer of control in the cities, a lot more up in the air anywhere else.’ And we see it again, and only the historically blind should be surprised.
  • Meanwhile, Iraq. To repeat a point once more — wanting there to be more chaos and death means to be a fool, so I’m certainly pleased as punch that things are relatively calmer. And yet:

    The announcement came as Iraqi officials deployed tens of thousands of security forces across southern Iraq in response to the creation of the new Sadr group. The new secret paramilitary wing, which Sadr called “the special companies,” might start launching attacks within the next week, his aides said.

    In the holy city of Najaf, officials said 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers were being put on high alert and deployed to protect the Imam Ali shrine and the grand ayatollahs. They said an additional 17,000 security forces were deployed in and around the nearby holy city of Karbala.

    And in the eastern city of Amarah, a stronghold of the Sadr movement, Iraqi forces massed in preparation for an operation against Shiite militiamen. U.S. officials have said Amarah, the oil-rich capital of Maysan province, is used as a center for smuggling weapons from Iran.

    Speaking about provincial elections, which are scheduled for this fall, aides to Sadr said the movement would support “technocrats and independent politicians” to prevent rival political parties from dominating local governments. But they said the movement would not put forward its own candidates.

    That ain’t stable. Combined with Maliki essentially saying ‘Would the US kindly stop thinking that theirs is the only wishes which should be heeded’ and the next few months will be interesting — in a very sad way, I suspect. We can but wait.

  • I have written bad headlines before. (I’ve written much more bad stuff than merely headlines.) But whoever came up for the headline for this NY Times story on a band I am sublimely indifferent towards, My Morning Jacket — “Out of the Comfort Zone, Into the Wild Rock Yonder” — deserves derision. That ranks up there with the instantly-moronic term ‘y’allternative’ from however long ago now.
  • Finally, a bit in this story about the imminent start to gay marriage in California on Tuesday that I think sums things up very well:

    “Straight people enter into dating and courtship with marriage always out there as a possibility throughout the relationship,” he said. “It wasn’t even a possibility for us, and then all of a sudden there’s this looming question: Do we want to get married? It’s this whole new commitment I hadn’t really thought about.”

    For gay couples, he said, the decision carries pressure to act quickly, since marriage will no longer be an option if a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passes in November.

    “I think this whole marriage thing is causing more anxiety and fights among gay couples than anything has before,” he said.

    It’s a new frontier for a lot of folks. I still remember the words of an old roommate of mine in college, Steve, who was the first openly gay member of ASUCLA and who looked forward to the day when something like this might happen. I suspect he’s both thrilled and maybe a little surprised right about now, wherever he’s at. Hope he’s well.

A question for uncritical war supporters

Just, in general. Merely a quick observation.

Now, let’s say, oh, I don’t know, that as part of supplying arms to folks theoretically aligned with us over in Afghanistan we let this sort of thing happen:

With the award last January of a federal contract worth as much as nearly $300 million, the company, AEY Inc., which operates out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach, became the main supplier of munitions to Afghanistan’s army and police forces.

Since then, the company has provided ammunition that is more than 40 years old and in decomposing packaging, according to an examination of the munitions by The New York Times and interviews with American and Afghan officials. Much of the ammunition comes from the aging stockpiles of the old Communist bloc, including stockpiles that the State Department and NATO have determined to be unreliable and obsolete, and have spent millions of dollars to have destroyed.

In purchasing munitions, the contractor has also worked with middlemen and a shell company on a federal list of entities suspected of illegal arms trafficking.

Moreover, tens of millions of the rifle and machine-gun cartridges were manufactured in China, making their procurement a possible violation of American law. The company’s president, Efraim E. Diveroli, was also secretly recorded in a conversation that suggested corruption in his company’s purchase of more than 100 million aging rounds in Albania, according to audio files of the conversation.

This week, after repeated inquiries about AEY’s performance by The Times, the Army suspended the company from any future federal contracting, citing shipments of Chinese ammunition and claiming that Mr. Diveroli misled the Army by saying the munitions were Hungarian.

And you can read all sorts of details from there.

Now, there’s plenty to be said about how perfection is impossible and all that. That something as involved and as large as the military might involve waste and corruption is not exactly a new scenario. So it’s not a question of this having occurred, that’s no surprise.

However, this was reported via an outlet of that dreaded mass media, the one that a lot of people have taken more than a few pot shots at over the moons, and sometimes quite justifiably — thus my link in the previous post to this one to the tale of a guy who, rather like our non-hero in this piece, came from Florida, dreamed big and apparently thought the law was for others. In James Sabiatino’s case, a lot of hip-hop names were pissed off and the LA Times look like goofs.

In this case, though, the goofs appear to be the Army and the government and…are people dead because of this? Is trust now eroded? A hoped for mission not coming off quite as planned? (Of course, I could apply that to the last couple of days in Iraq too, but that’s for another time.)

Ask yourself a bit — isn’t this a matter of national security and international peace, as the current administration has so often claimed? Therefore, theoretically, this kind of stuff should be looked into with an eagle eye at all times — it couldn’t take the prompting of the outside press to expose an error, or even a potential disaster, like this, could it?


To those who seem to think that the NY Times, or any other mass media outlet, consists solely of supposed traitors rather than, say, humans, flawed like the rest of us, who sometimes make mistakes and other time hit bullseyes: Going to blame the messenger again this time? Going to ask yourself what else is being missed? Going to ask for some actual accountability down the line on this and other matters no matter who is in the White House or who oversees the military, in the executive branch, in the legislative?

Or would it always be the case that because the ‘right’ people are in charge, everything’s being handled just fine, while the ‘wrong’ people would clearly let everything go to hell?

Just curious. Thinking out loud. A minor point, an obvious point, but one to note.

Meantime, you can always check out this dude’s Myspace page, for now at least:


Indeed. The world ain’t yours, pal.

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Fallon was canned over Iran…or was he?

So as I mentioned yesterday, Rear Admiral William Fallon has retired rather precipitously from the Navy, leaving the key office overseeing Central Command vacant. Immediate speculation was that it had to do with a story last week via Esquire, containing such bits as:

Army General David Petraeus, commanding America’s forces in Iraq, may say, “You cannot win in Iraq solely in Iraq,” but Fox Fallon is Petraeus’s boss, and he is the commander of United States Central Command, and Fallon doesn’t extend Petraeus’s logic to mean war against Iran.

So while Admiral Fallon’s boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century’s Hitler (a crown it has awarded once before, to deadly effect), it’s left to Fallon–and apparently Fallon alone–to argue that, as he told Al Jazeera last fall: “This constant drumbeat of conflict . . . is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions.”

What America needs, Fallon says, is a “combination of strength and willingness to engage.”

Those are fighting words to your average neocon–not to mention your average supporter of Israel, a good many of whom in Washington seem never to have served a minute in uniform. But utter those words for print and you can easily find yourself defending your indifference to “nuclear holocaust.”

How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?

The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer.

And so, logically, the assumption is that this was a step too far — whether from the point of view the article suggests (that Fallon was inevitably for the chop) or that he rubbed up against a core tent of the American government as designed and evolved, namely that the military is subordinate to but separate from the government. Speculation’s centered on the former point most of all, but the author of the Esquire article, Thomas P. M. Barnett, had this to say in response:

I don’t have any comment on it.

I reported the story as I found it, because I thought it was crucial for readers to understand this officer and his thinking within the context of his incredibly important and high-profile position.

As readers of my blog know, I have expressed a lot of admiration for the admiral over the years. In my 18 years of working for and with military commands, I have met few with the same capacity for strategic vision. I wish him well on whatever he chooses to do next.

I was thinking about all this a bit idly last night but this morning I received an interesting surprise in my inbox via a mailout from Stratfor. Taking the view that Central Command does, after all, cover a lot of ground, they suggest that rather than thinking about Iran, attention should be directed elsewhere. To quote the beginning and conclusion of the piece:

With two wars under way and a crisis looming in the Levant, Fallon either resigned in protest or was forced out. The question is why.

The reason is not Iraq, where responsibility and accountability have been shifted squarely to Gen. David Petraeus. Our eyes fall upon the great failure of Fallon’s tenure and the far eastern reaches of his area of responsibility: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fallon’s role is largely irrelevant. The underlying issues of Afghanistan and Pakistan predate his tenure. However, the situations in the two countries deteriorated under his supervision.

Stratfor’s strategic perspective does not often fall to individuals; we see larger forces at work in the world. Fallon did not matter. But the empty seat at CENTCOM is likely to be an exception. Not simply because it is one of the most crucial posts in the U.S. military today, but because of the shift in focus Fallon’s removal entails and especially because of the two individuals at the top of the list to replace him: Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and Petraeus himself.

Petraeus was one of the architects of the “surge” strategy and has overseen its successes thus far. He was also a principal force behind the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual. Mattis is something of a legend in the Marines. Not only did he lead Task Force 58 into Afghanistan in 2001, he commanded the 1st Marine Division in Iraq and later the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during the surge. Petraeus and Mattis worked closely on the new counterinsurgency manual.

The appointment of either man to the top post at CENTCOM has serious implications for the conduct of operations in Afghanistan and the situation in Pakistan. No two contenders for the job are more likely to forgo the current stalemate in Afghanistan and come at the problem with renewed intensity. Indeed, it is the first real telling potential shift in the command of Afghan operations, perhaps since 2001. And neither contender is likely to sit by and let Pakistan continue to simmer, either.

All of which is, to a relative dabbler in these affairs like myself, more than a little suggestive. Iran, notably, isn’t mentioned at all in Stratfor’s piece, which ties in a little bit to a long-running belief I’ve had regarding Iran and the US that both sides are engaged in an huge battle of bluff that goes nowhere, and will go nowhere. (Based on the past few years, both governments play to their most jingoistic supporters via statements and threats regarding the other and then hunker down and hope nothing much will happen on a concrete scale.)

Stratfor’s instant analysis is just that, but assuming either of the two possible replacements mentioned is appointed, things could get…interesting. In lieu of the recent Pakistani elections, where a coalition government is trying to gel but where a couple of suicide bombings just took place, one wonders what the next few months will bring — and how, ultimately, it will all play in to our own elections.

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Stratfor on Afghanistan (and a bit on Stratfor)

I’ll introduce this post by talking a bit about Stratfor, short for Strategic Forecasting — a private think tank/global security analysis outfit founded and run by George Friedman, a policy wonk in the grand mode. I first heard about them shortly after 9/11, when Chris Barrus pointed them out in the welter of discussion which understandably overwhelmed ILX. Friedman, a self-described conservative Republican, is far from the only voice and site examining global security and the state of the world, public or private, but it’s easy to see why he’s received the attention he has.

While it should be said that the site’s claim that there’s no ‘ideology, a partisan agenda, or a policy prescription’ might be slightly overstated (overt ideology, true, but there’s an unspoken one), Friedman and his Stratfor writers and analysts aim for discussion in as cold a way as possible — not entirely dispassionate, but not arguing ideology either. Rather, this is strategic shop talk on a grand scale, for those who love power politics, amorality and Machiavelli. That may sound extreme, but as much as I do have my own beliefs and deeply held convictions — on capital punishment, torture, individual freedom and so forth — I have a fascination with Realpolitik as it is (often badly) carried out. It’s not that I want to be someone involved with it all, rather that I prefer to try and look at things as coldly as I can in turn. It appeals to a certain part of me that is…not inhuman, I would say, but self-consciously removed.

I remember during 9/11 that I was thinking and discussing in as flat a way as possible as the circumstances allowed (the first couple of hours were rough in that there was a possibility a friend had been caught in the towers; happily he had not gone into work yet that day). Given all the folderol since, that cold flatness has its place more than I might have appreciated before then, and so while I’m not a full subscriber to Stratfor, I appreciate being on the random mailout list and look forward to what I call their ‘tea leaf reading’ — because that’s what they do best, see what can be seen and concluding and speculate, without absolute guarantee of what will happen next, what is likely going on around the world.

Anyway, their latest mailing is on the situation in Afghanistan, and I’ll excerpt a brief bit here to call to your attention. The longer war and battles draw out over there, the more I wonder what the end result will be. Emphasis, towards the end, is mine:

Supporters of the war in Iraq support the war in Afghanistan. Opponents of the war in Iraq also support Afghanistan. If there is a good war in our time, Afghanistan is it.

It is also a war that is in trouble. In the eyes of many, one of the Afghan war’s virtues has been that NATO has participated as an entity. But NATO has come under heavy criticism from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for its performance. Some, like the Canadians, are threatening to withdraw their troops if other alliance members do not contribute more heavily to the mission. More important, the Taliban have been fighting an effective and intensive insurgency. Further complicating the situation, the roots of many of the military and political issues in Afghanistan are found across the border in Pakistan.

If the endgame in Iraq is murky, the endgame if Afghanistan is invisible. The United States, its allies and the Kabul government are fighting a holding action strategically. They do not have the force to destroy the Taliban — and in counterinsurgency, the longer the insurgents maintain their operational capability, the more likely they are to win. Further stiffening the Taliban resolve is the fact that, while insurgents have nowhere to go, foreigners can always decide to go home.

The real issue is the hardest to determine. Is al Qaeda prime — not al Qaeda enthusiasts or sympathizers who are able to carry out local suicide bombings, but the capable covert operatives we saw on 9/11 — still operational? And even if it is degraded, given enough time, will al Qaeda be able to regroup and ramp up its operational capability? If so, then the United States must maintain its posture in Afghanistan, as limited and unbalanced as it is. The United States might even need to consider extending the war to Pakistan in an attempt to seal the border if the Taliban continue to strengthen. But if al Qaeda is not operational, then the rationale for guarding Kabul and Karzai becomes questionable.

We have no way of determining whether al Qaeda remains operational; we are not sure anyone can assess that with certainty. Certainly, we have not seen significant operations for a long time, and U.S. covert capabilities should have been able to weaken al Qaeda over the past seven years. But if al Qaeda remains active, capable and in northwestern Pakistan, then the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will continue.

As the situation in Iraq settles down — and it appears to be doing so — more focus will be drawn to Afghanistan, the war that even opponents of Iraq have acknowledged as appropriate and important. But it is important to understand what this war consists of: It is a holding action against an enemy that cannot be defeated (absent greater force than is available) with open lines of supply into a country allied with the United States. It is a holding action waiting for certain knowledge of the status of al Qaeda, knowledge that likely will not come. Afghanistan is a war without exit and a war without victory. The politics are impenetrable, and it is even difficult to figure out whether allies like Pakistan are intending to help or are capable of helping.

Thus, while it may be a better war than Iraq in some sense, it is not a war that can be won or even ended. It just goes on.

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Shell games

Let’s assume this story pretty much captures the truth of a current discussion.

The key part:

Military officials say the Marine proposal is also an early indication of jockeying among the four armed services for a place in combat missions in years to come. “At the end of the day, this could be decided by parochialism, and making sure each service does not lose equity, as much as on how best to manage the risk of force levels for Iraq and Afghanistan,” said one Pentagon planner.

Tensions over how to divide future budgets have begun to resurface across the military because of apprehension that Congressional support for large increases in defense spending seen since the Sept. 11 attacks will diminish, leaving the services to compete for money.

Those traditional turf battles have subsided somewhat given the overwhelming demands of waging two simultaneous wars — and because Pentagon budgets reached new heights.

To say I have little faith in how well this will be handled is an understatement. To say why would take a while. If I had to summarize, though — if one combines ‘jockeying’ (always a fun thing to see happen when people are dying, y’see), budget concerns in a time of looming economic pressure and the general belief that things are an agglomerated mess with the functioning of an organization as large as the US military in the best of times, the end result just makes me want to look at a clock and speed up time. I may be closer as a result to my inevitable departure from this curious world by whatever path that happens, but at least I wouldn’t have to wait around for a collapse or two.