Heading To Japan

So we’re heading to Japan for a bit on Monday.

Blogging will obviously be low for a few weeks (OK, it’s already been low, I’m hoping my batteries will be recharged when I’m back and it will get better).

We’ll be visiting TG’s family in Tokyo, Hiroshima (go Carps!! – we’ll catch a game while there), Miyashima (and the tram), Okayama and the Musashi museum, Kyoto, the Five Fuji lakes, and back to Tokyo with a possible side trip up to Takayama.

I’m working on a piece on Afghanistan – it’s depressing and so hard to do – tied to the excellent film Restrepo, the McCrystal flap, the Yon/milblogs flap, and On Strategy – to me somehow they all are hanging together in one pattern…if only I can get it down in words.

Meanwhile, as always, be nice to each other and don’t blow anything up while I’m gone.

A Letter From Afghanistan

I don’t think I’ve ever reposted anything BG has written me while he’s been overseas. But he sent this yesterday, and it seems like the kind of thing that ought to be shared. Here are some thoughts from a front-line soldier in Afghanistan:

saw somewhere the government is looking at cutting 1billion in aid to iraq. i also read somewhere that south vietnam didnt really fall until congress stopped sending them money and materiel. what is the point of all this fighting if no one is willing to give support to the countries we tried so hard to build?

In the next week, all of the commentariat will be transfixed by the soap-opera of McCrystal and the Administration and who said and did what to whom. Meanwhile, my son carries a machine gun and his friends get shot and blown up. If we’re not going to act like these countries matter – why should he?

The Associated Press: Troop pullout in Afghanistan set for next summer

From today’s AP feed:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration reaffirmed Sunday that it will begin pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan next summer, despite reservations among top generals that absolute deadlines are a mistake.

President Barack Obama’s chief of staff said an announced plan to begin bringing forces home in July 2011 still holds.

That’s not changing. Everybody agreed on that date,” Rahm Emanuel said, adding by name the top three officials overseeing the policy girding the war: Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.

OK, eff it. Let’s just take our ball and go home.

War, by Sebastian Junger

Kanani, from the Kitchen Dispatch sent me a copy of War almost a month ago.

The book sat on the dining table for a week before I sat down to read it. To be honest I was scared.

Not so much of what the book itself would show – I’ve read a lot about war and talked to a lot of people who have been in them – but because right now I’m a war parent – my son is at war. Today, right now, as I write this about a book about war, he is living it. And one of the ways I have dealt with the fear of it is through rationalizations. It’s just a camping trip, with guns. It’s no more dangerous than me riding my motorcycle, statistically. I box the fear up – the fear that he’ll be killed or wounded, the fear that as I sit here comfortably on my sofa listening to music and writing on my laptop, he might be bleeding somewhere 12,000 miles away and that there is nothing, nothing I can do for him…the fear that he’ll come back with his heart broken. Those fears have been put away, wrapped in my trust of his skills and smarts and luck and character, and I have gone on with my days.

But in truth, there’s a better way to deal with fear and that is simply to take the box off the shelf, open it, and look inside.

So I picked the book up and read it in an afternoon.

And, to be honest, that’s what ‘War’ did for me – it opened the box; more than any of the other books that have come from this war. It didn’t show me how soldiers think of themselves – as ‘Kaboom’ did. It didn’t show me how analysts or strategists think about war. It showed me what I think war would look like if I was standing there.

I’m glad that I read it before seeing the NBC footage.

There are flaws with the book, to be sure. But this is a book about one’s fellows at war; a book in which the writer doesn’t hold himself apart from the solders in his words, but instead lays in the dust with them.

I’ve written – a lot – about the role of journalists in covering our nation, and how wrong it is for them to pretend they can put their citizenship aside and stand among, but not with, our solders as they fight.

Journalists in the past did exactly that – Ernie Pyle and Joseph Galloway.

It’s not too much to ask of our modern journalists, and in my view Junger delivered that. His loudest critic to date dislikes the book and calls Junger a ‘War tourist.’ Well, of course he is; the question is whether that’s pejorative or not. In my mind, it isn’t – by definition any outsider who writes about war (or anything else) is a tourist. And their views are valuable – valuable not in opposition but in conjunction with the views of those inside. No participant can give an honest account of anything; many try and try honorably. But the description of war by a soldier to someone like me – to a nonsoldier – must be incomplete and inaccurate; I can never know war. I will never know what my son knows, I will only know him.

And, in truth, the more I know about war, the better I will know him. And the better all of us will know our sons and daughters and husbands and wives when they finally come home, wrapped in the cloak of a knowledge we will never share.

So thank you, Sebastian Junger, for bringing me closer to my son. Thank you for taking us fellow tourists and bringing us closer to all our soldiers.

Cordesman On Afghanistan

Anthony Cordesman has an important piece up on where we are in Afghanistan today.Shockingly, I disagree with him in many areas. But possibly, just possibly, not in his conclusions.

His piece has seven sections:

The Strategic Importance of Afghanistan and the Case for Staying in the War

Can This Mission Be Successful? Can We Win?

Estimating the Enemy

Deadlines and Expectations

Accepting Afghans as Afghans

The Civil-Military Side of the War

The Reality of Continuing Risk

Let me talk about the first one now, and move through the rest as I have time.

Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain. The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world, and inserting itself into Russia’s “near abroad,” China’s sphere of influence, and India’s ambitions makes no real sense. Geography, demographics, logistics, and economics all favor other nations, and no amount of academic hubris can realistically model American reform of the “Stans” in ways that are cost-effective relative to other uses of US resources.

Well, if you look at spatial geography, that’s absolutely true. But in the world we live in today, geographic geography – spatial geography – is only one of the maps on which we have to operate. We also have to operate in the space of cultural geography, and I wish just once that someone with deep expertise in this area would talk about what Afghanistan means.

The carefully spun good news story about Afghan minerals may or may not prove to be economically realistic. It is all too typical of a long series of “breadbasket” arguments that take problem countries and argue that their natural resources can make them wealthy or that they can become major exporters of agricultural products. In practice, it will be at least half a decade before Afghanistan’s mineral resources will pay off, and the key outside investors are likely to be Chinese, Russian, and local. It is very unlikely that firms can compete without bribes and incentives as the cost of doing business, and even if US registered companies do invest, they are likely to operate as non-US entities in ways than minimize any economic benefits to the US.

I actually wonder if the minerals story isn’t more for internal consumption in Afghanistan – to motivate Karzai and the warlords to think that there may be a pot of gold (or lithium) that they can dip into if only there were stability.

The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability. One should have no illusion about today’s insurgents. The leading cadres are far more international in character, far better linked to Al Qa’ida and other international extremist groups, and much closer tied to extremists in Pakistan. If they “join” an Afghan government while they are still winning (or feel they are winning), they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world.

He’s absolutely right here – and I wish that the balance of this analysis focused more deeply on the linkages he’s delineating and what they mean for our policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Experts disagree sharply about Pakistan’s instability and vulnerability in the face of a US and ISAF defeat in Afghanistan. There is no way to predict how well Pakistan can secure its border and deal with its own Islamic extremists, and Pakistan is both a nuclear state and a far more serious potential source of support to other extremist movements than Afghanistan. A hardline, Deobandi-dominated Pakistan would be a serious strategic threat to the US and its friends and allies, and would sharply increase the risk of another major Indo-Pakistani conflict.

To a certain extent, this is true; at the same time I think that China and India would have a lot to say about it as a regional matter. More important is the fact that any international salafist/islamist movement would now have a wealthy, secure home.

It should be noted, however, that the US may be forced into leaving Afghanistan regardless of its intentions to stay, or face conditions that make any stable form of victory impossible. Containment from the outside may be the only choice, and having to leave Afghanistan does not mean having to abandon Pakistan. Maintaining a major civil and military aid effort to Pakistan, and keeping US capabilities to work with Pakistan in UCAV and other strikes on insurgent networks is also an option. So is working with Russia to support a rebirth of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to pin down the Taliban and other insurgents as much as possible.

That’s absolutely true; we may have wasted the opportunity to ‘make Afghanistan work,’ if one existed. In the overall context of our world (finances) and politics, and most of all, absent any kind of strategic rationale that our leadership can explain to the rest of us, I doubt our ability to sustain our current efforts in Afghanistan. In fact, I don’t doubt them – it’s not going to happen.

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades -regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions about whether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

You know, here he just jumps off the rails. There is no research showing any links at all to any of these issues; the roots of the radical movement we face are philosophical and social and have little if anything to do with population, poverty, decayed infrastructure. Those simply provide failed state ‘playgrounds’ for the radicalized.

The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow “zero base” history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we.

The questions simply is at what cost, and what for.

Beyond that, there is the question of whether we want (because we certainly don’t have) the kind of army – small, unbureaucratic, lethal, bloody-minded – that would be effective in a place like Afghanistan. I doubt, sincerely that we do today.

On Hiatus

Apologies to all for going dark.

I’m currently working with a client on an enterprise project, and they’re not excited about my blogging on related issues. Plus I have no time (shoemaker’s children problem). I’m working on that, and hope to be back online soon.

The Muquama On Journalism – A Must-Read

Abu Mookie (Andrew Exum) has about the best, clearest, explanation of what blogging means to the practice of journalism that I’ve ever seen (and I read most of that stuff):

You want to hasten the end of your industry? Then by all means, keep doing what you’re doing: consider yourself unaccountable and scoff at the blogosphere. Yes, I understand bloggers are changing the newspaper industry in fundamental ways. (Ezra Klein, to use one example, does not blog with the same tradition of objectivity in which the Washington Post’s print journalists report. How that changes the culture of the newsroom, then, is interesting.) But if you think you don’t need to answer to bloggers, some of whom have spent years doing field research or working in Central Asia and now blog as a hobby, the invisible hand of the market is going to find you out. And before you know it, you’ll have taken a buy-out from the New York Times and be teaching creative writing in Maryland. And, let’s face it, probably blogging on the side.

Obama’s Not-Very-Well-Received Gulf Oil Speech

I missed the speech, but have been bouncing around the responses.

Not only does Kevin Drum hate it, but his commenters hate it. That’s not good news for the President.

(note that I don’t object to flaying BP; from the documents out to date, this wasn’t an ‘act of God’ event, but instead an ‘iceberg? what iceberg? we’re drinking here…’ kind of event. They deserve pretty much all the grief they are going to take and then some.)

BP & Obama As Morlocks And Eloi

Instapundit and Althouse pick up the ‘smart kids working with their hands stories’; spinoffs of the trend that ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft‘ talks about.

Being me, I think there’s something deeper there. I’m watching both the emerging history of the BP disaster and Obama’s reaction to it with a kind of sick feeling. Thinking about it I realize that this situation – the disastrous performance by a major corporation and the equally disastrous performance by a politician neatly sums up a lot of what I think is wrong with our country and begins to align my compass on what we have to do better – something that makes these degreed artisans a hopeful sign..

It’s the simple matter of the growing disconnect between talking about stuff and actually doing stuff. Note that it’s not just ‘talking’ and ‘doing’; the greatness of the post-Enlightenment West is largely attributed to ‘talking about stuff’ effectively – which let us organize larger and larger groups of people to do bigger and bigger things, and also let smaller and smaller groups do cooler and cooler things. But that effectiveness – that ability to tie words to actions and to the stuff acted on – has seemed to be eroding lately.

We’re becoming a kind of cargo cult nation, swept up in the amazing power of words and brands and theoretical icons, and forgetting that at some level, in some place, those have to take root in the world where you can’t talk your way out of problems, and where people with dirty hands have to actually move the stuff of the world.

We’re becoming Eloi and Morlocks, and as the Eloi become more and more powerful, either the Morlocks get shoved aside, or they, themselves give up and try to live in the world of ethereal things where a well-turned phrase is more valuable than the basic engineering skill needed to drill a hole.

Because, at root, we’re somehow forgetting that the basis of our lives is at some level to drill holes in things (and shape things and make things); we’ve been seduced by the power of making things out of words (software) and forgotten how important the ‘stuff’ of our lives really is. I think there’s a discipline there that keeps all the other things in check (the discipline of stuff) and one of the things that happens to the very rich and very powerful is they get shielded from it to a large extent. Maybe that’s why Lady Di didn’t think it was necessary to wear a seatbelt; when you’ve spent your hole life surrounded by people who bend stuff into whatever you want, the fundamental realities get pretty hazy.

As a nation, we’ve let them get pretty hazy. We made crap cars, and destroyed our industrial base. Now it looks like we’ve drilled a crap well – and had crap plans to deal with the inevitable disasters. Maybe in a generation, when we have smart kids who have become mature artisans again, we can recover.