Budgeting NATO’s Future.

Michael A. Innes | 19 November 2010.

The NATO summit currently underway in Lisbon will set in motion a train of events pinned to a handover of responsibility to Afghan forces and phased withdrawal over the next few years. The mission will be less than a success, but it will be brought to a “successful conclusion” – using the same flat, inglorious euphemism previously used to describe the termination of NATO operations in the Balkans in 2003 and 2004.

Getting to that point in Afghanistan, however, will require a bit more work. Casting a long shadow over all of it is NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s plan for radical spending cuts to NATO, to be announced today. The plans include the reduction of military officers assigned to its strategic headquarters from 13,000 to 9,000, cutting some of its European headquarters entirely, and the elimination of 11 of NATO’s 14 support agencies. Afghanistan has placed enormous strains on the Alliance, but they pale in significance compared to such extensive cuts.

The spending cuts proposal may simply be meant as a wake up call, the sort of negotiating tactic intended to wring resources from the tightfisted clutches of Alliance members. But if it is real — the general harsh mood on spending issues suggest it is — and if NATO manages to get the plan through the maze of national interests that invariably mutate such efforts, then it will raise serious questions about future Alliance capacity to manage current operations, much less accommodate new member states.

Eviscerating NATO’s ‘Peacetime Establishment’ — its collection of static headquarters in Europe — is probably a good thing. There is enormous waste, and the pace and priorities of entrenched bureaucracies rarely translate well to pressing operational requirements. There is, however, a substantial risk that what remains will be neither effective nor desirable. Such pruning exercises are old hat within NATO. It has gone through two in the last six years — expanding, contracting and redistributing itself throughout Europe and North America (let’s not forget the relatively recent creation of Allied Command Transformation, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia). When scrutinized carefully, the results look and function less like the paper plans they start with and more like peculiar, idiosyncratic, and inefficient workarounds.

If NATO’s command structure can’t be redesigned from scratch, then simply gutting it into passivity and irrelevance might not be a bad second option. But there is another risk. NATO, for all its internal incoherence and bloat, is unique among security institutions. It represents a long-term coordination capability, the value of which has often been lost on those only superficially familiar with the organization, or on those newly assigned to it and caught up in the thrill and immediacy of operations. One hopes that the member states will be more cautious and measured in their deliberations on the future of the Alliance. Such a bold move on spending will constrain capabilities, and with them the character of the organization. That’s a good thing, but only if it’s done right — and only if what remains can effectively support deployed forces in Afghanistan.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel  on 19 November 2010. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/11/19/budgeting-natos-future/

COIN Confusion.

Michael A. Innes | 6 May 2010.

The ongoing discussion of the attempted Times Square bombing in New York has been unsurprisingly colorful. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invoked the old saying that terrorists only need to be lucky once, while their opponents need to be lucky every time — and this time, we were “very lucky.” The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait and former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Michael Sheehan noted the incompetence of most plotters: Chait with the memorable assertion “terrorists are basically dolts,” Sheehan suggesting that “lone wolves” are generally “as incompetent as they are disturbed.”

Luck and incompetence are interesting concepts, especially hard on the heels of al Qaeda’s failed underpants bomber, but they’re hardly substitutes for good counterterrorism planning. Indeed, for Sheehan, chance favors the prepared. He lauded the NYPD for its counterterrorism acumen: “No other city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished,” he wrote, conceding that “money and political risk” limit how far most cities can go when it comes to preventing what, at the end of the day, is a marginal phenomenon. But there are some obvious limits to the logic of Sheehan’s point, and as the investigation into the attack deepens and more of Faisal Shahzad’s suspected terrorist associates are rounded up inside and outside the United States, things start to get murky.

Case in point: the debate, early in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s tour as top commander in Afghanistan, over whether violence in Afghanistan is best addressed using counterterrorism (CT) or counterinsurgency (COIN) methods. Last fall, when the Obama White House was trying to decide how best to proceed in the region, pundits and policymakers alike were positively animated over the two and how they might be combined to mitigate the twinned challenges of al Qaeda and Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden pushed for a “counterterrorism plus” option, and Obama “dithered,” finally settling on a compromise plan, the principal rationale of which was to neutralize al Qaeda. Michael J. Boyle, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, provides a highly readable account of the deliberations in a recent issue of the journal International Affairs. The title says it all: “Do Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Go Together?”

Boyle’s article is behind a pay wall, but it’s worth a close read. He argues that “the conflation of these two models of warfare stems from an ‘intellectual error’ predicated on the assumption that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are a fused threat, and fused threats require ‘joint or blended’ CT and COIN measures. Given their inherent differences, they aren’t necessarily mutually reinforcing or even compatible.” The costs, Boyle indicates, are high: combined CT-COIN operations require an investment of blood, treasure, and attention that’s politically distracting and exhausting; operationally, they lead to “popular backlash,” “countermobilization of enemy networks,” a “legitimacy gap,” and “diminished leverage.” The main take-away of the piece is that CT and COIN are now hopelessly muddled policy concepts, the former essentially collapsed into the latter — “global insurgency and counterinsurgency” essentially obsolete metaphors for how we wage multiple “wars,” multiple ways, in multiple locations.

The issues that shape domestic and foreign policy often play off each other, but they’re also distinct beasts. Part of the problem is the language we use to describe what we do. That’s not just about how we articulate ideas, some of which become policy; it’s also about how they then translate to real-world costs and consequences. In New York, the issue is terrorism and how best to focus intelligence, law enforcement, and prosecution to deal with perpetrators. Those issues are often mired in partisan debates about security, freedom, and the nature of democracy, but they’re also clear-eyed compared with foreign-policy discussions about South Asia. As evidence mounts of a Pakistani Taliban role in last weekend’s Times Square event, it may become increasingly difficult to remember that messing about in someone else’s backyard might not be the wisest approach to protecting our own.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel  on 6 May 2010.  URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/05/06/coin-confusion/

A New Command Structure in Afghanistan.

Michael A. Innes | 18 March 2010.

NATO operations are notorious among the personnel assigned to them for their internal incoherence. Overhanging byzantine structures and layers are the Alliance’s organizational hallmarks, compounded by the usual array of local dysfunctions: variable staff language skills, high turnover rates, untrained personnel assigned to jobs they’re not qualified to perform, lowest common denominator politics, continually changing political goals, and resources under a perpetual state of review or flux. That’s not to suggest that NATO is any different from other, similarly sprawling bureaucratic creatures — but in a world of guns, bombs, and civilian casualties, those qualities all too frequently channel assumptions about who does what, how, and why — and how well and how badly they do it.

Military staff who find themselves in the singularly challenging position of having to coordinate multinational personnel and units in field operations will sometimes quietly curse their assignments, longing for the day — usually only a few months down the road anyway — when they can return home, to glory in the simplicity and clarity of their respective national systems.  Every once in a while, though, they catch a glimpse of sanity and order: a senior staff officer owns an initiative and sees it through to fruition before leaving, or slices through bureaucratic inertia to force change, like top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, or manages to achieve consensus on an issue of contention among Allies.

Despite all the cynicism, change, as the old saying goes, also provides the illusion of progress, and nothing spells relief quite like a good old-fashioned shuffling of the decks. Most U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to statements made earlier this week, are to be formally placed under NATO command. That’s about 20,000 troops — the bulk of Operation Enduring Freedom (a non-NATO mission) minus a unit of prison guards and some Special Forces elements. The move doesn’t appear to change much, given that McChrystal already commands both missions. According to spokesman Vice Admiral Greg Smith, “It’s just a matter of moving things from one account in the ledger to another.”

Smith denied that the move was about imposing tighter controls on Special Forces operations, but the New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel and Rod Nordland suggest in their own reporting that that’s exactly what this reorganization about. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan have come under increased public scrutiny over allegations that their actions have resulted in unnecessary civilian casualties. McChrystal has already placed a premium on protecting the population and minimizing non-combatant deaths, taking steps — including curbing the use of airpower in support of combat operations — to ensure that civilian casualties become a thing of the past. McChrystal, according to sources cited in the NYT report, has agonized over continued civilian deaths, and remains committed to preventing more from happening.

So while the new unified command structure is consistent with McChrystal’s prior efforts to bring various capabilities under a centralized command, it also has the knock-on effect of imposing control on elements , like SF and airpower, whose difficult missions sometimes result in mistakes — thereby generating additional costs to the mission in terms of loss of credibility and local good will. The larger question is whether it will work: restructuring might make for cleaner organizational lines, but will it make for more streamlined and effective communications? One doesn’t necessarily equal the other. According to Smith, “We clearly need unity of command so that elements on the battlefield are not working at cross-purposes with each other.”

NATO’s high command and men on the battlefield breathe completely different air, however, even in the “high-speed, low-drag” universe that McChrystal is seeking to cultivate. NATO is complex, and Afghanistan is immense; disconnects will persist between headquarters and units. More, most of the forces being reassigned to the NATO mission are American. So it’s a little unclear whether this is just meant to improve McChrystal’s control over forces he already commands, or to streamline administrative and communication channels between the U.S. and everyone else in ISAF. Ideally, both will happen, and all will be well. In theory, NATO and its missions provide “interoperability frameworks,” umbrellas of common standards and resources that enable different nations to work together. In practice, though, the mechanisms are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Ultimately, NATO’s greatest strength is simply presence — its ability to endure over the long term — not the minutiae of individual commanders’ decisions or the tactical details of specific operations. A more consolidated mission speaks well to that strength.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel  on 18 March 2010. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/03/18/a-new-command-structure-in-afghanistan/

The War of Leaks.

Michael A. Innes | 17 November 2009.

The Obama Administration’s social media prowess has been a novelty among latter day political media machines. It helped to crowd-source the campaign funding needed to put Barack Obama in the White House, and generated a populist gloss that was, at the time, convincingly fresh and transparent. What was equally admirable was its apparent internal discipline over when information made the transition from government secret to press release. Controlling the flow of data and keeping secrets secret is a challenge under any circumstance. Combine that with a predilection for Facebook and Twitter, and a hyperactive security officer might expect policy waters to muddy more quickly than they would under normal circumstances.

So when U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry’s expressed his “discomfort” last week over a possible troop surge, via diplomatic cable to Washington, it’s no wonder that the message ended up dominating headlines. The New York Times reported “U.S. Envoy Urges Caution on Forces for Afghanistan.” The BBC offered a characteristically staid “U.S. Envoy Opposed to Afghan Surge.” The other Times (of London) headline was less sanguine: “Rift in U.S. War Cabinet as Obama Throws Out All Options in Debate Over Troop Surge.” How exactly the cables ended up fodder for public consumption is anyone’s guess. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is not amused. “I have been appalled,” he told reporters last week, “by the amount of leaking that has been going on in this process” — an allusion to diplomatic decorum inspired, no doubt, by more than just untimely revelations to the press.

If recent events are any indication, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Administration is hemorrhaging while its chief executive dithers. In September, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top general in Afghanistan and Commander of NATO’s ISAF mission in the country, advocated his proposed troop surge in public. He did it on his own, speaking out of turn while decisions were still being made, and got rapped on the knuckles for it. In late October, Matthew Hoh, a 36 year old State Department official serving as Senior Civilian Representative in Zabul Province, resigned in protest over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. His letter of resignation, later published by the Washington Post, caused a stir.

It would be naive to suggest that Hoh may have inspired others — like Eikenberry, his former boss in Afghanistan, whose more recent act of dissension has both ruffled feathers and acted as a counterweight to military lobbying. Moreover, according to an in-depth profile of Gates in The New Republic last week the Secretary, normally a font of composure, has been no stranger to the game in his long career as a CIA intelligence analyst and civil servant. Now, he thinks “everyone out there ought to just shut up.” The BBC reported that Eikenberry’s tactics have left McChrystal fuming, and an unnamed “senior NATO official” told the Financial Times “it’s safe to say that Ambassador Eikenberry and Stanley McChrystal will not be exchanging Christmas cards this year.”

Whatever the state of intra-departmental relations, the “war of leaks” doesn’t play well on the international stage. Fellow FP columnist David Rothkopf put it into context, writing that “This is not a weakness of the Obama Administration per se,” but more a symptom of the “culture of Washington.” David Betz, a friend, colleague and Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, took the criticism in a slightly different direction, writing “this may, one day, make a really great movie… but it’s a pretty dismal way to make strategy.” Indeed, while the U.S. has yet to make up its mind on Afghanistan, NATO has already endorsed McChrystal’s plans. That suggests there may be some additional discomfort ahead, either for the Alliance, which will have to go through yet more bureaucratic deliberations in the event of any major change of approach — even if only to rubber stamp it — or for U.S. leadership in Afghanistan, which will have to shoulder the burden of implementation.

Non-U.S. contributors to the NATO mission will be affected either way the shoe drops, and public support for the war among some of the Alliance’s European members is anything but unified. Worse, diplomatic efforts to smooth out the appearance of difference are unconvincing. In an interview last week, for example, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon told Der Spiegel that “restoring the unity of the Atlantic Alliance is an important thing that in some ways has already been accomplished. On the key issues of the day, I think there is more trans-Atlantic unity than at almost anytime in the post-World War II period.” One assumes that the key issue of the day is Afghanistan; if so, Gordon’s assertion is only true if he meant that we can agree to disagree.

In the U.K. a small majority of respondents in a recent BBC poll felt that they “have a good understanding of the purpose of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan,” but that “All British forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan as quickly as possible,” “the war is unwinnable,” and “the levels of corruption involved in the recent Presidential election show the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting for.” In a separate Financial Times/Harris Poll, respondents in Spain, Italy, France and Germany were generally split on whether the U.S. should send more troops, were somewhat more positively inclined towards giving NATO more time to accomplish its mission, and in the U.K., were distinctly pessimistic about whether troops are adequately equipped for the task. Numbers never tell the whole tale, but one thing is certain: the longer U.S. leadership waffles and stumbles, the greater the likelihood that that kind of pessimism will come to replace indecision as our strategy in Afghanistan.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel  on 17 November 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/17/the-war-of-leaks/

Nearly Anywhere Terrorists Operate.

Michael A. Innes | 9 November 2009.

If the Obama Administration is serious about Afghanistan, it should leave NATO out of the equation. The organization has survived a Cold War, genocide in the Balkans, piracy off the horn of Africa, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, WMD proliferation, transnational terrorism, and cyberwar. It has been called the “most successful Alliance in history,” though that success has been achieved through a combination of dogged persistence and bureaucratic dysfunction — a form of longevity and presence earned not through glorious battlefield victories, but rather arrived at on the cusp of consensus. Its lowest-common denominator politics have meant that the organization has been well positioned to withstand the tests of time, though they have been honoured in the breach more often than in the observance. Until Afghanistan.

NATO staff officers sometimes joke of its involvement in out-of-area operations, suggesting that the erstwhile “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” might as well be rebranded “Nearly Anywhere Terrorists Operate”; standing in the way of operational effectiveness, others quip, is the fact that in the absence of a diplomatic and military hive-mind, its (now) 28 member states are “Not Able To Organize”. In the nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War, it has embraced, through its Strategic Concept, a veritable smorgasbord of threats. Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer memorably spoke to problems of “global security” in the post-911 world — an opportunity not lost on some empire-building bureaucrats within NATO’s convoluted chain of command to shore up fiefdoms and justify bloated budgets dedicated to short-term deliverables, measurable successes, and career-enhancing outcomes.

Many of those same staff officers, bequeathed with limited resources, equipped with even less patience, and facing innumerable obstacles to internal cooperation, have only too readily rolled their eyes at such chicanery. They mutter “ahhhh, NATO…” knowingly to one another, shrug, and continue on their merry way… all the while failing to acknowledge that the organization’s dysfunctions are nothing if not a composite of their own national and individual shortcomings. The most potent threat to the Alliance has more often than not been the national interests of its own member states and their representatives. The greatest evidence of this is the fact that there are very few individuals who ever actually work for NATO. Most are simply assigned to it for a few short months or years, and the national flags pinned to their uniformed shoulders or tailored lapels remain firmly affixed for the duration.

NATO’s own civil servants, however — ensconced in protected, well-paid, tax-exempt posts — hardly compensate for those divided loyalties. The trench-level view is that the REMFs and Fobbits in Brussels and The Hague are out of touch with the realities of the Afghan war. People sitting in offices argue that the gunfighters couldn’t plan their way out of a wet paper bag. And so it is with NATO: a schismatic, schizophrenic beast torn between national and institutional interests, between the NATO of soldiers and civilians, of diplomacy and battle, of bankers’ hours and IED strikes, of the immediacy of Afghanistan and the more ponderous bureaucratic requirements of future security cooperation. NATO is what its member states want it to be and allow it to become. They rightly demand value-added for their commitments of cash, materiel, and personnel — but only insofar as what in turn emerges from the NATO machine does not interfere with or supersede state interests.

This is both the promise and the price of a regional security organization that has endured for sixty years. The Alliance, however, has also shifted increasingly from a political-military club convened in the interest of collective self-defense, to an all-purpose surrogate for other organizations — including its own member states — unwilling to deal with or incapable of resolving the problems that are their remit. NATO was not meant for either the peacekeeping of the 1990s or the counterinsurgency dilemmas of Afghanistan. It is capable of awesome might, a war-fighting machine in the traditional sense of the term, and excels as a diplomatically empowered platform for destroying threats to the collective good. It is, however, ill-suited to the vicissitudes of nation building, with all the long-term occupation, reconstruction, development, and policing projects that that entails.

Gone are the days when NATO had the luxury to indulge in extracurriculars, as it did and continues to do in the post-war Balkans. In Afghanistan, where troops fight and die as a matter of course, there is neither patience nor justification for such experiments. The member states have never been unified on the country’s strategic significance, and very few of them believe Afghan soil and stability is worth the blood and treasure expended on it. That is their right. Let the nations, whose prerogative it is to do what they will, play with the intricacies and challenges of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. They can do this on the basis of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral cooperation — forms of which, indeed, have already been exercised among NATO’s Scandinavian and English-speaking countries and their non-NATO allies.

The U.S. in particular, as NATO’s largest contributor, should exercise greater caution and restraint in the demands it places on the organization and its members. Leveraging the institution for the patina of multilateralism that it affords its members comes at a cost in good relations between them, erodes their capacity to live up to their original obligations, promotes unrealistic expectations of NATO’s capacity for irregular warfare, and frays the bonds that have held the Alliance together for so long. Failure in Afghanistan, should it come to that, will be treated as NATO’s failure. Surely the Alliance, for all its limitations, is worth more than that; surely it is more than just a whipping post or scapegoat for the shortcomings of its national parts. If Afghanistan is NATO’s undoing, its member states ultimately will have only themselves to blame.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel on 9 November 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/09/nearly-anywhere-terrorists-operate/

The Safe Haven Myth.

Michael A. Innes | 12 October 2009.

Washington needs to broaden and diversify its understanding of safe havens if it intends to end them in the war in Afghanistan.

At the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal admonished an audience of listeners to question “generally accepted, ‘bumper sticker’ truths” about Afghanistan. As U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors decide on the best way to proceed with the war, they might want to reconsider one in particular: safe havens.

“Since first invading Afghanistan nearly a decade ago,” Matthew Rosenberg and Siobhan Gorman wrote in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal, “America set one primary goal: Eliminate al Qaeda’s safe haven.” Over the past eight years, virtually no one has questioned what that means exactly, or the buzzwords used to describe the problem.

In late 2008, former CIA director Michael Hayden extolled the virtues of drone strikes into Pakistan: “By making a safe haven feel less safe,” he claimed, “we keep al Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies; question their methods, their plans, even their priorities.” Explaining his AfPak strategy this August, Obama said, “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”

Much of what Washington thinks it knows about insurgent and terrorist safe havens is defined by the common geopolitical understanding of security, an understanding first articulated by a neoconservative White House. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the White House followed the logic that if the Taliban controlled the country and sheltered al Qaeda, then defeating the Taliban would allow the United States to rout its real enemy. It never wavered from that logic, and it wasn’t long before “terrorist sanctuaries” became an entrenched part of the national security strategy, annual State Department reports, and Pentagon briefings.

Enter Georgetown University’s Paul Pillar, a former CIA official turned author and academic. This September, Pillar wrote that the United States has “largely overlooked a … basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?” He forcefully argued that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would not decrease the terrorist threat to the United States because, as he put it, “by utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters.”

“In the past couple of decades,” he wrote, “international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.” But this argument relies on another unquestioned assumption: that “havens” and “states” are the same thing. In fact, it is a dangerous oversimplification to suggest that they are.

Different militant organizations use sanctuary in different ways — and the United States must reconcile itself to this heterogeneity. Guerrilla armies need territory in which to encamp, train, and credibly challenge the writ of the state. Networked organizations don’t, but whether they’re legitimate revolutionary movements, urban guerrillas, or clandestine terrorist cells, they don’t stop operating in the physical world and they don’t stop needing safe spaces in which to operate. The difference isn’t whether physical havens are needed, but how they’re created and distributed.

This raises questions for countries attempting to coordinate cross-border counterterrorism policies and practices. How big does a safe haven have to be to qualify for a military campaign to eliminate it? Is a safe house big enough? How about an urban ghetto? Is there a difference between sanctuaries and safe havens? How safe do havens have to be? Do they even have to be physical?

Moreover, policymakers need to recognize that some terrorist groups — the ones that survive and persist — change over time. Before 2001, al Qaeda needed serious patches of territory to run training camps and field its paramilitary units. Now, the few remaining al Qaeda militants could not control that much space even if they wanted to. Al Qaeda’s track record shows that eliminating one base of operations is no guarantee that terrorists won’t simply establish another one somewhere else. Worse, once pushed underground, these militants inhabit havens that look more like cells than garrisons. Shape-shifting organizations like al Qaeda and its affiliates, in other words, put the lie to the assumption that safe havens and states are indistinguishable.

The current debate on Afghanistan strategy does not take into account such changeability and shades of gray. It generally hinges on two options: commit to a large-footprint counterinsurgency operation, saturating the country with thousands more troops; or turn to surgical counterterrorism options that don’t require a large or continuous presence and focus on a much narrower set of goals and activities. Both strategies intend to create an Afghanistan that can survive without the security blanket of foreign troops, with some semblance of stability and some capability to self-police as the central benchmarks. Under that vision of success, Afghanistan would cease to be a resource for insurgents and terrorists.

But realities on the ground defy both resource-heavy counterinsurgency and more tactically nimble counterterrorism — and suggest policy options that straddle the two strategies. The military could continue to target training camps in Waziristan, a suburb of Quetta, or a city block in Peshawar. At the same time, the forces in Afghanistan could create “safety zones” for civilians as outlined in international humanitarian law. The French did so during Operation Turquoise during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations established safe cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during its 1992-1995 war and a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq in the late 1990s. These aren’t perfect examples, but they show that the United States might be able to make a “model district archipelago” to help make the country more stable and safe.

International humanitarian law also identifies safe havens of another kind — protected sites like schools, hospitals, and religious facilities. Such physical structures, usually located in urban areas, present a different set of potential problems, particularly in light of Gen. McChrystal’s plan to withdraw from rural areas and focus on securing Afghanistan’s cities. Security forces in Afghanistan will likely have to contend with an increase in clandestine cells of urban guerrillas, reliant on networks of safe houses, covert training sites, and other underground havens to conduct operations like last Thursday’s Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul.

U.S. and coalition forces have already witnessed extensive sectarian targeting and the exploitation of mosques by insurgents in Iraq. In Afghanistan, girls’ schools and hospitals have consistently been hit with insurgent violence. In Pakistan, the 2008 raid on the Red Mosque, where militants had taken refuge, demonstrated the strategic significance of a local event — precipitating no small amount of bad press for the government and contributing to nationwide discontent. None of these locations were states; all of them were statutory havens; all of them hosted high-visibility events that challenged the security policies crafted to deal with them.

Ultimately, Obama and his advisors can use whatever language they want to describe this war, but recent history has shown that the right choice of words is key to continued legitimacy and a convincing claim of success. Pinning counterinsurgency and counterterrorism options to a narrow, neorealist vision of sanctuary is potentially misleading, could foster misguided expectations, and will most certainly miss out on some of the local dynamics that Centcom hopes to acquaint itself with through its new Afghan Hands program. If they’ve outlived their usefulness, then perhaps it’s time to let this set of bumper-sticker buzzwords die.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com / Argument on 12 October 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/12/the-safe-haven-myth/

The Sound of Silence.

Michael A. Innes | 12 October 2009.

As the U.S. has gone into high gear trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan, NATO itself has been conspicuously silent. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley McChrystal — for those who might not know — has two military chains of command that he’s responsible to. One of them is exclusively American, via CENTCOM. The other is his NATO chain, which as far as the public is concerned, has been next to invisible over the last couple of weeks.

McChrystal’s NATO chain consists of two headquarters. The first is Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum, commanded by General Egon Ramms of the German Army. JFC Brunssum’s ISAF mission, according to its website, includes direct responsibility for long-term planning and support, as well as 24/7 monitoring and coordination of a complex array of ISAF related issues. The second is Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), NATO’s strategic military headquarters commanded by U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis.

McChrystal reports through JFC Brunssum to Stavridis at SHAPE, who wears the grand title of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR — pronounced “Sack-Yer”). U.S. National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones occupied the role until his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2006; Wesley Clark was SACEUR during the Kosovo campaign in the late 1990s. There have been more than a few exalted names assigned to the post, and theirs have more often than not been the faces of NATO when the organization has gone to war.

Stavridis has only been SACEUR for a few months, and has already made a mark as a diplomat and communicator, taking pains to open NATO up to social media like Facebook and Twitter, and even penning his own blog, “From the Bridge.” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has taken a similar approach with his own Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an official video blog, The Secretary General’s Corner.

Stavridis and Fogh Rasmussen have both been busy over the last two weeks, doing the usual circuit of meetings and official visits. Stavridis took the time to post “15 Things For Leaders” on his blog, and Fogh Rasmussen extended congratulations via official press release to U.S. President Barack Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize.

On the troops debate? Not so much. The absence of public commentary isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since NATO isn’t usually wont to publicly pass judgement on the internal politics of its member states. There are prominent exceptions, of course, like when it comes to paying the bill or national caveats on rules of engagement, for example. Stavridis is a U.S. officer, though, which makes steering clear of the troops debate a wise career move. There’s a big “however” to that: as the NATO representative on all things operational, he has a clear responsibility to the Alliance and to 27 other member states to speak out on issues that might concern even the least among them.

Or does he? At issue isn’t whether or not the discussion is happening. At Fogh Rasmussen’s most recent monthly press conference, on October 7, he briefly told those attending that “We are now in the process of studying General McChrystal’s assessment. This is under discussion in the Military Committee and in the NATO Council. These have been initial discussions, and we reached no conclusions yet… but I can say the exchange of views on approach has already begun.” Staff officers up and down the NATO chain of command have no doubt been burning the midnight oil, generating stacks of memoranda, point papers, and PowerPoint presentations on all aspects of a potential troop increase of such magnitude.

The real question is whether or not anyone in the NATO hierarchy besides McChrystal himself, who only really answers to Washington, should have engaged the public on the issue. What does it mean for the Alliance, for example, when the Supreme Allied Commander Europe takes the fifth? He is, after all, responsible for a lot more than just ISAF, so expecting him to weigh in on troop counts is probably unfair. And like any military officer, Stavridis has a duty to advise his superiors; if the apparent political frictions over McChrystal’s recent public appearances are any guide, he’ll stick to doing that through private and classified channels.

That’s understandable, even acceptable, but it comes at a cost in strategic communications and public diplomacy, particularly for an organization whose two most senior leaders have appeared so keen to interface with the public.

Throwing an additional 40,000 to 60,000 troops into the ISAF mission would be sure to radically alter things in Afghanistan, one way or the other. It’s possible that some of those forces, if they come at all, will hail from among the 28 NATO member states. It’s more likely that they would almost all come from the U.S., but the consequences that that kind of change precipitates won’t be limited to U.S. forces alone. A mission of ISAF’s scale, almost overwhelmingly resourced by a single member state, is sure to become an increasingly sensitive pressure point within the Alliance — generating more sticky questions about its character and relevance.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com /AfPak Channel on 12 October 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/12/the-sound-of-silence/

Ground Truths.

Michael A. Innes | 2 October 2009.

At the end of a New York Times article on the apparent lack of direct face time between President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I can defend him for being out of touch with his commander… He has other people who advise him. But there’s no one else with the feel on the ground that McChrystal has.”

Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) agrees, suggesting that the disconnect, if there is one, is “indefensible.” Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired’s uber-national security blog, Danger Room is sympathetic to the criticism. “Given how dire the situation is in Afghanistan,” he writes, “and given Obama’s willingness to dive head-first into relatively-trivial matters like the Olympics — I think I’d like to see that Commander-in-Chief more deeply involved.” Jason Sigger, a Washington defense policy analyst, and Bernard Finel, a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project, on the other hand, were both heavily critical of O’Hanlon’s comments.

This stems from McChrystal’s response to questioning on 60 Minutes a few days ago that he’d only met with Obama once since taking command, via video teleconference (or “VTC”). Framed in that light, devoid of context — or common sense consideration of it — it seems mildly disturbing. But it shouldn’t be. The Danger Room piece, which turns to U.S. military historian Mark (“Blog Them Out Of the Stone Age“) Grimsley for some expert advice, lays bare the silliness, making the critical point that there are a number of people in important positions between Obama and McChrystal, and the flow of communications between Kabul and the White House has generally remained true to historical form.

After watching the 60 Minutes segment, though, I’m slightly surprised that out of all the points raised, it was McChrystal’s face time with Obama that’s got everyone in a tizzy. That one blurb occupied a few seconds near the end of a 13 minute interview. McChrystal was straightforward in his response, but he certainly didn’t come across as if he was trying to drive an agenda — at least, not with that particular point.  McChrystal has been lobbying publicly for increased troop commitments, essentially forcing the White House into a reactive position on the subject. One can only assume that one of the talking points on the agenda of today’s meeting between the two on Air Force One will include a reference to who sets policy and who follows orders.

For the most part, I didn’t have any serious objections, either to the questions that 60 Minutes’ David Martin put to McChrystal, or to the general’s answers to them. Breaking bad habits was a heavy theme, including the symbolic importance of not flying the NATO flags outside his headquarter building at half mast every time a soldier is killed. “We’ve gotten to the point where the flags were at half mast all the time,” he told Martin. “And I believe that a force that’s fighting a war can’t spend all it’s time looking back at what the costs have been, they’ve got to look ahead and they’ve got to have their confidence, and I thought it was important that the flags be up where they belong.”

That’s a fair point on such an emotive issue — but it also misses another symbol inherent in the lowered flags, and the point of the practice: that when a soldier from any one of the ISAF member states was killed, all the flags were lowered. That sort of blatant solidarity does not come easily within the Alliance. At one point, Martin asked McChyrstal what he thought of the Destille Garden outside his staff offices, where people can “sip cappuccino under the shade.” He wryly suggested he’d like to “turn it into a rifle range” — though he probably knows, despite all the guilty comforts that a staff headquarters represents to those out in the forward operating bases (FOBs) and combat outposts (or COPs), that with everyone in his staff headquarters working on marksmanship skills, he’d have no one left to draft the unending crush of briefings and memoranda and paperwork that make big field missions tick.

The one serious point I’d pick at is this: so what if “there’s no one else with the feel on the ground that McChrystal has”? McChrystal himself warned in the interview against ever believing that we really know the ground truth, basically because we’re (he was including himself) not the ones walking it. More than that, though — and taking O’Hanlon literally at his word — McChrystal’s not an intelligence or special forces operator out sniffing at the bushes and tracking boot prints in the dust. He’s the mission commander, which is not a leisurely paced job, and doesn’t — shouldn’t — leave all that much time for getting down into the weeds. Which suggests that neither should Obama.

The implied criticism over the last couple of days has been that senior leaders should be tightly wired into ground truths — into maintaining fine-grained situational awareness of conditions in Afghanistan. That’s ridiculous. Taking the time to go deep is for spooks and anthropologists; the time to network, gladhand, and swap stories over beers at the Sunday BBQ is for another life, and a luxury that neither Obama nor McChrystal has, at least when it comes to fighting this war. More importantly, questions about the relationship between Obama and his general in Afghanistan, fixated as they are on communication channels, occlude a lesson that’s now been conveniently forgotten about technologically-enabled micromanagement: just because Obama and McChrystal can communicate more frequently that they have been doesn’t mean that they need to.

Originally published at ForeignPolicy.com/AfPak Channel on 2 October 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/02/ground-truths/