Monday, August 31, 2009

Gender and Arms

Gender and Arms: Equality in Life and Death


In early August I started on what I thought would be a single-entry update of personnel statistics regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the arrival of mid-month, however, my original intent seemed out of focus, even overwhelmed, by other issues. Lobbyists and other representatives of “special interests” were clamoring for recognition from the media. Activists were often not interested in rational discussions with Members of Congress but would not let other views be heard from other citizens in the democratic structure.

What August 2009 revealed was a fracturing of governance. Democracies form when individuals believe that the community to emerge will generally protect his interests (human dignity) and promote transparent policies within which he can prosper (equality) in concert with his neighbors. When these principles are ignored, as they have been for some time, democracy is put at risk.

The second half of August was, in a way, a declaration that the individual remains at the center of human endeavor in this world and remains so even in death. The two articles used as background are from major newspapers as noted. Separately, sometime in September, I will post an essay about Senator Edward M. Kennedy who died August 25, 2009 at age 77.

I. Women in Military Service

The Washington Post (August 23rd) obituaries included an appreciation of the life and work of Mildred C. Bailey, who died July 18th at a U.S. Army facility for military retirees.

I very rarely read this part of the paper. But in this case, the editors included a lead note about the 33 years of professional military life of the woman who became the third female to reach the rank of brigadier general in an army that was undergoing profound restructuring in the 1970s.

The Post’s account begins when, in 1942, General Bailey entered the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) – renamed Women’s Army Corps in 1943 – shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II. Her linguistic fluency – she had been teaching French to American high school students – proved invaluable in teaching English to French pilots whose fierce independence contributed to tensions that pervaded most relationships between the allied commanders and the Free French led by the prickly General Charles de Gaulle.

In 1948, Congress passed legislation giving permanent status to women who had remained in the WAC if they accounted for no more than two percent of the total personnel in the four services. Congress also banned women from assignment aboard Navy ships (which was not rescinded until 1991) and in ground combat units. For her part, in the 1950s General Bailey worked in a variety of intelligence assignments in Europe and in Washington, DC. In the 1960s, she travelled the U.S. speaking to women’s groups about the important contribution women were making to an army – primarily as nurses or in clerical positions – that was being stretched to its limit in Vietnam. Not until 1967 did Congress respond by abolishing the two percent cap on the number of women in the services.

This action finally opened the flood gates. In 1971, the Army Chief of Staff, General William Westmoreland, summoned then-Colonel Bailey to his office and gave her two missions: restructure and integrate the WAC into the mainstream army, and pin on her brigadier general’s star as Director of the WAC.

Changes came quickly. In 1973 the volunteer army replaced conscription. By 1975, when General Bailey stepped down from her command, the Corps had tripled from 13,000 to 39,000. In 1976, women became eligible to participate in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs conducted at civilian universities and, for the first time, were members of the three military academies incoming “plebe” (freshmen) classes. In 1978, the WAC was formally disbanded with its personnel distributed into regular units. What was not resolved for another decade was the Pentagon’s decision that women could not be included in noncombat units whose missions would place them in direct contact with enemy forces or subject U.S. women soldiers to greater risk of hostile fire or capture by the enemy.

Only three years were to pass before this policy was tested in what was to be a transition from conventional lineal fighting to 360 degree Vietnam-style counter-insurgency in the dessert. Just before the four-day ground war by the U.S.-led multi-national coalition began in February 1991, a U.S. maintenance battalion made a wrong turn and came under Iraqi fire. Two women were wounded and captured and another woman soldier killed. U.S. commandos mounted a major and ultimately successful rescue. But the incident clearly foretold what was coming.

By this time, other women were rising up the ranks. The first woman to reach the rank of lieutenant-general in the U.S. Army, Claudia Kennedy, entered the WAC in 1969. She became a three-star officer in 1997 when the Senate confirmed her appointment as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Headquarters U.S. Army. And just last year, the U.S. Army became the first service to promote a woman, Ann Dunwoody, to full (four-star) general. She was confirmed by the Senate to command the Army Material Command (AMC), the command responsible for logistics (beans and bullets) and for working with industry to develop, build, and support the equipment the soldier needs on the battlefield.

While it took 37 years for women to go from brigadier general to full general, today’s U.S. military has women and men at every rank. And despite congressional statutes and Pentagon regulations that still exclude women from certain military jobs, the U.S. army is discovering that military women are present alongside military men – and sometimes when only women constitute a fighting “unit.” What is known is that of the more than two million U.S. military personnel who have had at least one tour in either Afghanistan or Iraq, 220,000 have been women.

Military women are also dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the nearly 5,000 U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, 121 were women.

There will be more, inevitably.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Musings on Afghanistan

Afghani Musings

The Afghani presidential election held yesterday has been deemed an unprecedented success for the people and the process. Afghani officials claim that 95 percent of polling sites were open while only 300 sites were not operating. Total fatalities associated with election violence came to 26, a signal – according to a Kabul administration spokesperson – that the Taliban had again failed to intimidate the voters.

Despite this success, exactly how the government can build on the outcome to help the populace remains unclear. Customs and cultural go deep; change comes slow, if at all. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion, as are foreign ideas, “principles,” and practices. And on top of these stresses is a country with a large, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable youth, a phalanx that is tired of endemic corruption by officials and bureaucrats, the growing presence of uninvited international military forces with their ideas and customs, and the near total absence of even the most basic technology needed to build a modern state.

Given the lack of familiarity in Washington and other capitals about Afghanistan’s culture and customs and its strong web of interacting tribal and ethnic relations, it seems incomprehensible that both the USSR and the United States, in close succession, became enmeshed in Afghanistan. One could well make a plausible case that both the USSR and the United States – from the start of their respective invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and 2001 – assumed that the importation of foreign advisors and hi-tech “models” would go far toward modernizing the state structure into a “responsible” international actor.

Only now can the U.S. appreciate just how wrong Washington was about the errors Moscow made in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the same mistakes already replicated to date by the Bush and Obama administrations.

In a May 10, 1988 letter from the Communist Party’s Central Committee to all party adherents, the USSR conceded that it had no idea of Afghanistan’s social, economic, cultural, religion, ethnic, or military status. According to the letter (see the June 2009 Harper’s Magazine, p. 24, “Known Knowns”) what the Soviets knew about Afghanistan was only this: every fighting-age male would immediately take up his rifle and fight any foreign troops that set foot on Afghani soil. Moreover, the “color” of one’s philosophy or beliefs was immaterial, as was the “good intentions” of the alien soldiers or their “warrior ethos.”
The Ignorance of the Soviets in dealing with the power structure in Afghanistan was mirrored by the lack of understanding by the Afghani elite of Soviet motives in taking over the country in 1979. The Central Committee’s letter readily conceded that in large measure the government in Kabul paid little heed to any advice offered by Moscow’s civilian and military representatives. The military structure installed in Kabul was dysfunctional; local resistance groups opposed the “government troops” in rural areas as well as the indiscriminant use of warplanes to attack non-combatants with little or no warning. By February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier was gone. All told, the Soviets had suffered 13,210 fatalities, 35,478 more been wounded, and 301 more were missing. Monetarily, the communists were paying 5 billion rubles per month when they departed.

And of the U.S. shortfalls? Fatalities are 794 (with allied losses at 534) and are almost as numerous for the eight months of 2009 as for all fatalities recorded in 2008. More troops will be requested as will more technology for the U.S. soldiers. In fact, expectations are that more reliance more often and for longer periods will be placed on technology to offset the unavailability of troops.

While yesterday’s decision by the voters may give President Hamid Karzai a second term, the Afghani people may decide that the presence of western military forces is no more welcome than were those from the USSR. Public sentiment is growing against the rising deaths and psychological damage to noncombatants caught in the crossfire when foreign forces are subject to insurgent attacks.

P.S. Most Americans have no experience of the traumatic effects of modern war on the psyche of noncombatants. But using a video/sound tape, CNN demonstrated the difference between the volume of exploding munitions and small arms bullets from Afghani and U.S. forces that come under fire from snipers. The government soldiers fire bursts of semi-automatic rifle ammunition as they move to cover. U.S. troops search the terrain until they see the rifle flashes, at which time bombs, missiles, and artillery hit the identified point while American ground troops pour in heavy machine gun fire. The insurgent position is obliterated visually and the noise is like white noise, sustained and prolonged. Unfortunately, it is possible that the Taliban fighters escaped the U.S. firestorm and are back at their workplace or home where they carry on with life.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Afghanistan Votes II

There is now left only one week – a mere seven days – until the people of Afghanistan are to choose their country’s national leader in the very first multi-party and multi-candidate competition in Afghanistan’s history.

That is to say that the participation of voters will occur if the nearly 130,000 foreign soldiers, together with the Afghanistan army and national police, are able to secure the precinct voting sites from significant fighting. Many observers believe the Taliban forces are about to wage a major effort designed to force the Kabul government to cancel the ballot for the second time this year – and perhaps bring down the current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

For its part, Pentagon has nearly completed deploying the 17,000 Marines and army soldiers that President Obama authorized when he became the U.S. command-in-chief January 20th of this year. This brought the total U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to 29,000, but most outside observers expect the U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal, will ask for another 20,000-22,000 soldiers beginning with the start of the new fiscal year October 1st. (Overall foreign military presence from 42 countries stands now at approximately 62,000.)

And that’s not all that McChrystal will be seeking. He reportedly is expected to expand further the size of the Afghan army and improve its state of training. This will require more troops to handle this activity while still other troops will balance two other missions: drive back a suddenly re-invigorated Taliban movement and establish a more consistent and effective presence of representatives from the central government throughout the country.

Early estimates place the cost of this effort, along with reconstruction and development aid, at more than $9.3 billion per annum for the next ten to twenty years. (To date, the U.S. has spent $225 billion on combat and development activities in Afghanistan as compared to the $684 billion n Iraq.) Even should this cost be accurate, Afghanistan’s most critical need now is to create the sense of security that has eluded the modern population for the last 30 years.

No empire has ever succeeded in conquering the people or the country of Afghanistan, nor have the various tribes ever successfully created a functional unified national system of governance able to maintain its power internally. This suggests that acquiring peace and security – both internally and externally – will continue to be the most critical need that must be met if Afghanistan is ever to emerge as more than a perpetual failed political entity.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Afghanistan Elections August 2009

Nearly five years ago, on October 9, 2004, the people of Afghanistan participated in an overt political action that few of them had ever expected to see: a national election for a president of their nation.

Media coverage of the preparations for the balloting was heavy. As predicted, the winner of the contest, with 55.4% of the vote – a comfortable margin – was Hamid Karzai, who was the head of the interim government as well as Washington’s choice. Right up to the day of the vote on October 9, 2004 no one was sure who would win or even whether the turnout would be strong enough to matter. The anti-government Taliban movement, seeking to regain its previous position of power and provide sanctuary al-Qaeda leaders, threatened to kill anyone who cast a ballot. As events unfolded, October 9, 2004 proved to be an unusually peaceful day in the country.

There were some election-related controversies that remained unresolved right up to election day. Many centered on the freedom of women to exercise their rights. For example, Afghan women could not stand in mixed gender lines waiting to cast their vote. The remedy was straight forward: tribal leaders were to provide alternative sites for women to cast their ballots. While this was a common remedy, not all women were told where to go to cast their ballot. Nor did all sites have adequate security. Another question that became part of the political debate was the extent to which women were free to vote in accordance with their choice rather than follow the direction of their husbands or tribal elders. Closely related to this controversy was whether women could run for the presidency – or for the parliament in the September 2005 election. (More than 300 women ran for parliament’s 289 seats in 2005.)

It is now August 2009. The atmosphere in Afghanistan is heavy with promises from presidential candidates to improve the economy, allow the people to live in accord with their culture, social structures, and law. But the atmosphere is also heavy with the smell and taste of cordite from the marked increase in the fighting. After the 2004and 2005 elections, the U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan stood at around 19,000. By 2008, the American participation totaled some 32,000.

But this was not enough to stem the increased activity by the Taliban who flooded into border areas, particularly in Helmand province. By the end of 2008 it was clear that President Karzai controlled only the capital of Kabul. In Washington, the Obama administration changed the commander, reorganized the command structure to provide unity of command (collapsing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had come under NATO command), and set out a new strategy that emphasized providing security to the population instead if hunting down insurgents.

The cost was not hard to anticipate. The 19,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan in 2004 rose to 32,000 by 2008. Other additions by the Bush administration, together with an immediate 17,000 increase approved by President Obama, will raise the U.S. strength in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

In an entirely separate action, Congress is moving to give the Pentagon funding for another 30,000 soldiers, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opposes any permanent increase in end strength. What Gates is considering is a temporary increase of 22,000, which would give the army a top line of 569,000 active duty troops. (Earlier Congress had authorized a permanent increase for the army from 472,000 to 547,000 and from 175,000 to 192,000 for the Marine Corps.) Gates is concerned by the cost of adding permanent soldiers when recruiting, in-processing, training, deploying, and discharging cost just under $400,000 per individual. He also wants to judge whether or not 68,000 troops can get the job done in Afghanistan – and do so without killing women, boys, and other noncombatants or run the costs out of sight.

This September Americans will be able to watch the 2009 Afghanistan version of “This is Iraq Today” – at least insofar as Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus “won” continued Congress backing for a different “strategy” to win in Iraq. The new American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and his coordinator “host” in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, are expected to tap-dance as nimbly on Afghanistan as the Crocker-Petraeus duet did on Iraq. Undoubtedly, McChrystal will ask for additional fighting forces. He will also emphasize his strategy: first, provide security of the population from the depredations of the Taliban; and second, then go out and hunt down the insurgents that refuse to end the war.

In June 2004, the Washington Post editions for the fourth and the twenty-second carried articles about the aspirations held by Afghans as the day of the election approached. What three voters hoped the 2004 election would bring never came. Perhaps this time, if repeated, just possibly they might have a better chance.

“We have two problems: culture and terrorism. Culture may
take time to change, but it can’t kill you. Terrorists can kill you.” … “ Tradition is a very hard thing to fight.”
Sahira Zadran

“We want our children to use pens instead of weapons, and only
elections can bring that.”
Hakim Mahmad

“We must do what is necessary for democracy, not what is ideal.”
Iraq Sami Ahmed Sharif, Rashid district council chairman