Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Boots on "Being There"

The Washington Post on October 27 carried a front-page article describing the career of American Matthew Hoh – a construction engineer by training, a Marine with two tours in Iraq, and until the end of October 2009 a respected civilian working with Foreign Service Officers in Afghanistan.
What brought Hoh to the attention of the media was his decision to resign from his affiliation with the State Department and the Pentagon because he could not find a logical rationale for U.S. troops and civilians (along with troops and civilians from NATO and other countries) to be Afghanistan.

His position, as reported by the Post, has nothing to do with killing or capturing Afghan Taliban fighters trying to eject foreign forces that invaded their country in 2001. Hoh cannot find any “vital U.S. national interest” that must be safeguarded using (or threatening to use) military power.

Moreover, Hoh believes that the current Afghan strategy along with the “latest” rendition under review at the White House will not produce the results anticipated by the Pentagon, the Obama administration, and the coalition allies – let along meet the desires of most Afghanis for security and stability in their villages and towns.

Hoh spent ten months in Afghanistan working with the coalition provincial reconstruction team, the province’s governor and other local officials, and the State Department officers in Kabul. Despite the success of the reconstruction project he oversaw, Hoh finally realized that the U.S. approach was incomplete because time after time, project after project, the one category that none of the power players – Washington, London, Paris, Rome, the UN, Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar and the Taliban – consult is the people of Afghanistan.

Hoh did not just stumble on a hidden weakness in the structure and application of governance in Afghanistan, or a defect in the program of action put together by the Taliban to regain power. Afghanistan may have special twists in the never-ending struggle for power, but these twists are Afghani responses to what are Afghani problems. (September 11, 2001 was not a problem for the ruling Taliban faction until George Bush threw down the gauntlet October 7, 2001.) This is precisely what one should anticipate as rulers wrestle with their challenges. Unfortunately, U.S. presidents seem to believe that every world crisis demands an American response.

And because a military response is inevitable or at least “all options are on the table,” the form of crisis after crisis is repeated endlessly. Administration after administration finds itself constrained even before it occupies the executive branch by the initial assumptions that underpinned the U.S. international affairs position in the Cold War – particularly that the next war would be a protracted nuclear holocaust from which no one escapes but nonetheless has to be fought for “principles” and ideology before all else.

What Matthew Hoh “discovered” in Afghanistan were the simple ABCs of how people interact with other people every day – neighbors, relatives, foreigners, corrupt officials, and invading armies. For most of humanity, simply getting by is an accomplishment, and for this security they will fight against anyone attempting to alter their customs and culture. Yet such arrangements are easily forged and dissolved. The 80-to-20 silhouette of rural-to-urban demographics could have projected who would gain the most in Afghanistan’s September 2009 presidential balloting. The scale of irregularities discovered was so massive as to question whether a “fair” contest could ever be held.

Afghanistan will provide an answer to this question November 7. And as always – especially in countries with un- or under-education populations – the answer will be one that only they can devise.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

War Fustrations

Last week (October 13), television’s Public Broadcasting System aired an examination of the war in Afghanistan on its weekly investigative program “Frontline.” The core of the program, titled “Obama’s War,” focused on a three-week photo journal record of a U.S. Marine Corps company’s operations as a lead unit of the 4,000 strong U.S. force deployed into southern Afghanistan.

This was not a “good news” or upbeat story. The reporter and his cameraman linked up with the Marines shortly after the unit arrived at its objective, a small town in Helmand province. This area is home turf for the Taliban movement; no U.S. unit – not to mention any Afghan army or police force representing the central government in Kabul – has been in the area for the past three years.

But the battle was not for control of the geographic terrain or to hunt down and capture or kill Taliban fighters. This was to be a long, sustained battle for control of the psychological terrain in which the U.S. soldiers, the Taliban fighters, and the ordinary Afghan noncombatants engage in a two-level game of chess. Each armed party maneuvers to block the other while simultaneously aiming to capture the neutral third queen and her pawns that have little interest in what the fight is all about. Put another way, as declaimed by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, the Marines’ mission is to win the hearts and minds of the local residents.

Daily meetings with the governing elders of tribes, clans, and villages in the company’s “area of responsibility” are meant to encourage mutual trust by both sides: the Marines seek information on Taliban plans, movements, and the operation of local “shadow government” structures that are more responsive to the needs of the people than is Kabul. For their part, the elders object to the presence of the foreign soldiers and the death and destruction they bring with their military power and to which the Taliban respond.

If the Marines and the villagers are like the proverbial two ships that pass each other at night but never make sustained, substantive contact, the same relationship pertains between the Taliban fighters and the civilian population – but with the insurgents more willing to impose their interpretation of culture and governance. The difference in the relationship is quite clearly captured in the “Frontline” program. Frame after frame of the video camera tell of the frustrations that the foreign soldiers encounter at every meeting with the tribal elders – and transmit in their body language as well as their words to the civilian side. The Americans do not understand the Afghan language any better than the Afghanis understand English – or have any incentive to learn. Even indigenous translators who have studied American English are frequently unable to transmit the idiom and idiosyncratic connotations that are so important to conveying the exact “meaning” of words.

This disconnect is not confined to the American experience with foreign populations. There exists a divide between the civilians who are charged with maintaining military readiness and many senior uniformed personnel who see their role as completing missions they are given to implement.

What is missing is a redefinition of the armed forces role in U.S. “national defense” coupled with a recognition that the U.S. cannot unilaterally dictate the conditions that other nations must follow. The assumption in the late 20th Century was that Washington had a moral duty to prevent war because it had the power to intervene in armed conflicts between other countries. This is neither sound diplomacy nor useful in justification the dispatch of Marines and other U.S. officials, uniformed and civilian, to “solve” disputes with minimal collateral damage.

What the White House and now Congress finally seem to recognize is that the U.S. citizenry is not as keen about sending the troops to foreign lands as are elected officials. The Afghan population clearly is not waiting for the foreign soldiers to arrive, but they could be helped if the Afghan government could provide security and protect their way of life, their customs, and culture.

For their part, the foreign troops need only to provide the context in which the public will find a way to achieve self-governance on their terms – terms that exclude the Taliban insurgency.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Personnel Statistics Minus One

The Pentagon declared yesterday unconditional success in a 36 year long low-intensity campaign to win hearts and minds to its vision of the future.

For the first time since the inception of the all-volunteer military in 1973, the Pentagon succeeded in surpassing the numerical goals it set for the recruiting commands in each of the services. This year’s unexpected run-away winner was the active Army, which recruited more than 3,000 civilians above the goal of 65,000 needed to fill the ranks.

The main influence on the decision to sign-up in 2009 is quite apparent: economics. From corporations to small business and “independent contractors,” the number of people losing their jobs and seeking employment rose dramatically each week. By the end of September, 9.8 percent of the U.S. population was unemployed and looking for a job. And waiting for many of these job-seekers was the Pentagon.

For many years, military recruiters had encountered resistance from parents of potential recruits to any attempt to contact the prospective enlistee. The implosion of the U.S. economy changed that calculus even though a significant contributing cause for the faltering economy was the billions of dollars being spent to fight two wars – in Iraq and in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

To mine what professional recruiters regard as a golden opportunity to boost numbers willing to sign on the dotted line, during FY2009 the services put more recruiters on the street to participate in job fairs at high schools and even in junior colleges, to open and staff recruiting offices in small towns with high unemployment, and to push post-service options such as special training that can be used in civilian occupations or pay for college tuition.

Not too long ago, the military had to pay not only re-enlistment bonuses to retain experienced soldiers (e.g., Special Forces) but also bribe prospective recruits with signing bonuses that often totaled $20,000 or more. Signing “bonuses” for 40 percent of high school graduates who enlisted in FY2009 averaged $14,000, up $2,000 more than in FY2008.

Quality in terms of the percentage of recruits with high school diplomas exceeded the Pentagon’s benchmark as did the new recruits who scored above the minimum level for the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Not everything was rosy, however. Obesity has become a significant barrier to aspiring recruits.

The break-out for new accessions by service components for FY2009 is:

Active Duty:

Army: 108 percent (70,045 actual vs. 65,000 goal)
Navy: 100 percent (35,527 actual vs. 35,500 goal)
Marine Corps: 100 percent (31,413 actual vs. 31,400 goal)
Air Force: 100 percent (31,983 actual vs. 31,980 goal)


Army National Guard: 100 percent (56,071 actual vs. 56, 000 goal)
Army Reserve: 105 percent (36,189 actual vs. 34,598 goal)
Navy Reserve: 101 percent (7,793 actual vs. 7,743 goal)
Marine Corps Reserve: 122 percent (8,805 actual vs. 7,194 goal)
Air National Guard: 106 percent (10,075 actual vs. 9,500 goal)
Air Force Reserve: 109 percent (8,604 actual vs. 7,863 goal)

Average expenditure per recruit who signed with the military was $10,000.

For FY 2010, the military recruitment commands will reduce their $5 billion budget by 11 percent.

What would be an interesting future comparative statistic is how many of the new recruits die in Iraq and Afghanistan. That statistic was not mentioned at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize

Some weeks nothing goes as expected.

For example: President Barack Obama flew from Washington to Copenhagen last week to push Chicago’s chance to be the host for the 2016 Olympics. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as the 2016 host. Detractors of the U.S. President called the Rio choice by the IOC “a stinging repudiation” of the president and an ill-advised interference in a non-national security issue.

And then there is the week when, even though still stress-filled, contains a completely unanticipated event that bestows a sense of achievement or success that usually happens only in fairy tales – complete with fairy godmother wielding a magic wand and throwing fairy dust at your opponents.

Yesterday was one of those rare weeks. On Friday the U.S. awoke to the news from Oslo, Norway that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 had been awarded to Barack Obama. Many observers were taken aback, especially since the president had been in office a mere 10 months and his familiarity with the intricacies of national policy on global issues did not emerge before his run for the U.S. elections in 2008.

The process for selecting the prize winner is a closely-held activity. Five eminent Norwegians are elected by the Norwegian parliament to constitute the committee charged with reviewing the accomplishments of the individuals nominated for the award and to choose the person, persons, or institutions to be honored.

The winner receives a monetary award – this year amounting to $1.4 million. (The money will be given to charity.) The honoree chosen by the Nobel Committee may have devoted extraordinary effort over decades promoting human dignity, civil rights, and human rights. Some winners had endured frequent and severe detention or long periods in prison. Others had spent months and years working to overcome sectarian and ethnic hatred even in the times when much of the world had accepted that the status quo could not be changed.

Similarly, those selected for this recognition come from a wide spectrum of “occupations.” Some are ordinary housewives who refuse to cower before the bullies in society. Others start as leaders of nonviolent opposition movements seeking to gain (or regain) the liberties that have been denied them by “the authorities” – normally the petty dictators who say they are serving the people’s interest. Still others have spent a lifetime in their own country or in foreign lands working to provide humanitarian aid to the most needy – caring for the poor, the ill, the hungry. The prize has even been awarded to United Nations peacekeepers, to the International Red Cross, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) because of their efforts to promote peace, not war.

In all, since 1901, 21 Americans have been honored. (Conversely, no award was made for 20 years, with most omissions occurring during World War I (four), World War II (four), and the U.S.-Vietnam War (two).

Politicians sometimes are honored. In the case of the U.S., the frequency of such selections can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Two men honored while occupying the Oval Office were Theodore Roosevelt (1906) for mediating the end of the 1905 Russian-Japanese war, and Woodrow Wilson for his leadership in creating the League of Nations and his introduction into international discourse his famous “Fourteen Points” as part of the treaty ending World War I. In 2002, 21 years after his tenure as president, Jimmy Carter was honored in recognition of his global effort to improve the quality of life and the rule of law for people everywhere. Vice-President Al Gore shared the 2007 prize for his work on dealing with climate change and global warming. Many secretaries of state were selected for their peace initiatives. Few U.S. private persons have been chosen. One was Dr. Martin Luther King, selected in 1964 for his nonviolent campaign to end racial discrimination in the United States. Another was Jody Williams (1997) who was instrumental in the global treaty banning the use of landmines in war.

Looking at these achievements and the multitude of problems created by armed conflict today, the challenge facing President Obama is one of “walking the walk” for freedom and the end of warfare throughout the globe.