Archive for November, 2009

Humor About Afghanistan

November 20, 2009

The Onion, a satirical newspaper, has recently published humorous articles about Afghanistan as the Obama administration debates how to proceed there.  Below are links to a few of them.

This one is about America’s strategic options:

This one is about heroin addicts’ support for the war effort:

This one is about the recent Afghan presidential election:

President Obama’s Trip to China

November 19, 2009

President Obama’s recent trip to China has been called a failure by many policy analysts and media personalities.  The president failed to reach any substantive agreement with Chinese leaders on issues like currency policy, human rights, climate change or Iran’s nuclear program.  Stephen Walt attributes this diplomatic disappointment to American policies and calamities over the last eight years , such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis and large budget deficits( 

But Mr. Walt ignores the core interests of Chinese leaders, which influence China’s policies much more than US actions.  Top officials in the Chinese Communist Party/Chinese government are focused on maintaining power, and they believe that sustaining economic growth and limiting political freedoms are the keys to success in that regard.  To foster economic development, China’s leaders seek energy resources and high levels of exports.  They do not want to set limits on emissions, let their currency appreciate, or impose sanctions on Iran (a country that is major source of oil and gas for China) because such policies could adversely affect the Chinese economy.  Basic liberties such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to assemble are viewed as sources of instability that could threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power, so Chinese leaders have no interest in promoting Western notions of human rights.

Thus, even if the US were not plagued by two wars, a major economic downturn and large deficits, it is unlikely that American leaders would be able to extract the concessions that they seek from Chinese policymakers.

Decision About Troop Levels Imminent

November 18, 2009

During a recent interview with CNN at a hotel in Beijing, President Obama said that a decision about troop levels in Afghanistan will be forthcoming in the next several weeks, and he will explain his new policy to the American people.

He said “I am very confident that when I announce the decision, the American people will have a lot of clarity about what we’re doing, how we’re going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost, what’s the end game on this thing, which I think is something that, unless you impose that kind of discipline, could end up leading to a multiyear occupation that won’t serve the interests of the United States.”

He also said that “We have a vital interest in making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable,” and added that he would prefer not to hand off the problem to the next president.

It is a pipedream to think that Afghanistan could be stabilized by 2012, the year of the next American presidential election, and it is highly unlikely that it could be done by Jan. 2017, the month that the next president will take office if President Obama wins a second term.

If the end game is to strenghten the Afghan security forces to the extent that they can neutralize the Taliban, which the president has suggested is America’s goal, a multiyear occupation is inevitable.  It is also dubious that the administration can accurately forecast how much more money the war will cost given that it is unclear how much longer the conflict will last.  Unless the president plans to set a firm date for withdrawal, which would mean that the US might pullout before the insurgency is sufficiently weakened, the end of the mission is not in sight.

It should also be noted that a complete withdrawal of American troops in the foreseeable future is infeasible  because the US will want to keep airbases in Afghanistan from which to launch Predator drone attacks against Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, and ground forces will be needed to protect those airbases.

Stephen Walt’s Opinion About Counterinsurgency

November 17, 2009

In a blog published yesterday on (, Stephen Walt dismisses the need to better prepare the US military for future counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.  He says that the COIN efforts in Iraq and Afghanstan resulted from two mistakes (the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora, and the decision to invade Iraq), and argues that military planning should not be based on past strategic blunders.  Mr. Walt embraces the view that the US should focus on maintaining air and naval dominance, and prepare to fight “great power” wars.

US strategists will almost certainly continue to give primacy to conventional threats when it comes to force planning if history is any guide, and Mr. Walt’s concern about a “radical” shift towards COIN is excessive.  However, COIN may continue to receive more attention than it did between the end of the Vietnam War and 9/11, a period when the military essentially ignored COIN and prepared for conventional battles like Gulf War One.  This development is prudent, because there is a significant probability that the US will have to fight more “small wars” in the coming decades.  Just because the COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted from what could reasonably be considered “mistakes” does not mean that America should not make a major effort to prepare for similar conflicts.  American leaders have been, and will continue to be, capable of making mistakes, and the military should be prepared for unconventional warfare, whether it is the result of blunders or not.

Conventional Ops vs. Counterinsurgency

November 16, 2009

Today, the New York Times published a piece by Army Capt. Tim Hsia on its At War blog (  Capt. Hsia notes that the Army has shifted its training focus from conventional operations to counterinsurgency since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, and he wonders if the military will  reorient itself towards preparing for conventional wars after the current conflicts end.  He specifically mentions China as a potential threat for which the Army and the rest of the Armed Forces might need to prepare.

While it is true that ground troops are now being trained to deal with conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and “counterinsurgency” is the hot topic among many strategists and analysts, it is misleading to suggest that the military is myopically focused on fighting so-called “small wars.”  The Navy and Air Force are naturally still geared for conventional warfare, and a large contingent of Army officers continue to argue that the US should be preparing for conventional fights similar to Gulf War One (fighting “small wars” has long been a task that the Marines have engaged in, and they will undoubtedly continue to prepare for them after the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are over).

In terms of defense spending, conventional weapons platforms still take up the vast majority of non-personnel funds.  Capt. Hsia cites Predator drones as an example of counterinsurgency weapons siphoning money from other projects, but the Predator is actually the first generation of unmanned planes that the Air Force and Navy will use for both conventional and special warfare.  In a few decades, most bombers and strike fighters used in traditional battles will probably be pilotless. 

If history is any guide, conventional warfare will have primacy in Army doctrine after the current “small wars” end, and counterinsurgency will be a secondary consideration.  As China’s military power continues grow, the US military will seek to counter it, although it is highly unlikely that the Army would ever engage in ground combat with the People’s Liberation Army in the foreseeable future; the Navy and Air Force would almost certainly be the only participants in a future conflict over Taiwan or another point of contention between the US and China.