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September 25, 2009
Smoke signalsBy Greyhawk
(A delayed part three in a series...)
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's September 14 report from Afghanistan in the Washington Post details the deteriorating situation in Kandahar:
I began this discussion last weekend, with part one here and the second installment here. This concluding segment was planned for Monday morning, but into my inbox popped an email from the Washington Post - it seemed they were publishing a copy of General McChrystal's report...
But as you can see from the quote above, this discussion was headed somewhere very close to that anyway. The remainder of this post will be in a form only slightly different than originally intended.
Shortly after he took over as the overall U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal asked his subordinates why more than half of the 21,000 troops deployed this spring were sent to neighboring Helmand province instead of Kandahar. The implication was clear, according to a person familiar with the discussion: Kandahar requires more forces.
The question itself is actually one any new commander would ask about anything and everything: why are we doing it this way? Certainly on a topic of that import - why are our troops here and not there - he would want to know the reason - whether he agreed with it or not. As with so many other stories about General McChrystal this week we are left with the reporter's description of what some unnamed individual says about something the General said. Assuming all is as described, all we know is that a question was asked - whatever answer the General was given, and any response he might have offered in turn, is not included.
There are good reasons to put troops in Helmand, not the least among them the consideration that it's where the poppies grow - a significant source of insurgent funding. And there were good reasons not to immediately put troops in Kandahar; among them the potential to have control over what could swiftly become an isolated fortress - but only after a likely battle with high numbers of civilian and military casualties. ISAF forces would find themselves on an (admittedly densely populated) island in a sea of badlands and no-go zones. Meanwhile the trade in the cash crop helping to fuel the Taliban could thrive. I'm not privy to the actual decision process, but I offer that as a quick glance possibility of what could be a small part of the larger answer to the question why here and not there. Aside from that, at this point a review of part two may be worth the reader's while.
But what have we here? - Three days after Chandrasekaran's story Joe Klein presents what amounts to a re-write (right down to the anecdote about Dand) of Chandrasekaran's WaPo piece in Time. However, the tone is different - Klein describes what he calls the "Kandahar screwup":
Upon his arrival in Afghanistan as McKiernan's replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. "The ship was moving in that direction," a military expert told me, "and it would have been difficult to turn it around." Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course. The additional troops were needed immediately to blunt the momentum of the Taliban and also to provide security for the Afghan elections. The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand's neighbor to the east -- Kandahar province, especially in Kandahar city and its suburbs.
Again, the similarities in the stories are remarkable, but Klein's takes a markedly different tone, and infers (or outright draws) conclusions that aren't evident from the earlier report. This is not, however, a case of plagiarism - it appears more like a response to a perceived challenge. As noted in part one, Chandrasekaran has been in Afghanistan covering the military, and Klein in America covering politics.
Josh Foust, an experienced and knowledgeable Afghan hand, says Klein's effort "reflects the same old bad assumptions about Afghanistan I've almost given up trying to correct" - but somehow draws this conclusion from it too:
Except that neither Klein or Chandrasekaran (whose earlier piece Foust might not have seen) cite McChrystal (beyond second- or third-hand quotes) at all. That said, I can see how someone could get that impression from Klein's effort. But why, one might wonder, would a guy like Klein, who is as close to a well-connected, experienced political insider ("my predilictions are obvious") as you're likely to find in journalism today, want to create that impression of McChrystal?
Or was he sending a signal that there is an easy way out (if you're willing to blame the last guy)?
And that's where I was with that story when news of the McChrystal report broke. Frankly, if it seems at first glance to have answered any of the above questions, on longer review it does not. Coincidences can have many explanations - including coincidence.
But a few more loose ends remain to be tied down. Herschel Smith makes the case for Helmand first by way of a critique of Klein here, and takes note of Klein's use of a John Nagl quote re: Kandahar - "It is as important now as Fallujah was in Iraq in 2004." Mr Smith's response is that Fallujah was much worse - but bad is different than important. In fact Kandahar is important - and allowing it to become as bad as Fallujah in 2004 is undesirable to say the least. But because Helmand is also important, this puts ISAF in an obvious bind. The earlier decision that Kandahar can wait may have been correct - but no one should have any illusions that anyone thought the claim would be true forever. (And McKiernan, we should recall, requested more troops than he got. While it's less clear, McChrystal did have time - admittedly minimum - to redirect forces if he had significant misgivings - agreement here.) Regardless, with each passing day of status quo, Kandahar approaches Fallujah - the Fallujah of the day before we went in (some argue it is there).
Mr Smith has never noted a problem whose cause couldn't be traced to insufficient numbers of Marines - and fixed by more. That last part has a kernel of truth, but there are other considerations.
Kandahar has not been completely ignored. Kandahar is the name shared by a city, a province, and an air base in Afghanistan - located near the city. (That last by way of saying if you hear a GI say he spent a tour in Kandahar make sure you understand what he means.) Generally media reports from the area will quickly point out the proximity of the big FOB to the failing city, but that's simply a known and painful truth - ISAF forces are a rare presence in the city. But the Canadians have been in the area for some time - and more recently they've been augmented by U.S. troops. They operate in areas around the city (as Chandrasekaran makes clear and Klein does not) though still in fewer numbers than required for effective results (beyond where they are at the moment).
The Canadian milblog The Torch is an excellent source for a lot of information on Kandahar and the Canadians (and Americans, too). And for a very sharp POV from someone who's been there, check out BruceR's site flit. Of particular interest to our current discussion, note this post from before the "release" of the McChrystal report, and this one from after.
Posted by Greyhawk / September 25, 2009 5:01 PM | Permalink
(Second in a series, part one here.) ***** RAMADI, Iraq, Oct. 21 -The American military and the interim Iraqi government are quickly losing control of this provincial capital, which is larger and strategically more important than its sister city of Fal... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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