James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Afghanistan

  • About That Terrifying Bagram Crash Video

    We don't know for sure, but at face value it looks like an aerodynamic stall.

    By now you've seen the tragic footage of a Boeing 747 cargo plane crashing soon after takeoff from Bagram airport in Afghanistan. 

    What does this look like, from an aviation perspective? To get the caveats out of the way:
      - I don't know first-hand that this is an authentic video, although it has been publicized widely without debunking that I have seen;
     - It is certainly possible that there are causal factors that this video doesn't reveal, from sabotage to some external force somehow not shown on screen;
     - And whatever else you can think of.

    Still, if you ask what this looks like, the answer is: It looks like an aerodynamic stall.

    As explained in some previous posts about crashes, here and here, an aerodynamic stall is nothing like a normal car-engine stall. The simplest way to envision it is to think of bicycling up a very steep hill in high gear. At some point, you won't be able to keep the bicycle's speed up -- and since a bike needs to be moving forward to stay upright, at that point it will fall over.

    So too with an airplane. Its wings have to move through the air at a certain speed, conveniently known as "airspeed," to generate the lift that keeps the plane aloft. If they go too slowly, which often* comes from climbing too steeply, at some point they stop generating enough lift -- and then like a bike going too slowly up a too-steep hill they will "fall over" and the plane will come out of the sky.

    That is what we seem to see in the video above, starting just a few seconds in. Every pilot has done "stall recovery" drills, in which you point the airplane too steeply upward, until eventually it stalls, noses over, and begins to fall. Then you recover in the prescribed way. But usually you do these drills a few thousand feet up into the sky -- to avoid exactly the fate shown in the video.

    Why would an experienced flight crew get into this trouble -- if that is what occurred? Again, I don't know for sure, but one possibility would be "cargo shift." Suppose the cargo in a heavily laden plane was not securely strapped down, so that as the plane accelerated for takeoff, the cargo might shift toward the tail. That could make the plane too tail-heavy to fly. (To be more precise, it could shift the plane's center of gravity outside the acceptable flight envelope.) In general, a pilot increases a plane's airspeed -- and avoids the risk of a stall -- by pointing its nose down. The weight loaded into a plane is carefully calculated to be sure it is appropriately balanced between nose and tail so that the pilot can point the nose up and down as needed. If the tail became too heavy, essentially making the plane a see-saw with too much weight on one side, the pilot would be helpless to avoid a stall and crash.

    A stall, perhaps from shifting cargo, is what this looks like. We'll learn more about what actually occurred.
    * For the aviation crowd: yes, I realize that the technical way to put the point is that the angle of attack has become too high, which can occur even when the plane is not climbing.

  • Forgotten War, Forgotten Deaths

    The war that goes on, and that most Americans can ignore

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpg

    With a few weeks' retrospect, it's clear that the most objectionable part of the Chuck Hagel confirmation melee was not the personal smears, nor the posturing by Senators Graham and McCain et al, nor the first-ever filibuster of a SecDef nomination by senators who didn't want their blocking tactic to be called by its real name, nor even the demand by Senator Ted Cruz that Hagel disprove pulled-from-thin-air insinuations that he could be on the North Korean payroll.

    The most objectionable part, of a process supposedly meant to assess the fitness of a former senator and wounded combat veteran to serve as civilian head of the military, was most senators' apparent boredom with the war in which American troops were being killed and wounded even as they spoke. Oh, that war, the one in Afghanistan. The one in which an average of six Americans per week were killed last year. Here are their names. The famous Word Cloud of questions by Senate Armed Services Committee members showed the mind-space, among our legislative leaders, that Afghanistan now claims:
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    Why bring this up when looking back on 10 years of war in Iraq? The connection is that the situation in Afghanistan has festered so long largely because American strategy, troops, money, material, and effort were prematurely diverted for five or six years, starting midway through 2002, because of the impending invasion of Iraq. As we reflect on the cost of that diversion, here are two memorable pieces of writing to seek out.

    One is Brian Mockenhaupt's "The Living and the Dead," about the members of a USMC platoon in Afghanistan. I hope you will set this aside for a half-hour's sustained reading. I predict that if you do you will think about the people serving in our country's name, and their sacrifice, for a long time.

    The other is Gerald Seymour's novel A Deniable Death. At face value this is entirely different from Mockenhaupt's careful journalism. Seymour is a veteran thriller-writer, and this is a genuinely gripping page-turner. But it is about the same moral drama that is described in "The Living and the Dead," and whose consequences Chuck Hagel must now deal with, and that the senators mostly ignored. A brief sample, involving one of the book's major figures: an Iranian engineer who excels in the art of making extremely damaging "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs for Iraq and then Afghanistan:
    He would tell his audience of the effect that the explosive devices... had on units' morale, and give them, as a rallying cry, the conclusion that one casualty, without a leg or arm, needed four men to bring him back from an explosion and a helicopter to fly him to the rear...

    He spoke, too, of the medium-term damage to troops' psychology, if they had been exposed to situations where bombs were widespread, particularly if there had been casualties in their unit: a larger number of enemy combatants in the Iraq war had gone home with post-traumatic stress disorder, as sick as if they had been severely wounded, and would not return.
    The wars have rolled on, with most of America not noticing. I am writing this item mainly to suggest that Brian Mockenhaupt's essay, in particular, will make you reflect on the choices the country has made. 
  • Out of Afghanistan: William Polk Answers a Critic

    'Our opponents are going to be at least major players, and probably dominant members, of whatever government emerges in Afghanistan. This will happen whether we like it or not. At issue is how quickly and how violently it happens.'

    In response the three-part series on Afghanistan by William R. Polk -- parts one, two, and three --  a reader who served as a U.S. military officer during the Iraq-Afghanistan era sends this complaint:

    The end of that was ... sort of disappointing.  It's not that I disagree with anything Mr. Polk wrote, it's just that it's not clear to me he's very far from consensus opinion and, damn, this stuff is harder to do than I think his essay implies.  I mean, I guess I'd like to hear Mr. Polk flesh out how to do Taliban inclusion if he'd care to. 

    My major objections to what he's saying is that as far as I can tell, the administration has been trying through all kinds of back channels to quietly negotiate with the Taliban.  They're coy about it, but that's to be expected, no?  That's so they can always tell the Taliban, hey man, we could walk away (even if we couldn't).  But it seems like negotiation with the Taliban has been going on on a back burner at varying levels of intensity back even into the end of the Bush administration.

    It also seems like there's a hell of a problem coming from the fact that we just don't know a lot about internal command-and-control of the Taliban (understandably or else we might do better at whuppin' em).  That's why, as I recall, we got strung along by a Taliban "negotiator" who wasn't empowered to negotiate.  I don't think the Taliban care to give us a lot of insight into their organization, either.  Maybe Karzai or someone can get that, if we're not at the table?  I'd like to hear how Mr. Polk wants to identify a partner who's empowered to do anything and how to ensure that there's "Taliban" consensus for whatever we negotiate.

    Lastly I think there's a damn hard regional problem, of course, that really ought to be in those last two sections of Mr. Polk's, but it isn't there.  Look, the Taliban in Pakistan have happily launched two really nasty attacks on Pakistani Army installations, and so the Pakistani Army isn't really happy with those guys at all, except for those parts of that Army which think there's somehow a discrete Afghan Taliban which functions as a cat's paw.  One way or another there's another powerful force at the table trying to position the Talibs and they haven't settled on their objectives yet (weirdly, "Pakistan" shows up nowhere in that whole second installment.)  That matters! 

    When we negotiate with the Taliban and Pakistan isn't at the table, Pakistan makes trouble.  When Pakistan is at the table, Karzai makes trouble.  Omitted from Mr. Polk's list of objectives is that we need to quiet cross-border mischief (in both directions), no?  So I think this problem becomes a lot more, "look here, let me explain it all clearly to you" when you neglect the regional issues, and it gets pretty much intractable when you remember them.  But I'd like to hear his try at it.

    I sent this note to Polk, at his home in France. It is not every day that you hear views on current policy from people who can say, "as I suggested to Walt Rostow about Vietnam..." But for the record here is his response:

    I am grateful to  [this reader] for his thoughtful remarks on my draft policy paper and will here reply to a few of the points he makes.
    The first and perhaps most significant issue is how to get the Taliban "to the table,"  that is to negotiate.
    In my experience in negotiating ceasefires, I have found several common characteristics of the process.   The first is evaluation of what the other side offers.
    I am not privy to what may have been communicated to the Taliban privately, but what appears to have reached them surely falls far short of what they would virtually have to demand.  At the low end, it is to surrender and accept what they would regard as a humiliating outcome of their insurgency; at the upper end, it would be to accept a fragile and largely ceremonial position in a government dominated by the current regime.  If I were a Talib, I would certainly not regard either the low end or the high end as acceptable.  To accept would almost certainly fracture their already-diffuse movement and probably lead to the assassination of the current leaders.
    The second characteristic is that each side is constantly evaluating the other.  So the "window of opportunity" is shifting.  What was possible a few years ago is likely to be much more difficult today.

    Again, if I were a Talib, I would doubt that the Karzai regime would or even could deliver on a deal to end the war.  Put simply, too much money is being made for anyone from Karzai on down to stop.    

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  • Involving the Taliban in Afghanistan Solution: William R. Polk, Part 3

    "The Taliban claim to a major degree of participation in whatever government evolves cannot be successfully denied."

    William R. Polk's first installment in this series, about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, is here; the second, about Afghan realities constraining U.S. options, is here. This is the third and last for now, an analysis of the least-bad way for the U.S. to manage its extrication from Afghanistan. For completeness, his 1958 article on "Lessons of Iraq" is here. The points below follow "Point I. Basic Facts" from earlier today:

    By William R. Polk

    II. The Essential Objectives of the Afghan People and The World Community:

    The fundamental objective shared by the Afghans and foreigners is a peaceful and secure country, able and willing to manage its own affairs and to act as an independent member of the world community;

    This objective is brought into sharp focus by the insistence of the member nations of the NATO alliance that Afghanistan, under any government, prohibit the use of its territory or other facilities for acts of terrorism or subversion in member countries and their allies.  This, after all, was the justification for the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2003.  This is the second objective;

    The third objective is particularly important for, but not necessarily understood by,  Americans.  It is not only to eliminate or cut down on the vast expenditures of money (much of it borrowed) and human resources (much of it wasted in battle or used in unproductive ways) but also to avoid a "blowback" by the warping or degradation of their institutions, comity and laws caused by fear, apparent necessity for drastic action and excessive concern with "security;"

    The fourth objective of the member nations of the NATO alliance and particularly of the United States is to end or at least diminish the costs to them of the war. Member nations of the NATO alliance are already acting to accomplish for themselves this objective.   Afghans generally do not share it:  the Taliban movement, fractured though it may be, is determined regardless of  cost to induce the foreigners to leave and to reestablish something like the regime that was destroyed by the American invasion.  The Karzai government wavers between the NATO/ American and the Taliban objectives.  In principle, it seeks total independence but its power brokers (aided and abetted by influential outside participants) are making vast amounts of money off the occupation and are in no hurry to end it.   That is to say, there is a small but significant area of agreement on the objectives but not on timing, on the means to achieve them and on whom will control the action.

    III. Objectives Desired By The Afghan People and The World Community:

    Although, in current conditions they have not uniformly or vigorously articulated it, we may assume that a desired objective of all the Afghan people is a more adequate standard of living with both an improved diet and an enhanced level of health as well as a level of education that will enable to achieve and sustain a strong economy;

    Both the majority of the Afghan people and concerned foreign powers desire a level of stability sufficient to prevent civil strife and invite further foreign intervention;

    Member countries of the NATO alliance as well as China and Russia would like for Afghanistan to take a place suitable to its capacities in legal world trade.  Specifically, they would like to profit from Afghanistan's mineral resources, to make use of its routes of trade and to get its help in interdicting the drug trade;

    Since some aspects of Afghan society, notably the position and role of women, appear to outsiders as ugly and "medieval," they would like to foster the "evolution" of the society along contemporary Western lines.  This objective is not widely shared in the country today although, briefly in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the policy of the then Afghan government and was approved by a wide swath of urban society.  Under conditions of peace and independence, especially if these are brought about through negotiations, it is likely gradually to re-emerge.

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  • Getting Out of Afghanistan: William R. Polk, Part 2

    'Foreigners find failure easy in Afghanistan'

    William R. Polk is a long-time scholar and analyst of U.S. foreign policy who published an Atlantic article called "The Lessons of Iraq" back in 1958. Two days ago, I posted the first part of his long assessment of the options now available for the United States in Afghanistan. That part dealt with the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and what lessons it might hold.

    In parts two and three, Polk turns to American policy options. This installment, number two, sets out some of the basic but often-forgotten realities of Afghanistan. In the final part, which will be ready later today, Polk examines the trade-offs for America and Afghanistan and recommends a course of action.

    Toward a Feasible Afghan  Policy
    By William R. Polk

        Too much of what we read in reports and analyses on Afghanistan is based on wishful thinking. It is late, but not too late, to move toward an affordable and sustainable policy.  To arrive at such a policy, we must begin by considering historical, geographical, ethnic and economic realities on the ground rather than merely focusing on what the Afghans, the Americans and other nations desire.   

    I The Basic Facts

    Afghanistan has a surface area of 6.5 thousand square kilometers (about the size of Texas or the combination of France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark) of which 85% to 90% is mountainous and/or desert.  The central massif, broken by deep valleys, rises to a maximum height of nearly 8 thousand meters and much of the south and west is sand, rock or salty marsh. Thus, the economically "usable" Afghanistan is comparable to just Florida or the combination of Belgium and The Netherlands. The country has few known natural resources. Energy has been particularly lacking.  Water power is hampered by erosion, causing generators to disintegrate and storage lakes to fill with sediment.  Both oil and coal have been found but have only begun to be developed.  Timber is in very short supply, with forests covering less than 5% of the surface; much of the earlier forest areas have been denuded (destroyed by war or cut for fuel).   Ground water almost everywhere, except in the far north,  is unavailable while rain falls heavily and creates often devastating floods  in March-April.  Other floods come when snow melts in mid summer.  These times are inappropriate for most agriculture; so Afghanistan cannot feed itself.  The  reality is that Afghanistan is and will remain a poor country.

    The population has risen over the last half century, from perhaps 10 million in 1962, when I first went there, to 31-33 million in 2012.  Today,  over half of the Afghanis are below the age of 18, so a major upsurge of population can be anticipated in the years ahead.  Before the Soviet invasion and occupation, the population was at least 80% rural:  most Afghans were settled peasant farmers, living in some 22,000 villages, but perhaps 1 in each 8 or 9 was a nomad.  Religiously, about 5-6 people in each 10 are Sunni Muslims and somewhat more than 3-4 in 10 are Shia Muslims.  Ethnically, the population is divided into at least two dozen communities of which the Pushtuns (aka Pathans) (4 in each 10), the Tajiks (3 in each 10) and the Hazaras (1-2 in each 10) are the largest.  These groups speak off-shoots of the Indo-European family of languages, mainly Dari, a dialect of Farsi (Persian).  Smaller Turkish and Mongol groups speak languages in the Ural-Altaic (or East Asian) family while other, even smaller,  communities speak languages in the Semitic family of languages.  Thus, Afghanistan is culturally, socially and politically diverse.

    While, the diversity of the country is evident, it is important not to exaggerate its effects.  The inhabitants of the cities, towns and villages share shaping influences of means of earning their livings, religious belief and practice and historical experience.   The best known traditional code of life is the Pushtunwali of the Pushtuns,  but similar "social contracts" are  echoed in the other communities;  Islam in Afghanistan, like Christianity in Europe and America, is divided, but overall there is an intense loyalty to it;  and the experience of nearly all Afghans, shaped by generations of warfare, set them apart, they fervently believe, from all foreigners.  At minimum, the Afghans have a unity in their difference from others.

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    Throughout history, central governments have functioned only intermittently and in sharply limited spheres except in the few cities.  Effective government is traditionally primarily a function of village communities: each village runs its own affairs under its own leaders; its inhabitants were economically virtually autarkic, making most of their clothing and tools and eating their own produce. 

     This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, and through their civic action programs they actually pacified many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers - and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life, what might be called "the Afghan way."

    "The Afghan way" is today manifested in three aspects of government:

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  • Will We Learn Anything from Afghanistan? William R. Polk, Part 1

    A scholar who has been studying U.S. policy toward Afghanistan since the Eisenhower asks what we can take from the last decade's victories and defeats.

    PolkPhoto.jpegWilliam R. Polk's first appearance as an Atlantic author came 55 years ago. While Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, while Americans were absorbing the impact of the launch of Sputnik, while the showdown over integrating Little Rock Central High School continued, he wrote an article for us in 1958 called [yes] "The Lessons of Iraq." You can read it here and note how much of the analysis still applies.

    In the years since then Polk has been a scholar and diplomat concentrating mainly on Middle Eastern affairs. Three years ago he made a return visit here to report on his latest trip to Afghanistan.

    Now he has written a two-part essay on what Americans should take from their past ten-plus years of combat in Afghanistan. Through all these decades, a central theme in Polk's writing has been the crucial importance of recognizing and learning from strategic mistakes -- but also the seeming impossibility of doing so. This first of his dispatches concentrates on the lessons of the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan. This one is about 3500 words long, or the scale of a medium-sized Atlantic story. I turn the stage over to William R. Polk.

      President Obama intends to "wind down" the Afghan war over the next years and to leave only a training mission there.   He inherited from President Bush and has continued, even enlarged, the American expenditures -- thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of wounded and a trillion dollars.   The experience has been, or should have been, as Kipling wrote of another war, "no end of a lesson."  Yet, I wonder, has it really been a lesson, and have we heeded it?  Might we do the same things again?

        As I have ruminated for years over these questions, which may be nearly vital for our country and our beliefs, I have reached the conclusion that we do not see or understand the similarities of events; rather we think of each venture as unique.  What happened in Vietnam has no relevance to what happened in Iraq.  After all, the  two countries are far apart, speak different languages and...well you know the rest....

        Fortunately, most of the current wars appear to be over even though they have left us with huge burdens.  But, as we survey what may be the prospect of new burdens, do our leaders connect the past to the present and the future?  I find little evidence to suggest that they do.

        Perhaps, I have thought, this is partly because of our rotation of leadership.  The new leaders are sure that they can do better what the former leaders did badly.  It is also, I think, because our memories are weak and our attention spans are short.    Perhaps we really don't care.  Or all the above.

        Here, I am trying to do two things, hence two papers I lay before you:  the one is that by looking not only at our involvement in the current war, Afghanistan, but also looking at what the Soviet Union did and tried to do there, I can single out a few things that should command attention even of our leaders.  The other, addressed in my second paper is,  given what we know and what we have experienced, what now makes sense for us to do.


    What the Russians did in Afghanistan And What We Can Learn From It.
    By William R. Polk

    I have long been a student of Afghan affairs.  I first went there in 1962 when I was a Member of the Policy Planning Council.  During that visit, I made a 2,000 mile trip around the country during which I managed to talk with dozens of village elders, government officials and the diplomats and advisers from all the main states.  The result was a policy paper I presented to the Secretary of State's policy committee.

        The main argument in my paper was that the wisest policy for America was a modest and discrete involvement designed to help the Afghans manage their own affairs.  To accomplish this goal,  I proposed various ventures in education, health and infrastructure.  

        Above all, I proposed, America should avoid actions that were likely to restart the "Great Game,"  the competition for control of Afghanistan between Imperial Russia and the then British-dominated South Asia.  Neither we, nor the by-then Soviet Russians, nor the by-then independent South Asians - and certainly not the Afghans - would gain.   What the British called a "Forward Policy" had long since proven wasteful, sterile and self-defeating.  Its modern version, proclaimed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was likely to repeat in Afghanistan what he and his brother Allan were already doing in Iran:  ultimately nullifying attempts, slow and weak as they were, toward increased national capacity and improvement of life.

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  • Today's Sobering Reading on the Afghanistan Disaster

    Are we ready to start learning the 'lessons of Afghanistan'?

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    Over the decades I've often quoted the analyses and judgments of Franklin "Chuck" Spinney. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was part of an influential group of defense analysts (along with John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Tom Amlie, Tom Christie, and others) whose work I described in National Defense. That is him, on the cover of Time magazine 30 years ago, at the right.

    Then during the 2008 campaign he made a number of calls and projections that seem obviously true in retrospect but were at odds with "savvy" political wisdom at the time. You can see samples here, here, and here.

    Spinney is back on the geo-strategic beat, with a dispatch arguing that the situation in Afghanistan is turning into an all-fronts disaster for the United States, and that the only positive outcome would involve (a) recognizing that fact, and (b) looking honestly at the sources of failure so as to reduce chances of their repetition. He is experienced enough to know that it often is impossible to draw honest lessons from failure, or even to admit or recognize it. But just after an election, at a time when the Afghan issue is less politicized than it has been (and perhaps should be), and when a new secretary of defense is about to take charge, is a good time to try.

    Please read Spinney's entire dispatch. But here is a central part of his argument, which involves the logic of the Afghan "surge" that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others persuaded a new President Obama to support in 2009:

    The problem is not just a strategic one of extracting our forces with dignity; nor is it a political one of fingering who is to blame, although there is plenty of blame to go around. It stems from deep institutional roots that reveal a need for reform in our military bureaucracies and particularly our leadership selection policies.

    That is because the next Secretary of Defense must deal with the consequences of a strategic oversight that was made by and approved at the highest professional levels of the American military establishment -- a plan which it then imposed on its weak and insecure political leaders.  This suggests a question: Will the new defense secretary succumb to business as usual by sweeping the dysfunctional institutional causes of the Afghan debacle under the rug or have the courage and wisdom to use this sorry affair as a reason to clean out the Pentagon's Augean Stables?
  • And I Also Shouldn't Just Embed Charts From 'Spy'

    It's March Madness time, international division

    On the other hand, you can't Subscribe!™ to that magazine any more, since it has lamentably been out of business since the Clinton era. (Previously in the "I know I shouldn't..." category.) Thus I will go ahead.

    A wonderful chart from Spy back in the first George (H.W.) Bush era has a dark resonance these days. It was an NCAA-style bracket for "The World Championship." Here is a detailed shot of the final matchups, which deserve a look given the deteriorating news out of Afghanistan. Click for more detailed image:


    The joke back then, in 1989, was that Afghanistan, victor in one semi-final match over the USSR, would meet Vietnam, victor over the United States in the other semi-final (in overtime), for the championship. The U.S. did, though, manage to beat Grenada in a consolation-round game. Now...

    Full bracket below; you can download the whole chart here. Thanks to reader AW for the reminder, and retroactively to all at Spy.


  • Feeling Thankfully Placid? I Can Fix That: Today's Af-Pak Reading

    Where Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul agree with a famous defense analyst

    During some period of alertness during the turkey-comatose weekend, you might consider reading an essay by Franklin "Chuck" Spinney -- my long-time friend and a former guest blogger -- about the situation in Afghanistan. (It's in Counterpunch. This should go without saying, but I have learned always to say: in endorsing one article from any site or publication, I am not necessarily endorsing everything that appears there.)

    Here is how this one begins:

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States.  To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over "who lost the Afghan War."

    To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordersman's most recent situation report on the AF-PAK War, THE AFGHANISTAN- PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011... Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it -- at the very least, take a few minutes  to read the executive summary.

    Now compare Cordesman's systematic, detailed, and workmanlike analysis to the bizarre obscurantism peddled one week later, on 22 November, co-authored by Michael O'Hanlon (Brookings Institution) and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (American Enterprise Institute) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, entitled Defining Victory in Afghanistan.

    O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz posit the bizarre thesis that the admittedly less than successful outcome against the FARC guerrillas in Colombia is a favorable model for justifying continuing business as usual in Afghanistan. Viewed through the refractions of their Columbian lens, O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz conclude, "Our current exit strategy of reducing American troops to 68,000 by the end of next summer and transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 is working. In a war where the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, we need to stay patient and resolute."

    Are O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz living on the same planet as Cordesman or do they live in some kind of parallel universe?

    I submit it is latter. Here's why -

    If you're interested so far, go to the site for more. Spinney is effectively in the "cut our losses" camp concerning Afghanistan, a political position occupied in the campaign only (to my knowledge) by Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. For the past five or six years now my instincts have put me in that same camp, including in skepticism about the buildup that President Obama announced two years ago. In my view, problems in Afghanistan trace almost irreversibly back to the disastrous 2002 decision to shift U.S. troops from that theater to preparations for (needless) war in Iraq. Like anyone's, my judgments can be wrong: for instance, the intervention in Libya has turned out better than I feared it would. But it is hard to see plausibly encouraging signs in reports from Afghanistan.

    Also worth considering: on the general theme of how to make plans when outcomes are uncertain and evidence about the future is sketchy, see Richard Danzig's essay Driving in the Dark from the Center for a New American Security. It moves beyond assertion of "unknown unknowns" to offer practical suggestions for dealing with the certainly uncertain.

  • 'Taking Stock of the Long Wars': A Proposal

    Ten years ago, U.S. forces began their combat in Afghanistan. How's it going? Here is a way to find out.

    Ten years ago today, U.S. forces began their military action in Afghanistan. American forces have been engaged in Iraq for more than eight and a half years. These are the biggest but not the only elements of the "long wars" -- or, as it is often called in defense circles, "the long war" -- that the United States has waged in response to the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

    This morning the Atlantic's National Channel posted a proposal about dealing with the long wars. Here is the background to what appears there:

    This summer, at the request of the White House, former Senator Gary Hart led a small group of volunteers preparing a memorandum on ways to transform the defense establishment. Hart has a long background in such efforts, as I have mentioned several times before. In the early 1980s, as a Senator, he was a leader of the Defense Reform coalition in Congress. A decade ago, he was co-chair of the Hart-Rudman Commission, which among other recommendations warned the incoming George W. Bush Administration of the need to be on guard against a major terrorist strike.

    The item posted today is co-authored by Hart and several people who worked with him on that memorandum, including me. The others are Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, familiar to Atlantic readers; and John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School. Today's item concerns one specific recommendation that is timely to highlight on this 10th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. combat in Afghanistan: the formation of a new "Commission to Study the Long Wars," which would carefully assess what is working, and what is not, in America's new open-ended struggles and commitments. The rest is explained in the post itself.

    I hope you will read this -- it's short but, in my view, important. And I hope the Administration will take this advice.

    More »

  • Two Worthwhile Af-Pak/OBL Reads

    Obama explains his concept of justice, and Leslie Gelb explains the opportunity for a real "mission accomplished" moment

    1. I didn't watch Obama's interview on 60 Minutes last night. But the transcript -- on CBS's site, along with video of the full 34-minute session with Steve Kroft -- is surprisingly engrossing, direct, and specific. In contrast to the chaos of some of the initial White House explanations of the raid -- armed, unarmed, human shield, whatever -- Obama is quite deliberate about the process of building intelligence, the nature of the risk he accepted, and his lack of squeamishness about, as he put it, "taking bin Laden out." The last exchange of the interview:

    >>KROFT: Is this the first time that you've ever ordered someone killed?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job....

    As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.<<

    I watched that exchange, the final minute of the online clip. You could imagine these words being delivered in a crowing, triumphalist, or otherwise offputting manner. Instead the presentation was both unapologetic and sober. "Justice was done." There is a lot more to know about this episode, but this interview deserves study, for content and tone -- and for the revelation of Obama's reasoning process. (The Atlantic Wire has an item on it now.)

    2. Leslie Gelb -- long of the State Department and Pentagon, the NYT, and the Council on Foreign Relations -- argues in the WSJ that with the death of bin Laden, the United States has a chance to declare "Mission Accomplished," and mean it this time. He begins:

    >>Afghanistan is no longer a war about vital American security interests. It is about the failure of America's political elites to face two plain facts: The al Qaeda terrorist threat is no longer centered in that ancient battleground, and the battle against the Taliban is mainly for Afghans themselves.<<

    Why is this significant? Because -- as I tried to argue just after the news broke, and also this weekend on NPR -- the death of bin Laden offers America its only chance for anything resembling a clearcut "victory" in the post-9/11 struggles. We are never going to eradicate the threat of terrorism, from al Qaeda or others. Within human time scales we are not going to modernize Afghanistan. So if we are to have an alternative to permanent commitment there, plus "permanent-emergency" distortion of Constitutional rules at home driven by reaction to terrorism, this is as good a moment as will ever come.

    Of course bin Laden's death doesn't mean the end of al Qaeda. Of course it does not end the likelihood of attacks within the US, nor the need to take steps against them. But it is the best chance we'll get to alter policies that need to be changed. 

    3. Bonus: Steve Benen, in the Washington Monthly, on the ongoing embarrassment to the nation of the remaining torture apologists, led by Liz Cheney.

  • To Honor Tim Hetherington

    Many people are dying in Libya now. Among them, an accomplished photographer killed in the line of duty.

    In light of the tragic news that photographer and film maker Tim Hetherington was killed today by government shelling in Libya, and that colleagues Chris Hondros and Guy Martin were gravely wounded and, by some reports, may also have died [Update: the death of Hondros as well has now been confirmed], two suggestions:

    - Give an extra thought to members of the much-reviled "mainstream media" who expose themselves to danger and inconvenience to help us understand the world. They are no longer our only ways of gathering such understanding, but they play an indispensable part.

    Please spare a thought as well for Atlantic reporter Clare Morgana Gillis, captured with several colleagues more than two weeks ago in Libya and still held there.

    - Please be sure to see Tim Hetherington's powerful documentary movie (with Sebastian Junger), Restrepo. I won't spoil the experience by telling you what will learn, but I promise you will learn something. It is about a year in the life (and deaths) of an American combat unit in Afghanistan. The shot below is of Junger and Hetherington (on the right) at Outpost Restrepo while filming the unit's activities.


  • Two Stories to Read Today

    An account from 1966, and one from 2011, tell the same story about America's longest wars

    1) "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy," by David Cloud, in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.  This is the most vivid recent rendering of a truth that in our bones we all understand: that the most technologically advanced, complex, and "sophisticated" new U.S. combat tools are ill-matched to the realities of a mountainous, pre-modern society with no obvious battle lines or clear distinctions between friend and foe. Read this story before your next discussion on whether American strategy can "succeed" in Afghanistan. Read and weep.

    Illustration from the LAT site:
    Thumbnail image for LATimesIllustration.png

    Esquire.png2) "M," by John Sack, published in Esquire forty-five years ago with the cover line, "Oh My God -- We Hit a Little Girl!" Bonus question/current-events IQ test: See if you can guess why I am suggesting reading these two stories back to back.

    This John Sack article, which I remember seeing as a teenager, is part of a wonderful Esquire project of putting "The 7 Greatest Stories in the History of Esquire Magazine" on line, in their entirety. Congrats to Esquire's Tim Heffernan for this effort, and to the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf for the tip to it, via his The Best of Journalism site.
    Can't say it often enough: by far the best way to read these long online essays is with Instapaper, which sends beautifully and readably formatted versions to your iPad, Kindle, portable computer, etc. More about it here.

  • More on 'Destroy the Town'

    The battlefront news from Afghanistan is uncomfortably familiar

    Two days ago I mentioned the similarity between a powerful Washington Post article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the introduction of heavy tanks to Afghanistan, and the "destroy the town to save it" tragedies of Vietnam. Reader Nils Gilman noticed another resonance, from his time as a PhD student at UC Berkeley:

    >>Reading your reference to the Washington Post article about the US deploying M-1 tanks in Afghanistan brought back uncanny memories from my dissertation days.

    I wonder whether the anonymous senior officer who Chandrasekaran quotes -- claiming that "blowing up so many [Afghan] fields and homes, [and thus] making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, [has the benefit of] connecting the government to the people" -- is aware that he is making exactly the same argument that Samuel Huntington made in his infamous Foreign Affairs piece ("The Bases of Accommodation," July 1968) in which he defended the carpet-bombing of the South Vietnamese countryside on the grounds that this would drive the peasants into the cities, where they would be less tempted by Communism and more loyal to the government.

    At the time, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars quoted one of Huntington's colleagues as saying, "Sam has simply lost the capacity to distinguish between urbanization and genocide." That may have been a bit harsh, but it quite rightly underscores the political folly of applying mass firepower in a campaign to win hearts and minds.<<

    I was not really of age to notice the cautionary stories out of Vietnam in the mid-1960s. I have often wondered how people gauged -- and for a while decided to ignore -- the darker and darker stories about the regimes the U.S. was backing and the difficulties of winning hearts and minds with firepower.

    Well, we're re-running that experiment in real time now, with the darker and darker reports from Afghanistan -- about the Karzai regime, about civilian casualties and resulting embitterment, about the need to "heavy up" with M1 tanks. Americans who today are "not really of age" to assess these stories will, later on, wonder why they did not get more attention right now.

  • 'Destroy the Town to Save It'

    Winning hearts and minds by bulldozing homes?

    Via my Atlantic colleague James Gibney, a pointer to the astonishing, deadpan final words of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's  article in the Washington Post yesterday, about the deployment of M1 Abrams tanks to Afghanistan as a ramping up and "conventionalizing" of the war against the Taliban.

    >>"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

    Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.<<

    Nearly five years ago, I was at seminar at Ft. Leavenworth, where David Petraeus was then the commanding general. The topic of the meeting was the new Counter Insurgency, or "COIN," doctrine, which Petraeus and the Marine Corps' James Mattis were heading an ambitious, serious, scholarly-soldier effort to rewrite.

    Petraeus is now in charge in Afghanistan; Mattis is his successor at CENTCOM; their doctrine was published (PDF here, link to published book here) and received wide attention, discussion, and acclaim. And everything about it was the antithesis of bringing in heavy tanks, bulldozing families off their land, and hoping for a positive payoff when they "connect" to the government by going to beg for relief. What can he and Mattis think of the effort they now oversee? They're just past the generation that served in Vietnam, but they know every detail of its history -- and understand what stories like Chandrasekaran's bode.

    Bonus: this summer, after Petraeus took over for Stanley McChrystal, a special Afghan version of COIN guidelines was briefly published on some military sites. It was quickly taken down, but it included items like these:

    >>■ "Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect."

    ■ "Walk. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population."

    ■ "Fight hard and fight with discipline: Hunt the enemy aggressively but use only the firepower needed to win a fight." <<


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