An eclectic group of experts assessed the nuances of counterinsurgency and troop increases at a panel on Wednesday.
Most congressional hearings bring administration officials up for a grilling. Others present interest group-backed pseudo-experts to give canned analysis. Rarely do congressional hearings present eclectic analysts who address a given policy option from a first-principle perspective to an engaged group of lawmakers. Yet that’s exactly what happened Wednesday afternoon when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began what chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) described as a series of hearings about the war in Afghanistan.
Kerry assembled three experts to scrutinize the core issues at the heart of the war and the alternatives proposed to wage it: John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has provided significant personnel and intellectual heft to the Obama administration; Steve Biddle, an influential security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations who advised Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent review of Afghanistan strategy; and Rory Stewart, head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, who wrote a widely read travelogue of his journeys through Afghanistan. Intellectual cleavages over both strategy and basic views of the war were apparent on the panel, with Nagl and Biddle supporting a more robustly resourced war with broader aims than Stewart endorsed. But both Nagl and Biddle grappled with the harder implications of such positions, with Nagl emphasizing the primacy of competent Afghan, not U.S., security forces, and Biddle equivocating on the overall importance of Afghanistan to U.S. interests.
This week, President Obama is expected to approve McChrystal’s strategy review, and McChrystal is expected to finalize a palette of options for resourcing the war, including the prospect of U.S. troop increases. Amid rapidly eroding public support for the war, one of the larger concerns roiling lawmakers is whether the counterinsurgency strategy fulsomely embraced by the administration is sufficiently tied to the administration’s stated objectives of eradicating al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan and preventing al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan. Kerry asked if this week’s successful commando raid in Somalia against an important al-Qaeda-linked figure — launched from offshore bases and requiring no on-land troop presence — might be a model for an alternative strategy.
“Sir, it tells us you can conduct counterterrorism with a light footprint, not counterinsurgency,” Nagl replied. Kerry was unsatisfied with the answer: “That’s exactly my point,” he said. Nagl parried that the presence of neighboring Pakistan was the crucial difference, as the absence of U.S. forces would contribute to the destabilization of Afghanistan’s neighbor, while their presence inspired Pakistani resolve. “I am convinced that American counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in Afghanistan have contributed to the more effective Pakistani counterinsurgency campaign” of the spring, when Pakistani troops finally evicted Taliban insurgents from the Swat valley.
Stewart disagreed, contending that the United States tended to underestimate Afghan and Pakistani will to make decisions in their own interests and overestimated the impact of Afghanistan to Pakistani stability. “It’s very dangerous to mount an argument about Afghanistan based on Pakistan,” he said, comparing weak, poor Afghanistan to a cat and nuclear-armed Pakistan to a tiger. “We’re beating the cat,” Stewart continued, “and when you say, ‘Why are you beating the cat?’ you say, ‘It’s a cat-tiger strategy.’ But you’re beating the cat because you don’t know what to do about the tiger.”
A better strategy, Stewart argued, would be to use special forces to “identify a narrow group of people called al-Qaeda and then eliminate them.”
Later in the hearing, Biddle addressed some of the problems with the so-called “offshore” option, whereby U.S. forces launch the occasional raid, mostly from the skies or with special forces, on selected al-Qaeda targets, dissenting from Stewart’s prescriptions. “Safe havens do not [offer al-Qaeda] real estate for construction of tent farms for training seminars,” he said, but instead they protect al-Qaeda from “human-intelligence penetration on the ground,” upon which such targeted counterterrorism strikes depend. With regard to the drone strikes in Pakistan against al-Qaeda — which the CIA claims has seriously eroded al-Qaeda’s freedom of movement in the tribal areas and which some counterinsurgents fear will ultimately alienate Pakistanis — “control of the government underneath the drones” was an additional prerequisite for success, Biddle said. Take away human intelligence and host-government complicity through an offshoring strategy, and counterterrorism would be a non-starter.
Nagl, an Iraq war veteran and longtime advocate of prosecuting counterinsurgency largely through the cultivation of partner military forces, was agnostic in his remarks about whether to send additional U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan. Instead he advocated, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has proposed, an accelerated deployment of Afghan security forces, and proposed increasing the dedicated U.S. force for training Afghan forces from 4000 to 10,000. Since the U.S. method of training counterinsurgent forces involves mentoring in combat, not academic settings, “No one should think because we’re sending over trainers that we’re not putting them in harm’s way,” Nagl cautioned.
All three panelists agreed on the need to distinguish among what McChrystal has called the “Taliban-led syndicate” of insurgent groups, particularly the small core that fights for ideological conviction and those who fight for more transactional reasons, like money or status. Most insurgents in Afghanistan “are not particularly interested in international terrorism,” Stewart said, and the “small proportion who are don’t have the resources to carry out whatever ambition [is] in their fantasies.”
But Biddle and Nagl responded that such distinctions could not drive splits within the Taliban absent more aggressive fighting and sustained U.S. and Afghan governmental commitment. So-called reconciliation efforts could be successful only “if the military tide begins to turn and perceptions of long-term trajectory” are on the side of the Afghan government, Biddle said. And if the U.S. couldn’t protect defectors from the Taliban coalition from reprisal, “It’s very difficult to convince a ten-dollar Taliban to side with us.”
It was difficult to read the impact the testimony had on the assembled senators. Most, including Kerry, posed skeptical questions to all panelists, indicating a more open debate than the congressional debate over the Iraq war, which often devolved into questioning designed to elicit politically-useful responses. Kerry, for instance, has described the struggle against al-Qaeda as a “global counterinsurgency,” yet he aimed most of his more pointed questions at Nagl, who mostly agrees with that analysis.
Kerry said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had agreed to testify before the panel next month, after President Obama made a decision on whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Another hearing, on how to avoid failure in Afghanistan, is scheduled for Thursday morning, when the panel will hear from ret. Gen. Bantz Craddock, the former NATO commander; development expert Clare Lockhart; novelist Khaled Hosseini; and Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan.
EPA Administrator Addresses Concerns About Oil Spill Waste Management
At a hearing of the national oil spill commission today, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson addressed concerns about waste disposal from
EPA administrator defends allowing Florida to write its own water pollution rules
The EPA seal (Pic via sentryjournal.com) The Environmental Protection Agency has come under fire for its decision to allow the state of Florida to write its own water pollution rules (known as “numeric nutrient criteria”). EPA Regional Administrator Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming is now firing back, writing that the Agency commends the state Department of Environmental Protection for its draft of a proposed standard. A host of environmental groups filed suit in 2008, seeking to compel the EPA to implement a strict set of water pollution standards in Florida, arguing that the state was in violation of the Clean Water Act.
EPA administrator says federal nutrient criteria is a ‘myth’
In testimony given late last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that false accusations about her agency’s numeric nutrient criteria to govern Florida waterways are proving to be a detriment to their implementation. # Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee, Jackson said her agency’s work was often “mischaracterized” and addressed several myths surrounding its work
E-Verify Mandate Begins Today
The Obama administration today begins implementation of a new mandate to require all federal contractors to check the legal status of their employees to confirm
EPA administrator fires back at critics in op-ed
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (Pic by USACEpublicaffairs, via Flickr) EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson penned a new op-ed for the Los Angeles Times , criticizing House Republicans desperately seeking to undermine the authority of the agency they have dubbed a “job killer.” Arguing that the environment affects red states and blue states alike, Jackson writes that “it is time for House Republicans to stop politicizing our air and water.” As head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson has faced harsh criticism from House Republicans and GOP presidential candidates who say the agency’s regulations are an undue burden on businesses that have to cut jobs simply to comply with clean water and air rules. Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has pledged to end the EPA if she takes office. “Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation’s environmental laws,” writes Jackson.
EPA and California Near Deal on Fuel Efficiency Standards
Two weeks ago, the Obama administration raised fuel efficiency standards by an average of two miles per gallon -- a modest change that disappointed some
EPA announces hold on nutrient standards if Florida can come up with own criteria
The EPA announced today that it is now prepared to withdraw a portion of its proposed numeric nutrient criteria (a set of standards governing water pollution in inland waters) and delay the portion related to estuarine waters, to allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop its own criteria. # From a statement released by the EPA earlier today: # EPA recognizes that states have the primary role in establishing and implementing water quality standards for their waters. Therefore, EPA is prepared to withdraw the federal inland standards and delay the estuarine standards if FDEP adopts, and EPA approves, their own protective and scientifically sound numeric standards
EPA biologist says fracking may be partly to blame for West Virginia fish kill
New documents obtained by an environmental news service show that an EPA analyst believes that wastewater from fracking may be partly responsible for a fish kill in a West Virginia river. Scientific American reports : U.S
EPA Chief Overruled Calif. Waiver, Too
The Washington Post reported in March that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was overruled by the White House in setting an ozone standard. Now, documents