Archive for the ‘Military and War’ Category.

Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.

Twilight Struggle

Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's.   There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.

I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise.  I had said I remembered it to be "complex."  Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.).  Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand.  You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points).  Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.

The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game.  This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950.  It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages.  This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian.  The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game.  I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.

The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:

1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions.  The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc.  The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.

2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent.  The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game.  On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent.  If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both.  This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful.  But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent.  Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.

3) the interaction of the cards.  Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions.  This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear.  We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card.  Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.

Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating.  Highly recommended.

 

Some Predictions I Made in 2007

Blogging has been light during the holidays, but here are some predictions I made back in 2007 I feel pretty good about (note these were made a year before Obama was elected)

What I will say is that folks who have enthusiastically supported the war should understand that the war is going to have the following consequences:

  1. In 2009 we will have a Democratic Congress and President for the first time since 1994.
  2. The next President will use the deficits from the $1.3 trillion in Iraq war spending to justify a lot of new taxes
  3. These new taxes, once the war spending is over, will not be used for deficit reduction but for new programs that, once established, will be nearly impossible to eliminate
  4. No matter what the next president promises to the electorate, they are not going to reverse precedents for presidential power and secrecy that GWB has established.  Politicians never give up power voluntarily.  [if the next president is Hillary, she is likely to push the envelope even further].  Republicans are not going to like these things as much when someone of the other party is using them.

1.  The prediction was 100% correct, and in fact even went further as the donkeys gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, at least for a year.  Though the war likely had little to do with the outcome, which was driven more by the economy

2.  Dead-on.  Five years later Obama still blames the deficit on Bush.  This is no longer true -- Obama has contributed far, far more than Bush to the deficit -- but the Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility during their tenure have robbed them of any credibility in criticizing Obama

3.  Mostly true (and usually a safe bet with government).   Tax increases were deferred for four years due to an economy I had not foreseen would be so bad, but they are coming.  At the time, it seemed logical to blame a lot of the deficit issues on war spending.  Today, though, 1.3 trillion is barely 8% of the debt and is almost trivial to more recent money wasting activities.

4.  Absolutely true.  In spades.  The only thing I missed was I thought Obama might be less likely to go overboard with the whole executive authority and secrecy thing than Hillary, but boy was I wrong.  Obama has absolutely embraced the imperial presidency in a way that might have made Dick Cheney blush.  Accelerated drone war, constant ducking of FOIA and transparency, increased use of treason laws to prosecute whistle blowers, claiming of power to assassinate Americans on the President's say-so, accelerated warrant-less wiretapping, using executive orders to end-run Congress, etc. etc.  And I never guessed how much the media which so frequently criticized  Bush for any expansions in these areas would roll over and accept such activity from a President of their party.

Moral Hazard in the Drone War

I missed Tom Junod's original article on targeted killing, but his response to Andrew Sullivan's defense of the Obama Administration is terrific:

I did not -- and do not -- condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, "ticking-clock" situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn't. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers -- the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan -- tell a story that can't simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.

Moreover, I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question -- "how good is the intelligence?" -- paused and finally couldn't answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:

"It's not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn't so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

Unfortunately, I think targeting killing is here to stay, by the "only Nixon could go to China" logic.  By having a Democrat start this policy, it has avoided a lot of critique from the usual defenders of humanity against arbitrary power, for the simple reason that many of these folks consider Obama to be "on their team."  Just look at Andrew Sullivan, for God sakes, defending the practice.   The Left spent more time criticizing Bush over looting at the Bagdad museum than it has over Obama's targeted killing (Glen Greenwald being a notable exception).  Having set the precedent under Obama, there will be no going back under either party in the future.

We Love Drone Strikes

Kevin Drum points to a poll showing that 2/3 of Americans, and a majority of liberal Democrats, support drone strikes, even if the targets are Americans.  Like me, he finds these numbers disturbing, though in a later post he hypothesizes that people may mean they like drones in comparison to using and risking live troops, rather than simply supporting willy nilly drone strikes per se.

It is odd that the children of the sixties -- who grew up protesting push button war and American pilots who bombed Cambodians with impunity and were home for dinner -- now seem to be OK with drone attacks, even on Americans.  (I am reminded of the Al Franken skit on SNL where he editorializes that now that he has assets to protect and is older, he has changed his mind and supports the draft).  While I am happy with the idea of technologies that keep American soldiers safer, I am not happy with something that makes it easier for the President to, without accountability and often in secret, use force against, well, whatever target catches his whim.

Consider drones from the receiving end.  For a Pakistani, American drones resemble nothing so much as alien invaders from a Niven/Pournelle novel dropping meteors on cities.  The Americans might as well be Zeus on Mt Olympus hurling thunderbolts at them for all that they can fight back or retaliate.   It's a lot of responsibility to play God -- and there has been no one in either party over the last several decades I would trust to do it.

Our Confused Policy in Afghanistan

There are a lot of ways to parse this story about the alleged video of soldiers urinating on corpses in Afghanistan.  It seems ugly, but desecration of corpses has a long history in Afghan conflicts (often consisting of cutting off male-only body parts).  And it's bizarre to see people more upset about peeing on corpses than with corpsifying them in the first place.

But at the end of the day this is what I think is broken about the Afghan conflict.  You don't send warriors into a brutal guerrilla war with no rules and simultaneously expect them to be goodwill ambassadors as well.  Given that these are two activities whose Venn diagrams of skills and mindsets have so little overlap, the military does a pretty good job trying to do what its being asked, but over the long run it's a losing game  (somewhere in here there is an Ender's Game reference about trying to meld empathy with killer instincts).

By the way, exactly what is our goal in Afghanistan, will someone remind me?  We have been successful when __________________ ?