Afghan Combat Harrowing for Both Sides

Posted January 3rd, 2011 at 7:20 pm (UTC+0)
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Welcome back and Happy New Year!  (Yes, I’ve been away.)

New years do seem to start off slow and gradually pick up steam (some faster than others) as we shake off the torpor of the old one.  But I just saw something that gave me a jolting start to 2011: the Afghan war documentary “Restrepo.”

No, the film is not new; it was in theatrical release in mid-2010.  But seeing “Restrepo” seems to have some special resonance now as we enter the year in which the U.S. is scheduled to begin some drawdown of troops in Afghanistan — with the policymakers’ caveat of “conditions permitting.”  (However, 2014 seems to be creeping more into the war conversation.)

Shot in 2007 and 2008, “Restrepo” is a gripping and graphic record of a U.S. Army 15-man platoon’s deployment to a remote, isolated outpost in the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province.  There are no interviews with generals or experts.  There is no voiceover narration.  As filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington note on the film’s website, this is war, full stop.

The young men shown in the film are almost kids, for the most part.  We see bravery, fear, guilt, boredom, exhilaration, grief, and bravado expressed in speech and writ large on their young faces.

One soldier emerges from a firefight with the Taliban talking about combat as being more addictive than crack cocaine.  As one who has not only covered wars but served in one (Vietnam) I can attest to at least part of the truth of that.  There is an adrenaline rush to being under fire and coming out the other end alive.  I have known fellow correspondents who are as hooked on it as some soldiers.  We call these reporters who go back to the danger zones again and again “war junkies.”

Except some do not emerge from the encounter with war.  Some, man and woman, soldier and reporter, die.

I doubt that any filmmaker who might be allowed to embed with a Taliban unit for an extended period, as Junger and Hetheringon did with the men of Outpost Restrepo, would get the same unvarnished view of the war.  And the Taliban no doubt have a hugely different view of things than the ISAF troops fighting them.  But fear, loneliness, pain, bravery and, yes, adrenaline highs are part of any soldier’s world.  In my imagination, at least, I would like to think that they share at least some of the same confused and conflicting emotions shown by the American soldiers of “Restrepo.”

Holbrooke Death Marks Passing of Torch to New Generation

Posted December 15th, 2010 at 5:21 pm (UTC+0)
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When someone dies, especially someone of note, accolades pour in praising the deceased’s virtues and praising his or her legacy.  But of all the tributes that came in after the death U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, one, for me, stood out.

In a statement, CIA director Leon Panetta – who worked with Holbrooke on some of the toughest policy issues – praised Holbrooke’s intellect and talent.  But the striking phrase was this:  “In many ways, this loss marks the passing of the postwar generation of remarkable statesmen whose devotion to our nation’s values strengthened America’s leadership in the world.”

While it is still be a tad early to write off the so-called “boomers” in the halls of foreign policy – after all, Holbrooke’s boss, Hillary Clinton is, at 63, only six years younger than Holbrooke at his death – Panetta is still on to something here.

Across the spectrum of the work force, the postwar boomers are starting to retire.  We hear about this in every argument in Congress about Medicare and Social Security, two cornerstones of assistance for senior citizens that are reported to be heading into financial trouble under the burden of aging boomers.

A lot of experienced national security hands, particularly in the intelligence community, left after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and officials say that many of them were not replaced. But the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon sent many agencies scurrying for new analysts and clandestine officers.  Now some of those employees who were at mid-point in their careers in the 1990s are also heading for the doors.

Intelligence agencies are cagey about releasing even overall employment statistics.  But I asked a U.S. intelligence official about this.

“ It’s well known that the CIA and other intelligence agencies went through a hiring pause in the 1990s,” he replied.  “That pace picked up in the late 1990s, but it’s true that you see a lot of intelligence officers walking around who are toward the beginning and end of their careers.  Understanding that reality, agencies have made a strong push in recent years to attract mid-career professionals.”

The national security work force is aging and retiring, and a new generation of spies, analysts, and diplomats is taking its place.  Their worldview is not shaped by Vietnam or the Cold War, as was the case with Holbrooke and his generation, but by new threats that transcend international boundaries.  Rapid technological advances, especially in computers and communications make the jobs of spies and diplomats a lot easier, but much more complex as well.

The new generation moving up through the ranks to replace the boomers in the national security machine is just as dedicated as was Holbrooke.  But they are approaching those jobs with an outlook and tools not dreamt of when Richard Holbrooke was making his own ascent up that ladder in the 1960s.

Holbrooke Death Leaves Hole in Afghan Policy

Posted December 14th, 2010 at 7:39 pm (UTC+0)
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The death of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke came at a rather untimely moment.  The Obama Administration was putting the final touches on the strategic review of what is dubbed “Af-Pak” policy, and Holbrooke was a key participant in that.

Holbrooke was known for an outsize ego and abrasive manner, and was nicknamed “the Bulldozer.”  But he was also an immensely talented diplomat.  Few knew how to cajole, wheedle, and plead among intractable parties better than he.  The testament to that is the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia.  Many tend to forget about it now, but it was an awful conflict, rent through with ethnic and religious tensions.  Yet Holbrooke got sworn enemies to hammer out an agreement.  Holbrooke died one day before the 15th anniversary of those accords.

But the job as troubleshooter for the Af-Pak diplomatic portfolio is a tougher nut, in many ways, to crack.  The job Holbrooke held was ill-defined from the beginning.  He was reporting to one person – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – and he was sometimes at odds with the ambassadors in Islamabad or Kabul.  He also clashed with then-National Security Advisor James Jones and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, especially over Afghan government corruption.

War-zone diplomacy is a particularly difficult task.  Holbrooke’s roots were in this specialty, serving as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam.  He often raised Vietnam when talking about Afghanistan, not to make parallels – he was careful to say that “Afghanistan is not Vietnam” – but to drive home the horrible price of armed conflict.  It was an experience that threaded through his experiences from Bosnia to Afghanistan.

But, had he lived, could he have negotiated a Dayton-style accord in Afghanistan?  Could he have gotten the Taliban, or at least some of the less savory elements of it, and the Afghan government to agree to a political deal?

That’s a bit more of a problematic question.  Afghanistan is not Bosnia, either.  It is questionable whether the head-butting style that Holbrooke employed in Dayton would have worked in the Afghan milieu.  As former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia Teresita Schaffer said to me, “Afghans don’t like to be forced.”   In fact, some question whether anybody could broker an Afghan peace deal.

Any hope of reaching such a deal would likely need the services of a super-diplomat as interlocutor – someone like Richard Holbrooke.  But diplomats of his stature are in very short supply anywhere in the world.

WikiLeaks: one week down, ???? to go

Posted December 10th, 2010 at 8:15 pm (UTC+0)
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There is little doubt the WikiLeaks cables have been a headache for U.S. officials in general, and diplomats in particular.  To have private and very candid assessments of foreign leaders and reports on their activities aired in public is embarrassing.  It’s like knowing someone is talking about you behind your back, and then finding out what they are actually saying.

How long the headache will last is rather unclear. It may be that WikiLeaks has already made public the juiciest tidbits.  Certainly officials hope the worst is behind them.  And some of the steam has run out of the story.  The front page headlines of the day’s revelations are now in inner pages of the newspaper, if at all.

But only less than one percent of the 250,000 documents that have come into WikiLeaks’ possession have been released.  There is always the possibility of some new revelation that grabs public interest, especially if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange decides to set off his so-called “nuclear option” – the release of some reportedly really sensitive documents – if he feels under increased pressure.

But it’s hard to tell if that will happen.  Assange is a mercurial figure and his organization shadowy, so making any prediction of what will come next is close to guesswork.

At least some people have tried to take advantage of the reduced attention.  Major Pakistani newspapers carried stories of purported American diplomats’ unflattering assessments of Indian leaders, as well as praise for Pakistan’s controversial Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the ISI.  But they were proven to be fakes, assumed to have been planted on a website by the ISI itself.  The opportunities for planting disinformation seem to have multiplied in the digital age.  If a story is on a website, it may be difficult to check or trace back.

The side story that is getting really interesting is the cyberwar being waged by Assange supporters against websites and organizations they perceive to have slighted WikiLeaks.  An online vigilante group calling itself “Anonymous” has already temporarily disabled websites owned by companies like MasterCard and PayPal, both of which suspended payment services to WikiLeaks.

We don’t know what countermeasures the U.S. government is taking in the online conflict, although it probably can be assumed that it has already interposed itself in there somewhere.  The National Security Agency, which deals in high-tech intelligence, is full of talented people and topflight computers perfectly capable of waging sophisticated cyberwar.

Partying Down at the CIA

Posted December 6th, 2010 at 8:51 pm (UTC+0)
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The CIA held its annual holiday reception Friday. Who would have thought that they were a bunch of party animals?

OK, it’s not exactly “Spies Gone Wild.” But the annual party is always a first-class event with lots of excellent food, good wine, and fascinating company – although some of the guests may be understandably reluctant to have a conversation.

Held in the main lobby of the CIA itself, the guest list of several hundred included spies, diplomats, and a smattering of journalists covering security matters – the kind of mix you’d usually find at a guest house on the Afghan border. CIA director Leon Panetta and his wife greeted guests who, after the formalities, made a beeline for the two bars or the eight or so food stations scattered across entrance hall.

I spotted three former CIA directors – including Michael Hayden, James Woolsey, and Stansfield Turner – Senate and House leaders, ambassadors, and so many two-, three-, and four-star generals (American and otherwise) that you’d think you were not at CIA but at MGM, the film studio that use to brag that it had “more stars than there are in heaven.”

So how do you talk to a spy? Well, sometimes very carefully. The overt intelligence officers are easy but still wary conversationalists, with every other sentence seemingly beginning with, “now, this is a social function, so we’re off the record, right?” WikiLeaks seemed to be a popular target of talk

Talking with the real spies, the clandestine folks,  is harder. But they are ironically easier to spot. Say, you’re standing at a table munching your food and drinking wine (an excellent Oregon Pinot Noir, I might add). Some fellow joins you at the table (there are only a few there in the lobby). The polite opening gambit is, of course, to introduce yourself.

“Hi, I’m Gary Thomas from VOA News.”

“Hi. I’m Fred.”

The lack of a last name usually means (a) it’s probably not his real name anyway, and (b) he’s a working spy. The dead giveaway is when he immediately grabs his plate and scurries away to some corner like you have Ebola virus. The last person a real spy wants to have a conversation with is a journalist.

But the party still gives one a chance to mingle with the glitterati of the intelligence world. And the food is awfully good. But when I asked the chef for one of the recipes, I was rebuffed. He said it was secret.

I wonder if there’s a WikiLeaks cookbook…

Documents Show U.S. Coalition Building on Iran

Posted December 3rd, 2010 at 6:28 pm (UTC+0)
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There is little question that the latest batch of WikiLeaks documents, mainly from the State Department, make for fascinating reading.

Examples abound:  Over the past nine years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has seemingly morphed from being a rather happy fellow to a mercurial and paranoid one.   Russian President Dmitri Medvedev “plays Robin to (Vladimir) Putin’s Batman.’’  North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is a “rather flabby old chap” who is “quite a good drinker.”

Some of the leaked cables are well-written and even amusing, with diplomats displaying a lively literary panache.  That’s probably because, as many diplomats will tell you, that writing a good, lively cable is a way to get noticed back in Washington. It’s like reading a diplomatic gossip column.

But there’s also some serious stuff here as well.  If you pull all the Iranian pieces together, for example, a quite interesting portrait emerges of coalition-building and policy formulation inside the U.S. government.

The United States is trying to contain Iran as Tehran allegedly bids to become a nuclear power.  As the documents indicate, Washington has found considerable support among Gulf Arab states concerned about Iranian expansionism.  Some of the Arab leaders see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as dangerous, even unstable.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz  appears especially hawkish in the WikiLeaks documents, even to calling for a military strike on Iran. The Saudi monarch is just as alarmed about Iran’s nuclear weapons program as Israel.  Online analyst Caryle Murphy of the site GlobalPost says King Abdullah’s concern “gives some credence to media reports earlier this year that Riyadh has secretly agreed to give over-flight rights to Israeli warplanes in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran.”  Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied such reports.

If the public statements don’t match the private ones – as is often the case in diplomacy – it is because the Gulf States also have to tread carefully when it comes to Iran.  Some of those countries depend on Iran for access to trade routes to Central Asia.  Others have homegrown militant Islamic groups, some of which are sympathetic to Iran and its ambitions.  It’s a delicate tightrope to walk.

But the fact that there is such Arab concern about Iran is good news for the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – as they prepare for a new round of nuclear talks with Iran.  They are trying to build consensus in the international community to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran if it refuses to compromise on the nuclear issue.  And consensus building is, after all, what diplomacy is all about.

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About this blog

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas is VOA senior correspondent and news analyst. He has spent more than 30 years covering a wide range of stories on political developments, war, and civil unrest. From 1990 to 1994 he was VOA’s bureau chief in Islamabad, and has made numerous trips back to the region since then. He was also Southeast Asia bureau chief in Bangkok from 1996-2001. He is now based in Washington, providing background and analysis on issues of intelligence, security, and terrorism for VOA’s worldwide audience.

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