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This article, by Colin Halinan, was published by Foreign Policy in Focus, September 30, 2009
"We deeply regret" are words that almost always end with something terrible. They were uttered by German Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung in the wake of a September 4 airstrike that left upwards of 100 Afghans dead. He followed it with a boilerplate phrase that invariably makes such apologies suspect: "We had reliable intelligence that our soldiers were in danger."
Jung had nothing of the sort. But the minister's deception had less to do with the military's standard instinct to lie than with the arithmetic of Germany's federal elections.
The Afghans, most of them farmers from a local village, were incinerated to make sure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDP) and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party (SDP) did not overly suffer for their support of the war.
The tale is a chilling one. Bombing the Fuel Trucks
According to Der Spiegel, at 8 p.m. on the night of September 4 a German intelligence officer in the northern province of Kunduz took a call from Afghan security forces with information that the local Taliban had hijacked two fuel tankers. His commander, Col. Georg Klein, asked for air reconnaissance, and a U.S. B-1B long-range bomber spotted the trucks stuck in the sand of the Kunduz River. The B-1B sent pictures, but apparently they were grainy, dark, and hard to read.
At 10 p.m. a local Afghan informant told Klein there were no civilians around the vehicles, but lots of Taliban, including four leaders. At a little past 1 a.m., two F-15 fighters showed up.
Under the General Rules of Engagement and Standard Operations Procedures — the military loves to wrap mayhem in the language of maintenance manuals — the trucks could not be attacked. One, there were no NATO troops on the scene. Two, a single informant is not enough to initiate an attack. And three, it was not a "time sensitive" target; that is, one that was going somewhere. The trucks had been stuck for four hours.
But Klein called for an airstrike anyway, even after the F-15 pilots asked him to confirm that German forces were involved and that the tankers posed an "imminent threat." Assured on both points, the planes released two GBU-38 radar guided bombs, each with a 500-pound warhead. The target dissolved in an enormous fireball.
From all accounts, Bundeswehr Col. Klein is no gung-ho heir of the Wehrmacht. He drinks tea, goes to the opera, and worries about his men. When a local Afghan boy was shot at a roadblock, he personally apologized to the family.
So what made him launch an attack that violated every rule of engagement? Political Considerations
"Klein knew that in a past incident the insurgents had detonated a tanker truck in Kandahar, killing dozens of civilians," wrote Der Spiegel. "He had also received visits from a number of leading politicians, from Merkel and Steinmeier as well as Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung (CDU) and his predecessor Peter Struck (SDP). Klein knows that they fear nothing more than an attack on German troops shortly before the upcoming parliamentary elections."
According to the German paper, Afghan informants told Klein back in August that the Taliban were planning an assault on the German camp using trucks. But Klein should have known that it was unlikely that such an attack would be tried with huge, slow-moving fuel tankers.
Indeed, Mullah Shamsuddin, the commander of the Taliban forces who seized the trucks, had no intention of using the trucks as suicide bombs. "Fuel tankers are far too impractical in terrain like this," he told Der Spiegel in a phone interview. "We simply planned to drive them to Chahar Dara and unload the fuel there. We can always use supplies."
Instead the trucks got bogged down, and the Taliban recruited local farmers — many at gunpoint — to try to pull them out of the sand. The locals also brought fuel cans to fill. "We knew the fuel was stolen, but we were forced to go there," says a young farmer, Mohammed Nur. When the bombs hit, he was badly wounded. His two brothers died.
When the story broke, the Germans went into full spin mode. Defense ministry flak Captain Christian Dienst told the media, "According to our knowledge at present, no civilians were present," and then scolded the press for speculating while sitting "in their warm chairs in Berlin." The ministry also leaked a false story that Klein had used reconnaissance drones and that there was a second intelligence source.
But as the evidence piled up, the ministry's denials began to unravel. Interviews by the group Afghan Rights Monitor found that the dead included 12 Taliban members and 79 villagers. Soon the defense ministry found itself under assault not just from its own media, but also from its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Almost before the fires went out on banks of the Kunduz River, out came the long knives. Allied Arguments
The United States struck first. U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal arrived at Kunduz with a Washington Post reporter. When the Germans objected, McChrystal said the journalist was just collecting background material for a book. But on September 6 the Post printed a story blaming the whole thing on the Germans and using quotes from the meeting.
German commanders angrily accused the United States of "deliberately leaking misinformation."
The French and the British piled on next. The bombing was "a big mistake," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and British Foreign Minister David Miliband called for an "urgent investigation."
Afghan President Harmid Karzai blasted the attack as a "major error," adding that McChrystal had apologized and said that he had not "given the order to attack."
The underlying resentment among the NATO allies is beginning to surface. When Labor MP Eric Joyce recently resigned his position as parliamentary aide to the British defense minister because he could no longer support the war, he leveled a broadside at other NATO countries. "For many, Britain fights, Germany pays, France calculates, Italy avoids."
Even some in the United States have begun to rail at what they see as a lack of commitment by NATO. While the "American people are supporting this [the war]," U.S. Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Democratic chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told The Cable, "The Europeans are not doing a damn thing." As of September 17, the United States had lost 830 soldiers in Afghanistan, Britain 216, Canada 130, Germany 38, France 31, Denmark 27, Spain 25, Italy 21, and the Netherlands 21. The overall allied losses in the war are 1,403. Deaths among Afghan civilians, according the United Nations, have risen 24% over last year, one-third of them from airstrikes.
The allied gang-up was a shock to the Germans, who have long touted their expertise in Afghanistan and sharply criticized other NATO nations for being indifferent to civilian casualties. "German bashing" was suddenly in vogue. As one diplomat told Der Spiegel, it was "Schadenfreude against the eternal know-it-alls." War Comes Home
The massacre at Kunduz has suddenly brought the war home to the Germans. The parties that collaborated in sending the troops — the Green Party, the CDU, and the SDP — have long tried to keep Afghanistan off the radar screen. Jung won't use the word krieg (war), Merkel has yet to attend a soldier's funeral, and Steinmeier has suddenly embraced a "10 step program for Afghanistan," as if a solution in that war-torn country was akin to drying out at a health spa.
Following the attack, the Left Party, the only party that opposes the war, called for a major anti-war protest at the Brandenburg Gate. In the recent elections, the Left Party increased its share of the votes by 3.7% and the Greens by 2%, while the Social Democrats took a shellacking, dropping 11.1%. The only winner on the right was the Free Democratic Party that increased its vote total by 4.9%. Merkel's CDU went down 1.4%.
In the end, Kunduz may be the tipping point for NATO, the incident that shattered the myth that the Afghan campaign was about digging wells, building schools, and bringing peace.
"Simple villagers were killed. They were not Taliban," Dr. Saft Sidique of Kunduz Hospital said. "The German airstrike has changed everything. The sympathy for the Germans is gone. Would it be any different for you if your homeland was bombed?"
According to the old saying, there is no better recruiting sergeant than an airstrike. This was a truism on display at a meeting of the Kunduz provincial government shortly after the attack. A number of people there praised the airstrike. But at the end of the gathering Maulawi Ebadullah Ahadi of Chahar Dara, a town where the Taliban rule, raised his hand: "Brothers, each of those killed has a hundred relatives who will then fight against the government. Bombs sow the seeds of hate."
This article, by Conn Hallinan, was posted to Foreign Policy in Focus, September 10, 2009
One of the oddest — indeed, surreal — encounters around the war in Afghanistan has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History. On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?
Karnow did not divulge what he said to the two men, but he told Associated Press that the "lesson" of Vietnam "was that we shouldn't have been there," and that, while "Obama and everybody else seems to want to be in Afghanistan," he, Karnow, was opposed to the war.
It is hardly surprising that Washington should see parallels to the Vietnam debacle. The enemy is elusive enemy. The local population is neutral, if not hostile. And the governing regime is corrupt with virtually no support outside of the nation's capital.
But in many ways Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam. So, it is increasingly hard to fathom why a seemingly intelligent American administration seems determined to hitch itself to this disaster in the making. It is almost as if there is something about that hard-edged Central Asian country that deranges its occupiers. Delusion #1 In his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama characterized Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" against international terrorism. But the reality is that the Taliban is a polyglot collection of conflicting political currents whose goals are local, not universal jihad.
"The insurgency is far from monolithic," says Anand Gopal, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan. "There are shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits...made up of competing commanders and differing ideologies and strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners."
Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi told Gopal, "We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," adding, "Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their country."
Besides the Taliban, there are at least two other insurgent groups. Hizb-I-Islam is led by former U.S. ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyer. The Haqqani group, meanwhile, has close ties to al-Qaeda.
The White House's rationale of "international terrorism" parallels the Southeast Asian tragedy. The U.S. characterized Vietnam as part of an international Communist conspiracy, while the conflict was essentially a homegrown war of national liberation. Delusion #2
One casualty of Vietnam was the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the theory that an asymmetrical war against guerrillas can be won by capturing the "hearts and minds" of the people. Of course "hearts and minds" was a pipe dream, obliterated by massive civilian casualties, the widespread use of defoliants, and the creation of "strategic hamlets" that had more in common with concentration camps than villages.
In Vietnam's aftermath, "counterinsurgency" fell out of favor, to be replaced by the "Powell Doctrine" of relying on massive firepower to win wars. With that strategy the United States crushed the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. Even though the doctrine was downsized for the invasion of Iraq a decade later, it was still at the heart of the attack.
However, within weeks of taking Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were besieged by an insurgency that wasn't in the lesson plan. Ambushes and roadside bombs took a steady toll on U.S. and British troops, and aggressive countermeasures predictably turned the population against the occupation.
After four years of getting hammered by insurgents, the Pentagon rediscovered counterinsurgency, and its prophet was General David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. "Hearts and minds" was dusted off, and the watchwords became "clear, hold, and build." Troops were to hang out with the locals, dig wells, construct schools, and measure success not by body counts of the enemy, but by the "security" of the civilian population.
This theory impelled the Obama administration to "surge" 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and to consider adding another 20,000 in the near future. The idea is that a surge will reduce the violence, as a similar surge of 30,000 troops had done in Iraq. Delusion #3 But as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent discovered, the surge didn't work in Iraq.
With the possible exception of Baghdad, it wasn't U.S. troops that reduced the violence in Iraq, but the decision by Sunni insurgents that they could no longer fight a two-front war against the Iraqi government and the United States. The ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and Madhi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr also helped calm things down. In any case, as recent events have demonstrated, the "peace" was largely illusory.
Not only is a similar "surge" in Afghanistan unlikely to be successful, the formula behind counterinsurgency doctrine predicts that the Obama administration is headed for a train wreck.
According to investigative journalist Jordan Michael Smith, the "U.S/ Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual" — co-authored by Petraeus — recommends "a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with its population estimated at 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops." And this requires not just any soldiers, but soldiers trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. The numbers don't add up. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies currently have about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that figure would rise to almost 100,000 when the present surge is completed. Some 68,000 of those will be American. There is also a possibility that Obama will add another 20,000, bringing the total to 120,000, larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan. That's still only a fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends.
Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly disillusioned with the war. According to a recent CNN poll, 57% of Americans oppose the war, a jump of 9% since May. Among Obama supporters the opposition is overwhelming: Nearly two-thirds of "committed" Democrats feel "strongly" the war is not worth fighting. Delusion #4 Afghanistan isn't like Iraq because NATO is behind us. Way behind us.
The British — whose troops actually fight, as opposed to doing "reconstruction" like most of the other 16 NATO nations — have lost the home crowd. Polls show deep opposition to the war, a sentiment that is echoed all over Europe. Indeed, the German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Jung has yet to use the word "war" in relation to Afghanistan.
That little piece of fiction went a-glimmering in June, when three Bundeswehr soldiers were killed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Indeed, as U.S. Marines go on the offensive in the country's south, the Taliban are pulling up stakes and moving east and north to target the Germans. The tactic is as old as guerrilla warfare: "Where the enemy is strong, disperse. Where the enemy is weak, concentrate."
While Berlin's current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives quietly back the war, the Free Democrats — who are likely to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government after the next election — are calling for bringing Germany's 4,500 troops home.
The opposition Left Party has long opposed the war, and that opposition gave it a boost in recent state elections.
The United States and NATO can't — or won't — supply the necessary troops, and the Afghan army is small, corrupt and incompetent. No matter how one adds up the numbers, the task is impossible. So why is the administration following an unsupportable course of action? Why We Fight There is that oil pipeline from the Caspian that no one wants to talk about. Strategic control of energy is certainly a major factor in Central Asia. Then, too, there is the fear that a defeat for NATO in its first "out of area" war might fatally damage the alliance.
But when all is said and done, there also seems to be is a certain studied derangement about the whole matter, a derangement that was on display July 12 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the war was showing "signs of success."
British forces had just suffered 15 deaths in a little more than a week, eight of them in a 24-hour period. It has now lost more soldiers that it did in Iraq. This is Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan.
The Karzai government has stolen the election. The war has spilled over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.
What are these people thinking?
This article, by Simon Tisdall, was originally published in The Guardian, September 7, 2009
Afghanistan's election debacle has increased the crushing weight of intractable problems besetting western policymakers
Hopes that a successful Afghan presidential election would assist western efforts to secure, stabilise and develop the country recede with every percentage point that is added to Hamid Karzai's tally. Karzai is said to have obtained 48.6% of the vote against 31.7% for his nearest rival with about 25% of ballots still to count. Only a small miracle or a massive counter-fraud can now stop him surpassing the 50% threshold required for re-election.
Karzai's looming "victory" is viewed with gloom in western capitals. It is believed, and not only by his opponents, to have been achieved via blatant, systematic, indefensible vote-rigging, bribery and intimidation. It was already tainted by pre-poll pacts between Karzai and notorious warlords and drug-traffickers. It was facilitated by the collusion of corrupt provincial officials afraid of losing their jobs. And it followed US and British failure to find a viable alternative candidate, or to install an Afghan "chief executive" or a western diplomatic satrap, to curb Karzai's powers.
The election debacle has thus increased, rather than eased, the crushing weight of intractable problems besetting western policymakers and soldiers struggling to make sense of Afghanistan. These difficulties are approaching critical mass as civilian deaths continue, western casualties mount and public support slides. Notwithstanding Gordon Brown's Afghan plan, enunciated last Friday, pressing decisions about what to do next, and how, will be made in the Oval Office, not Downing Street.
Barack Obama faces no shortage of advice, primarily from his top Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who has been reviewing strategy. McChrystal's broad conclusions – giving priority to protecting the Afghan people and enhancing government and civilian capacity – have already been leaked. Decisions on more specific proposals, such as raising US troop levels by 40-45,000 to well over 100,000 and pushing for more Nato troops, too, are now imminent.
Raising force levels again (he already sent an extra 21,000 earlier this year) represents an enormous political risk for Obama and one he is not in particularly good shape to take. His approval ratings have fallen faster than any first term president since Gerald Ford, he faces increasing resistance to his domestic agenda, notably healthcare reform, and the Afghan imbroglio is being recast by conservatives as Obama's "war of choice" rather than the "war of necessity" that he describes.
As in Britain, there is no consensus over war aims: is it self-defence, is it democracy promotion, is it nation-building, or is it about smashing the heroin trade? Few seem to agree. Among US allies there is diminishing appetite for the fight; it has become a divisive election issue in Germany while Japan's new government has pledged to end its involvement. On top of that, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, and defence secretary Robert Gates freely admit time is running short to turn things around. Congressional Democrats, mindful of next year's mid-term polls, heartily agree.
Speaking last week, Mullen suggested the worsening security situation in Afghanistan must be reversed within the next 12 to 18 months or else the game would be up. "I think it is serious and it is deteriorating and I've said over the last couple of years that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated," Mullen said. He spoke after a Washington Post-ABC News poll found most Americans felt the war was not worth fighting. Yet another international conference on Afghanistan, as proposed by Brown and Germany's Angela Merkel, is unlikely to change this dynamic.
Amid myriad solicited and unsolicited suggestions, Obama's choice boils down to two options: take full ownership of the war and dig in for the long haul, or lower one's sights and walk away as quick as is decent.
Opinions about which way he should jump vary hugely. George Will, honorary archdeacon of American conservative columnists, surprised his fans last week by advocating retreat. Washington should wash its hands of a country where travelling around is "like walking through the Old Testament", he said. "Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively reviewed policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500 mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
Will's offshore strategy ignored the fact that Afghanistan is landlocked – but it was clear what he meant.
Others urge Obama to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in. "Is winning in Afghanistan in the US vital national interest? I believe it is," said Thomas McClanahan in the Kansas City Star. "Pulling out would hand the jihadists a triumph and once again open up Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist strikes." Bruce Riedel, an Obama adviser, and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution were at pains in the Wall Street Journal to emphasise western achievements, including economic growth and falling support for the Taliban, that they said should not be lightly squandered.
Just how high Afghanistan still stands in American consciousness, and why, was illustrated by a timely Chicago Tribune editorial. It complained Obama had not "spent enough time reminding Americans that an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida would regain its role as a terrorism hatchery". September would be crucial for the US debate on what to do, it added. "As that plays out, none of us should forget how that lawless country tolerated the development of one particularly heinous terror plot. It came to fruition eight years ago this week, on the 11th of the month."