Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Kurdish Complications

Now that Canada has decided to continue to train and support the Kurds in Iraq along with the Iraqi government, the question of the future of the Kurds is being questioned.  Indeed, yesterday, I received a phone call from a magazine in Kurdistan asking me about referendums and why some secessionist movements get to become states and others do not.  My short answer: "fair ain't got nothing to do with it" which could probably use a bit of nuance.  This is not just a Canadian issue but one for all of the countries intervening (or not intervening) in Iraq and Syria.

The one thing I do know and am very confident about is this: vulnerability to secession does not deter other countries from recognizing an independent Kurdish state.  Sorry, I know this is the conventional wisdom (as presented in this piece), but the conventional wisdom has always been wrong and always will be wrong.  How do I know that?  Well, see my first book, see this article, and this one, too.  Perhaps notice which countries recognized Kosovo (hint: Canada).  Oh, and check out Russia's foreign policy, given that it is vulnerable to secession yet have been sponsoring separatists frequently and enthusiastically.  And yes, countries can be irredentist even as they face separatist movements at home.

Canada, as the story linked above indicates, that despite arming and training Iraq's Kurds, wants these Kurds to stay in Iraq.  Why?  Two primary reasons: a) Turkey is an ally, and Turkey fears that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and/or Syria would strengthen the Kurdish separatists in Turkey;* b) most solutions to the Iraq political problems need the Kurds.  Sure, there are folks who advocate partition of Iraq into three hunks of territory, but partition is never as easy or as beneficial as the advocates argue.   Having the Kurds in along with the Sunnis to balance the Shiites might just be key ingredients in some shot of power-sharing deal.  Of course, that is hard when the Shiites have been pretty committed to crushing the Sunnis (which is why the Sunnis have chosen the less bad alternative of ISIS).  But in the long run, Iraq will need a political solution that is not just handing over the largest part of it to Iran to the Shiites.
*  While I am a committed skeptic about how contagious ethnic conflict can be, one of the few ways that ethnic conflict travels is among ethnic kin who are separatist.  See also this.
So, Canada is aiding a group but not promoting its eventual aims.  Not that new, but definitely tricky.  The article from the National Post makes clear that Canada has been clear to all sides about its stance.  Which is the same stance as the rest of the coalition.

Of course, there is another Kurdish problem: we are sinking resources into training the Kurds, but their aims (other than independence) are quite limited.  They don't want to fight to win territory that they cannot keep.  And the downside of being the most reliable force in the region is that they have won most of the territory they claim.  It is not clear that they can do much more to push ISIS back into Syria.  Oops.

But that is why I keep calling this region the land of lousy policy alternatives.  As for the Kurds, I do feel for them in a big way.  They have been betrayed many times before.  This time, we are being honest and using them for what we see as the greater good.  And they are using us for their interests.  As always, the hard part in these interventions is figuring out how to align the interests of those who live there with those of the interveners.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

When Politics Punditry Imitates Sports Punditry

In recent years, I began to notice that in sports with best of seven games playoff series, the folks who cover the sport (hockey, baseball, football)* tend to react to the most recent game as if it will determine the outcome.  Each time a different team wins, the pundits tend to suggest that the attributes of the most recent game tell everything we need to know about the series and that the previous games matter very little.  And then at the end of the series, one could look back at who wins and the patterns are usually not determined by what happened most recently but those that recur over the series.
* The same is kind of true in soccer's World Cup as each game in the preliminary rounds has the same short memory panic dynamic.

So, here we are, Iowa does not matter, NH has changed the entire course of the election.  Until the next primary, which will erase most of the patterns/dynamics imputed to the NH outcome, and on and on.

Part of this is probably driven by the need to fill 24 hours of content each day.  Part of this is that it is more exciting if every new competition is the most important ... until the next one.  But just perhaps, in politics, like in sports, the previous outcomes might matter some and the games to be played might matter as well.  Sure, in this competition, the early competitions are not irrelevant as the weaker candidates find their money drying up and exit the race.  The bets placed by the campaign financiers do matter, and as they swing, they impact the staying power of those who remain.

But so few delegates have been selected by the least representative states.  We can read much into the campaigns as the Clinton appeal has been, um, limited, and the appeal of hate/Trump is more than reasonable people can stand.  But there are far more games to be played, and the outcome is probably not going to be determined by the most recent primary.

Momentum probably does matter a bit more in politics than in sports, but is overrated in both.  Instead, it really is, at this stage, about the campaigns and the candidates, who have strengths and weaknesses.  And we know mostly what they are.  Rubio's weaknesses became more apparent, but authenticity and trust versus electability is not a new theme in the Democratic race.  So, there is some learning and some updating, but please can we have a wee bit of perspective after each primary?

Ok, I am asking for too much.  Sorry.

I Have Been Social Media-ed

Wow, yesterday was a pretty strange day for me on social media.  I have been engaged in blogging and on twitter since 2009 and am a self-appointed leader of a group that advocates Online Media yet I was surprised by yesterday's events.

What happened?  A friend and colleague, Stephanie Carvin, criticized the government's new stance on the anti-ISIS campaign, and Gerry Butts, one of two principal advisers to Prime Minister Trudeau responded to her.  Since Gerry and I have been chatting on twitter off and on since last summer, I jumped in and this happened.

Gerry and I exchanged tweets as I sought more clarification about why the CF-18s are being withdrawn and he kept saying that this was well explained.  The conversation was respectful and interesting.  And it was not a skirmish nor was it heated (geez, CBC, chillax, it is not your first day on twitter).

Folks were amazed that a member of this government was willing to engage a couple of scholars on twitter for a while.  I am too, as the old government would never do such a thing.  And perhaps reasonably so given what happened next.  For the rest of the day, I accumulated not just new twitter followers (yeah!) but many tweets sent to both me and to Gerry that were either nasty towards him or to me or to both of us.  Our respectful conversation led to a lot of disrespectful partisans attacking one of us.

This is not my first day on twitter so it was not that surprising, but Ron Burgundy said it best:

Indeed, it did.  Good thing Gerry has a thick skin and that I mostly do so as well (years on political science rumor sites as the only non-anonymous moderator has trained me well for taking fire from random internet people).

I hope yesterday's experience does not deter the government from engaging folks via social media.  This government is far more engaging and accessible than the previous one (I was invited to a roundtable at Global Affairs Canada on Monday to discuss Canadian aid policies for Afghanistan so it is not just social media engagement that is going on), and it is a good thing.

Of course, my favorite tweet exchange in all of this was:

A Quick Few Frequently Asked Questions about Canadian Military Training

The past two days have been pretty interesting in Canadian defence and foreign policy as the Prime Minister announced that Canada would focus on training in Iraq while taking out some (not all)* of the planes dedicated to the bombing effort.
* I had been advocating that the government keep at least the recon (Aurora) and refueling (Polaris) planes as they are, in the military jargon, low-density/high demand enablers.  In other words, there are few of them and they have much valued added. Glad to see the government keep them there, even if it adds a soupcon of incoherence since they are integral to the bombing effort.
There have been many questions raised about the training effort and many opinions offered.  So, I'd like to offer a few answers.  To be clear, I am not an expert on the specific skills to be transmitted or the nature of the training exercises, except in terms of the broadest categories.

Q: Does this mean this is a combat mission?
A: Not really.  The defense minister was more straightforward than the previous government that doing training at or near the front lines means that our troops may come into contact with the adversary and will be prepared to return fire.  But the CAF trainers will not be deliberately seeking out contact with the adversary.  That is the bright shiny line, rather than combat or not combat.  The Canadian planes will still be facilitating combat, so Canadians will still be involved with combat.  Confusing, but Canadian troops, special operations forces or otherwise, will not be seeking out combat.  As far as we know (SOF folks are supposed to be secret so I cannot speak to the entirety of their mission).

Q: Is this training like that the CAF did in Afghanistan?
A: Depends on the when and where.  In Kabul from 2011-2014, yes.  In Kandahar from 2005-2011, no.  While Canadian troops were in Kandahar, a key part of the effort was to embed small numbers of Canadian troops into battalion-ish sized formations of Afghans (these 600 or so units were called Kandaks).  These trainers were called Omelets for the acronym Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams [OMLT or ELMO in French], and they played a very important role in training and facilitating the combat efforts of the local forces (see the France section of this book).

Q: Why Aren't the CAF embedding and training at and beyond the front?
A: Why aren't the CAF omelet-eering as they did in Kandahar (see here for a piece advocating such)?  I would suggest three reasons.
  • When Afghan units with Canadian mentors went into battle in and near Kandahar, there were Canadian units going into those same battles.  If something went wrong, like the mentored Kandak broke and fled, there would still be very reliable forces nearby to make sure that the small numbers of mentors would not be surrounded, captured and perhaps killed.  There are no Canadian battlegroups to accompany mentored Kurdish or Iraqi regular units.  So, sending OMLT like units into battle with the local forces would be a big, big risk.
  • Which gets to the second problem: there is probably much less trust in Iraq.  While Canada did not suffer from green on blue attacks in Afghanistan where the trained attack the trainers, that possibility is quite present in Iraq. More importantly, Iraqi units have broken and fled when attacked by ISIS, so doing some embedded mentoring now with them (and their Iranian pals) requires more trust than we have.
  • Speaking of the Iranians, a third problem happens when one embeds with local units: one might be present amidst war crimes.  The Danes were reluctant to do OMLTs in Afghanistan because they were worried that the Afghan army units might commit atrocities, and then the Danish trainers would appear to be complicit (see the aforementioned book).  The risks are much, much higher since the Shia dominated Iraqi government has engaged in significant ethnic cleansing AND they are reliant on Iranian-backed militias (and perhaps some Iranian forces).  Not good.
Q: Why not embed with the Kurds?
Yes, we find the Kurds to be more reliable.  But again, they will not be accompanied by Canadian battlegroups so still probably much legitimate concern about what might happen.  One other thing: we are nearly at the end of the line for the Kurds--that they are unlikely to fight for territory that they don't see as Kurdish.  Which means that since they have retaken most of the territory that they see as theirs, they will not be doing much of the fighting in Iraq down the road.  So, it may not make that much sense to invest a lot and to risk a lot for the Kurds. 

Q: Training is the long term solution?
No, not really.  The government is not lying about this, but somewhat missing the point.  Because the long term solution is about governance--that the Iraqi government needs to decide to work with the Sunnis (and Kurds) to share power, so that the Sunni population no longer sees ISIS as a least worst alternative to the Iraqi government.  That is the solution to the Iraqi front.  The Americans have had damned little leverage on this whether they had 100,000 troops in theatre or none, so Canada cannot really influence this (humility is a big theme for me these days despite my endless book promotion).
Oh, and we have very little to build on in Syria, but this training effort is aimed solely at the Iraqi front.

Q: So, we shouldn't train?
No, we should.  It is the least we can do.  It is actually something that Canadians do quite well.  The units Canada trained in Afghanistan seemed to have performed quite well (Kandahar has not fallen yet while, um, Kunduz, did).  The war against ISIS is not an easy one, and if our goal is to degrade ISIS and we are unwilling to send large conventional forces of our own, it does make sense to make the local forces better so that they can confront ISIS.  Just don't expect miracles.

Of course, the best primer for army training is this short video:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


I have been hearing a certain refrain lately--that folks should not politicize national security.  Um, what does that mean?  To be clear, I am critical of politicians too when they get too, um, political, as the Queens folks will learn today in my talk about my new book.

To be clear, anything a government does is political, as politics is about making decisions to allocate stuff for the political system (close enough to the standard definition).  But we tend to think of someone playing politics with an issue when they take a public stand in favor or against a particular policy in ways that are seen as playing to the audience rather than focused on the merits of the policy.

This is a really hard distinction that I tried to figure out as part of a paper on legislative oversight on the Canadian military: is the oversight effort mostly about scoring points in the larger political game or is it about trying to criticize government policies in order for the country to do better?  Sure, the folks in the mix will have their strong opinions about this, making it hard to judge, but there are clues.

How about switching policies just because one loses power?  The Liberal opposition to the war in Afghanistan after it started that mission and then lost power reeks of politicization rather than sincere oversight aimed at the national interest. 

Canada's Conservatives calling the new Iraq/Syria policy incoherent is not far off.  Making a bigger deal about running out on allies is more about point scoring since the Conservative government fled Kandahar in mid-war, so just a wee bit of hypocrisy here.

Is the oversight effort focused on individuals or on the activities of government? In the US, the Benghazi hearings can be juxtaposed with the various mid1970s hearings that revealed much about what the CIA had been doing.  I am not sure how to come up with a good measure of heat vs. light generated by oversight, but the contrast is pretty sharp.

This is something I am just getting into and I need to do more reading, but the key point today is that the label "politicize" is pretty meaningless on its own.  It is ok and normal for the various parties to take issue with what the government of the day is doing, even on national security issues, if the claims/concerns have merit.  Arguing that Canada's current stance is puzzling is not reckless politicization (or else I would be guilty too).  Just opposing for the sake of opposing, akin to the classic argument sketch, is politicization that does not advance things much.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Learning Lessons From Afghanistan: Canadian Aid in 2016

In my new book (super cheap via kindle!), I am most unkind to the late, not so lamented CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency).  Why?  Partly because they would not talk to me, partly because the agency was so centrally managed it could not adapt to events in Afghanistan that well.

Since then, CIDA was merged into Foreign Affairs so that it is now one big Global Affairs Canada.  Which is much better than DFATD but not as good as simply FA.

Anyhow, today I was invited to be part of a workshop on the future of Canadian assistance to Afghanistan.  I didn't have much to say since I am not an expert on aid (and I didn't learn that much over the years since CIDA people would not talk to me).  But I was most impressed that GAC officials had organized a series of roundtables with academics, former military officers, former aid officials, consultants, non-governmental organization reps, etc. to discuss the next steps.

GAC officials working on aid issues (and thus doing what used to be CIDA stuff) were reaching out and seeking outside expertise.  I cannot say what we discussed due to Chatham House rules, except the consensus seemed to be for continued Canadian support for Afghanistan.  I certainly made that argument given that few countries are more needy (Afghanistan still lists among the worst off countries), and Canada developed expertise in this one place that should not go to waste.  Not a sunk cost argument but a built up expertise argument.

Anyhow, I was most impressed that these folks were reaching out.  Hard to imagine that happening in the latter Harper years.  We still need to learn the lessons of Afghanistan for a variety of reasons, including figuring out the next steps in Afghanistan.  My book is part of that effort, but we need to also have the government release its own lessons learned exercise (I need to appeal again in my failed bid for an Access of Information request).

Oh, and I also requested that the government stop archiving websites, which makes it harder to find stuff.  The web is big--no need to archive websites.  Keep the links alive, I say!

Trudeau's New Anti-ISIS Policy

The new policy is entirely unsurprising even if it is, um, not entirely coherent.
Taking the CF-18s out meets the campaign promise, but is poorly explained.
Keeping the Auroras (recon) and Polaris (refueling) planes means Canada is doing stuff that is valued by the allies and is helpful ... by facilitating the bombing done by others.
Training the Iraqis and Kurds more than they have been doing so thus far?  Sure. 

The key problem in all of this is that we still don't have a good explanation for this stance.  Saying that bombing is good in the short term but not long term does not really explain why Trudeau opposed the bombing when it started.  It worked in the short term by containing and reversing ISIS's gains.  Ooops.  And if it does not make sense in the long term, why support the allied effort to bomb?  As others have argued, Canada is now doing everything in the bombing campaign except for dropping bombs. 

My problem is not with the actual policies but with the explanations.  If Trudeau is just trying to keep a campaign promise, he still needs a better explanation.  And there are abundant ones out there:
  • that any military effort is costly, so it makes to develop the mix that provides the best effects for the dollars and that to train more means we need to bomb less--due to budget constraints.
  • that the CF-18s are already at the end of their lives so we need to be careful about overusing them (given the need to do more flying over the Baltics thanks to Russia).  Flying less over Syria/Iraq now means that they can keep flying while we figure out how to replace them. 
  • that much of the bombing in the near future will be in the cities of Iraq, and we do not want to have our pilots responsible for civilian casualties.  We would rather train the local forces to be more discriminating.  Not a great answer, but not an awful one either.
None of these explanations are super happy, but they do make sense in the larger scheme of things.  A pacifist answer will not, ahem, fly with Canadians (see recent surveys favoring Canadian participation in bombing) especially after the attacks in Ottawa in October of 2014.  The short run vs. long argument is problematic because every day we live in the short run....

But to be clear, the Conservatives are going to say a lot of stuff about this, and they will benefit from having a short memory.   How so?  They will forget that they, the Conservatives, ran Canada out of Kandahar while the allies were still fighting and taking casualties in Afghanistan.  That was far more problematic than this--a battlegroup and the rest of the stuff was far more valuable than 6 CF-18s.

So, expect much histronics.  I wish either party or both would take a mature stance on this issue, but as my new book depicts, expecting such is unrealistic.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Echo Chamber? Only When Confronting the Incredibly Stupid

One of the best ways to piss me off is to dismiss expertise via calling experts "elites."  So, I woke up with this
 What was Mark reacting to? Ah, the folks who study national security find Ted Cruz's references to carpet-bombing to be appalling.  Not just from a moral standpoint, but from a standpoint of, dare I say it, expertise and experience: that we know that indiscriminate bombing does not work.  Bombing German cities did not reduce the economic production of the Nazi war machine until the last few months (one could say it served to distract German resources, but then again, the bombers were a distraction from allied resources and efforts as well).  Carpet bombing Vietnam was somewhat useful in bargaining but did not defeat the Viet Cong nor Vietnam.  Oh, and carpet bombing Cambodia?  Not good.  These experiences have created a consensus on the issue of carpet bombing by those who take national security seriously.

Is this consensus an echo chamber?  Probably not since the folks who study national security disagree on damn near everything, whether that is partition (not a fan, but many are), counterinsurgency strategies (contrast the Exums of the world with the Fousts), the effectiveness of drones, and on and on.  Cruz just happened to hit one of the few things upon which most national security folks agree--that carpet bombing is such a bad idea that it creates a consensus.  Indeed, I told Mark that it was really strange that he wanted to "die" on this particular hill....

This does not mean that there is a consensus on how to fight ISIL or on the efficacy of targeted bombing.  But those are different issues.

The broader problem with Mark's statement is the implication that those who study national security are wimpy effete elites--the reference to pinky extended wine glass holding.  Besides the fact that many of us prefer beer to wine, this statement is problematic because it suggests that manly men who are not wine-swillers are better judges of national security (I spent the earlier part of yesterday tweeting the twitter handles of a bunch of smart women who do international security stuff).  This is akin to, but perhaps not identical, to the frequent argument that only those with military experience can judge national security issues.  I always find this problematic precisely because we are better off having both military and civilian experts on this stuff--that civilian expertise serves as a check on the military.  Indeed, civilian control of the military, a fundamental aspect of modern democracy, requires voices outside of the military to provide some perspectives on the issues.  Otherwise, you just get Presidents and Prime Ministers simply doing what the Generals and Admirals want, and that is not always good (despite the Presidential candidates saying that they will exactly that--just listen to the military folks).

Perhaps there is a consensus these days among national security elites: that the Republican Party is producing presidential candidates who are mostly or entirely ignorant about national security, which leads to stupid statements and problematic stances.  It used to be the case that the Democrats were the party where ignorance of all that is military was a badge of honor.  These days, it is the GOP, and I would much prefer it if both parties saw expertise in these issues as a good thing, rather than something to disparage.  Because I know that calling something elite these days is supposed to be an insult.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Downside of Middle Age

Today, I learned that yet another man who played an important role at my summer camp long ago has died.  Ben Wenglin, who was the camp's mail man, died this week.  He was such a sweet man, who made a big impact despite having a pretty small yet central role.  Since I was a long time camper and one of the few who spent eight weeks (rather than the usual two or four) each summer there, we got to know each other a bit.  I didn't know that he had gotten hurt in World War II as one of Merrill's Marauders (predecessor to the modern Ranger Regiment), but that is something that tends to only be revealed at times like this.

Ben is the third man from that key part of my life to die in the past few years.  The math makes sense--camp was almost forty years ago, so the middle aged men who shaped that place are now departing.  Damn.

I have been lucky since I have lost few people (other than grandparents), but that is changing as I reach 50 soon.  When I talk to my friends, I find that most of them are dealing with sick parents or have recently lost one.  So, we are entering a time frame where losses begin to mount.  I am not looking forward to that part of getting older.

Life has been very good to me.  I am glad that we now have this social media stuff so that I can connect with those who were important to me long ago and find out the fates of those who mad ea difference in my life.  Ben, Mike, and Ed made such an impact not just on me but on generations of boys who went to that camp.  I am sad that they are gone, but glad that they were recognized and appreciated not just by me but by everyone who passed through Thurmont, Maryland in the 1970s-1980s.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

My Iowa Gap

I haven't blogged about Iowa.  Why? Partly because I was in Japan last week, and partly because I would like to put Iowa in proper context by ignoring Iowa. 

Going first does not mean that Iowa selects the winners.  It does mean we get folks pandering to farmers, which is so good for the national interest except that it is awful in pretty much every way.  Otherwise, Iowa's impact is to affect the funders--who should they stop betting on?  Jeb! should be gone soon since his performance was pathetic, but this generation of his family has a shallow learning curve.  Rand has already gotten out.  The rest of the field should clear out, leaving the oh-so-joyful triumvirate of Trump, Rubio and Cruz.  Lovely. 

The GOP outcome only proves slightly less than the Dem outcome that this is all about expectations and the sports-like punditry.  I get driven crazy during various playoffs, where the opinions flip after every game if the outcome is different from game to game.  It might just be that a three point outcome in one basketball game should not shift expectations that much.  Well, the same here: if this were a poll, all of the results are solidly in the margin of error.  The closeness of the results really means we cannot read much in the way of momentum or anything about the outcomes elsewhere (especially since Iowa is not representative of anything and its caucus system is certainly not the normal way delegates are distributed). 

I have to run to class, but my major point I'd like to make about Iowa is: so glad it is over and let's not think too much about its meaning.  On to NH, another not so representative state that also does not pick winners but does help to pick losers.  Once NH is over, the awful ads that we sometimes get via our Canadian feeds will disappear for a while, and that will be progress.