Recommended Reading: Ghost Wars

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A few weeks back I finished Jon Krakauer’s latest, Where Men Win Glory, which focused on the life and death (and subsequent coverup) of Pat Tillman. Like other Krakauer books, the text is engaging and (at least to me) moving. Some of Krakauer’s back story regarding the Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union seemed familiar, mostly from my reading of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, (which, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit were the closest I’d come to histories of the region).

Fortunately, Krakauer described one of his resources on Afghanistan, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Beginning in 1979, Coll’s study spans two decades, detailing the worldwide rise of Islamic fanaticism and, more importantly, the complicity of the world’s intelligence apparatus in fostering that fanaticism (especially during the Soviet invasion and its aftermath). Coll is extremely detailed in his account: I’m more than 1/3 of the way through and the Soviet invasion is just barely ending. The details are grounded, however, in a fluid narrative that passes from Islamabad to Kabul to Moscow to Washington to Riyadh and back. I wish the most shocking element was how much money passes between those locations in the 80s. Unfortunately, what’s most surprising is how many opportunities there were for intelligence agents, lawmakers, diplomats and administration officials to recognize the threats posed by their handpicked allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and I’m only 1/3 of the way through!).

Coll’s book was published in 2004, a few years prior to the release of The Looming Tower, which is considered by many to be the preeminent history of the 9/11 attacks. I’m going to pick it up next, but thus far I’m incredibly impressed with Ghost Wars. It’s an elaborate, if chilling, history of the events leading up to some of the most important events in our lifetimes.

P.S. If you haven’t read Where Men Win Glory, I also recommend it. Krakauer is one of those writers that people seem to love or hate, but if nothing else the Tillman story serves as a stunning reminder of the depravity of the Bush Administration. But more than that, Krakauer shows the power of the Freedom of Information Act while casting a new light on recent events (I feel no sympathy whatsoever for Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s downfall following Rolling Stone‘s controversial interview). Above all, Tillman is revealed as loyal friend, brother, son and husband, and a ultimately a true patriot.

Blackwater runs deep

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So, it’s looking more and more like Blackwater personnel basically opened fire on Iraqis in Nisoor Square in September. An investigation has been started, of course, which meant Congress couldn’t get any actual answers out of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince earlier this month. And now the Iraqi government (such as it is) is trying to get Blackwater pulled from the country ((As an aside, does anybody remember when the Iraqi people dyed their thumbs purple? Wasn’t that supposed to be about self-governing their country again?))

Unfortunately, breaking up is hard to do, especially when you rely on something to the degree which the U.S. relies on Blackwater’s private security forces. I don’t know how all the figures add up, but Danger Room’s got the goods on how much we’re paying for Blackwater’s services to protect diplomats worldwide:

Blackwater $339,573,391
DynCorp 47,145,172
Triple Canopy 15,550,133
[Total] $402,268,696

That’s research from Danger Room guest R.J. Hillhouse, whose recent novel, Outsourced, is focused on the private security industry. According to Hillhouse, there are 978 Blackwater contractors employed by the Department of State in Iraq, accounting for more than two-thirds of such personnel:

The contract amount as provided by Blackwater indicates that it is highly unlikely that one of the other two contractors could fill the void if Blackwater were expelled from Iraq. No other US firms are positioned to provide such specialized services on such a large scale and only Blackwater has experience providing air support in theater to the Department of State.

And our lack of foresight and adequate planning rears its head once again.

Stabilizing the region?

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I’ve started regularly reading Wired’s Danger Room, a blog that focuses on defense policy and other related issues. For example, they’ve done a really great job following Blackwater’s involvement in the Nisour Square incident, and of contractors in general. The scope is a bit different than that of coverage by Spencer Ackerman over at TPMMuckraker, which is also excellent. Danger Room contributer P.W. Singer recently completed a study showing that contractors are a Catch-22 for U.S. goals:

If we judge by what has happened in Iraq, when it comes to private military contractors and counterinsurgency, the U.S. has locked itself into a vicious cycle. It can’t win with them, but can’t go to war without them.

Today, contributor Kris Alexander looks forward to post-US presidential election Iraq (ie 2009). How’s this for a starting point:

First, there is another “surge” at work in the region — a surge in regional defense spending as a hedge against instability and the rise of Iran, both consequences of the war in Iraq.

The US recently gave Jordan $78 million in defense aid, and other countries are purchasing $63 billion in arms. So, if the war in Iraq is paving the way for a stable, democratic Middle East where things get a little better every day, why is everyone going on an arms buying binge? And why is the US the architect of the deal?
[emphasis mine]

It’s a lengthy post, including end-game thoughts for a post-withdrawl Iraq. What happens in Turkey, or other players in the region? Can we realistically expect to leave entirely? I’m not sure I agree with the entire premise, but this is an interesting thought:

So in the end, we’re right back where we started before Operation Iraqi Freedom — a large, semi-permanent military presence in the Middle East with the mission of “containing” Iraq. They’ll make for lucrative targets and insults regional sensibilities. We will still be occupiers, in the radicals’ eyes.

In the end, we can’t stay and we can’t go. To save our military we will have to cut back our commitment to Iraq, but to save the region, this commitment will still be robust, expensive, and vulnerable.

Did someboady say something about a Catch-22?

UPDATE: 12:06 p.m. — Singer answers six questions over at Harper’s magazine.


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Vis-à-vis my earlier post on Bush policy, Matt Yglesias has a great Guardian piece online about Bush’s pie-in-the-sky idea that Iraq was supposed to be an example of why other countries shouldn’t build WMD or nukes:

The crux of the matter, however, is that the Iraq war was not just about Iraq, but about a new approach to nuclear proliferation more generally. The old way had been based on binding international commitments that, while allowing the US and a select few other countries to possess nuclear weapons, did impose some real commitments on the nuclear weapons states.
Iraq was targeted not merely on its own terms but in order that Bush might make an example out of Saddam and send a message to the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea and other states. Cutting a deal with Saddam wasn’t an option.

So, uh, how’d that work out?

In particular, the invasion force needed to be small enough, and the reconstruction plan fast and cheap enough, that the US could credibly threaten to do it again if other countries didn’t get the message.

Of course, the threat of a rapid American invasion is no longer a deterrent — we couldn’t pull it off if we had to:

The current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply. We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies.

That’s Gen. George Casey, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before Congress at a hearing he requested.

The problem with the missing nukes

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The Washington Post today concludes this month’s Nukes Over America® tour really was just an accident:

The warheads were attached to the plane in Minot without special guard for more than 15 hours, and they remained on the plane in Louisiana for nearly nine hours more before being discovered. In total, the warheads slipped from the Air Force’s nuclear safety net for more than a day without anyone’s knowledge.

“I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing,” retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, who served as U.S. Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, said in an interview.

A simple error in a missile storage room led to missteps at every turn, as ground crews failed to notice the warheads, and as security teams and flight crew members failed to provide adequate oversight and check the cargo thoroughly. An elaborate nuclear safeguard system, nurtured during the Cold War and infused with rigorous accounting and command procedures, was utterly debased, the investigation’s early results show.

The (I hope) elephant in the room is the proliferation question.  If the United States, a country with some of the most stringent nuclear security precautions, can lose six (!) nuclear warheads for a day (!!), what does that say for other countries with less experience?

Hat tip to TPM for the link.

More to the Nukes Over America story?

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Several New Mexico bloggers have already hit on the absurdity of a B-52 flying hafway across the country with nuclear weapons aboard, but Larry Johnson at TPM Cafe starts asking the right questions:

So I called a old friend and retired B-52 pilot and asked him. What he told me offers one compelling case of circumstantial evidence. My buddy, let’s call him Jack D. Ripper, reminded me that the only times you put weapons on a plane is when they are on alert or if you are tasked to move the weapons to a specific site.

Then he told me something I had not heard before.

Barksdale Air Force Base is being used as a jumping off point for Middle East operations. Gee, why would we want cruise missile nukes at Barksdale Air Force Base. Can’t imagine we would need to use them in Iraq. Why would we want to preposition nuclear weapons at a base conducting Middle East operations?

His final point was to observe that someone on the inside obviously leaked the info that the planes were carrying nukes. A B-52 landing at Barksdale is a non-event. A B-52 landing with nukes. That is something else.

Interesting. More here.