Opinion

The Great Debate

Who’s to blame when an injured soldier kills civilians?

“It would probably be best for the military if they could execute Bales right now and send his pieces to Afghanistan.” That’s what National Veterans Foundation founder Floyd Meshad told me this week while we were talking about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and the insanity or diminished-capacity defense Bales’s attorney apparently intends to use. Bales was formally charged today with slaughtering 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month in Kandahar.

With the politics, with the foreign relations involved, with the exceptionally high bar for proving lack of mental responsibility in military courts, it’s likely Bales is going to end up taking sole responsibility for his actions in the upcoming trial. Which is too bad. Does this case involve war crimes of the highest and most horrific order? Absolutely. But was it all Bales’s fault? Probably not so much. Not given the chain of command that put him in a position to suffer such extreme levels of post-traumatic stress.

There’s something of a frenzy of PTSD-research stories in the media this week. Did Bales have PTSD? Can PTSD make you act “insane”? What is the link between PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI)? How strong is the link between PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and violence? Is it strong enough?

Of course, there’s no totally definitive extent to which any of these tricky neurological and psychological queries can be “proved.” What we do know: that Bales served four tours of duty; that Bales was treated for TBI; and that traumatically injured brains do not operate like regular brains — because of altered cognitive functions, inconsistent memories, and the ease with which they’re overwhelmed, irritated and angered.

A lot of service members overcome their injuries and disorders, and reintegrate into their lives — bless their outstanding resilience. And very, very few have ever done something so abhorrent. But “as far as soldiers with PTSD going off the deep end, there’s no doubt that there’s a correlation,” says Meshad, who was a mental health officer with experience extracting soldiers who’d “snapped” in Vietnam. After decades of treating, and being consulted for criminal trials involving, veterans with PTSD, he literally wrote the book on defending them. Obviously, most veterans with PTSD don’t commit a crime. But attorney Brockton Hunter, who specializes in PTSD defense and co-wrote the Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court with Meshad, says that “historical research confirms waves of veteran-committed crimes after every major conflict.” The U.S. Army’s own 2009 study of a rash of violent crimes at Ft. Carson, Colorado, found a correlation between the number and intensity of soldiers’ deployments and “negative behavioral outcomes.” Hunter says: “In other words, the more you see, and do, in combat, the more likely you are to be affected by it and to act out in bad ways.”

Obama’s first foreign policy blunder

This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.

The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself — until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 — had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.

Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.

Awlaki and the Arab autumn

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki this morning is welcome news, but Washington policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking the drone that killed him is a supernatural antidote to militancy. Yes, drone strikes should continue, but the real playing field continues to be the aftermath of the Arab spring; namely vital elections scheduled for October in Tunisia and November in Egypt.

A series of outstanding stories by reporters from Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, have aptly laid out the stakes. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but an extraordinary battle is unfolding over the nature of Islam itself.

“At the center of the debates is a new breed of politician who has risen from an Islamist milieu but accepts an essentially secular state,” Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick wrote in today’s New York Times. Common values, in other words, are emerging between the West and the Islamic world. These “post-Islamist” politicians argue that individual rights, democracy and economic prosperity are elements of an “Islamic state.”

Don’t overestimate Afghanistan pessimism

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s response can be read here.

By James Dobbins
The views expressed are his own.

Rory Stewart maintains that it is “not simply difficult, but impossible” to build an Afghan state. Presumably, this is meant hyperbolically, since Afghanistan has been recognized as an independent state far longer than any of its northern or southern neighbors.

It is true that the Afghan state had almost no capacity a decade ago, after twenty years of civil war, and that it still struggles to deliver basic public services. Nevertheless, nothing in Stewart’s pessimistic assessment would lead one to realize that since 2001 Afghanistan’s licit GDP has risen by 300 percent, that tax collection as a percentage of GDP now exceeds that of Pakistan, that school attendance has risen eightfold, that the country’s literacy rate will triple in 10 years if these children are permitted to stay in school, that 80 percent of the population has access to basic health care faculties (albeit often distant and intermittent), that child mortality has dropped by one third as a result, and that despite the ongoing conflict longevity is increasing. Yet another striking statistic is that today almost half of Afghan households have telephones.

Where the Afghanistan effort broke down

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter
The views expressed are her own.

This fall I am teaching a big introductory course to the first-year Masters of Public Affairs students at the Woodrow Wilson School called Politics and Public Policy. The focus of the first lecture, delivered by one of my colleagues, as the necessary intersection of good policy, good politics, and good practice. In other words, the best policy in the world doesn’t make any difference if it is not politically feasible; conversely, what is politically feasible may not be worth doing if it is not at least better policy than the status quo. And even where good policy is politically feasible, it must also be implementable – not just in theory, but in practice.

The intersection of these three circles came to mind as I read Rory Stewart’s achingly honest and thoughtful account of his experience in Afghanistan. For a long time I was convinced that the NATO intervention in Afghanistan could be successful at building a functioning Afghan government that would provide basic services to its citizens. My views were largely shaped by my regular conversations with my long-time friend Sarah Chayes, who lived in Kandahar for much of past decade running first a dairy cooperative and then a soap and fragrance business with Afghans. We were failing, in her view, because of the high NATO tolerance for the cancerous corruption that was sucking the life out of the country, starting at the top. Her book Punishment of Virtue tells the tale, describing how Afghans genuinely committed to rebuilding their country have been systematically driven out or killed by their compatriots who are profiting from the enormous in-flux of money and opportunity that inevitably accompanies large-scale Western intervention in a poor country. She thought, and I agreed, that the U.S. had had an opportunity to help rebuild a very different Afghanistan immediately after the invasion, and that it was still possible to empower the good guys if we were really willing to take on the bad guys profiting at the local, regional, and national level.

Creating a “light, long term footprint” in Afghanistan

By David Rohde
The views expressed are his own.

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt, “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.”

The most important phrase in Stewart’s essay is his statement that a “light, long-term footprint” should be adopted in Afghanistan. I agree but he paints a dark picture of all Western efforts in the country.

While Stewart is correct in many of his arguments, he presents a seductively simplistic picture of abject failure. Unquestionably, Washington has focused too much on the military effort. And Stewart is right to argue against a policy of simply pouring in more foreign troops. Yet his portrait of foreigners achieving nothing in a decade stokes a dangerous isolationism gaining credence in both liberal and conservative circles in the West.

My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention

By Rory Stewart
The views expressed are his own.

I returned to Afghanistan (after spending a short time at Harvard) in 2005. And when I heard that the British government was about to send three thousand soldiers into Helmand, I was confident that there would soon be a widespread insurgency. I also predicted that the military would demand more troops, and would get dragged ever deeper.

It wasn’t that I had any particular skill in predicting the future. I failed to predict that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would fall. I was wrong about Iraq. And my prediction for Helmand wasn’t based on any knowledge of Helmand. It was simply that I recognized the mindset and the actions of the NATO governments from Iraq. And I wasn’t alone in warning against the deployment. Many others predicted the same thing in Helmand. A military friend of mine had returned from a reconnaissance trip saying, “There isn’t an insurgency, but you can have one if you want one.” The Helmand surge continued regardless. The British government seemed to have a momentum, quite distinct from any individual politician or policy-maker. Troops were increased from two hundred U.S. Special Forces in 2005 to three thousand British soldiers in 2006.

At the time, senior officials reassured me that they understood the danger of being dragged in too deep. Two offered to sign a document saying that if the three thousand troops didn’t “establish governance, economic development, and security” within six months, they would admit the policy was a mistake, rather than claim that the problem had simply been strategy and resources. But I did not force them to sign. And when six months passed and the situation had worsened, the same officials supported the call to increase the number of troops to five thousand, and a few months later to seven thousand. I began writing and speaking publicly against the policy. I argued that what was needed was not a surge but a reduction to a light long-term footprint.

9/11 in history: chapter or footnote?

By Dominic Streatfeild
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Historians like to break up human progress into bite-sized pieces. It’s a useful technique: segregated and labelled, historical eras offer prisms through which to view the past, making it easier to comprehend. Typically, they’re bookmarked by inventions: the wheel, the steam engine, the atom bomb. Intellectual movements fit nicely, too: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism. Each innovation provides a paradigm shift, ushering in a way of thinking previously inconceivable but, after its emergence, unignorable.

Occasionally, waypoints are provided by momentous events. A happening of sufficient magnitude (the argument goes) jars the historical process decisively, severing the connection between past and future, sweeping away the old and paving the way for the new. The Flood in Genesis, the birth of Christ, the attack on Pearl Harbor – all “watershed” moments. Bookmarking such events not only provides useful academic waypoints, it also offers another important service: reassurance. With the sweeping away of the old comes trepidation. The birth of a “new era” provides a link to the past: there have been epochal events before. Things have changed rapidly, and not always for the better. We have survived them. We will again.

The impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46 a.m. on 11 September 2001 was immediately labelled a watershed event. Seventy-six minutes later, after both the South Tower and the Pentagon had been hit, United Airlines Flight 93’s calamitous descent into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,marked the end of the attacks – and the start of a still-ongoing attempt to define what, exactly, they meant.

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

from Ian Bremmer:

Post-surge Afghanistan and post-surge Obama

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

When President Barack Obama announced in late 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, few were as pleased as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. A holdover from the George W. Bush administration, Gates had championed the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, a move that helped turn both the tide in that country and public opinion in the U.S. on its future. Gates and the generals hoped for similar success against the Taliban.

But how do you measure success in a place like Afghanistan? Soldiers, no matter how many, can’t build democratic, financial and industrial institutions overnight. At best, they can help make Afghans safer and life much harder for those who would launch attacks beyond the country’s borders. By that measure, the record of both surges is mixed, if generally positive. But post-surge, one thing is certain: Obama allowed Gates to prosecute the war on his terms, but new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be asked to implement a plan that has less to do with Kandahar than with Capitol Hill.

Withdrawal is the right move, maybe the only move, for Team Obama. The president has gotten the politics of the moment exactly right, yet again. In the first half of his term, he retained Bush’s team at the Pentagon and reshuffled his top generals, namely David Petraeus, through various leadership positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A surge that seemed to be working was allowed to play out, and Bush was likely to take the blame if the strategy failed. But President Obama knows that Bush’s burdens are now his—the economy, jobs and the wars.

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