Ask Me Anything!

Have a question for a heroin addict, acne sufferer, or bank robber? Then head over to Reddit’s IaMa (“I am a…”) community, where this past week has seen some excellent Ask Me Anything threads.

Of course, these being the Internets, there’s no knowing whether felonius monk really spent five years in prison (mostly uneventful “if you carried yourself correctly”) for being a getaway driver (much less like being a rally driver than he’d hoped/expected), or whether bumpygirl truly has spots and scars covering 80% of her body. But that’s part of the fun.

And if he is a troll, smackjunkie12 has clearly done his research…

Of course I know about rectal administration, and it is my favourite way to take codeine, and also an enjoyable way to take oxycodone + acetaminophen formulations (such as Percocet) after a cold water extraction. I don’t think I’d use this route with heroin, though. It’s simply much too enjoyable to take it intravenously.

On topic for Global Dashboard is Hoo-rah’s kind offer: “I just got back from my 3rd deployment in Afghanistan. I lost count after I killed 15 human beings. AMA.” Hoo-rah’s mission was to stop Afghan farmers producing the heroin on which smackjunkie12 and his brethren are hooked – a job that is a far cry from traditional war fighting:

Nearly everyone I have killed has been someone who was trying to kill me during combat. I say nearly, because I do believe I may be responsible for a few civilian deaths, though it was never confirmed. We did a lot of raids and a lot of times shit got crazy really fast. The poppy farmers had a habit of keeping their family in the same place as their drugs, which sometimes lead to civilian deaths.

And would we be better off if we sent an army of doctors, engineers, etc? No. The main problem is the poppy farms. We were doing what needed to be done. However, Obama has recently changes tactics. He’s setting up programs to persuade farmers to grow other crops, which we should have been doing all along. As opposed to going in and burning them.

After the jump, Hoo-rah’s response to being asked for the funniest story from his deployment. Be warned, though, some of you may think it’s NSFW: Continue reading

On the web: Libyan relations, FEMA’s new head, the power of communication, and Afghanistan past and present…

– With the fortieth anniversary of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule fast approaching, Chatham House’s Molly Tarhuni takes a look (pdf) at Libya’s gradual reemergence onto the international stage. Four decades on, she suggests, and the basis of Anglo-Libyan relations remains much the same however.

– Over at Atlantic Monthly, Amanda Ripley profiles Craig Fugate, the new head of FEMA and a man with “a reputation for telling it like it is”. “Already”, she suggests, “Fugate is factoring citizens into the agency’s models for catastrophic planning, thinking of them as rescuers and responders, not just victims”. Moreover, Ripley continues,

he has changed FEMA’s mission statement from the old, paternalistic (and fantastical) vow to ‘protect the Nation from all hazards’ to a more modest, collaborative pledge to ‘support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together’.

A far cry, it would seem, from Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown.

– Harvard academic Joseph Nye, meanwhile, explores the importance of good communication for effective leadership. Obama’s ability to convey a resonant narrative has succeeded in rebuilding some of the US’s soft power, he argues, though the jury is still out on whether actions can match the towering oratory.

– Elsewhere, Victor Sebestyen reflects on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan during the 1980s – “Defeat in the hills around Kabul”, he suggests, “led directly – and swiftly, within months – to the fall of the Berlin Wall”.

– Finally, fast-forward to next week’s Afghan elections and the NYT takes a look at the campaign of presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani. Reuters has some of the key election details here. Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, jests with the “Ragin’ Cajun”, James Carville, former political consultant to Bill Clinton and who regular readers will know has been advising Ghani. Don’t miss the video.

On the web – the Whiz Kid departs, Af-Pak strategy and more…

– With yesterday’s US-Russian pledge to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals came news of the death of Cold Warrior, Robert S. McNamara, former US defence secretary and later president of the World Bank. Thomas Lippman offers a sympathetic portrait of a man who will be forever remembered for his role in Vietnam. Indeed, The New Yorker asks whether the original Whiz Kid is likely to be the “Ghost of Wars Past, Wars Present, or Wars Yet to Come”.

– Turning to those wars present, Rory Stewart, the former British diplomat turned Harvard academic, offers a critical perspective on current Af-Pak strategy in the current LRB. “Obama and Brown”, he reflects, “rely on a hypnotising policy language”, which “misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion”.

– In a similar vein the American military scholar, Andrew Bacevich, laments “the consequences of strategic drift” in current US overseas engagements. “The urgent need”, he suggests, “is for the administration to articulate a concrete set of organizing precepts — not simply cliches — to frame basic U.S. policy going forward”.

– Finally and on a different note, offering a preview of his latest book, Cass Sunstein – of Nudge fame – asks what leads us to hold extreme views. His answer: “group polarisation”.

‘Nato solidarity more important than winning in Afghanistan’ (er…)

Quentin Peel had a slightly bizarre column in the FT yesterday, bemoaning the Europeans’ paltry response to Obama’s request for more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. As he notes, European governments are “terrified of offending hostile public opinion that cannot understand – and has never understood – why their soldiers are dying in such a distant land”. He continues [emphasis added],

Part of the problem is that the Nato allies went into the war in 2003 without a common strategy, or a common narrative. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands persuaded their parliaments that the job was about peace-keeping, not fighting Taliban insurgents. Germany and France also sent special forces to join the US in Operation Enduring Freedom – fighting the Taliban and hunting for al-Qaeda – but they kept it secret.

The British, Dutch and Danes are now much more open that it is a real war, and that Nato’s survival is on the line. Others, including the Germans, are not. There is a logical reason.

“The more the Europeans build it up as make-or-break for Nato, or suggest ‘our security is on the line’, the more they set themselves up for failure,” says a European diplomat. “By keeping it low key, they keep an exit strategy.”

The danger for Nato is two-fold. Without greater European commitment, the war will be “Americanised”, and risk becoming yet more unpopular in Europe. As for the alliance, it is becoming a “coalition of the willing” by default. The fundamental assumption of Nato solidarity is called into question. That is more dangerous than losing the war.

Um – what? How on earth can losing the war be less dangerous than erosion of Nato solidarity, given that Nato doesn’t seem to be able to find anywhere else in the world, besides Afghanistan, where it clearly still has a role?

If policymakers in Nato member states are really going to set out a compelling narrative about why we’re at war in Afghanistan, then surely that narrative needs to rest on what Nato’s trying to achieve in Afghanistan.  “Safeguarding Nato coherence” does not seem a very satisfactory answer to that question.

The security burden

In Small Wars Journal, Sergeant Michael Hanson laments the weight of the equipment that a US marine carries to keep himself safe. 40 pounds of body armour, plus a pack that can weight twice as much again (at a total of 120 pounds or 54 kilos, that’s like lugging Jennifer Lopez around wherever you go).

The consequences are predictable:

This weight limits their speed, mobility, range, stamina, agility and all around fighting capability. They can’t go out far and they can’t stay out long with all of this gear. It is simply too much. Combat patrols are typically four hours, and even that short amount of time is exhausting. Our Marines are being consistently outrun and outmaneuvered by an enemy with an AK, an extra magazine and a pair of running shoes.

Sergent Hansen believe that the flight to security  (“all the best equipment for our soldiers”) – ends up making soldiers less secure. You’ll find a similar sentiment in General Petraeus’s admirably concise counterinsurgency guidelines. Walk, is one of his directives. You can’t commute to this fight, is another.

But where does this leave civilian agencies? I doubt there is a single British or American embassy in the world that hasn’t seen dramatically increased security since 9/11. Many now resemble prisons.

Aid agencies, meanwhile, operate from fortified compounds in a growing number of countries, while the Iraq operations of some international NGOs are said to have hidden their use of armed guards from their own head offices. Both struggle against the prospect of an ‘armed humanitarianism.’

Petraeus calls on soldiers to live among the people, deepening their cultural understanding and ability to navigate informal networks, through prolonged and regular face-to-face contact. Diplomats, of course, need to do the same.

He advises them to “understand how local systems are supposed to work – including governance, basic services, maintenance of infrastructure, and the economy-and how they really work.” That’s the mission of development workers.

I am not trying to make a glib point here. Soldiers have the means to defend themselves (and to prevent the kidnaps that, once amplified by the media, can be strategic game changers). Diplomats and aid workers do not.

But how can civilian agencies deepen engagement with populations, while responding to growing insecurity? And what will they do if they find that – like the overloaded marine – security measures are eroding their ability to do their job?