Sunday, October 22, 2017

Advising and Assisting: Lessons from Omelets

Omelets?  OMLT: Observer,  Mentor, Liaison Teams.  In Afghanistan, many (but not all, due to caveats)* NATO members and partners (the latter would be non-members like Australia, Sweden, Georgia, etc) would put small groups of troops into a larger Afghan unit to help mentor them and provide them with critical linkages to air support, artillery support, intel, and other stuff needed to make the Afghans more effective.  During the high point of the effort, from 2006-2013 or so, these OMET-ed Afghan units would go into battle alongside ISAF forces.  This is key because if the Afghan unit broke and ran, the small numbers of ISAF Omeleteers (yes, they were called omeleteers) would still have the protection of the ISAF battlegroup.
*  Some countries were reluctant to participate in OMLTS due to: higher risks--one's security still mostly depended on the Afghans or one might be present when Afghans commit war crimes--why the Danes, otherwise fairly aggressive and caveat-free, chose to OMLT only garrison units.  Oh, and many countries had rules about whether OMLTs could accompany their mentees outside the country's area of operations.
Why is this relevant?  Because these days, few places where "advising and assisting" is there such backup. Indeed, in Niger, there were not even American planes and helicopters nearby.  As hinted at  on the Bombshell podcast, this violated one of the fundamental rules in Afghanistan--that operations were not take place more than a hour from a major alliance medical facility. This meant helos, and if no helos, then no ops unless within a short drive of medical help.  Why? Because if you can get a wounded soldier/marine/whatever to a hospital within an hour, then they have a  high probability of living.  This is important because wounded soldiers don't count: that they don't get listed in Killed in Action totals (do you know how many of your country's military folks were wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq?  Probably not, but KIA, maybe); they don't make the news as much, and, yes, they don't semi-require the President or someone else to call/write the relatives. [Ok, overly cynical--golden hour rule is very important for making sure those hurt in harm's way have the best chance to survive their wounds]

Anyhow, those rules, like all rules, tend not to apply as strictly to Special Operations types.  Why?  Necessity--they go to places where there is not major allied infrastructure providing heaps of helos and hospitals.  Oh, and SOF means secret so when bad stuff happens, it is less likely to cause trouble back home.  As poker this week in Vegas reminded me, less likely does not mean impossible.  So, things went poorly in Niger and we have little idea what happened, but it is now news.

The US forces were advising and assisting the Nigeriens and got ambushed.  One of the tricky things about this stuff is advising and assisting often means combat--killing and being killed, wounding and being wounded.  But they fall short of conventional combat operations, so publics and medias and politicians get confused about whether this is combat or not.  Anyhow, because there are few civilians in the proper jobs at State and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, this administration probably didn't really know who was in Niger and what they were doing.  So, more abdication of responsibility to the military.... and when the military is left alone, they may engage in risky or careless behavior.  Such as falling into rituals and habits that allow the adversaries to plan ambushes, for instance.

Again, we don't know much.  What we do know is that this US administration needs to staff up and start engaging in oversight.  Instead, they have engaged in blamecasting with a Congresswoman.  Not good.  Did this administration learn from the failed Yemen raid early in their term?  Does not seem so. All we do know is that Congress and the media need to ask tough questions of four star generals, active and retired, to figure out what went wrong, what can be learned, and how will stuff like this be less likely in the future.  To be clear, whenever a country has thousands of troops strewn through the world, advising and assisting militaries in and near conflict zones, bad stuff will occasionally happen.  But we would like to have confidence that much is being done to minimize risks, maximize effectiveness, and perhaps be able to communicate these activities to democratic publics.  And who has such confidence these days?

Friday, October 20, 2017

Always Tis What You Do: GOP edition

I am a Potter-ite as I have said many times, with the key creed being:
It is our choices ... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.  Chamber of Secrets.
While I have been traveling (and not yet gambling) this week, I have missed the chance to spew about much stuff.   So, I have a hot take or two:
  • We really should not be surprised by Kelly lying about Congresswoman Wilson.  Kelly was awful at DHS, amplifying or encouraging or at least not mitigating the Muslim ban way back in February.  Under his administration, ICE felt unshackled to engage in all kinds of awful tactics against people who presented no threat to the US.  And then he chooses to lie and attack rather than apologize for his master's inability to convey any empathy.  So, yeah, tis your choices, John Kelly. [I do thank him for presenting yet more evidence that there are too many ex-generals in this administration]
  • Lots of talk of George W. Bush subtweeting Trump in his speech critical of nativism and protectionism.  That is a choice and a good one, but then again, he also showed up to campaign for a truly awful candidate for governor in Virginia.  Maybe we ought not expect Bush to criticize GOP candidates, but he did choose to support him.
  • McMaster?  He keeps on talking about denuclearization and military options, which is scaring the crap out of me.  Because a war with North Korea, the only way to denuclearize NK, would be catastrophic for South Korea, Japan, North Koreans, and, oh, yeah, the international economy.  He also keeps showing up on TV spinning for Trump--another choice that is harmful especially for civilian-military relations since he is still an active member of the US Army.
  • Mattis says we shouldn't be asking questions about the Niger ambush?  Oversight of the military is not just your job, sir.  It involves Congress, and because Congress operates via fire alarms (they wait for someone to report a problem and then respond), the media play a vital role in civilian control of the military.  I continue to think Mattis is overrated because he is better than the rest.  That ain't saying much these days.
  • Trump?  His choices continually suck.
We know the character of the folks in this administration.  Maybe some day, we will find out that Kelly, Mattis and McMaster prevented worse things from happening, but I can't really count on that. All I see are the choices they make, and that tells me enough.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

False and Real Patriotism

This administration lives in a bizarro universe and so does, alas, much of the media.  The latest?

For the past couple of months, the false focus of what it means to be an American and a patriot has been on whether one stands or kneels during the anthem at sporting events.  The real focus should be on how this administration is so hostile to minority ethnic groups and immigrants (see the latest survey that has Trump wildly unpopular among non-whites).  Keeping green card holders out of the army?  What the hell? 

One could focus simply on the irrationality of this--that with most younger Americans being unqualified/disqualified (mostly due to physical fitness), one would think that taking in those who are willing and able to serve would make sense.

More importantly, what is more patriotic than being willing to fight and die for one's adopted country?  Actually serving is far more important than standing during the anthem.  One is a real contribution and, as Trump reminded a soldier's widow, a potentially risky thing to do.  The other? Purely symbolic and actually has got little to do with being a patriot, as dissent is just as American, if not more so, than standing during a song. 

I have been blogging less lately because many of my entries would simply be FFS.  For fuck sake.  Why?  Because this administration is so often full of shit, so shameless that hypocrisy seems to a badge of honor.  Who is the better patriot?  Colin Kaepernick or Donald Trump? It ain't close.  Not at all.  Kaepernick knows that sacrificing self for political change is worth the cost.   Trump only knows sacrificing others for personal aggrandizement and ego.

Twas 1775 when Samuel Johnson said: "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  Indeed.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Quebec and Xenophobia: the Liberals are Illiberal

Quebeckers get upset when accused of being racist or xenophobic, but then the government of Quebec proposes to deny public services to those who cover their face.
The controversial legislation would effectively ban public workers — including doctors, nurses, teachers and daycare workers — as well as those receiving a service from the government, from wearing the niqab, burka or any other face covering.
 This is very clearly aimed at Muslim women wearing burkas and niqabs and not at those who endure the Canadian winter via fleecy balaclavas.  Why?  Because it is good politics--there is no real threat of face covered folks--just the imagined threat and taking a stance that tells one's base that one is with them by being against the other. 

It makes me want to resurrect an old meme of mine: the xenophobic squirrel.

I will need to find the old pic and make new ones for the PLQ (Quebec Liberal Party) as most of my old ones were aimed at the Parti Quebecois.

They call it religious neutrality.  I call it Islamophobia.  And, of course, the opposition parties in Quebec say it isn't enough.

This does remind me that the national and provincial parties are not the same entities, as Trudeau and the NDP refused to go along with this kind of crap two yeas ago.  It cost the NDP bigly, but not Trudeau.  I wonder if anyone will ask him about this, and whether he will dodge or not.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hostile Work Environments

In this space, I have frequently railed against sexual harassers, including outing one at my old place.  Why?  First, much sympathy for those who are directly victimized as it can derail careers and create great pain.  Second, it is simply wrong.  But third, and the topic du jour, is that it creates a hostile work environment.  That seems abstract, and when I first heard that phrase a couple of decades ago, I had no idea what it means.  Now?  Absolutely, I do.

When I was at Texas Tech, there was an assistant prof who slept with multiple grad students, as in at the same exact time and place.  It poisoned pretty much everything:
  • it poisoned faculty-student relations as junior faculty realized that they could not spend any non-office time with students since one of our colleagues was using such opportunities to prey.
  • it poisoned student-student relations as students thought that those who were sleeping with faculty were getting special treatment in terms of grades and protection from both the harasser (probably) and the rest of the faculty (probably not).  
  • it poisoned senior-junior faculty relations as the seniors were oblivious and wanted to give the guy special treatment that the rest of us would not get (they literally said that) while the junior faculty were outraged both by the predator and the special treatment he was getting. 
  • it poisoned the future of the department since getting him fired for being absent without leave took the new department chair's time and health as he had to fight insiders who wanted to keep an AWOL sexual harasser (he eventually was fired, although I am sure he became someone else's problem). 
At McGill, the sexual harassment by one guy over decades:
  • derailed the careers of many young women interested in Mideast studies and peacebuilding.
  • created tensions among the grad students because some didn't know, some didn't believe and some didn't know what to do. 
  • created resentment by those faculty in the know towards the administration that barely slapped a wrist.
  • fostered tensions within the faculty between those in the know and the predator that remained inside the department.
My list for McGill is different because the dynamics were a bit less central to everything.  Why?  Because the predator was not an ally of other senior faculty, that the predator involved fewer students in all the stuff he was up to (the students at McGill did not vote in faculty meetings in numbers that were larger than the junior faculty), because McGill was not nearly as poorly administered at all levels as TTU despite my problems with a chair who knew nothing, heard nothing, etc.

So much of the Harvey Weinstein stuff is familiar to me.
  • There are folks at McGill who remain silent because of confidentiality agreements that were imposed--so journalists know that something happened (and is still happening) but can't write stories with out names and testimony (I have been approached several times over the past year or two).   As someone who was never officially in the loop, I never had to agree to such a pledge. 
  • Others fear saying stuff because of potential lawsuits--my post last year led some folks to speculate when I would get sued.  Not yet.  
  • The community of victims is far larger than folks think--I am not surprised that Weinstein did this over and over again for decades.  He felt entitled and empowered by his own impunity.  That is very familiar given that the harassers I have known are not one-time guys who fell in love or in deep like or had crushes on one amazing student.  Nope, they kept preying upon those who were vulnerable because they could. Again, confidentiality does not protect the future victims.
While sexual harassment happens to most women at some point, it may or not happen everywhere.  I wasn't at Vermont long enough to see anything or hear about anything.  On the other hand, I was at McGill for ten years and only now am hearing about other people (thanks to my post of last year).  At Carleton?  So far, so good.  It does not seem to be a hostile work environment.  Sure, we have some faculty members who are less than optimal colleagues, but so far, I have not heard anything.  That does not mean that it hasn't happened or isn't happening because, as I have seen elsewhere, the predators often do stuff outside of view and are often protected by conspiracies of silence.  I hope this bad stuff isn't going on where I work now, but the odds are not in our favor, given that this is more prevalent than I would like even if it is less prevalent than how Hollywood tends to portray academia.

I remember folks saying that universities could not have policies on faculty-grad student romance since you can't legislate against love. So many of our profs were married to other profs who they had met when one was faculty and the other was a student.  I call bullshit on that. Yes, romance can happen, but if one has feelings for a student, wait until they are not a student.  I think general policies in this case are needed because the damage done to individuals and communities can be so deep and so lasting that it is worth deferring or even denying a few real relationships. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Proud and Humbled

I was in Toronto yesterday for an awards ceremony.  Aisha Ahmad, one of my Phd students from my time at McGill, was receiving an award for best article on an international security topic in 2016.  She was supposed to heave received it last winter at the ISA meeting in Baltimore, but that took place shortly after Trump announced his Muslim ban.  So, I accepted the award on her behalf, and we decided to hold an event in Toronto to recognize her.

Of course, Aisha decided to take advantage of the moment by doing two things: schooling us on doing research and on highlighting her students.  After big IR poohbah Robert Keohane (whose last name gets mispronounced more frequently and in more ways than mine) had a few comment and insights, Aisha discussed positionality in research, especially in fieldwork, making it clear that everyone has a distinct position from where they ask questions, but it seems that only brown folks and women folks tend to be asked about their position and how it affects their work.  She had a great example from real life as her white male colleagues interviewed the same guy she did on the same day but in a different context and got a very different perspective of that same guy.  Really very clarifying discussion. 

Aisha then had a series of her students--undergrad and grad--to discuss their work briefly, and they knocked our socks off.  I have always been impressed with her diligence and her dedication, but mentioning that would have turned my Harry Potter reference (three d's of disapparition) into a Dodgeball reference (five d's of dodgeball).

After she talked, Barnett Rubin moderated, David Dewitt and I said a few things.  David talked about Aisha's article and spiffy new book. I talked about Aisha and how truly impressive she is and how far she has come.  The path has not been easy for her, but she has walked it (or ran it, I guess) with grace and fire. 

I have much pride for her excellence, but I am also humbled because she works so much harder than I do/did, is so much more diligent and passionate about the work, and is just rocking the profession. I joked that I will take all credit for her success, as is my right as her supervisor, but, we know the truth--it is all Aisha. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Texas Tech and Guns

I finished watching some fun TV to find that there has been a shooting at Texas Tech, where I taught from 1995-2002 (well, until 2001, but was technically still employed until summer of 2002).  We don't know much yet, but I can't help but think about a few things:
  1. The Texas legislature decided to allow guns on campus despite the opposition of university police departments across the state and, well, common sense.
  2. The first person to pay the price for this is a campus cop, and the student seems to have problems.  The cops were visiting the student to do a welfare check.  So yeah.
  3. The slogan at TTU, instead of hook 'em or gig 'em or whatever, is Guns Up!  
I am glad that my remaining friends at TTU and everyone else except the cop and the kid are ok.  The kid's life is destroyed, and the cop is gone and his family is ripped apart.  But there's more freedom with heaps of guns, so there's that.

Happy Thanksgiving, Eh?

I was away last Canadian Thanksgiving, and, yes, I am still giving thanks for that terrific time last year (facebook reminds me I took a bus tour to Mt. Fuji last year and encountered ninjas along the way).  So, I don't think I properly gave thanks last year.  Moreover, with the past year of US politics, well, it makes Canada's joys stand out just a wee bit more in stark relief.  So, let me give thanks:
  • I am thankful for the great group of friends I have in Ottawa, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and elsewhere in Canada.  Some stereotypes are actually true--most Canadians I have met are friendly and polite and funny.  We truly feel at home.
  • I am thankful for the two cool jobs I had.  I loved teaching at McGill, and miss the students who went there as well as most of my former colleagues.  It was a great opportunity, and I will always be thankful for it.  Carleton has been mighty, mighty good, with five years flying by.  Sure, I ended up hiring my friends (ok, not so much as I got bounced off of the committees when my friends got short-listed), which makes the place even better, but I felt very welcome even before that.  And the folks at the Dean's Office have recognized my contributions (of course, I then end up doing more stuff for them ...hmmmm).
  • I am thankful to Canada's grant agencies as they have funded my research, which has included a lot of sweet travel around Canada and far, far beyond.  The forms are not fun, and the big partnership grant is a tough nut to crack, but my research ambitions have been very high ever since I moved here since I can get funding to the work I want to do.
  • I am thankful for being in a national capital.  Studying international relations, especially defense and national security stuff, is so much more fun and interesting when one is close to the action (or non-action).  I regularly meet military officers, diplomats, officials across the government, ambassadors and personnel representing their countries to Canada, media folks, and on and on.  It is just so very interesting.  As a deeply curious person, I enjoy this so very much.
  • I am so very thankful for being able to continue to play in a very vibrant, friendly ultimate frisbee community which owns its own fields only 12 minutes from my house. I am, of course, thankful the chance to play so much in Montreal as well.  
  • I am thankful for the great skiing although I doubt I will be returning to Whistler this winter.  Maybe Banff if I am lucky.
  • I am thankful that the 2015 election went the way it did.  Perhaps because the Conservatives had been in power for ten years or so, incumbent fatigue led Canada to move left instead of right, bucking the future trend.  The Liberals are not perfect, nor is Justin Trudeau, but damn near all of my friends would trade their government for the Canadian one in a heartbeat.  I have had the chance to give them my feedback more directly from time to time, and it is an homor to be asked to do so. I do gripe about them, but the Liberals made their big move around this time two years ago when the Conservatives shifted to an Islamophobic stance and the Liberals, as well as the NDP, refused to go along.  That the NDP is now led by a Sikh makes me more inclined to take them seriously in the future.  The multiculturalism of Canadian politics is a tonic these days as I watch the White Supremacist in Chief degrade American politics.
  • I was going to be thankful that I can get the new Star Trek on TV weekly without having to pay CBS streaming, but, well, the show is not that good.
  • I am thankful for better snow removal service!  It took some trying, but we finally found a reliable company. 
I am sure there is more, but I have some class prep to do for tomorrow.  To sum up, I am very grateful that the job market washed us up on these friendly shores.  Not what I expected at all when I started my PhD, but I am very, very lucky.