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So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, We’ve Moved

February 10, 2012

That’s right. Gunpowder and Lead has gone on to greener, more awesome pastures. You can find us at our new home at It is shiny.

On an admin note, please update your RSS feeds, your blogrolls, and your email subscriptions. We’ll keep our archives up over here, but all new material will be on the new site. Obviously.

We hope you’ll come with us. We’d miss you if you didn’t.

On Taking Nonviolence Seriously

February 8, 2012

Daniel Serwer has a post at the Atlantic arguing for the use of nonviolent means in the Syrian conflict:

The point is to demonstrate wide participation, mock the authorities, and deprive them of their capacity to generate fear. When I studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I asked an experienced agitator friend about the efficacy of the security forces. She said they were lousy. “What keeps everyone in line?” I asked. “Fear,” she replied. If the oppositions resorts to violence, it helps the authorities: by responding with sometimes random violence, they hope to re-instill fear.

It has stirred up mentions of unicorns and rainbows and that sort of thing from the many who discount this as a pipe dream. I understand the urge to dismiss nonviolence in the face of the brutality of the Syrian regime. I certainly don’t know what is best for the people of Syria in this conflict, and I’m not sure I would have the courage to urge non-violence to people who are being attacked by their own government daily, but I would urge anyone dismissing nonviolent means as completely absurd to read a little Gene Sharp (whose work Mr. Serwer references in his piece) first.

Early in his seminal work From Dictatorship to Democracy (pdf), Sharp makes a key point about the why for nonviolent means, that  “By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.”

It is not a casual use of nonviolence that Sharp encourages; he urges very calculated use of nonviolent tactics as part of a thorough plan. He puts great emphasis on the importance of strategic planning in revolution. He is quite clear that it is not enough to simply to use nonviolent means randomly. Carefully planned use of non-violence has much more potential for effectiveness than any willy-nilly application of various means.

Very careful thought based on a realistic assessment of the situation and the capabilities of the populace is required in order to select effective ways to achieve freedom under such circumstances.

If one wishes to accomplish something, it is wise to plan how to do it. The more important the goal, or the graver the consequences of failure, the more important planning becomes. Strategic planning increases the likelihood that all available resources will be mobilized and employed most effectively. This is especially true for a democratic movement – which has limited material resources and whose supporters will be in danger – that is trying to bring down a powerful dictatorship. In contrast, the dictatorship usually will have access to vast material resources, organizational strength, and ability to perpetrate brutalities.

“To plan a strategy” here means to calculate a course of action that will make it more likely to get from the present to the desired future situation. In terms of this discussion, it means from a dictatorship to a future democratic system. A plan to achieve that objective will usually consist of a phased series of campaigns and  other organized activities designed to strengthen the oppressed population and society and to weaken the dictatorship. Note here that the objective is not simply to destroy the current dictatorship but to emplace a democratic system. A grand strategy that limits its objective to merely destroying the incumbent dictatorship runs a great risk of producing another tyrant.*

Agree with Sharp’s views or not, he has done an enormous amount of work on nonviolent means of revolution, and has been very influential in various movements around the world. (If you have the opportunity to see the recent documentary about him, How to Start a Revolution, I definitely recommend doing so). He frames it in such a way that invites you to consider nonviolence as a serious approach, not a refuge of weakness, and makes a strong case for at least taking it seriously as an option.



Sharp’s warnings about planning for the aftermath have a great deal of resonance, too, when considering the current situation in Egypt, to name one.

While spontaneity has some positive qualities, it has often had disadvantages. Frequently, the democratic resisters have not anticipated the brutalities of the dictatorship, so that they suffered gravely and the resistance has collapsed. At times the lack of planning by democrats has left crucial decisions to chance, with disastrous results. Even when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship.

Rape Is Not An Inevitability of War

February 8, 2012

Does your Wednesday needs some sobering research on rape as a tool of war? Well! The Women Under Siege Project launched today. I’m proud to have contributed some research on the Libyan conflict to this incredibly important endeavor, and I’d highly recommend you take some time to browse the site. Women Under Siege looks at the use of sexualized violence* in a range of conflicts in order to understand the commonalities and the prevalence – and it is horribly, horribly prevalent.

The employment of sexualized violence in conflict is often a choice and an explicitly or implicitly endorsed policy, not just a random crime. It is used intentionally to punish families and communities, not just individual women. And I mean, nobody’s laboring under some delusion that war’s suddenly going to get safer for women and children because we did some research. I get that bad things happen in war, but the intentionality is what gets me, and why I think this project is so important. Without attention, without outrage, without documentation, decisionmakers in conflict situations will continue to think they can get away with using rape as though it’s a legitimate use of force under the laws of war.

And I’ll be honest – I really struggled with the whole “what’s the point?” of this project. It feels Sisyphean – stopping sexualized violence in war? Really? But Gloria Steinem puts it in context in a Q&A:

LW: Does your work in the women’s movement give you encouragement that we can make headway on sexualized violence in conflict?

GS: Yes, absolutely. In my lifetime, we’ve shown that rape is not sex but violence, and changed the laws that required a virginal victim and a bystander willing to testify. In my high school, boys used to say there was no such thing as rape, that “you can’t thread a needle unless the needle holds still.” They’re not saying that anymore. Actually, I get letters from men in prison who really understand rape because, in the absence of women, they’ve been used as women. Sexualized violence, in and out of conflict, has been named and punishments codified. Now we have to get this off paper and into life.

LW: Do you think it’s ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

GS: Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans—the one that allows our species to survive—is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

So read. Be outraged. Be horrified. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s problem and it doesn’t affect you. Your silence makes it worse.


* I feel like I need to get into definitions here, but at minimum, we’re all clear that rape/sexual assault is about violence and control and really has nothing to do with sex, right? I use the term “sexualized violence” because that’s what Gloria Steinem uses. She explains why in the above-referenced Q&A.

Indecent Acts?

February 7, 2012

Over the last two days, I got into a rather extended discussion on the ‘Acts of Valor’ movie which is coming out on 17 Feb.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is the trailer which aired during the Super Bowl.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last two days and though I’m still not 100% sure why, something about this still bothers me.  When I brought this up originally there were a number of people who seemed to agree that something was ‘off’ about this, but there were also a number of people who rushed to the defense of the film. Eventually, this morphed into a much longer discussion which helped me (and hopefully others) to zero in on what aspects of the movie promotion we felt were issues.  Right now I have to confine my critique to the promotional because, like almost everyone commenting, I have not seen the actual film.

As background, the Wall Street Journal has a good piece that covers some of the history and logic that went in to the decision to make this movie.  There is a lot more than I include here, so you should read this piece in its entirety.

For two years the filmmakers had inside access to the Navy’s elite and secretive force for an unusual assignment: to create a feature film that starred real-life SEALs—not actors—in lead roles. The movie, “Act of Valor,” is not a documentary. Instead, it straddles reality and fiction, military messaging and entertainment. It features strike scenes written by the SEALs themselves, jarring live-fire footage and a body count that would rival any ’80s action flick. Yet the movie, to be released in February, was designed to set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film.

In 2008, Navy Special Warfare invited a handful of production companies to submit proposals for a film project, possibly a documentary, that would flesh out the role of the SEALs. The goals: bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as “Navy Seals,” the 1990 shoot-em-up starring Charlie Sheen as a cocky lone wolf. “In the SEAL ethos, the superman myth does not apply. It’s a lifestyle of teamwork, hard work and academic discipline,” said Capt. Duncan Smith, a SEAL who initiated the project and essentially served as producer within the military.

The project offered filmmakers access to SEALs as well as military assets, but no funding. A production company called the Bandito Brothers, which had previously worked with Navy Special Warfare on a series of recruiting videos, got the assignment. Co-founded by Mr. McCoy, a former off-road racing champion and stuntman, and Scott Waugh, who had run a stunt company, the Bandito Brothers specialized in shooting action-driven viral ads for brands such as BMW and Mountain Dew. 

The Bandito Brothers commissioned a script from Kurt Johnstad, who had co-written “300,” a comic-book-style depiction of ancient Spartan warriors that has many fans among U.S. troops, but that many critics dismissed as heavy-handed and excessively violent. His “Act of Valor” screenplay revolved around a SEAL team’s mission to stop a Chechen jihadist cooperating with a smuggler to send suicide bombers across the Mexican border toward U.S. targets. (A villain from Eastern Europe was a less obvious and potentially sensitive choice than an Arab, the filmmakers say.) (emphasis mine)

These passages highlight my concerns with the film.  While propaganda seems like too strong a word, what do you call it when the military commissions a movie specifically to designed to alter perception amongst the population it is pledged to defend?  This isn’t some comically over-the-top recruiting commercial with a lava monster or a transforming C-17.  This is a feature length movie that utilizes active duty SEALS, with actual equipment and tactics, and explicitly promotes itself on its ‘realness.’

Just to be clear, I don’t have an issue with the military providing Hollywood with technical support and access to equipment, but historically the process has been initiated by the movie industry, not the military. I believe that this relationship has been a net good and can allow for accurate portrayal of the military in movies (though anyone who watched Stealth knows I’m using “accurate” in the loosest sense of the word). For example, apart from destroying every fond childhood memory I possess, Transformers was fine.  I also had no issue with Iron Man featuring F-22s (on the contrary, I’m glad someone was able to get some use out of them before they were grounded).  These are clearly ‘action flicks’ and even though the military provides a backdrop for the narrative, no serious person looks at these and thinks they really reflect what military life is like.

Because obviously, USAF Security Forces could push through an ambush better than this

Conversely, I don’t have any issue with Hollywood creating films that tell dramatizations of actual events, such as Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill.  Even knowing that there will be sacrifices to historic accuracy in the interest of a tightly spun narrative, I still believe that general population recognizes that the primary goal of these films is entertainment, not education.  While I think that the usage of professional actors in these roles largely contributes to the recognition that they are vehicles for entertainment, I didn’t have any issue with Generation Kill allowing certain Marines to portray themselves in the film.

So, why do I still have reservations about this?  I think that my primary concern is that the concept originated within the corporate NSW community, which means that it was started specifically to promote their agenda.  At this point (again, having not seen the movie), I have to extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone involved with this.  Their motivation may truly have been only to more accurately convey what it is like to be a SEAL and to demonstrate what kind of a toll this life can take on a person and his family.  Those are noble goals and I don’t take any issue with them.  However, if the purpose of engaging in this kind of activity was to “set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film,” then the SEALS really need to get in line.  Over the years, pretty much every group in the military has been misrepresented in media.  Granted, SEALS have one more reason than the rest of society to distance themselves from Charlie Sheen, but having your (very serious work) sensationalized in pop culture isn’t exactly being slandered.

I’m also concerned about the precedent that this sets within the military.  There are many examples where the greater military has followed on a path laid out by the various Special Forces communities with regards to equipment, procedures, tactics, etc.  My concern is that this has the potential to be another of those areas.  As the defense budget constricts (kinda) the resource wars between the components of the DoD will likely become more aggressive and the strategic messaging to the American people and Congress will become even more important.  Right now, Navy SEALS are (rightly) in the forefront of the American consciousness.  They and the rest of Special Operations are in no real risk of having their budget cut anytime soon.  However, I wonder how different the sentiment would be if the US Air Force solicited and fully supported and staffed the creation of a “fictional” feature film that showed how a rising Chinese threat could only be countered by a tailored mix of F-22s and F-35s.

Is this really a good precedent to set?

Also, Ravens aren’t nearly as cool as they look in the trailer.


The good news (and maybe the real story) in all of this is that there was an almost entirely positive set of discussions with folks over twitter, even those whom I disagreed with.  For example, you need to go read Jeff Emanuel’s post over at Red State.  He and I disagreed on aspects of this, but his post lays out some of the counter arguments that you should consider.  Plus he goes through the a large part of the discussion that occurred in much more detail than I did here.

Strength in Numbers

February 6, 2012

Update: Don’t bother reading what I wrote below. Go read what Gulliver wrote almost a year ago instead.

All of the DoD budget talk and the vociferous debate over whether or not to preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has highlighted what I think is a troubling trend in military analysis.

Too often, analysts point to total military expenditures as a means to compare relative military strength. For instance, proponents of forthcoming DoD budget cuts like to cite the fact that the U.S. spends more on national defense than every other country in the world combined as evidence that DoD can afford to tighten the purse strings. This evidence also appears when analysts and pundits are making the argument that Iran does not pose a military threat to the United States.

This argument is not limited to appearances in pithy op-eds and blogs either. It’s prevalent in scholarly journals and other academic texts as well. The following is from a 1997 article in International Security:

Each of the Eurasian great powers (with the exception of Russia) spends about the same amount on its military as the others, which suggests that none could easily overpower the rest.

Now, the authors moderate their claim by using the word ‘suggests’, but the point is clear – they believe similar levels of military spending equate to similar levels of military power.

Is this really the best way to measure the relative military strength of two or more countries? I submit that the answer is no. Military power is far too complex to measure with a simple fact like military expenditures. Concepts like doctrine and readiness are hard to quantify, but play a huge role in military power.

Let’s take the following hypothetical.

Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?

Military spending is an easy way to measure military strength, insofar as it can provide an initial estimate for assessing the comparative military strength of two or more countries and/or be included in an introduction to set the stage for the main argument. But it’s hardly appropriate to cite such data as your sole evidence while making an argument in favor of budget cuts or whether a hostile power represents a military threat.

And if that’s not convincing, just look at the Pentagon. Not exactly the model for spending money efficiently or wisely, huh?

R2P, Military Intervention, and Civil-Military Balance

February 4, 2012

This morning’s UNSC vote on Syria kicked up a new round of sometimes contentious discussions in the ongoing debate on what a US intervention in Syria would or should look like and, more basically, whether the US should get involved in the Syrian crisis at all.

In the midst of some of this conversation on Twitter, Peter J. Munson fliply asked when all the R2P proponents would be heading down to a military recruiting office, which set off a flurry of responses calling him out (rightly) for the problematic civil-military implications inherent in any statement implying that only those who are serving/have served should have a right to commit our forces to a military intervention. I agree with his critics that this idea is dead wrong.

However, Mr. Munson is justified and absolutely correct in calling out policymakers and supporters of R2P, and military action in general, for failures to consider the second and third order effects or the inevitably-spiraling financial and, most importantly, human costs of any military action.

In the midst of the Twitter debates, Munson fired off one tweet that I think encapsulates both what bothered me about his arguments and what I sympathized with:

Also problematic that so few policy elites have military experience but are so willing to turn to force

I would say that it is not by definition problematic that policy elites don’t have military experience, but it is certainly problematic when they are quick to turn to force.

I don’t think Mr. Munson was really trying to say that only military and veterans should be allowed to shape defense policy, but I think it’s important to address the idea seriously, because civilian control of the military is an important element in the survival of a democracy. The idea that only those with military experience should be allowed to make defense policy/weigh in on the country’s use of military force is a dangerous one. It’s taking the point to extremes, but that way lies military dictatorship.

However, the other crucial thing to remember is that the civil-military relationship goes both ways. There are serious and important responsibilities on both sides.  Civilian policymakers are not holding up their end of the bargain if they do not very seriously consider the costs and consequences – the intended consequences and as many potential unintended ones as can be conceived – before committing our military to any actions or interventions. And Mr. Munson is quite justified in getting upset about this side of things.

An intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is in intention, could spiral very, very rapidly out of control, spreading conflict across the region and making good of all the glib buzz phrases people have come up with since 9/11.

In sum, I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria.  However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the “limited” intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine.

As I see it and as I have said before, the single most important responsibility our civilian government holds toward our military is not to risk or spend their lives lightly, without good reason, without dedicated efforts at alternative solutions, and without serious forethought. I think that in recent years, our policymakers have been notably lax in upholding this duty, and it’s no mystery to me why I have heard Mr. Munson and a number of others who have served questioning whether pundits and policymakers who have not can really understand the costs and risks of committing to the use of force.

I am sympathetic to expressions that policymakers do not consider all of the potential consequences, but I do not believe assertions that they cannot. I think that the privileges and the responsibilities of the civil-military relationship are too often taken for granted, but that if policymakers take the time and care to consider them, to listen to the input of their advisers military and civilian, and to think strategically (e.g., to conceive the desired end, then consider the various means at their disposal to reach that end, along with each means’ costs and benefits), then there is no reason a civilian government dominated by those who have never worn a uniform cannot effectively and responsibly wield the power to employ the use of force as an option.

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think the fact that we can all participate in these debates in the public sphere is at least some reason to hope that our criticisms and questions can influence the larger discourse and help to hold our policymakers accountable in both their exercise of their rights and their fulfillment of their responsibilities.

A Public Apology to Joshua Foust, and a Note on Collegiality

February 1, 2012

Joshua Foust feels that I went over the top in my recent debate against him. The purpose of this post is to explain the course of our debate, offer him an apology publicly, and to make a broader point about collegiality in the public sphere.

With respect to our debate, there are two modes that I fall into when having a disagreement with someone whom I like and respect: collegial disagreement, and argument for sport. (There are other modes for people I don’t like or don’t respect, but Foust is someone whom I both like and respect.) Argument for sport is something I did for six years during my time in competitive policy debate in both high school and college, and I was good at it. Foust is also good at the art of argument, something that is evident from C.J. Chivers’s review of Foust’s book, or Foust’s utter demolition of the Afghanistan Study Group’s 2010 report. Foust’s skill at argument and intellectual acumen are why I traditionally enjoy our debates. One thing I tried to make clear in my first post in this debate is that it seemed that Foust and I were self-consciously operating in the realm of arguing with each other for sport. To quote a portion that outlines the course of our Twitter interactions that ultimately produced this debate (note that I shortened this from the original for the sake of brevity):

Over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust – my friend and frequent sparring partner – about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov. Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing…. When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for.

The first post was full of theatrics, written in the style of a pro wrestler sitting at a keyboard and weighing in on national security issues. Though my second entry in this debate featured less bombast, it was — as Foust correctly points out — written in an adversarial tone. That was because, as stated above, to me we were arguing for sport: though this is an awfully lame analogy for two thirty-somethings arguing with each other from behind computer screens, we were gladiators in an arena. But, in fact, it would have been far preferable if I dealt with him in a collegial manner rather than in the adversarial/argument-for-sport mode that I was locked into. The simple fact is that I misread the nature of the interaction. I don’t apologize for the arguments I made, which I stand behind, but this is a determined example of how one’s tone can, to a debating “adversary,” utterly overwhelm the legitimate arguments made. So let me conclude this apology by saying again that I respect Foust’s intellect and domain expertise; and indeed, would not have chosen to enter into this debate with him if I didn’t feel that way.

For me, the overarching lesson is that it’s best to deal with people whom I have a positive opinion of an entirely collegial manner, rather than in the manner of arguing for sport — because it is too easy for “argument for sport” to descend into the appearance of the personal, even if that’s not what I intended. (The one exception moving forward will be chap hop twitterfights.)

I have made it a point to argue in favor of collegiality in the past, such as in this Q&A I did with Andrew Exum back in September that got a bit of attention. Moving beyond the context of this spat with Foust, and the way in which I was arguing for sport when I should have just been dialoguing with him as a colleague, we tend to be a public sphere full of people who argue for sport — or, worse, people who rabidly insult those they disagree with, as though it were a sport. This is not a healthy thing; and I should not have contributed to that dynamic, even if it was not my intention to do so.

Muhtorov, the IJU, and Foust: Part 2

January 31, 2012

This entry is my second contribution to a debate with Joshua Foust about the recent arrest of Jamshid Muhtorov, as well as Uzbek militant movements more generally. As with the first, it is co-written with Lauren Morgan — but this time with less bombast and self-indulgence. To review the debate so far:

Our article referred to Foust’s original contribution as “an epistemological wreck,” arguing that it made a number of claims that were either extremely hyperbolic or not supported by evidence. There were two parts to our argument. First, we argued that Muhtorov’s arrest did not constitute a “thought crime,” and that there was in fact probable cause for the arrest. Second, we argued that contrary to Foust’s original post, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), to which authorities allege Muhtorov was trying to provide material support, did in fact exist, and that there is reason to consider it a terrorist organization. On both of our points, Foust has either significantly backtracked or else conceded our points.

Probable Cause for Muhtorov’s Arrest

Foust’s original article argued that Muhtorov’s arrest amounted to “arresting people for sending emails… essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” In response, we quoted extensively from the arrest affidavit, establishing the panoply of facts from which authorities determined that Muhtorov was leaving the country to join up with the IJU — the act of going to join that organization constituting material support for a designated terrorist entity in contravention of U.S. law. We contrasted Muhtorov’s case with that of Youssef al Khattab, a big talker on the Internet who has spread militant Islamic propaganda from the U.S. — and has done so legally, his free speech rights protected.

In Foust’s rebuttal, he states that the area where we differ from him is “the presumption of Mukhtarov’s guilt.” This is plainly untrue. There is a significant difference between authorities having probable cause to make an arrest and proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (which is the standard for conviction following a criminal trial, and also the area where a presumption of innocence becomes relevant). In fact, we made this point abundantly clear in our entry, noting that Foust has elsewhere asked “if the current charges are trumped up,” and explicitly calling this “a fair question.” It is quite clear that we do not presume guilt in this case: rather, it seems to us that there was probable cause to make the arrest, which is an entirely separate question from guilt or innocence.

Foust goes on to say that his objection to Muhtorov’s arrest was not that authorities lacked probable cause, but rather that the material-support law is itself flawed: “Mukhtarov does seem to have fallen afoul of the ‘material support’ laws in the U.S. My argument, poorly stated in that initial post, was that those laws are themselves inherently flawed.” We will take him at his word that this was the point he was trying to make — as Foust concedes, the fact that he was doing so was not entirely clear. But two problems remain with his argument. One is that, in critiquing the basis for Muhtorov’s arrest, Foust either improperly portrays or else simply does not understand what Muhtorov is being charged with. The second problem is that there may in fact be a better legal regime than the current material-support laws, but Foust proffers no alternative.

Foust’s inaccurate portrayal of the crimes with which Muhtorov is charged is clear when one reads Foust’s entry carefully:

While scolding me for reducing the Mukhtarov indictment to “crimes on a chatroom,” Daveed pulls from the indictment itself a list of crimes that include sending emails favorable of Juma Namangani and saying he supports the goals of a website administrator. I fail to see the distinction, even if he is working on semantics rather than specifics, between “email correspondence with a website administrator” and “crimes on a chatroom.”

Muhtorov’s reference to Namangani actually occurred in a phone call rather than an e-mail, but that is beside the point. The larger issue is that referring favorably to Namangani is not a crime, and Muhtorov is not being charged for doing so. If authorities tried to criminalize speaking favorably of Namangani, we would both oppose it, as that would be a clear contravention of the speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is a vital distinction: the bullet pointed list that we took from the affidavit did not constitute “a list of crimes,” but rather a list of acts that put together gave authorities probable cause to make an arrest on the basis that Muhtorov was taking concrete action to join a designated terrorist group overseas, and support its activities. In his portrayal of this point, Foust is either being dishonest or else did not understand the distinction between acts and crimes: we assume it is the latter, both because it’s always best to assume good intentions in one’s debating opponents, and also because we have not known Foust to be purposefully dishonest in his previous writings. But informed critique of the material support laws is impossible without getting the basic facts right about the basis for an arrest under this statue.

Foust argues that “just because Mukhtarov said some scary things on the Internet, that doesn’t mean he committed any traditionally-defined crimes in doing so. To criminalize this sort of correspondence veers dangerously close to creating thought-crimes.”Again, the correspondence wasn’t criminalized — see the above-referenced case of Youssef al Khattab, which we also mentioned in our initial post, as it is instructive about the latitude individuals are given to “say scary things on the Internet,” in Foust’s parlance. Muhtorov’s arrest, rather, is based on multiple factors: what he said on the Internet about his desire to join the IJU, along with the fact that he immediately began searching for tickets to Turkey upon doing so, along with telephone conversations that further clarified his intentions with respect to the IJU, along with telling his daughter that she would never see him again except in heaven, along with quitting his job before finally purchasing his plane ticket to Turkey. Put together, this is not the criminalization of correspondence, but a case study in how various pieces of evidence that are indicative of intentions can combine to give authorities probable cause to believe that an overt (non-speech) act is a crime. Foust can still argue that the law should not allow an arrest under these circumstances, but the first step in any critique should be understanding how the law actually operates.

This brings us to the second problem with Foust’s critique of material-support laws: it critiques them without offering an alternative. Americans who have traveled overseas to join designated terrorist groups have in fact succeeded in killing people: two recent examples are Americans who executed suicide attacks in Somalia, Abdisalan Hussein Ali and Shirwa Ahmed. So, if the material-support laws are bad, what would be better? On one end of the spectrum we could have no material-support laws at all: Americans could have the right and ability to join and assist any violent non-state actor they choose, anywhere in the world. We do not think that such a legal regime would be an improvement on the present system. On the other hand, perhaps there is a revision to current material-support laws that would be be superior to what we have now. If that is Foust’s position, he would make the best contribution not just by calling the present law “dumb,” but by finding and proposing that superior alternative.

The Islamic Jihad Union

One particular reason that we decided to weigh in on this debate was Foust’s initial claim that the IJU didn’t actually exist. To quote Foust: “There’s this IJU group, which still doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.” We replied by showing, at some length, that the IJU does exist, that it’s a real thing that has undertaken operations. Foust replies that the real issue is whether the IJU is capable of global reach: “Just because a group says it has global aspirations, that doesn’t mean they are capable of global action or warrant a global response…. So when Daveed says that I argued the IJU doesn’t exist, he’s misrepresenting my argument.” This is obviously a hard position to sustain: his initial post said that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms” — and proving in response that it does exist constitutes an on-point refutation. Thus, Foust’s co-blogger at Registan, Nathan Hamm, noted in the comments to Foust’s latter post: “I think it’s hard to say that Daveed is grossly misrepresenting your position when you, well, said these things.”

Indeed, the only way Foust’s observations about the IJU can fit with his original critique of the Muhtorov arrest is if the IJU isn’t a real group, or really shouldn’t be considered a terrorist organization, thus underscoring the injustice of the arrest. So Foust now concedes our point, that the IJU exists; but he goes on to claim that our position is that “the IJU is a really real thing that does stuff and is scary.” The “scariness” flourish is, of course, just that — a flourish. As we made clear in our first entry, neither of us consider the Provisional IRA to be “scary,” or “a threat to all peoples.” But it is real, and it supports and undertakes violence, and we are better off if our government does not give Americans carte blanche to assist the organization.

That is all we really need to establish with respect to the IJU: that it is real, and that it supports and undertakes militant activities, and so designating it is a rational decision. Whether the IJU is “capable of global action” or not is beside the point with respect to a discussion of Muhtorov’s arrest. But it is worth noting that, as with Muhtorov, the case that the IJU is a real organization that undertakes violence is not a matter of trusting what they say on the Internet. There have been arrests by multiple governments — not just Uzbekistan but also Germany and Turkey. (While Foust argues that there may be a distinction between the IJU and the “Islamic Jihad Group” behind the 2007 plot to set off explosives in Germany, he certainly does not prove this point, and the intelligence sources with whom we have spoken deny this distinction. Foust himself mentions that a multiplicity of languages are being spoken within IJU, which includes non-Uzbek speakers, and this fact can lend itself to multiple translations of the group’s name. Indeed, various other jihadi groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have operated under different names and operated different websites.) Moreover, with respect to IJU’s Internet claims, one can — as with Muhtorov — look to the intersection between what it is claiming and the facts on the ground. The IJU has been able to provide credible accounts of attacks in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan that suggests an inside knowledge of these incidents — so when American analysts put stock in these IJU claims, they are not just taking these groups at their word. Rather, they are judging the IJU’s claims in light of external evidence that can either verify or undermine those claims.

So our overarching point is that it seems the IJU was properly designated as a terrorist entity. Whether or not it is a “global threat” is a beside the point. We do not claim to be able to pinpoint exactly how powerful it is at present, in part because the IJU is an institution in flux, as are many violent non-state actors. But as we can see from AQAP’s remarkable advances over the past year in Yemen’s Abyan province, jihadi groups are capable of gaining momentum beyond what analysts expect. This is not to say that the IJU or IMU will do so — but rather that, when exploring such questions as the threat a group poses, some degree of humility should always be in order.


And that’s all, folks. Foust has backed down from the rather soaring claims of his first post, and has adopted a more moderate position that opposes current material-support laws. His representation of what those laws actually prohibit is imperfect, but this post hopefully clarifies for Foust the distinction between crimes and acts that his previous posts misapprehend. The area where Foust could take this discussion in the future is toward a more sustained critique of the material-support laws. But if he does that, it is our hope that he will try to contribute to the question of what he would prefer in their place.

Jamshid Muhtorov, the Islamic Jihad Union, and Joshua Foust

January 30, 2012

As regular Gunpowder & Lead readers will know, one of my preferred genres of writing is known informally as the “evisceration.” My recent piece on Fawaz Gerges’s proclamation that al Qaeda has died is one example of this genre (the thrust of which is probably evident from its rather descriptive name). So over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust– my friend and frequent sparring partner — about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek man living in Colorado, on terrorism charges (material support for the Islamic Jihad Union). Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing: before I leave the continental U.S. on Thursday, I need to finish a major study on the tactical and strategic use of small arms by terrorist groups, finish editing a book on terrorism in Canada for which I am volume editor, write an academic piece on jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring, write a book review, and teach my weekly course at the Catholic University of America.

When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for. Thus, I bring you…

The Evisceration of Joshua Foust

by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Lauren Morgan

Jamshid Muhtorov was arrested last week for allegedly providing and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). Immediately after the arrest, Joshua Foust wrote a rather unsubtly titled Registan entry, “The Crazy, Trumped Up Uzbek Hype.” In it, Foust argues that the case against Muhtorov is based upon weak evidence, and argues that the group Muhtorov allegedly supported in fact “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.”

The major problem with Foust’s piece is that it is an epistemological wreck, littered with claims that either he has no way of knowing or are simply unproven, while employing a style that smacks of absolute certitude. This is not the first time one of us has called Foust out for an article that makes epistemological errors; and doing so may in some small way enhance the public sphere. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his excellent review of Foust’s book Afghanistan Journal: “The collection bluntly challenges many of the people, in and out of the military, organizing or speaking for the war, and submits their assumptions to a determined inquiry…. If Mr. Foust were to have a slogan, it might be this: ‘What’s your evidence?'” In our view, it is important for Foust to apply that same standard — one demanding evidence for all assertions — to his own work outside the context of Afghanistan. Our critique of Foust’s contribution to the debate over the Muhtorov case is just that that: “What’s your evidence?”

Criminalizing Participation in a Chat Room?

Foust argues that the facts alleged in the arrest affidavit represent “awfully thin stuff for a terrorism investigation — essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” Taking the affidavit at face value (which one must do in determining whether its allegations are “thin stuff”), it is a remarkable exaggeration to say that it amounts to the criminalization of participation in a chat room. Beside the rather obvious problem that the complaint never once mentions chat rooms, the allegations show that this is not a case about freedom of expression. According to the indictment:

  • Muhtorov began e-mail correspondence with the administrator (named Muhammad) of the IJU-affiliated website on February 5, 2011.
  • In a phone call on March 8, 2011, Muhtorov informed an associate that the IJU (“our guys over there”) is in need of support. He specifically referenced Juma Namangani, one of the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), before being warned by his associate that he shouldn’t mention Namangani because the call may be subjected to surveillance.
  • On March 22-23, 2011, Muhtorov made bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the IJU, and told Muhammad that he was “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.” Muhammad would later tell Muhtorov that the pledge of bay’ah had been passed on to the group’s leadership.
  • Beginning in April 2011, Muhtorov repeatedly told Muhammad that an associate wanted to send along money for a “wedding gift” (the affidavit notes that the out-of-place reference to a “wedding” was likely “code for a terrorist event or attack”), and became agitated when he heard that the “master of ceremonies” was unable to communicate with him directly.
  • Muhtorov began looking for one-way flights to Istanbul in May 2011, but instead of purchasing one immediately, he began working long hours.
  • On July 25, 2011, Muhtorov spoke to his daughter on the phone, telling her he would never see her again, but that “if she was a good Muslim girl, he will see her in heaven.”
  • Finally, in January 2012, Muhtorov quits his job and purchases a one-way ticket to Istanbul, scheduled to leave January 21, 2012 at 5:25 p.m. CST.

In other words, according to the arrest affidavit, it seems that Muhtorov opened up communications with the administrator of an IJU website, spoke favorably of Juma Namangani, committed himself to IJU in an electronic pledge of bay’at, wanted to send money to IJU, quit his job, and was preparing to travel abroad when he was arrested — after telling his daughter that she would only see him again in heaven. Unless there are some very bizarre circumstances that explain this behavior, it seems there was probable cause for the U.S. to arrest him. Foust can argue that Muhtorov’s situation should have played out longer, and investigators should have gathered more information, but given that he was actively preparing to leave the U.S., it’s uncertain what the authorities were supposed to do.

There is an obvious difference between an individual who expresses sympathy for a terrorist organization or creates Internet fodder promoting their ideologies (take, for example, the case of Youssef al Khattab) and an individual who has made bay’ah to an organization, and has purchased a one-way ticket to leave the U.S. and join said organization. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; it does not guarantee citizens the right to travel abroad to join a foreign terrorist organization.

Elsewhere, Foust asks if the current charges are trumped up. While this is a fair question, Foust would do a service to his readers — and best assist them in actually approaching the question — by fairly portraying the facts of the case rather than jumping to the most hyperbolic conclusion.

Does the Islamic Jihad Union Not Actually Exist?

Foust argues that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms,” stating that the IJU is only alleged to have ever done one thing, “some bombings in Tashkent in 2004,” and that this could have simply been made up by the Uzbek government. (For the record, we both agree with Foust that the Uzbek government’s claims should not be taken at face value — but that doesn’t settle the issue, as we will explain.) The 2004 Tashkent bombings are in fact the only thing the IJU is alleged to have done on page 2 of the arrest affidavit, but there is more on page 3:

  • “In September 2007, German authorities arrested three IJU operatives, disrupting a plot against unidentified U.S. or Western facilities in Germany. The IJU operatives had acquired about 700 kg of hydrogen peroxide and an explosives precursor, which was enough raw material to make the equivalent about about 1,200 pounds of TNT. The IJU claimed responsibility for the foiled plot.”
  • “The IJU has claimed responsibility for attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008, including a March 2008 suicide attack against a U.S. military post purportedly carried out by a German-born Turk.”
  • “In April 2009, Turkish authorities seized weapons and detained extremists with ties to the IJU. The IJU has also claimed responsibility for a May 2009 attack in Uzbekistan and numerous attacks in Afghanistan against coalition forces.”

So it really cannot come down to security officials simply being duped by the Uzbekistan government; it is not just Uzbekistan that is trumping the IJU as a real thing, but also Germany, Turkey, and the IJU itself. They could all be wrong, of course, but we are talking about more than the U.S. just accepting Uzbekistan’s word. (Nor is it accurate to say, as Foust claims in this section, that the designation of the IJU “made it a crime to communicate with them” — the material support statute plainly does not prohibit communication with designated entities.)

But Foust provides a link when he says that the IJU doesn’t exist — maybe it brings us to a piece that definitively shows that the IJU is a fiction? Clicking through, you get this analysis by Foust. Does it prove that the IJU isn’t a real thing? Well, let me quote: “None of this means the IJU is an actual hoax.” That’s right: Foust manages to misquote his own work in arguing that the IJU does not exist.

The other thing Foust takes issue with is the depiction of the IMU as  being a “global jihadi movement” (something that JZ Adams claimed in the Asia Times). Adams wrote that the IMU “evolved from being a group focused on overthrowing the ‘apostate’ regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s into the global jihadi movement that it is now.” In response, Foust writes that it is “patently ridiculous to call the IMU a ‘global jihad threat.'” Now, if you compare those quotes carefully, you will see that Foust’s direct quote of Adams actually misquotes him. Adams didn’t write that the IMU is a “global jihad threat,” but rather that it had evolved from a regional focus into being part of the “global jihadi movement.” This misquotation is actually significant because the question of whether IMU is positioning itself as part of the global jihadi movement is separate from the question of whether it should be seen as a “global threat.”

Why are the IMU and IJU seen as being global in outlook? It is not because of “crazy, trumped up Uzbek hype” (though someone somewhere will certainly hype virtually any issue under the sun), but rather because both groups are actively portraying themselves that way, and reaching out to the global jihadi movement. Significant in this regard are the photos circulating on jihadi websites of IJU amir Abdullah Fatih meeting with high-level al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi.* In August 2011, the IJU claimed that three of their members were martyred by a drone strike in Pakistan. Then there’s this March 2011 statement from IJU expressing solidarity with the mujahedin in the Caucasus region.

Further, both the IJU and IMU have been actively seeking recruits in Europe, Germany in particular. (The IJU’s Eric Breininger hailed from Saarland, Germany.) Indeed, in the middle of this month German officials arrested a man of Afghan descent and charged him with recruiting for the IMU. In reaching European jihadists, Uzbek militant groups have emphasized the role the Khurasan region plays in Islamic end-times prophecy. This region comprises parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and is mentioned in multiple ahadith. The late Syed Saleem Shahzad opened his book Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban by emphasizing the importance of this region to Islamic militant groups: “Khurasan was to be the first battleground for the End of Time battles, before a decisive confrontation against the West, with the last battle being fought in the Middle East for the liberation of Palestine and all occupied Muslim lands.”

The evidence goes on: the point is that the perception of these groups being global in outlook comes not from the Uzbek government, but from the groups themselves.


Foust has repeatedly criticized the idea that “Uzbeks are scary,” and on Twitter he commented to us, “I await hearing how the IJU is a threat to all peoples!” This is part of the problem when you are discussing a legal case, as Foust is here. Neither of us find the Irish to be scary, nor do we believe that the IRA is “a threat to all peoples” — but that doesn’t mean that Americans have the right to join the IRA and assist its militant activities. Nor is the idea that the IJU simply doesn’t exist self-evident when IJU leaders had met with Abu Yahya al Libi, and multiple governments have arrested its members. The least that can be said about Foust’s contribution is that it goes far, far beyond any conclusions that the evidence can sustain.

But the bigger, and far more important lesson is that you should never beg Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to eviscerate you over Twitter.

* Note: Previous version prior to correction said that Eric Breininger, and not Fatih, had met with al Libi. A video of the meeting had improperly been labeled “Eric Breininger und Abu Yahya al Libi,” but a subsequent archival search made clear that the meeting had featured Fatih rather than Breininger. Thanks to Kévin Jackson for pointing out the error.

French Exit

January 26, 2012

This afternoon, the Pentagon will put some more meat on the bones of its recently released strategic guidance. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey will release the DoD FY13 budget request and unveil the specific programs that will not survive approximately $487 billion in budget cuts. Shortly thereafter, we’ll probably get something similar to Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon’s statement in response to the strategic guidance:

This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America. The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense.  This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs. In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests, and defy our opponents.   The President must understand that the world has always had, and will always have a leader.  As America steps back, someone else will step forward. (Emphasis mine.)

Former George W. Bush DoD comptroller and current Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser Dov Zakheim had this to say in response to the State of the Union:

He claimed that our alliances were stronger than ever, but glossed over the fact that there is deep unease in Europe over the administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. As for that pivot, to which the president did refer, it currently amounts to the redeployment, on a rotating basis, of a grand total of 2,500 Marines to Australia.


The president said very little about his defense budget cuts. He did not explain how America would retain all its commitments worldwide with a shrunken force that his own secretary of defense has lamented. He did not, of course, note that defense is paying for half the deficit reduction while its budget constitutes a fifth of all federal spending each year, when off-budget entitlements are counted, as they should be. (Emphasis mine.)

These statements reflect the almost axiomatic idea that the United States of America can and should continue to organize, train, and equip a military that provides security for everyone, everywhere. This is not a partisan concept; this has been central to defense policy since the early days of the Cold War and hasn’t budged since. In the post-Cold War era, conservatives of various stripes have championed the use of American military power for outright imperialism while liberals have championed its use under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. American involvement in Libya in early 2011 demonstrated that the two sides had very different notions of how American involvement played out, but not about involvement itself. Of course we should get involved; that’s what we do.

I want to explore a prominent theme in McKeon’s statement and the larger GOP establishment view on the role and size of America’s military: the idea that commitments made sixty years ago cannot and should not be reevaluated.

Let’s take Europe as an example. Today, roughly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, there are 41,000 American soldiers permanently stationed on the European continent (this figure does not even include personnel from the other three services). As a result of the strategic review and the budget cuts, two Brigade Combat Teams — roughly 10,000 soldiers — are set to withdraw from Europe and may be cut entirely as the army shrinks below 500,000 active duty soldiers. Aside from the Charlie Foxtrot known as the single currency, the European continent is remarkably stable and the threat of conventional war between major states is very low. On the other hand, Asia is emerging as a region where the United States has greater interests and the threat of conflict is higher (how much higher is very much up for debate and I offer no assessment here). Would it not be more prudent to either re-position those forces to another theater? Or, if that theatre is not conducive to hosting large numbers of ground forces, would it not be more prudent to station those troops on United States territory? As an aside, the 41,000 army soldiers in Europe and their 100,000 dependents aren’t stimulating the American economy by spending their disposable income in Germany and Italy.

The point is that defense strategy can’t be frozen in time and it can’t be promulgated and then left alone. Strategy is an iterative process that requires adjustments and tweaks as realities change. The international system and United States fiscal realities are not static. Why then would defense policy remain static? I understand that the United States made a commitment to the defense of Europe during the Cold War, but is that still a valid and necessary requirement? If so, is the permanent basing of 41,000 soldiers in Europe necessary to meeting that requirement? Might say, the designating the XVIII Airborne Corps and II Marine Expeditionary Force, both of which are based on the East Coast and quick reaction forces (of sorts), responsible for operations in Europe? This commitment has underwritten Europe’s security and enabled European governments to vastly scale back their own defense spending. Since the end of the Cold War, what tangible security benefits has this commitment made to the security of American citizens?

We can no longer pretend to be able to afford to be the global guarantor of security while our own society becomes increasingly fragmented. With that realization should come the painful but necessary reexamination of our strategic priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Commitments made sixty years ago may no longer serve our needs, and those commitments cannot be held untouchable in budgetary or strategic debates. We just can’t afford it.

UPDATE: You can see Rep. McKeon’s response to the announcement here.

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