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Military journalist Robert Kaplan on the latest adventures of the imperial grunts

Sunday, August 20, 2006
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HH: Back after a few months is Robert Kaplan to talk with me about the Imperial Grunts that he has been covering so closely in a book by that name that he published last year, the most significant book of 2006…remains the most significant book that was in 2005. Robert Kaplan, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

RK: It’s a pleasure to be with you again, Hugh.

HH: In the months since we talked, where have you been? It’s been four or five months. You usually are somewhere off in a corner of the globe.

RK: Well, I’ve been embedded with A-10 Warthog pilots in Southeast Asia. I’ve been with…in Mali, in the Philippines, in Colombia again, and in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia with Marines and Army Special Forces. Then, I was in Guam with B-2 Spirit pilots, and I spend the Summer in Korea.

HH: You’ve also been to Las Vegas, which is…

RK: That’s right, yeah.

HH: Which is the title of your new and wonderful article in this month’s Atlantic, which we’ll come to. But tell me, is this leading to a book that we will see in 2006? Or will it be 2007?

RK: No. It may not be until 2008 or so, because this volume is going to deal more with the Navy and the Air Force. It’s going to be more about technology than the first volume.

HH: When we get to the particulars of this, Robert Kaplan, I’d like to go through each of those countries, but I’d like to begin with a sort of over-arching question that flows out of the decision of the United States District Court yesterday in Michigan. As you travel with the professional militaries, the keepers of the borders, the Rangers, et cetera, what do they think about the domestic political battles over how aggressive the war effort should be, and the surveillance techniques that we use? Do they have what can fairly be termed to be a collective opinion at the level of the staff officer, the younger officer, and the long-serving sergeants and corporals?

RK: They do. They have a vague, generalized opinion. Obviously, there’s a whole range of opinions, but if I had to stereotype it, I would say this. They say that it was the home front that defeated them in Vietnam. Remember, these are not…these are people who volunteer for the most elite units. Many of them have direct relatives who have fought in Vietnam. These are mainly from military families, a lot of them. They know the intricate history of Vietnam, where in fact the U.S. made tremendous military progress from 1968 to 1972 under General Creighton Abrams, and they know that there is an argument to be made that the home front defeated them in Vietnam. And they’re generally dismayed at the whole home front attitude towards the war on terrorism in general, a bit towards Iraq. That doesn’t mean they disagree with all of the points being made, even by the left on the home front. They’re just as frustrated. But if you ask them what’s the weakest link in Iraq, in Asia, in Africa, what’s the weakest link that they are facing, they say the home front.

HH: And Robert Kaplan, again, looking for the collective median position, in essence, are they afraid we’re going to lose?

RK: Where, in Iraq?

HH: In Iraq, and thus, across the entire global war against Islamic facism.

RK: Yeah, they’re very afraid, because they see things objectively, which is yes, there is a lot good going on in Iraq that nobody reports. You could fill weeks and weeks of the New York Times with all kinds of good civil affair stories, et cetera. But that does not mask the fact that the rate of killings, i.e.d.’s, et cetera, is up. Yes, 14 of 16 provinces may be secure, but the two that aren’t matter the most, and that’s where a lot of the population is. And they get the sense, and this is what really, really bothers them, that the insurgents have a bloodhungry willingness to win, more than our top leadership does back in Washington.

HH: And how would that…what do they point to on that last conclusion as evidence for that lack of will?

RK: Well, again, they don’t get into political…you know, in quarterbacking punditry. They know that one thing we should not be doing is taking thousands or hundreds of troops out of Mosul, which has made a lot of progress in ’04 and ’05, on its way to being secure, but not there yet, pull troops out of there to move them to greater Baghdad. That’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.

HH: And…

RK: So just moving troops around, which is what we’ve been doing in the past few weeks, is not going to result in better headlines.

HH: What do you think is the estimate of the Afghanistan front?

RK: Afghanistan is better, obviously. And I think the estimate is much more positive. However, I wrote recently in the New York Times that we’re not paying nearly enough attention to the villages in Afganistan, where things are won or lost, historically. We’re paying too much attention in the big cities, where people buy into democracy and Westernization anyway, so you don’t have to do all that much. It’s the villages, where democracy remains a total abstraction. Remember, Afghanistan is still a predominantly rural country. It’s not like Iraq, where two-thirds of the country lives in urban settings. In Afghanistan, it’s only about a quarter of the country.

HH: I’m talking with Robert Kaplan, who’s the national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book, Imperial Grunts, which I’ve talked about often on this program, just came out in paperback. If you didn’t pick it up in hardcover, get it in paperback. Get it for your friends. Robert Kaplan, in the context of Afghanistan and Iraq, your article on hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas is truly a remarkable piece of reporting, because it brought home, I think, in a way that very few people ever have grasped, including me, that this is such a different war that the front line is, in fact, in Las Vegas.

RK: Yes. First, I went to Las Vegas, which in North Las Vegas, is Nellis Air Force Base. And in Nellis Air Force Base, there are a series of camouflaged tracter-trailer units, kind of like shipping containers. You know, there’s a bunch of them, a dozen of them. And you go inside these trailers, you are no longer in North America. You are in the Central Command, that is the greater Middle East, AOR in military lingo, area of operations. It is from these trailers inside that the Predators over Iraq and over the Afghanistan, and the Afghan-Pakistan border, are controlled. Local air bases in Afghanistan and Iraq get these planes immediately into the air to about 500 feet, and they land them. But after that, it’s pilots inside these vans in Las Vegas who do all the hunting, all the whacking, all the killing. There’s a saying in the Air Force now. If you really want to whack bad guys, you’re more likely to do it in Las Vegas than you are in Balad Air Force Base in Iraq.

HH: Let me quote one paragraph. “Those who fly Predators are indeed pilots, not operators, even though they don’t have to leave the ground. They wear flight suits, each is a veteran of an A-10, an F-15, a B-1 bomber, a B-52, or a host of other aerial platforms. A scrappy, lumbering, low-tech A-10 Warthog may give pilots the best preperation for flying the high-tech Pred.” Explain to people why that’s the case.

RK: Because the A-10, which has really been around since the end of the Vietnam War, you know, it’s responsible for the highway of death at the end of the first Gulf War. You know, there’s a saying among A-10 pilots. F-15 pilots make movies, we make history. The A-10 only cost $10 million dollars, but it’s been like taking the lion’s share of the work in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a ground hunter. It supports Marines, Army Special Forces. They fly low, low to the ground. They hunt down specific individuals, specific houses, specific tanks. It’s a way from the air to kill ground troops. And in fact, that’s what the Predator does. The Predator is not taking out massive buildings. It’s armed with two Hellfire missiles, which can take out an apartment, take out a car. It can do surveillance. It has situational awareness. That’s what the A-10 is.

HH: Now a Predator costs $4.2 million.

RK: Right.

HH: And so, for the price of one F-22, you write, you can buy 40 Predators. You’re not arguing against F-22’s, you’re simply underscoring what these things can do.

RK: No. I have mixed feelings about the F-22, but that’s a whole other conversation.

HH: Now let me ask you about how this is changing the battlefield for good and for bad, because A) it does advance our ability to strike lethally and with great precision, at the same time, as you point out, I think very subtly, it may involve higher commands in tactical situations that are best left to lower level decision makers.

RK: Absolutely, because the whole point of the Predator is you can fly it from Las Vegas. In other words, you’re not forward, as they say in the military. So that leads to greater centralization stateside. And you know, power taken away from people on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And one point I make clear in the piece is the A-10…I mean, the Predator is not a replacement for ground level cultural intelligence, and human intelligence. It’s a great tool, it’s incredibly cost effective for the taxpayer. It could make some inroads into our abysmal lack of ground level intelligence, but it is by no means a replacement for it.

HH: 30 seconds until our break, and I hope you can hang on, Robert Kaplan, until next time. Did the Israeli’s put too much emphasis on aerial superiority, including drones, in this last collision?

RK: Well, actually, Hugh, the Israeli Air Force got a bit of a rough deal in the media. They did take out a lot of medium and long range missile sites, in closed, urban areas, very effectively. The problem is, and we could talk about this later, that the Israelis are no longer fighting a state Arab army. Arabs don’t believe in their state, so their state armies don’t work very well, usually.

HH: Robert Kaplan, I understand you’re at the Naval Academy for a few weeks or months?

RK: Yeah. I will be a visiting professor this year. I’ll start this year.

HH: For the entire year?

RK: Yes.

HH: Oh, that’s great. We’ll be able to find you more frequently, then.

RK: Yes, yes.I’ll be less peripatetic than I’ve been in years past.

HH: Let’s revisit some of the pins that you’ve put into the map over the last year. Why, for example, Georgia with the Marines? What are they doing therer? What’s the significance.

RK: Well, the Marines are doing a traditional train and equip program there. Sent after the Rose Revolution…and Georgia’s a typical story. A place evolves after the end of the Cold War, or a civil war. It evolves into a very, very weak, fragile democracy. But once a democracy, then it’s eligible for all kinds of U.S. military, as well as civil assistance. And an age of democratization has to be an age of military professionalization, because without a professional military, a new country is not going to remain a democracy for very long. So the Marines have a program where they are essentially rebuilding…have been rebuilding the Georgian armed forces.

HH: Successfully, in your opinion, Robert Kaplan?

RK: Mixed results. You know, the…it’s more of a challenge, actually, to rebuild a military in the former Soviet Union than it is in sub-Saharan Africa, because in places like Mali and Niger, where Army Special Forces and Marines have been operating, they’re starting with a clean slate, so they can mold these rifle companies into whatever they want them to be. And the Africans are very quick, very enthusiastic learners. The problem in the former Soviet Union is you have to undo all these awful habits that have been inherited and ingrained for decades.

HH: Let’s got down to Malawi then. What’s the mission there…

RK: Mali.

HH: Mali. I’m sorry. Mali. What’s the mission there, and who’s leading it?

RK: Typical…former French colony, independent for decades, military dictatorship, weak, fragile democracy, Army Special Forces out of European command in Stuttgart, going back all the time to train this same Malian company battalion based in Timbuktu. The reason is that this is something the Marines…you know, the Marines have just been stood up to Special Operations Command, SOCOM. And that means, that sounds like a lot of daring do, commando-like missions, but what it really means is just a lot of training indigenous forces around the world. And so what’s going on across Africa from Senagal on the Atlantic Ocean, to places like Ethiopia on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, is that in every place the U.S. military is training like one battalion constantly, and the effort is to make it into some kind of pan-African intervention force, that among many other things, can maybe be a solution to future Darfurs. So while everybody lectures and pontificates about Darfur, the U.S. military is actually doing something about it for the future.

HH: My guest is Robert Kaplan, who many have compared to the Kipling of the American military for his work in Imperial Grunts and elsewhere, at work at two more volumes on this. Let’s get, Robert Kaplan, to the $64,000 and the $128,000 dollar questions, Iran and China. We’ve been focused on an Arab enemy, although they share in common with our Persian opponent faith. But nevertheless, Iran is very different from Iraq, of course, and China, much, much different than both of them. You’ve been spending time with the Navy concerned with both of those. What do you hear about Iran? What do you hear about China from the men you cover?

RK: All right. First of all, the big difference between Iran and China is China will be an adversary, but it will be a very legitimate adversary, a rational adversary, where we will have, maybe, a military competition, a subtle, low-level cold war, but if we do any shooting against China, it will probably be only because of miscalculation on one side or the other. The Chinese leadership, as authoritarian as it is, has legitimate goals by the standards of political science. But it’s unclear that…which is, you know, to become a greater power, trade all over the world…

HH: Hegemony in their region, yup.

RK: Right. And perhaps even in Africa and elsewhere, a military power will follow economic power. These are legitimate great power goals. The problem is it’s unclear that the Iranian leadership has legitimate goals. That means its wishes and desires can be assuaged by negotiation, and that the things it wants are reasonable, even if we’re a bit uncomfortable with it. If you have a leader who says repeatedly, every two or three weeks, I want to destroy the state of Israel, then you have to wonder, does this leadership have legitimate goals? And if it doesn’t, if it’s not a legitimate adversary where you can engage in balance of power negotiations, well then, ultimately, there may only be a military option.

HH: Robert Kaplan, when the door closes and the cork comes out of the bottle, and you’re with the professionals, both enlisted and officers in the United States military, and talk turns to Iran, do they foresee an inevitable conflict?

RK: Well, remember, military officers have to think in worst case scenarios. So they have to think in terms of planning how we would take out their nuclear weapons. That doesn’t mean they’re in favor of it. That doesn’t mean they want to do it. But they would be remiss in their thinking if they did not assume that we might, and how best to do it. So you want your military to think in worst case scenarios always.

HH: But…of course, I want them to do that, but again, off duty, just talking to you as someone whose earned their trust, do they see it coming? Or do they think it’s more fear…

RK: Frankly, they’re ambivalent about it. They don’t talk about it much. The obsession is Iraq, and all the problems we’re having there, because remember, that’s where Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen are deployed at the moment.

HH: I want to take you back to Colombia as well while we have time, but very quickly, so I don’t not ask this question. Civilian leadership in the Pentagon, heavily criticized by retired generals and admirals, who are quite above the fold. Is that a widespread assesment shared within the ranks?

RK: Less so than…that’s the feeling I get, but it’s still there. I mean, this…the only accurate thing I could say on this is that in 2003, 2002, when I started this project, Hugh, Rumsfeld was very popular, particularly among Marines and Green Berets. He was seen as a kind of kick-ass, no nonsense leader who…the 90’s were depressing for the warrior units in the military, you know, bombing from 10,000 feet, going into Haiti through a negotiation. You know, that’s not what professional, elite combat units like. So they liked Rumsfeld. But as the years have gone on, I’ve seen a much more uncomfortable ambivalence develop. So the trend has not been good for him.

HH: We’re out of time. We’ll return to Rumsfeld and Colombia at some time soon in the future. Again, the book out in paperback now, Imperial Grunts. The new article in the Atlantic Monthly, Hunting The Taliban In Las Vegas. Robert Kaplan, thanks, as always, for an invigorating 30 minutes from someone who actually covers the military at a range where they can yell at him if they have to, or give him a beer if they want to.

End of interview.

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