Friday, August 14, 2009

O'Hanlon's Short Bus Brigade

Michael O'Hanlon is at it again. I'm beginning to wonder why he's even considered a serious pundit anymore.

In this genius piece, disguised as a story on the Congo, he asks: "If the Afghanistan mission was undermanned last year with only 60,000 NATO-led troops in a country of 30 million, how can a U.N. mission of 20,000 address the challenges of Congo and its 60 million people?" Well it can't, even if it the largest U.N. mission in history. So what does Mr. O'Hanlon recommend? "[B]y tapping into President Obama's call for a new spirit of volunteerism and national service, there may be a way to make a difference sometime in 2010. The idea involves a new type of military unit that the Pentagon should propose during its ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review." Oh boy.

You can read the plan for how this new unit would be recruited and trained, but suffice it to say that he recommends one division of poorly trained soldiers to conduct peace operations - one brigade of which could be deployed and sustained at any given time. His rationale for the lesser training is that these types of operations are significantly easier than those we're conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Easier??? Maybe he should have asked the U.N. peacekeepers there now how sophisticated their adversaries are before we start creating brigades of similar quality to the Pakistanis. Because they've been so effective there.

I find it odd that he claims that these missions require U.S. leadership and then proposes creating and sending second-rate units to solve these problems. We have some of the best people in the world doing these missions now in Iraq and Afghanistan and the odds of success are still questionable. What are these peace brigades going to do to overcome that? Other than be a token sign that we in the West do care. And then there is the question of logistics and support for this brigade - feeding, billeting, air support, fires. These all have to come from somewhere and these assets are already overextended in our current fights. Who are they going to call when they do come under concerted attack?

This proposal is a recipe to get a lot of good people killed in a mission that would have little to no effect and couldn't be sustained. It also threatens serious mission creep if one of these types of units were ever deployed because there is no way they could do what everyone else has failed to do without offering some sort of new capability (which O'Hanlon is not). We should definitely defer to Einstein and how he defines stupidity.

He ends with this:

Problems like Congo, Darfur and Somalia tend to get solved only with U.S. leadership. And the United States cannot truly lead on this issue while resisting any role for its own ground forces. It is time to recognize the contradiction of pretending otherwise and get on with a solution.

Well, we all know what ground forces in Somalia did for us. Someone needs to inform Mr. O'Hanlon that American exceptionalism will not solve all the world’s ills. Nor is it in our interest to do so.


  1. The notion is this: Ask for volunteers to join a peace operations division for two years. They would begin their service with, say, 12 weeks of boot camp and 12 weeks of specialized training and then would be deployable. They would receive the same compensation and health benefits as regular troops, given their age and experience. Out of a division of 15,000 troops, one brigade, or about 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, could be sustained in the field at a time.

    Shocking. What a terrifically bad idea.

    Two year commitments, with 24 weeks of training, huh? So that means that all of a sudden these folks are "deployable" for only 18 months. Except you're not going to send them over for 18 month tours, amd you probably can't do anything so sensible as two six-month tours with a six-month reset in the middle. Let's not even consider the fact that there's no leave or anything like that built into this cycle, or that it arguably takes longer to train troops to be effective in stability operations than it does for major combat operations.

    So how are we going to make up for those shortcomings, you ask? Well, we're going to give them experienced officers and NCOs!

    This type of training would be modeled after standard practices in today's Army and Marine Corps. To be sure, soldiers and Marines in regular units usually go beyond this regimen to have many months of additional practice and exercise before being deployed. But the peace operations units could be led by a cadre of experienced officers and NCOs -- perhaps some of whom would be drawn back to military service after leaving (or being booted out because of the obsolete "don't ask, don't tell" policy).

    Look out, Neo-Nkunda: the Big Gay Peace Corps is coming to shut you down!

    Don't worry, though, "possible adversarial forces" in these sorts of contingencies "are not sophisticated." Don't worry about the fact that the conflicts themselves, the human terrain, the political environment, and the network of grievance and criminality is unbelievably complex. Or that the Taliban "are not sophisticated" and still manage to do a pretty good job of fucking up our aims. We've got this under control! After all, if these pseudo-soldiers get into trouble, they could "call for help." Presumably they're going to have been hacked into bite-sized pieces by the time reinforcements arrive from Djibouti, though.

    Can a submarine-launched Tomahawk go from the Gulf of Aden to the lake district in eastern Congo in less time than it takes to chop off 100 arms?

  2. In what parallel universe does O'Hanlon think anyone could ever possibly take this seriously? Who is his audience in a piece like this?

  3. Tintin - questions for which I do not have answers. I'd like to ask the opinions editor at the Post what he was thinking. It's one thing to talk like this among your friends and it's another to do so in a major newspaper. Unless, of course, they have it out for O'Hanlon.

  4. The newspaper business is dying. Crazy ideas get people to read papers/click links. It gets Brookings' name out, and O'Hanlon's. More people tune in to Meet the Press next time he's on. It's a win-win for everybody.

    (Except, you know, proponents of informed discourse.)

    The idea that this would make it into the QDR is just patently absurd. There's a lot more important and sensible stuff that should, but won't, be included because of bureaucratic inefficiency and a sort of general inertia against radical change.

  5. Maybe a research assistant wrote it for him and didn't tell him what it was about! That's the kind of thing I would be tempted to do if I had a bad boss. (Not that O'Hanlon is a bad boss. He seems perfectly nice.)

  6. To echo my colleagues here, and as someone who has had the pleasure of spending time in that theater with the peacekeeping troops already deployed, I have to ask 'WTF'?

    As in 'WTF was he thinking?'

    Or 'WTF was he smoking?'

    Most people who've actually been to the DRC can't help but feel moved to search for solutions to the hideous conflict. And while pure advocates can be (slightly) forgiven for replacing their brains with their hearts, from someone like O'Hanlon who claims a seat at the policy table this is somewhere between inexplicable and inexcusable.

    Let's just be clear: the operational and tactical challenges of eastern DRC are not simpler than rural Afghanistan and Iraq. Different, certainly, but not simpler. Jungle warfare holds its own peculiar charms, and so heavily favors those who know the terrain best as to significantly reduce the relevance of technological superiority. In 2003, the French deployed 1400 troops, including a Coy+ of special forces and 4 helicopters to secure the town and environs of Bunia. They also had 12 Mirage jets on standby, some of which they deployed for overflight surveillance and show of force. That was for one town.

    More recently, the Ugandan and Congolese militaries managed to botch up a combined operation against the LRA called Lightning Thunder. Despite significant AFRICOM planning and intel support, they made a real hash of it, and set the LRA off on vicious rampage that left around Congolese 1000 dead.

    Neither the CNDP nor the FDLR nor the LRA are easy problems to solve. Pretending otherwise is idiotic, irresponsible, and unhelpful. So let's drop the Prendergast-like flights of fancy and get back to reality.

  7. I was going to say something but, to quote Alma, j'en ai le bec cloué.

  8. What a brilliant idiom that is!

  9. I can't believe that Michael O'Hanlon proposed this. He use to be quite intelligent on Iraq.

    What we might think about doing is continue to emphasize the enablement/capacity building part of the US military, especially training and mentoring. Africom could take advantage of the drawdown in Iraq in 2010 and 2011 to significantly boost the capacity building for the African Union forces. We should also put heavy pressure on India, China, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and other countries to work closely with Africom on building African Union troop capacity; and on building African governance capacity.

    I have long felt that part of the solution in Afghanistan was for the international community to fully finance the ANSF budget over 20 years. This would probably cost over $100 billion. After violence in Afghanistan ramped down, then use part of the surplus ANA capacity for global peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa.

    As long as Pakistan remains unstable, it would be dangerous to draw down ANA capacity. Using a large fraction of the ANA on global peacekeeping missions would leave ANA capacity intact in case the Taliban and their allies again moved west across the Durand line.

    Simultaneously, during the next pause in Afghan violence the ANA should offer high school and college scholarships to its soldiers to complete their education; with a requirement that they spend 5 to 10 years in the ANA after completing their studies.

  10. Anand should join Michael O'Hanlon and Samantha Power on that short bus and take a ride to Africa and other 3rd World hell-holes where they can both dream of mermaids, unicorns, and even more expensive do-gooder wars that kill our young.

    Americans is broke. We can't put "heavy pressure" on anyone, let alone China as they now finance our stimuli packages.

  11. Anonymous, it is cheaper to increase the capacity of others and facilitate their success through their own efforts than to do everything ourselves.

    Old management cliche: the art of management isn't the art of doing everything perfectly oneself, but the art of facilitating others doing things perfectly themselves.

    Global security is what economists call a public good; or a good that provides high rates of return to everyone, not only the one who provides global security services. Therefore US policy should be to facilitate and encourage others to provide global public goods such as global security.

    Right now many countries are free riding on American blood and treasure. China, as the largest trading partner and investor in Africa has a large stake in African stability; it is time that China put up. India, and to a slightly lesser degree Brazil and Mexico also have large stakes.

    America isn't bankrupt, at least not yet. However, if we don't accelerate the pace of technological innovation in America, or productivity growth, then we will become a bankrupt has been.

  12. I just turned my computer over to read O'Hanlon's words upside down, but they still don't make sense. My word.

  13. Perhaps there is a secret message hidden on the diagonals in the print edition, or something, like some people say they can find in the bible or Moby Dick.