Thursday, July 30, 2009


I came across this cartoon in an old New Yorker article.*

Because I'm a nerd and find it completely impossible to read, watch, or talk about anything without drawing parallels to counterinsurgency, I chuckled a bit.

*The article, if you're interested, is a June 2004 piece criticizing the grammatical errors made in a book ostensibly written as a popular guide to common grammatical errors. If you're a language nit like me, you'll enjoy it.

And while we're on the subject of grammar Nazi-ism, I can't help but link to "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage," which sounds much more boring than it is and has nothing to do with counterinsurgency, but which you should read because it's by my favorite writer of all time and will make you laugh.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ok, if we feature him, maybe he'll stop

As anyone who reads the comment threads knows by now, SNLII has taken to contributing solely in verse. Here's a snippet from one of his more entertaining long-form efforts (maybe just because it includes "dicked up"):
History hasn't been kind to their bluster,
For every Kitson I can find a Custer
Who dicked up counter-insurgency
Quickly and with urgency,
And with little stragetic luster.
I'll leave you to check out the more ad-hominemy entirety at your discretion. Meanwhile I'll be checking out the comment threads at Kings of War and wishing for the old, analytical prose-focused SNLII to show up.

He's Talking About What???

SWJ put out an announcement for a conference titled Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond scheduled for late September at the National Press Club. There will be a lot of good speakers there, even if it appears that half of them are just walking up from Penn and 13th.

As we're picking on Tom Ricks lately and to add evidence to Gulliver's post, why on earth is Ricks on the panel for "Officer Development in the U.S. Military"??? What expertise or experience does he have to offer on this topic? None as far as I can tell. Unless you consider the blog posts he had at Best Defense expertise or experience - which mainly consisted of picking out letters from people who agreed with him and insulting those that didn't (At this point I should caveat that I went to one of these schools he derides so much). It is just more sensationalism for its own sake instead of having a useful discussion about how to improve the service academies, as I'm pretty sure they're not going to go away just because Tom Ricks wants them to. Community college education indeed.

So go see the panel if you want to. I'm going to go ahead and put money on the fact that there will be a lot of blustering about closing West Point and the War Colleges. And then hopefully Mssrs. Fick and Kaplan will actually add to the conversation on how we improve the institutional education for our officer corps.

I guess this is what they meant by "an Army of One"

At the end of this month, Multi-National Force-Iraq becomes Mono-National Force-Iraq.

Commanders of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, as the American-led coalition is formally called, have a looming nomenclature problem.

Two days from now, there will no longer be any other nations with troops in Iraq — no “multi” in the Multi-National Force. As Iraqi forces have increasingly taken the lead, the United States is the last of the “coalition of the willing” that the Bush administration first brought together in 2003.

That is partly because the Iraqi Parliament left suddenly for summer recess without voting to extend an agreement for the British military to keep a residual training force of 100 soldiers in Iraq. As a result, those troops must withdraw to Kuwait by Friday, according to a British diplomat, who declined to be identified in keeping with his government’s practice.

As for the other two small remnants of the coalition, the Romanians and Australians, the Australians will be gone by July 31, too, and the Romanians left last Thursday, according to the Romanian chargé d’affaires, Cristian Voicu.

NATO will keep a small training presence in Iraq, but its troops were never considered part of the Multi-National Force because of opposition to the war from many NATO countries.

In response to a query, American military officials acknowledged the need for a name change, and said Multi-National Force-Iraq would officially become United States Force-Iraq as of Jan. 1, 2010, according to the deputy coalition spokesman, Lt. Col. Mike Stewart. “This is done to reflect the new bilateral relationship between U.S. forces and our Iraqi hosts,” he said.

Also nice to see that U.S. legislators aren't the only ones who leave town for a month without completing essential business, but that's really neither here nor there.

Seriously though: when you hear people dispute the "indispensable nation" moniker, consider the fact that 38 countries contributed troops to a war that most of them thought was stupid. Why? Probably because they imagine that there's something that America has to offer them, and they want us to answer the phone when they call. (Poland is a great example here.) Then read Patrick Porter at Kings of War, who reminds us that Britain's vital national interest in Iraq (if slightly less so in Afghanistan) has been the maintenance of the "special relationship" with the United States.

A perhaps bittersweet reality of this coalition is partly reflected in the casualty numbers (over 4,300 American KIA; 139 dead from other coalition partners combined): the duties performed by units from different countries differed dramatically in context and content. An example:

Th[e] chief utility [of coalition soldiers] was to free American soldiers from routine but necessary duties. Georgia’s fairly large contingent handled all the checkpoints in the fortified Green Zone of Baghdad, for instance, and brooked no arguments from people trying to enter, especially since few of the soldiers spoke anything but Russian or Georgian.

The deployment was popular with the Georgians, who often were seen buying reduced-price televisions and stereos at the PX to send home for resale. The country’s contribution grew to a peak of 2,000, until the soldiers were abruptly withdrawn last August and rushed home to defend Georgia after the Russians invaded.

We could say "well, it's great that all those combat-hardened Georgian troops had the Iraq experience to prepare them to defend their own soil against an aggressor" (and I'm pretty sure some conservative commentators did at the time), but how useful was performing border security and manning checkpoints when it came to repelling Russian armored columns?

This isn't to diminish the contributions of our allies and partners, because every Salvadoran manning a vehicle checkpoint frees up an American to engage in combat operations. But doesn't it highlight the way that we're moving toward not a bifurcated American Army of high-intensity, conventional combat types on the one hand and stability operations troops on the other, but rather a bifurcated coalition and a bifurcated Atlantic alliance? Or maybe not even "moving toward," but that we're already there.

It gives me a chuckle every time I hear an American defense analyst opposing European efforts to formulate a common foreign and security policy, or develop a "European army," because they're worried about the marginalization of NATO. What in the last sixty years has suggested that the Europeans are capable of defending themselves from a conventional threat without American participation?

It might be time for U.S. planners to start considering whether the commitments we've made to European territorial defense are proportional to the contributions we can expect from our Allies in future military enterprises (which by dint of geography are almost certain not to include defense of the American homeland). The Brits sure are trying to convince us that there is value in maintaining our relationships, and in the case of the UK it's nearly impossible to argue otherwise. Perhaps we could say the same about Ukraine, seeing as influence over that country makes it possible for Russia to threaten our interests on the European continent.

But Georgia?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I guess this is why "The Best Defense" is so popular

Scientists: people prefer cockiness to expertise.

Who Needs Means or Ends When You Have Ways?

I highly recommend this article from the Army Times on a little FOB in Afghanistan by Sean Naylor. I really like Sean's writing and his ability to really portray daily life in combat zones - and not just because he did just that for my squadron when he was embedded with us during the invasion of Iraq. His imagery is vivid when talking about the challenges and minor nuances of life in an expeditionary army.

But like all good bloggers, I'm going to ignore all of that fantastic writing and cherrypick two quotes. First:
"The people of Afghanistan, from what I’m seeing, just don’t straight-out flat trust Americans, even though they know we’re here to help them,” he said. “Because every day I go on patrol, I tell them, ‘We’re here to help you.’ But in their eyes, I think they just see it as a temporary help.”
And then:
But without more troops — Afghan or American — to provide a permanent presence in the villages, there are tight limits on how much Basilides can alleviate the elders’ concerns. The insurgents have the run of the villages beyond the Bowl and the ability to coerce the tacit support of the villagers.
Now, I'm a big believer in the utility of population-centric counterinsurgency - as long as it is balanced appropriately with terrain- and enemy-centric tactics as well. But this is what I see as wrong in Afghanistan: we're not able to sustain any gains we may actually achieve and apparently these Afghanis realize that. It is too little force, both US and Afghani, to meet what few objectives have been stated and there is not enough of a civilian agency presence to solidfy those gains.

These soldiers are doing the best they can - and it seems like they are doing a great job at that - with what they have. But this seems to be an exercise in doing COIN on the cheap, which has limited long-term value to anyone. It's feeling like Iraq in 2005 all over again. If we're not willing to put in the resources required, then why the hell are we doing it in the first place?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Andrew Exum on the Charlie Rose show (UPDATED)

Starting in about twenty minutes here in DC on WETA (PBS affiliate), Exum talks with Rose about his experience over the last month on GEN McChrystal's assessment team in Afghanistan.
I just filmed a long interview with Charlie Rose for tonight's show. I'll be talking strategy in Afghanistan and sharing observations from my trip.
We've managed some traffic, but we ain't on TV.

Depending how bored I get (and how much Jim Beam I drink), I might live-update while watching.

2301: Interesting: Ross Douthat's name is pronounced "DOW-thut." For some reason I always figured it was "DOUBT-hat."

2303: I have the exact same suit that Exum's wearing. And Charlie Rose just pronounced "Abu Muqawama" correctly. I think he's the first talking head that I've heard do that.

Exum says that the assesment process since President Obama's inauguration has been "pretty coherent." Then he tells us that we set policy before determining a strategy. Really?

2305: Two vital U.S. interests in Afghanistan are 1) denying transnational terrorists use of territory to strike at the U.S., and 2) prevent Afghanistan from destabilizing Pakistan. Interesting to hear him elaborate the second interest while noting that the President is focused on the first.

2308: "Good news" is that no enemy elements present an "existential threat" to the government of Pakistan at present.

2310: Exum says that he has no "equities" involved in Afghanistan, and that one of the things that the outside, think-tank folks had to offer to the assessment team is that they could speak without worrying about saying the things that their bureauracies want. Hmm.

First I'm hearing of this: Tony Cordesman feels very negative about the Afghanistan enterprise.

TELEGENICS UPDATE: Ex seems to have eliminated his annoying habit of bobbing his head up and down while his interviewer is speaking. Performance thus far seems confident and polished. Now let's just hear something interesting.

2315: Rose: "Is everything you've just said an indictment of the strategy of the last eight years?" Exum: strategy, leadership, and resourcing have all been failures up to this point.

Idea of a "fighting season" in Afghanistan is goofy -- "there may be a season where they shoot at us more," but even in winter Taliban's influence campaign is in full effect.

Exum says as a former Army officer, he finds the way that McKiernan was dismissed to be disappointing. First I'm hearing of that one.

2318: Exum gives a shout-out to the WSJ's Yochi Dreazen (also, like Ex, a Penn grad).

2320: LTG Rodriguez "may have a tougher mission than GEN McChrystal." Um, ok. Not sure I really understand that one.

Re: the laws of land warfare: "You may be technically correct, and operationally ineffective -- operationally stupid." If you kill civilians, you'll be operationally ineffective, etc etc. "Killing civilians pushes the goalposts farther away."

2323: When America wages counterinsurgencies, we "usually do it as a third-party." Usually? I guess he's watching his words because of the Sioux, or something.

"In Afghanistan, we've got a real problem with interest alignment." I think it's fair to say that's true in Pakistan, too -- probably more true. It's like everyone suddenly discovered this when Biddle wrote an article about it. Hasn't this been obvious for a long time? Don't we know that there are a lot of host nation political leaders who are more interested in maintaining power and its attendant benefits than eliminating corruption or otherwise stabilizing the country?

2328: August of 2010 a good time to gauge progress, according to Exum. Be interesting to hear what exactly we're meant to have accomplished in that time.

And here we've got a reprise of CNAS's Triage: "a good measure is to what degree we're able to protect the people of Afghanistan." So a "good short-term metric" is a negative metric, according to Ex. Not sure I have tremendous confidence in a vague measure like that, which is consistent with my general disappointment with the CNAS report.

Better: "gauging success a year from now" will be based on level of civilian casualties and the capability -- not just number -- of trained Afghan security forces.

2330: Defeat looks like parts of Afghanistan being made inhospitable to government authority. We're a long way from that happening, says Ex. But then again, "in counterinsurgency, if you're not winning, you're losing." Isn't there some contradiction here? Aren't we losing by a thousand cuts already?

Rose asks if we can be successful without a change in tactics by the Pakistani army. Exum responds that a reduction in safe havens across the Pakistani border is essential to success in Afghanistan. Ruh-roh. Pakistan thinks that the elimination of Afghan safe havens (and/or Afghan-to-Pakistan militant flows) is essential to success in its own counterinsurgency. Or maybe we'll just squeeze the balloon from both sides and everyone will squirt out into Baluchistan.

Now Ex is being asked whether McChrystal is Lee or Grant, which is a freaking idiotic question and a meaningless waste of time. Ex says "I wish I knew the answer to your question because it would save us a lot of time." Really? If we knew whether McChrystal was Grant or Lee? What, because we'd know whether he was a winner or a loser? Uh, ok.

Welp, that's it for Exum. And I'm not gonna live-blog Ross Douthat, who I've got to be honest kind of creeps me out a little bit with his ideas of Republican ascendancy in the working class and his odd, over-manicured goatee. So that's it for tonight.
UPDATE: Jari thinks I was dogging Ex a little hard, I guess, so here's the disclaimer/hedging that I posted on his site:

I didn’t think I was being super-critical or anything, but I guess it looks a bit like that when reading back.

Let me just say that doing interviews is hard, being recorded is hard, and being on camera is even harder, so any criticisms about delivery or presence or any of that stuff is pure BS on my part.

I think maybe the so-called “strategy” that Ex discussed might’ve been more satisfying to people who aren’t particularly fluent in the subject, seeing as the whole “protect civilians” thing might’ve seemed more novel and substantial to them.

This is rich...

...coming from a Russian:

On Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticized the U.S. over its continued support of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, saying the alliance "is not ready" to absorb them. Mr. Biden visited both states during his trip through the region last week, and reaffirmed U.S. support for both to join the alliance.

"We don't think it's right to drag certain countries into military and political alliances against the will of their people," Mr. Medvedev said on Russia's NTV television.

I guess it's a good thing all the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, etc. were already pro-Russia commies when you guys got there!

But more on point:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration considered Russia a "great power" and wanted it to be a strong and prosperous country, in an apparent effort to reassure Moscow that the White House remains committed to efforts to "reset" bilateral relations.

Mrs. Clinton made the remarks in response to a question about Vice President Joe Biden's suggestion, during a Wall Street Journal interview published on Saturday, that Russia's weakening economy was likely to make it more amenable to cooperate with the West on national security issues.

"We view Russia as a great power," Mrs. Clinton said on NBC News's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "Every country faces challenges. We have our challenges, Russia has their challenges. There are certain issues that Russia has to deal with on its own."

She said the Obama administration didn't believe it has an upper hand in its ties with Moscow, and noted that Mr. Biden had been the first senior administration member to publicly call for a "reset" in the two countries' relationship, in an address in Munich, Germany, in February.

Mr. Biden's comments to the Journal raised concerns in Moscow, which questioned whether he was speaking for the U.S. government. "The question is: Who is shaping the U.S. foreign policy -- the president or the respectable members of his team?" asked Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko. He said it was "perplexing" that Mr. Biden delivered the comments just as the U.S. was talking about a reset in relations.

It's tough to fault the Russians here if they're confused, because I'm not sure anyone in this country knows our priorities when it comes to continued NATO enlargement, nuclear arms reduction, and other issues associated with "reset" with Russia.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Charles Taylor's testimony: "Me? I had nothing to do with Sierra Leone!"

If you haven't been following former Liberian President Charles Taylor's defense testimony, you're missing out on some really good (by that I mean anywhere from outright false to merely outlandish) stories. Over the last couple of weeks, Charles Taylor has been testifying in his own defense in the Hague, where he is being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian law.

To start off, the Special Court normally sits in Freetown, in Sierra Leone but has moved to the Hague for Taylor's trial because of concerns over security and of the impact having the trial in Sierra Leone itself could have on peace in the wider region. This is important because it's obviously a bit harder to keep both Sierra Leoneans and Liberians properly informed about far-flung proceedings than it would have been if the trial had occurred in Freetown. It also says a lot about how fragile peace is in both countries if the Liberian authorities in particular were worried that having Taylor in Sierra Leone might lead to increased security threats from his remaining supporters in Liberia.

But to get back to the trial, I've been reading the news stories coming out of the Hague. has great country by country RSS feeds so I set one up for Liberia. Much of the reporting has come from an Open Society Institute-funded NGO that sent a Sierra Leonean attorney to monitor the proceedings.

With that (undoubtedly insufficient) introduction, I'll move to the Taylor's accounts of events.

One report explained that Taylor claims to anyone who looks will find no evidence that any of his (largely frozen) bank accounts hold any illicit funds or funds obtained from the illegal sale of diamonds. Another tells us that Taylor was too busy with events in Liberia in the early 1990s to have anything to do with events in Sierra Leone.

To be more specific:

Mr. Taylor said that when rebels attacked Sierra Leone in March 1991, he was busy holding discussions with West African leaders in Senegal geared towards the cessation of hostilities in Liberia and therefore could not have been planning an attack on Sierra Leone.

"At the time of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invasion of Sierra Leone, I was busy with peace meetings but the prosecution has me busy planning and supporting the RUF in Sierra Leone," Taylor told the judges.

To echo a point one of my colleagues made on this I wonder if I could see his appointment calendar, his phone log, and the travel schedule of his close associates because I'm pretty sure it would be embarrassing for Mr. Taylor.

The same article reports that Taylor claims he had too much going on throughout the 1990s to provide ongoing support to the RUF. Of course, Taylor also says that his 1997 "election" to the Liberian presidency was free and fair (despite the fact that monitors said the election had been marred by "widespread pre-poll intidimidation" of the "if you don't vote for me, I will resume war and you and your family will die" variety).

The third week of Taylor's testimony starts next week and if the reports coming out the last two weeks are any indication, it's worth keeping an eye on because you'll learn a lot about how the Liberian conflict supposedly did or didn't happen and how much Taylor had to do with it. I think the coverage has been pretty good at outlining both the prosecution's case and Taylor's responses. The only thing I haven't yet found is good coverage of reactions to the proceedings but if reactions to to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report are any indication,that would provide interesting insight into how populations view these types of efforts.

Omen of Bad Things to Come

Today's Post has a very disheartening piece on an incident in Abu Ghraib (the town, not the prison). The gist of the story is that an American convoy came under attack and the convoy returned fire and pursued the attackers, resulting in three dead and four wounded Iraqis. But the worst part happened when the Iraqi Army showed up.

The Iraqi commander attempted to arrest the American soldiers for firing indiscrimantely. The US commander on the ground talked him down basing his case on self-defense and a serious situation was narrowly avoided. Given the vast discrepancies in how each side interpreted the new rules, it appears that US forces are set up for more such incidents in the future.

I have no idea what would happen if something like this occurs again and the Iraqi commander can't be persuaded to stand down. I hope that US commanders are preparing for the possibility however they can. I do know that the outcome won't be good for US/Iraqi relations.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Starbuck on PowerPoint

Starbuck, who writes at Wings Over Iraq and frequently contributes to Small Wars Journal, has a great piece up about the deleterious consequences of PowerPoint's proliferation in the military. If you haven't worked in or around DoD, just trust me when I say that this is right on the money. Elsewhere, thinking people write papers; at the Pentagon, you get slide presentations.

This essay aggregates the thoughts of some others who have tackled the subject (notably T.X. Hammes in an excellent article for Armed Forces Journal) and also offers some unique analysis. It's likely to ring true for all the grudging, reluctant PowerPoint Rangers out there (at least two of whom contribute to this blog).

Also, don't miss this hilarious and awesome contribution from Schmedlap: A PowerPoint Briefing About Why PowerPoint Is Bad For Briefing (just in case anyone needs the slides for this).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ukrainian energy independence ain't just a Ukrainian problem

As you probably know, the vice president has been in Iraq, Ukraine, and Georgia this week. He made noises about ethnic strife in Iraq (consistent with his long history of supporting the partition of that country), poked Russia in the eye by continually and vocally supporting Ukraine and Georgia's quest to join NATO, and facilitated some strong-man grandstanding by the pesky but polished Mikheil Saakashvili. But believe it or not, Biden actually did something good on this foreign jaunt!
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden chastised Ukraine's political leadership on Wednesday, saying Kiev risks squandering its celebrated Orange Revolution through governmental infighting that has stalemated needed economic reforms, including liberalizing Ukraine's gas market to end dependence on foreign powers and their suppliers.
Ukraine's precarious security situation is, of course, largely a result of its close proximity to Russia. Aside from its sheer vulnerability to aggressive military action, the country's internal politics are complicated by a substantial pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking minority. And on top of all that, Kiev is dependent on Russian natural gas supplies to meet its energy needs.

Russia is often (understandably and legitimately) faulted for using the gas spigot to manipulate Ukraine in times of crisis and disagreement. By cutting supply, Moscow can effectively -- and literally -- freeze out those ingracious brats in "little Russia" who wish to define their own national interests. What you don't hear much about, however, is the Ukrainian political leadership's complicity in the whole deal. (Ok, "complicity" may be too strong, but there's certainly some fault.)

Mr. Biden saved his toughest criticism for the government's handling of the energy sector, where the government provides large subsidies on imported natural gas that is sold domestically. Analysts have argued the disparity between market prices and the cheap government-sold gas has created a black market where corruption is rampant.

In addition, analysts said, the large subsidies have forced Kiev to rely on below-market-price imports from Russia, which allows Moscow to directly influence Ukraine's domestic economy. Twice in the past three years, disputes between Russia and Ukraine over gas payments have shut down a major gas pipeline that transits from Ukraine to the rest of Europe, leaving parts of Eastern and Central Europe shivering during the winter.

Although he didn't mention Russia by name, Mr. Biden said reform of the energy sector was essential to Ukraine's independence and national security, saying only if the country liberalized its gas market would it be free of dependence on foreign powers and their suppliers.

"Your economic freedom depends more, I suspect in this country, on your energy freedom than on any other single factor," Mr. Biden said, urging conservation as well as reform. "That will be a boon to your economy and an immeasurable benefit, I respectfully suggest, to your national security." Mr. Biden also announced the establishment of a joint U.S.-Ukrainian working group on energy security.

It's always easier to subsidize essential goods to win domestic popularity, particularly when those goods are produced indigenously. The complicating factor, of course, is when the goods are imported (see Venezuela), or when processing into useful commodities takes place out of the country (Iranian oil gets exported for refining, then re-imported where it's sold at a massive discount; economic turmoil ensues). So Yushchenko and Tymoschenko et al. aren't innocent here, and they can take concrete steps to help assert their country's independence from its bullying neighbor.

Bin Laden's son killed by drone strike?

One more thing to add to the debate about the usefulness of drone strikes in Pakistan, perhaps.

U.S. officials believe Saad bin Laden — a son of Osama bin Laden — has been killed by an American missile in Pakistan.

Saad bin Laden reportedly spent years under house arrest in Iran before traveling last year to Pakistan, according to former National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell.

It's believed he was killed by Hellfire missiles fired from a U.S. Predator drone sometime this year.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells NPR that without a body to conduct DNA tests on, it's hard to be completely sure. But he characterized U.S. spy agencies as being "80 to 85 percent" certain that Saad bin Laden is dead.

The U.S. counterterrorism official says Saad bin Laden wasn't important enough to target personally — that he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Service Does Not an Expert Make... and of itself. I have done more than my fair share of time in Iraq as a soldier, but that does not make me an expert on all of Iraq or Afghanistan or national defense strategy or even counterinsurgency for that matter. Service, at any level or location, is a lens - like education or other life experiences - through which one gains a unique perspective. But let us not confuse that with "expertise."

There are a large number of bloggers and commentators who are veterans who look down upon those that have not served as not being qualified to speak on matters of the conflicts in which we are fighting. Those non-veteran commentors could, however, be just as or more qualified to speak on these issues than most uniformed personnel who ever served due to whatever their life experiences may be. Those life experiences provide a lens as well and may end up being of more value to the general populace than a soldier who spent 15 months on a FOB guarding the local national workers sweeping the latrines.

Before you all start writing letters (comments, on the other hand, are welcome), I am not saying that that soldier's service wasn't important. I am saying that his performing that function does not make him an expert on theater- or strategic-level issues in Iraq even if he does get to wear a patch on his right shoulder. I would conjecture that below the Corps level, being a veteran of Iraq provides a lens and not expertise (with the caveat that only certain positions at the Corps level provide true "expertise"). My Army career culminated as a brigade planner in Iraq which caused my expertise to culminate at operations conducted within my brigade's battlespace and no further. My expertise is limited by my experiences.

I'll use a historical example: Tammy Duckworth. Ms. Duckworth is a fine American who served, and continues to serve, her nation well - both in and out of uniform. She has certainly sacrificied much because of her tour in Iraq. But during her run for the House in 2006 she made a lot of statements about the strategic history and direction of Iraq that was given validity in the media because she was a wounded Iraq veteran. The reality is that as UH-60 pilot, she had gleaned no more expertise on Iraq because of her service than the LN guard mentioned above. That expertise was given to her because of her service and it was unwarranted. She knew as much about Iraq outside of a FOB as anyone else who read the NY Times or Fiasco. I'll also say that I don't believe that she tried to say that she was an expert because of her experiences, but that mantle was certainly given to her by others because of it.

This is not to say that her opinion didn't matter, even through the lens of her experiences. She should be listened to as a vet, but not given the credence of an expert commensurate with an academic who has spent years studying either U.S. defense policy or Iraq specifically. Her experiences as a wounded vet give her much more validity to warrant her positions in the Illinois and U.S. Veterans Affairs departments, but not that alone. That would suggest that any of the millions of citizens that are dependant upon VA hospitals are qualified to run VA directorates, and I'm pretty sure no one here believes that.

No one's opinion should be dismissed out of hand because they did not (or did for that matter) serve in the military. That fact alone does not make anyone an expert on anything and merely provides a lens through which to view the world. This lens can be significant (it has certainly defined much of my world outlook), but it does not equate to expertise. Expertise is limited to an individual's experiences. Arguments, on the other hand, are based on elements derived from facts or views seen through the author's lens. And they should be weighed on those elements, not on some ordained or self-described expertise that extends beyond that person's experiences.

Total number of American Iraq War vets?

Does anyone have a reliable number for this? I've seen "over a million" bandied about, but not in any official format. The Google has failed me for the last time.

Answers on a postcard, please.

Reports: Pakistan still Pakistan

Just the same, this is not good:

Pakistan is objecting to expanded American combat operations in neighboring Afghanistan, creating new fissures in the alliance with Washington at a critical juncture when thousands of new American forces are arriving in the region.

Pakistani officials have told the Obama administration that the Marines fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan will force militants across the border into Pakistan, with the potential to further inflame the troubled province of Baluchistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Pakistan does not have enough troops to deploy to Baluchistan to take on the Taliban without denuding its border with its archenemy, India, the officials said. Dialogue with the Taliban, not more fighting, is in Pakistan’s national interest, they said.

The Pakistani account made clear that even as the United States recommits troops and other resources to take on a growing Taliban threat, Pakistani officials still consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated. In the long term, the Taliban in Afghanistan may even remain potential allies for Pakistan, as they were in the past, once the United States leaves.

The Pakistani officials gave views starkly different from those of American officials regarding the threat presented by top Taliban commanders, some of whom the Americans say have long taken refuge on the Pakistani side of the border.

Recent Pakistani military operations against Taliban in the Swat Valley and parts of the tribal areas have done little to close the gap in perceptions.


The United States maintains that the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, leads an inner circle of commanders who guide the war in southern Afghanistan from their base in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.

American officials say this Taliban council, known as the Quetta shura, is sheltered by Pakistani authorities, who may yet want to employ the Taliban as future allies in Afghanistan


The Pakistani intelligence officials denied that Mullah Omar was even in Pakistan, insisting that he was in Afghanistan.The United States asked Pakistan in recent years to round up 10 Taliban leaders in Quetta, the Pakistani officials said. Of those 10, 6 were killed by the Pakistanis, 2 were probably in Afghanistan, and the remaining 2 presented no threat to the Marines in Afghanistan, the officials said.

They also said no threat was posed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taliban leader who American military commanders say operates with Pakistani protection out of North Waziristan and equips and trains Taliban fighters for Afghanistan.

Last year, Washington presented evidence to Pakistani leaders that Mr. Haqqani, working with Inter-Services Intelligence, was responsible for the bombing last summer of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 54 people.

Pakistani officials insisted that Mr. Haqqani spent most of his time in Afghanistan, suggesting that the American complaints about him being provided sanctuary were invalid.

Another militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is also a source of deep disagreement.

GEN McChrystal gets it:
In an interview last week, the new leader of American and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, paused when asked whether he was getting the cooperation he wanted from Pakistani forces in combating the Quetta shura. “What I would love is for the government of Pakistan to have the ability to completely eliminate the safe havens that the Afghan Taliban enjoy,” he said.
Of course, that's the bitch of it: what this article is telling us is that even if they did have that ability, the Pakistanis still may not be particularly inclined to do so.

It's exactly what you need for your next military adventure!

So I'm on the train this morning, minding my own business, when I happen to look up and notice this staring me in the face:

The text is pretty much impossible to read, so let me help you out: "Introducing our JLTV prototype. Best team. Best vehicle."
I know I've been on the acquisitions train a lot lately, and I'm going pretty hard on industry and all the rest, but seriously: WTF? I hear commercials for different contractors on the radio, and I even saw all the F-22 ads in the New York Times, but this one I don't understand.

The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) is a system that's being developed to replace the Humvee as the Army and Marine Corps' standard light truck. I emphasize being developed; the program hasn't been narrowed down to one source yet -- acquisition authorities will eventually choose one prototype for production.

So what we have here is the BAE/Navistar team putting up a poster on public transportation to try to influence a procurement decision. Why? Is some dude going to look up on his ride to the Pentagon (ahem) and think "you know, despite all the thorough and comprehensive analysis of alternatives I see in my day job, that poster looks badass. I'm going with the Valanx!"?

PR is a part of doing business, and it always helps to have the public on your side. But isn't it just a bit cynical to be pitching a developmental prototype to the masses in the hope of gaining momentum from its cool-lookingness in your attempt to win a contract award?

Friedman and the officer corps in Afghanistan

Tom Friedman's column in today's NYT strikes me as a bit simplistic. Yesterday, his column was about how courageous and wonderful it is to create girls' schools (which is true) but it was also extremely sappy. I think I actually thought "aww" as I was reading it--don't get me wrong, schools for girls are great but did the column have to elicit an "aww"?

Today's column is about how officers in Afghanistan today have figured out an anti-insurgency strategy. A question or two: does the lingo here matter? is that an intentional phrase? He says these officers, many on their at least their third deployment, are different because:

They learned everything the hard way — not in classes at Annapolis or West Point, but on the streets of Fallujah and Kandahar.
And then after a very general explanation of clear, hold, and rebuild, and why this may be an impossible mission, he concludes with not much at all:
So, here’s hoping that The Class Too Dumb to Quit can take all that it learned in Iraq and help rebuild The Country That’s Been Too Broken to Work.
Oh, and what's up with the capitalization? Is there supposed to me some extra meaning there?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Somalia-Kenya and Afghanistan-Pakistan?

The New York Times has an interesting article today about how the Shabab insurgents who are fighting the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia are increasingly active in neighboring Kenya. Apparently, the Islamist militants have been threatening westerners, kidnapping kids from schools in Kenya to use as soldiers, etc.

But there's more about this Somalia-Kenya story that strikes me as similar to the ongoing conflict on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The article describes the border:
In most places, this line, the official international border, is not even marked, let alone protected. Here in the village of Hulugo, there’s simply a tattered Kenyan flag and a cinderblock schoolhouse with chicken-wire windows. Then a meadow of thorn trees and donkey dung. Then Shabab country.
Well that doesn't strike me as that unusual for most African countries (or come to that for most countries in general, witness our continuing problem on our Southern border). I mean Berliners routinely point out, it's not really a border unless there's a big wall, guard posts, guys with automatic rifles...

But to return to border challenges:

American and British advisers are working closely with Kenyan counter-terrorism teams, but the area along the Somali border is known to be a gaping hole.

“The Kenyans don’t have the skills to close the border, even if they wanted to,” said one Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. “People are very concerned. But on some level, we can’t defend Kenya’s border for them.”

When asked to assess the level of security at the Somali border, the diplomat flatly stated, “there is no security.”

The raging war in the country next door, between Somalia’s weak transitional government and the Shabab, is rapidly becoming a proxy war — with Western arms and money keeping the transitional government alive, while Arab and Pakistani jihadists with links to Al Qaeda fight for the Shabab.

Now that also sounds familiar. We've been helping with counter-terrorism border capacity building, the article says. I looked at the State Department's budget justification for Kenya and the most I could find about border security capacity building assistance to Kenya was this (yes with a $2.5 million request for "stabilization operations and security sector reform" and another $6 million for "governance"--there was no "rule of law funding"):

Issues such as coastal, port, aviation and border security, cyber crime prevention and detection, professionalization of police and military units, improved immigration controls,refugee and internally displaced person security, domestic terrorism, and violent crime are approached from an integrated,
multi-USG agency perspective.

I think that means anything from a more immigration focused capacity building efforts or knowing who is coming and going, to assistance on monitoring and interdicting all manner of weapons trafficking (from the next to impossible small arms to scary things like WMD). Nonetheless, om the work I've done, bilateral assistance (and come to that international assistance, if you think UN peace operations have systematic mandates to monitor borders and build border management capacity, think again) rarely focuses on building more systematic border monitoring and management capacity, particularly in areas where customs revenues aren't large enough to pay for people to live and work there. I understand that assistance providers would want to focus on trade route firsts (since like I said, customs revenues are the backbone of government revenue in many countries) but still it strikes me that if borders are a problem, then maybe border security forces would be a good idea (I think we're doing some of that in Afghanistan, but we're just starting).

And then, the Shabab are using a typical technique to scare the population away from wider assistance:

But in the areas along the Kenya-Somalia border, it seems anti-Americanism is still spreading, despite the millions of dollars the American government has spent on a hearts-and-minds campaign [I think that the $500 million that's in the budget for health and education].

Take an American-built well in the village of Raya. No one is using it, though Raya is desperately poor and desperately dry.

“The Americans wanted to finish us,” said one villager, Ibrahim Alin, convinced that the American water engineers who built the well had poisoned it to sterilize him.

So if all of this doesn't remind you of Afghanistan/Pakistan, complete with cross border raids, refugee crisis, poverty, insurgency, the weak corrupt government on one side and the stronger, corrupt government and corrupt security forces on the other...and I'm just getting started on parallels here, I don't know what will. The question is, have we learned anything from our experience in Afghanistan that will make dealing with this easier and on the flip side, have we learned anything over the years about dealing with our favorite ally in East Africa, Kenya, that will help us deal with our good friends in Pakistan?

Bob Gates flexes muscles; kicks Chambliss, Dodd, Murray, Byrd in the ass

Amendment to kill the extra seven F-22s flies through the Senate. Great story on the vote from David Rogers and Jen DiMascio at Politico.

The Senate voted Tuesday to cut off production funding for the F-22 fighter, a come-from-behind win for Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has targeted the costly program as part of his effort to restructure the Pentagon budget.

The 58-40 roll call was more decisive than many had predicted and represented a dramatic shift from only last week when conventional wisdom held that $1.75 billion authorization would easily survive a challenge on the floor.


Gates himself was the most public point man for the administration, making calls to senators and delivering a toughly worded speech last week in Chicago. But behind the scenes, Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel also jumped in on the phones, and Vice President Joe Biden called senators last week — including his old friend, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), an ardent F-22 backer.

One of the more colorful moments was a meeting over the weekend between Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley at Cheyenne Frontier Days — “the granddaddy of all rodeos,” the senator boasted.

“Secretary of the Air Force Donley was the grand marshal of the Frontier Days parade, and I asked him how critical the money for the F-22 was,” Enzi told POLITICO. “And he said, ‘It’s not. If that money is left in there, then they will have to cut other defense programs in order to cover it.’”

Unsurprisingly, Loren Thompson -- who makes a living pimping for the defense industry in one-line quotes to the Washington Times -- is unimpressed.
“It’s a curious way for the president to use his political capital,” said Loren Thompson, the chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, who also consults for the defense industry [as if that's just coincidental to his opinion].

This seems like a totally viable counterinsurgency campaign plan (UPDATED)

I mean, it worked for Curzon, didn't it? So why wouldn't collective punishment work now? The world hasn't changed that much in 108 years... right?

The crackdown on the Mehsuds was spelled out in an order from the top political official in South Waziristan, Shahab Ali Shah, on June 14. Because the Mehsud tribesmen had not handed over Taliban fighters, Shah wrote, he was satisfied that they had acted "in an unfriendly and hostile manner toward the state" and that the tribe's "people and their activities are prejudicial to peace and public tranquillity."

Senior government officials have said repeatedly that their target is Baitullah Mehsud and his followers, not his entire tribe, but Shah's wording was broader. He ordered the "seizure, where they may be found, of all members of the Mehsud tribe and confiscation of movable/immovable property belonging to them in the North-West Frontier Province and the arrest and taking into custody of any person of the tribe wherever he is found."

(This is basically the approach that some of the folks commenting at Abu Muqawama would have us take to the entire Muslim world, as far as I can tell, but I sort of digress here.) While I appreciate that this is the law of the land, I wonder how effective we can expect an approach like this to be. Does the Pakistani government imagine that it can solve the challenges of ethnic separatism or any other kind of anti-government rebellion -- particularly narrow, political ones that aren't focused on tribal or ethnic identity -- by declaring a section of the population to be "other," punishable for the crimes of their compatriots? It seems counterproductive to stoke feelings of alienation and separateness from Pakistani identity in people who are predisposed to oppose the government by the simple fact of their isolation (not to mention Islamabad's general indifference to anything going on in the tribal areas so long as no problems emerge). And I know we can say "that's what they signed up for, the tribes want to be left alone, this is part of the trade-off," but is there anyone who believes that this is an effective solution in 2009?
"They are asking the people who are besieged, the people who have left their homes, 'Why you are not tackling the terrorists?' " said Said Alam Mehsud, a doctor from the same sub-tribe as Baitullah Mehsud. "Just imagine, what a demand. It's like if America asked me: 'Why are you practicing as a pediatrician? Why have you not captured Osama bin Laden?' "
As others have said before, those who believe in the usefulness of collective punishment or coercive isolation usually overrate the ability of a neutral or pro-government population to impact the actions of anti-government elements in their midst. When I hear stuff like this ("we'll just crack down on the whole tribe 'til they turn him over!"), I think of the Ann Coulter solution and the band of raving lunatics shrieking about how if there were any such thing as "moderate Muslims," they'd refuse to tolerate the existence of terrorist and extremists.

Do we really think that a family in Gaza can stop Hamas? Do we really think that a pediatrician in Peshawar can capture Baitullah Mehsud? Don't we recognize that coercion is useless when its object is unable to give you what you want? I suppose, considering the political dialogue on the utility of torture, that about half of us don't understand.

UPDATE: Josh Foust is on this too.

Army to temporarily increase end-strength by 22,000

Secretary Gates announced yesterday that the active Army's end-strength will be increased by 22,000 soldiers over the next three fiscal years. The last Grow the Army campaign, begun in 2007 and completed a year ahead of schedule, brought the force to a total of 547,000 across 45 brigades. Gates emphasized that this temporary increase will not result in the creation of any new troop formations, so we're looking at 569,000 across the same 45 brigades.

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this -- especially considering the timing -- is the money bit.
Mr. Gates did not say what the increase would cost over all, but indicated he would ask Congress for money to pay for it in 2011 and 2012. He estimated the cost in the fiscal year that ends in October at “less than a hundred million dollars” and in fiscal 2010 at $1 billion. He said he would absorb the costs in 2009 and 2010 into the existing Pentagon budget.
This comes on a day when the Senate is expected to vote on the McCain-Levin Amendment, which would remove $1.75 billion lawmakers inserted into the defense authorization bill to pay for an extra seven F-22s that the Department doesn't want. By stating that the troop increase will occur under the budget already submitted for FY10, the SecDef and the President have taken one more step to emphasize the zero-sum nature of this year's defense spending. Basically they're saying "if we're not going to seek extra money to pay an extra 20K troops, then you can damn sure go without your useless fighter planes." To wit:

“We will take that money from some place that we think isn’t as high a priority as more soldiers, and taking some additional steps to relieve stress in the force,” Mr. Gates said, then segued into one of his frequent criticisms of Congress for adding money to the Pentagon budget for weapons and programs he did not want.

“This is why, frankly, some of the wheeling and dealing on the Hill of a few hundred million here and a few hundred million there for a pet project here and a pet project there confront us with ever more difficult choices when we’re trying to make trade-offs in terms of how do we help our soldiers out,” Mr. Gates said.

The end-strength increase is meant to help fill out units that have taken a hit from high (and increasing) operational tempo in Afghanistan and Iraq, lower personnel deployability numbers (often due to combat wounds and injuries), and an end to the stop-loss policy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Unleash your inner Galula

and win a $3,000 Grand Prize as well as the respect and awe of fellow COINerds worldwide: the Small Wars Journal is launching a writing competition.

I am slightly disappointed by the topics chosen, though:

“1. Security vs. [Jobs & Services & etc.] -- horse and cart, or chicken and egg?

[…] What does security really mean in a small war, how much is needed when, and how do you make meaningful security gains through the pragmatic application of affordable capabilities? How does security relate as an intermediate objective or an end state? Include examples of real successes and failures.

2. Postcards From The Edge – the practical application of the Whole of Government approach.

Organizational issues are being discussed from Goldwater-Nichols II to unity of effort and simple handshake-con. Whatever the structure on high, people from different walks of life and different functional expertise need to work together on the ground at the pointy end of the spear to deliver effects that matter. Discuss real experiences (personal, known firsthand, or researched and documented) of real people facing real challenges that offer relevant insights into the conduct of a small war. […]”

In my humble opinion, Steve Metz had more inspiring suggestions.

Pondering over the last sentence of topic 2 (real experiences of real people facing real challenges), I suggest that this blog launches a counter-competition on imagined experiences of fictional characters facing minor dramas—with a fictive $3,000 Grand Prize for the winner.

No entries longer than a haiku will be accepted.

You know, uh, except for the IEDs...

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has spent a good deal of the last year doing his best to embarrass my state and my alma mater, went to Iraq this weekend. He figures everything's cool.

Perry said as he returned to Baghdad Saturday night from Camp Taji aboard a Blackhawk helicopter, he could not see the city as one that has been at war.

“Baghdad looked like Austin, Texas. Lights were on everywhere. Traffic is moving through the streets,” he said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine and four members of the Iraqi security forces were killed yesterday, and a bomb blast shook Stubb's BBQ during a Willie Nelson set.

Oh, no, wait: I just made that last part up. Baghdad is not, in fact, like Austin in any meaningful way.

Iraqis are more mixed about the success of the American military enterprise in their country.

Iraq's Kurds, a longtime target of Hussein, unequivocally regard the Americans as liberators and have said they are welcome to remain indefinitely in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. There are others who resolutely regard the American troops as illegal occupiers and find even their reduced presence in the Iraqi countryside intolerable.

"I would like to ask: Thank America for what?" said grocery storekeeper Riad Jaafar, 53, when told of Maliki's plans. "It is true that some people say they ousted Saddam, but now it is clear that things were better under Saddam."

Many Iraqis express a somewhat more benign view of the experiences of the last six years.

"I'm not sure they did anything good for us, but they came many miles and brought a lot of equipment with them, and to anyone who offered you this kind of service, you have to say thank you," said Wissam Wadhi, 42, who owns a toy shop in the much-bombed Baghdad neighborhood of Karada.

"I want the soldiers to go home, but I want American companies to come and reconstruct here. They have a responsibility to do that," he added, expressing a widely held view that the U.S. should play a larger role in rebuilding.

This from a story about how PM Maliki plans to make a visit to Arlington National Cemetery this week to express gratitude for American sacrifice during the war. This a scant three weeks after celebrating the departure of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities as the "victory" of his government over the "occupiers."

The moral of the story, I guess, is that politicians are the same everywhere, even if cities aren't.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chivers on Estimirova

C.J. Chivers, who wrote the best thing you'll ever read on Beslan (and has done excellent reporting from the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, among other places) has a profile in today's New York Times on Natalya Estimirova.

As the blog's purported "Russia guy," I should've brought this story up before now: Estimirova was an activist who worked to expose the atrocities committed by both Russian authorities and anti-government rebels in Chechnya, and she was found murdered on Thursday. She and Chivers were friends.

Read and feel bleak about both Russia and the Caucasus.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What we're reading #2

Coming into the weekend, I always imagine that it'll be an opportunity for me to get caught up in all the reading I've yet to make a dent in, just carting it to and from work in a manila folder all week. Rarely works out that way, but here's hoping!


Of course there's a lot Afghanistan stuff out there lately...

And one I've just finished reading, on which there will certainly be some commentary later: the Aerospace Industries' Association's threat piece "The Unseen Cost: Industrial base consequences of defense strategy choices." If you like to see the defense industry making dire predictions and pressuring defense planners to build strategy around profit-based procurement considerations, you'll love this one!

Gunslinger: I'm going native this weekend, thanks to a few documents sent my way by our good friend SNLII. I'm embarrassed to say I've never read anything from the insurgent's side, outside of readings on the American Revolution.

I promise not to be reciting Mao and Marx or wearing dishdashas by Monday. I do intend, though, to drink my share of Irish-made beverages before the weekend is over.

Finishing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will be the first thing I do this weekend (I am trying to catch up on my classics).

Another small book is already in my weekend bag: Olivier Roy’s Généalogie de l’islamisme, which was unfortunately not translated into English (but L’Islam mondialisé was).

Stacked between the toothpaste and the cell phone charger are Biddle’s article, of course, as well as print-outs of a very interesting debate in the Boston Review where a bunch of extremely smart people (Mike McGovern, Larry Diamond, and William Easterly, to name but a few) respond to Paul Collier’s proposals for the “Bottom Billion”—including his rather controversial suggestion that international military force should be used to restore constitutional legality in the case of a coup.

If anyone is looking for me, I will be there. Have a great weekend everyone.


I just got back from a very long week of interviewing people in New York for a work project so I'm pretty exhausted (it looks like Alma's taking some time to enjoy NYC this weekend, something I didn't get to do much of this time).

Anyway, I'm still working on Prunier's Africa's World War--it's something like 400 pages long so it's going to take a while.

The UNDPKO just put out its newest report on peacekeeping titled "A New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for UN Peacekeeping."

And then and I think I'm going to have to bandwagon and read some of the stuff my co-conspirators are reading because it looks interesting.

Rafsanjani to deliver sermon in Tehran

As many will have already heard, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will speak at Tehran University's Friday prayer service in a few hours. Rafsanjani is the chairman of both the Assembly of Experts (putatively empowered with the ability to replace the Supreme Leader) and the influential Expediency Council. He's one of the wealthiest and most well-connected politicians in Iran, and is a staunch supporter of the velayat-e faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurists -- the technical term for the Islamic Republic's theoretical "rule by (religious) judges." Most interestingly, he has only ever been considered a "moderate" or "reformist" in the context of the most recent presidential election, when he sided with Ahmadinejad's leading challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi.

Today's sermon, Rafsanjani's first appearance at the prayer service in over two months, will be very closely watched. Neither conservatives nor reformists know exactly what to expect from Rafsanjani, who has long been a supporter of the clerical regime but recently emerged as a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad and his backers. Whether he chooses to be conciliatory or to further inflame the passions of pro-Mousavi elements will go a long way towards determining whether or not the matter of last month's elections is closed. Interior Ministry officials are already making noises that some interpret as encouragement to Basij militias to crack down with violence in the case of anti-government disturbances.

In related news, Ahmadinejad spoke in Mashhad yesterday and blamed the whole thing on the West. Shocker. Oh yeah, and when he's returned to the head of government, "with ten times more power and authority than before, [the government] will enter the global scene and will defeat the global arrogance." (That's a little code phrase he likes to use for America.) So be on the lookout for that.

Seriously though, Friday could be a big day in Iran, so keep your eyes open.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are We Still Talking About This?

Reading through yet another rehash of COIN vs. conventional over at AM (I'd specify a post, but the comments on every post have been going down this road), I've been thinking about what a future force structure would look like. I would like to think that most readers of this blog realize that both COIN and conventional doctrine will be part of the tool kit that DoD brings to the table to meet the needs of the nation's strategic interests (however that may be defined - if it ever really will be defined). I'm prone to believe that most operations would follow somewhere along the lines of Frank Hoffman's ideas of "hybrid warfare," where most operations would contain elements of both and that we'll have few conflicts that are purely one or the other. You know, like Iraq and Afghanistan should have been if they had been properly planned from the beginning.

If this ends up being DoD's direction, to prepare for hybrid warfare, then I doubt there will be any major changes to the force as it stands now and that we will rely on general purpose forces (GPF). Sorry Dr. Krepinevich. This begs the question of how you train this force to be able to execute both doctrines nearly simultaneously.

In execution, the doctrines aren't so divergent. In my experience (let's emphasize that, since many other vets may have other experiences), we were able to adequately train both between deployments. This probably falls into the "war is war" discussion. At one point though, my brigade was fortunate to be tapped for both an NTC and a JRTC rotation during our 16 months between deployments in order to train HIC and COIN (as we understood it then). Thankfully, we were the only lucky brigade to do this. Since then, Training Center rotations have been almost exclusively focused on COIN and MOUT.

But why can't you train both doctrines in one rotation? Why can't you leave the towns in the Southern and Central Corridors during the HIC phase of a rotation in the box? Make the commander figure out how to deal with that stuff when he's trying to fight an armored fight. You know, like during the invasion of Iraq. The scenarios could be set to have a high intensity focus followed by reconstruction. I don't understand why it has to be an either/or. That and it more realistically portrays actual conflicts.

All this rambling is to say, could we please, for the love of all that is holy, stop arguing like it has to be one way or another. The argument that "COIN is the answer to all of our prayers" or that "COIN is a baseless canard" doesn't do anyone any good. Population- verus enemy-centric COIN, GPF versus Advisory Corps, NTC needs to train this or that but not the other, etc. The world is much more complicated than that. Shouldn't our doctrine allow us to respond to that complexity? Without diluting abilities purely in the interest of consensus, a step back and some deep thinking could probably help us a lot more.

"If the people are happy, we won't need cannons. If they don't like us, then we'll call in artillery."

Those words from Afghan army Lt. Col. Abdul Haq, who maybe isn't so much hip with what the kids are calling "counterinsurgency." There's an outstanding article in today's Wall Street Journal about Lt. Col. Haq, a 51-year old ANA mullah, and his American mentor, a 27-year old Baptist Army captain named James Hill.

Some really good stuff in here, highlighting the ways that even a middle-aged Afghan who's been fighting his whole life can benefit from the advice and example of a professional military officer. It's also interesting to see Hill's (and the Army's) understanding of the fact that Afghans are much more likely to support an ANA that is representative of their values and culture:

Capt. Hill's faith-based mission is to counter the propaganda of Taliban fighters, who ride motorcycles through isolated villages spreading the word that the Afghan army is led by godless communists working to purge the country of Islam. Show the people that the army is a Muslim one, and they'll be more likely to support it against the insurgents, his theory goes.

To that end, the captain supplies the army with prayer rugs to give out in villages. He requisitioned loudspeakers for 30 bases and checkpoints so locals can hear soldiers being called to prayer. And he spends long hours encouraging Afghan soldiers, particularly Lt. Col. Haq, to make a greater display of their faith.

Sometimes the American officer's advice pertains to basic soldiering skills, like in this hilarious exchange with Lt. Col. Haq:

"Body armor does no good -- it's in God's hands," the colonel, in bulletproof vest and helmet, told Capt. Hill before a patrol.

"God helped us make the body armor," the captain responded, "so I think he wants me to wear it."

Aside from we we can gain from the substantive content, there's just a whole bunch of general hilarity sewn throughout this piece. More follows...

Along the way, Capt. Hill picked up some Dari, the language spoken by most Afghan soldiers. But for a while, his Oklahoma drawl turned "How are you?" into "Are you a camel?"
He keeps his beard long enough to fulfill the Quranic mandate that it fill a fist. He combs it to a pelt-like smoothness that finishes in a slight curl away from his chest. "I love my beard," he admits.

"It's very good that an artillery officer and a religious officer work together," said Lt. Col. Haq. "If the people are happy, we won't need cannons. If they don't like us, then we'll call in artillery."

But seriously, there's a lot of good love-n'-hugs COIN going on here, with the building of mosques and whatnot, and a lot of genuinely good mentorship and work toward the professionalization of the ANA.

What's wrong with this picture?

This is GEN McKiernan at his retirement ceremony. Retirement from the Army. After 37 years of service. And he's wearing ACUs. For those not familiar with the acronym, it's the Army COMBAT Uniform. Except he's not in combat; he's at Fort Myer.
This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. I know it's a small thing. I know the explanation: this is an Army at war, and we reflect that fact by having staff officers wear camouflage pajamas on their Metro ride to a desk at the Pentagon. Or for a meeting with a General officer. Or a foreign dignitary. Or whatever.

It's nuts. Everyone knows we're at war. They don't need to be reminded by seeing a bunch of dudes walk around in coveralls. Can we get back to service uniforms for desk jobs, and I don't know, maybe a dress uniform for, say, retirement ceremonies? There's even a flashy new blue one for everybody!

In other, uh, peripheral news: GEN McKiernan retired yesterday. I absolutely believe that the President and the Secretary of Defense should have the field commander in place that they prefer, and so I don't have the same sort of heartburn that a lot of people do about how GEN McChrystal was brought in. Having said that, some of the commentary about how McKiernan "didn't get it" or was an "adequate officer, but not exceptional" has been totally uninformed and completely unnecessary. GEN McKiernan, for his part, has been all class.

The man gave nearly four decades of service to this country and should be allowed a more dignified departure from the stage than what he received.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fall Iraq rotations announced

Yesterday the Army identified which units will be the next to deploy to Iraq. Relayed here FYI via the U.S. Army website.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 14, 2009) -- Three division headquarters and eight brigade combat teams have been scheduled to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in the next rotation beginning this fall.The deploying units include a total of about 30,000 troops. The deployment window for the rotation will begin in the fall and continue into early 2010, officials said. The deploying division headquarters are:

  • 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One), Fort Riley, Kan.
  • 1st Armored Division (Old Ironsides), Wiesbaden, Germany
  • 3rd Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne), Fort Stewart, Ga.

The brigades are:

  • 1st (Forerunners) Brigade, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas
  • 1st, (Warrior), and 2nd (Commando) Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.
  • 1st (Raider) and 2nd (Spartan) Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga.
  • 3rd (Sledgehammer) Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Benning, Ga.
  • 3rd (Iron) Brigade, 4th Infantry Division Fort Carson, Colo.
  • 53rd (Gator) Brigade Combat Team, Florida Army National Guard
Also, I'll take this opportunity to say that "Rock of the Marne" is one of the most badass unit identifiers in the military.

Location, location, location

To those who say that Rory Stewart is pessimistic about Afghanistan, he has this to respond:

"[…] the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole. Their previous administration provided basic road security and justice but it was fragile and fell quickly. They are no longer perceived, as they were by some in 1994, as young student angels saving the country from corruption. Millions of Afghans disliked their brutality, incompetence and primitive attitudes. The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas. The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security.

Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?"

So there is optimism about Afghanistan, but not so much about the rest of the world, including Yorkshire. Or about the US/NATO effort, for that matter:

"It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives? Afghanistan is starting from a very low base: 30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan."

His last point is a rebuttal to the whole idea of systematically seeing in “ungoverned territories” potential sanctuaries for terrorists. As Stewart points out, terrorist groups seeking refuge in such areas are vulnerable because no one will complain too loudly about infringement on state sovereignty if they end up getting Predatored.

Ungoverned territories also have serious disadvantages for the functioning of any organization. They lack communications, banking systems, infrastructures. Areas where state control is lax or inexistent may make it possible, for a group, to train a few people to the use of small arms and the assembling of IEDs, as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) does in the stretch of the Sahara desert between Mauritania, Algeria, and Mali. But the major AQIM attacks that took place against Algerian security forces, civilians, and foreigners have largely originated from the cells located near Algiers, not the southern ones. Saharan cells have mounted attacks against isolated military outposts, in 2005 and 2008, kidnapped tourists (one of which they killed last month), and, over the past two years, killed four French tourists and an American aid worker: tragic events, to be sure, but not destabilizing ones. These cells' biggest potential for harm lies in the (few) people and the money (provided they do not decide to keep all the ransom money for themselves) they send to the northern cells. There is only so much one can do in the middle of the desert…

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Raptor: sweet name, plane less impressive

Several members of Congress have expressed opposition to the Obama administration's intent to end the F-22 production line at 187 aircraft. Last month, the Senate Armed Services committee included in budget legislation an additional $1.75 billion for planes that the President and the Department of Defense do not want. There must be some really compelling operational logic to this, right? Just so we're all on the same page, let's document the utility of the F-22 so that we can see exactly how much its proponents are Supporting the Troops!
  • F-22s currently in service: 141
  • F-22s still to be built: 46
  • F-22 unit cost: $137,500,000
  • F-22 combat missions flown (ever): 0
  • F-22 hourly flying cost: $49,808
  • mean time between critical failures during F-22 flight: 1.7 hours
  • maintenance time required for one hour of F-22 flight: 30 hours
  • F-22 fleet mission availability: 55.9%

But you're not accounting for China!, say the F-22's proponents. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), whose state, incidentally, will lose 2,000 jobs when the production line closes down, finds this really worrying: "While the administration is emphasizing winning current conflicts, its stance regarding the F-22 does not adequately account for other kinds of threats." Lockheed recognizes that this pitch has broad appeal on the Hill, pulling in supporters on the right (even some who don't have F-22 production facilities in their states/districts!): "The best weapon may be the one that isn't used but instead deters a conflict before it begins." And you know, that's a great pitch -- the question is whether F-22s are necessary or even useful for deterring future adversaries.

For one thing, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen tell us that halting production at the current level will still give us 2:1 overmatch on advanced Chinese fighter aircraft in 2020 (and the Chinese planes will be inferior, at that). But never mind the question of how well the Raptor will fare against MIGs in some fantasy dogfight that will only take place on computer monitors or the skies above Miramar. If your understanding of Chinese military capabilities is any more advanced than Tom Tancredo's, then you probably realize that they've been developing anti-access weapons and tactics for the specific purpose of countering U.S. force projection (to include things like short-range fighter aircraft; see "Assassin's Mace" in Krepinevich's recent Foreign Affairs article).

In short, there is simply no compelling operational or strategic reason to build more F-22s than the 187 for which we have already budgeted. Which is why it's great to see the SecDef, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Chairman and ranking member of Senate Armed Services line up in opposition to the seven extra planes (and 175 billion extra dollars), and why it's great to see the President threatening a veto of the defense appropriation if the extra money makes it into the final bill.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Drones and sovereignty

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page continues the fightback against those who call for a cessation of drone strikes in northwest Pakistan.

Several Taliban training camps in the Pakistan hinterland were hit last week by missiles fired from American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, reportedly killing some 20 terrorists. Remarkably, some people think these strikes are a bad idea.

To get a sense of what U.S. drone strikes have accomplished in the past two years, recall the political furor that followed a July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that al Qaeda had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland [i.e., U.S.] attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. . . . As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment." The media declared we were losing the war.

Less than a year later, then-CIA director Michael Hayden offered a far more upbeat assessment to the Washington Post.

What changed? At least part of the answer is that the U.S. went from carrying out only a handful of drone attacks in 2007 to more than 30 in 2008.

I don't have any problem with the contention that the near-term campaign against Al Qaeda is aided by drone strikes; this is almost certainly true. On the broader question of strikes as a beneficial part of the overall counterinsurgency campaign, I've gone from being anti- to roughly agnostic.

Having said that, this particular editorial sort of misrepresents the case of those who oppose drone strikes on the Pakistani side of the border.

Lord Bingham, until recently Britain's senior law lord, has recently said UAV strikes may be "beyond the pale" and potentially on a par with cluster bombs and landmines. Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen says "the Predator [drone] strikes have an entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability." He adds, "We should be cutting strikes back pretty substantially."

In both cases, the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds. If you glean your information from wire reports -- which depend on stringers who are rarely eyewitnesses -- the argument seems almost plausible.

As Andrew Exum and others (notably his co-authors on the CNAS report Triage) have remarked, U.S. military figures on civilian deaths as a result of Predator attacks are almost irrelevant; as much as we talk about "being first with the truth," stories in the Pakistani (and global) media, often fueled by enemy propaganda -- those very "wire reports" of which the Journal is so disdainful -- are generally considered more credible in the region.

Which brings me around to my point, which is this: more than just creating additional enemies through the death of innocents, one of the major down-sides to a continued drone campaign is that it underlines the Pakistani government's inability to exercise sovereignty and control over its own territory. If we recognize that the very most fundamental imperative of our engagement in South Asia is the prevention of regime collapse and security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, then this concern is magnified.

Proponents of an assassination-from-the-air campaign typically try to gloss over more sophisticated objections by arguing that the deaths of some small number of civilians (certainly smaller than what's reported in the news, I tell you!) are justified by the significance of the targets we've eliminated. But sometimes you lose even when you win.