Friday, April 30, 2010

US Soldiers Make Lady Gaga Video

It's Friday so a colleague just sent me this link. Maybe I'm massively behind but I hadn't seen it yet: it shows US soldiers in Afghanistan dancing to Lady Gaga's "Telephone".

Yes, this is how us think tank slackers waste away Fridays.

This just about sums up the Korengal redeployment

I'm going to reproduce in full a letter that appears in today's Wall Street Journal, just because I think it's about the best analysis of U.S. actions in the Korengal and the decision to leave that I've read anywhere. (No link as I'm not sure it's online; I saw it at the Early Bird.) This guy -- Tim Connors of Highland Falls, NY -- nails it in 150 words.

I was a member of the first U.S. patrol to enter the Korengal Valley in 2002, so I read Bing West's explanation for our retreat from there with some interest ("The Meaning of the Korengal Retreat," op-ed, April 23). Mr. West concludes that our efforts were thwarted by "Islamic extremism and tribal xenophobia."

The Korengalis I knew were not predisposed to join an extremist fight against Western outsiders. Nor were they naturally inclined to be our friends. Our aggressive tactics, focused exclusively on rooting out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, drove them into the enemy's camp. A patient approach of relationship-building, relatively minor infrastructure improvements and a firm commitment not to interfere with the wood trade on which the Korengalis rely for their livelihood might have won a steadfast ally. In the long run, the Taliban and al Qaeda, outsiders themselves, have nothing to offer Korengalis but extremism and xenophobia. Perhaps after ending our permanent presence there, we will be better positioned to win that argument.

Now some wag might say that the last sentence probably applies to the entirety of Afghanistan, but that's not me. I'm more inclined to a different sort of observation, like isn't it surreal to imagine that we can protect people in American skyscrapers from being killed by planes or underpants bombs through the prosecution of a counter-guerilla campaign amongst a tiny population of lumber traders who speak an obscure language in an isolated valley on the opposite side of the planet?, but I suppose I digress.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the bright side, at least these weirdos at MPRI don't know who we are

So apparently the U.S. Army pays contractors to surf the internet looking for blog entries that mention the service. (Because that's not creepy or anything.) If the government wasn't so damn stupid, they'd just have some E-5 reading Small Wars Journal.

Danger Room reports:
You’d think all the criticism from left-wing websites like the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Salon would royally piss off the Army. But at least one Army report finds the sites’ posts to be consistently “balanced.”

Every week, the defense contractor MPRI prepares for the brass a “Blogosphere and Social Media Report,” rounding up sites’ posts on military matters. It’s meant to be a single source for top officers to catch up on what’s being said online and in leading social media outlets. Items from about two dozen national security and political blogs are excerpted, and classified as “balanced,” “critical,” or “supportive.” The vast majority of the posts are considered “balanced” — even when they rip the Army a new one.
But let's get to the important part, and the question you're all asking yourselves: How often do they talk about Ink Spots?!

Well, never, now that you ask. And I don't mind telling you that I'm sort of pleased at that fact. Friends of the blog Abu Muqawama and Armchair Generalist aren't so lucky, nor are SWJ, Attackerman, Michael Yon, Blackfive, and some of your other standard big-timers. (Oh yeah, and Danger Room.) So just in case you think we've gotten too big for our britches, the Army is still blissfully unaware of our existence.

(OK, I'll admit it: me calling the government "stupid" is a really thinly-veiled effort to get included in the "Critical" section of the next one of these things.)

Gallup Poll on Prospects for Peace in Eastern Congo

Gallup has a new poll out on Congolese views on the prospects for peace in the country. Gallup interviewed 1,000 Congolese adults in late 2009.

Gallup found that "Congolese surveyed late last year were optimistic about the future of the region; a majority (63%) agree there can be peace in eastern Congo within the next 12 months."

But before you get your hopes up, Gallup owns up to a major problem with data collection:

While Gallup could not interview people in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) because of security constraints, media reports document concern among people in the region about what will happen once U.N. peacekeepers leave as DRC President Joseph Kabila has requested. U.N. peacekeepers arrived in DRC in 1999 to help protect civilians and disarm and demobilize combatants, but the vast territory and lack of resources have hindered their role.

Congolese surveyed believe there can be an internal solution to the problems in eastern Congo, with residents most likely to spontaneously mention the government (51%) and the president (33%) when asked to name the party responsible for bringing peace. Despite its presence in the region for more than 10 years, relatively few Congolese view the United Nations as responsible for peace.

Gallup also asked about the role of Rwanda's role in bringing peace. A large majority of those interviewed (84%) said they did NOT think Rwanda was playing a positive role in bringing peace to the east.

My larger question is: why bother spending what I can only imagine is a lot of money polling if you don't even interview those most affected by the conflict? How exactly is this poll of any use?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tactical tribal engagement

While I'm posting today, I'd like to draw your attention to a piece that Abu Muqawama and I put together on tribal engagement at the tactical level. This abbreviated planning framework was the result of our discussions in the tactical working group at the Tribal Engagement Workshop that the boys at Small Wars Journal put together. We had a great group of experienced officers and civilians - many of whom have done this mission in Afghanistan. So head on over and give it a read!

UPDATE: You can also find it at SWJ where you can see it in all of its PDF glory.

Hot off the RAND Press: Insurgencies are Complicated

Ignore the glib title above (I'm trying to make up for some of Gulliver's alleged turn to sincerity) and check out RAND's latest major study How Insurgencies End. Written by Ben Connable, a retired USMC Major, and Martin C. Libicki, it tackles an impressively broad swathe of insurgencies stretching back to the 1930s, and asks a bunch of interesting and highly policy relevant questions. I've barely begun reading it, but two things strike me.

First, the list of ways governments lose insurgencies (see p. 152) maps pretty well onto Afghanistan 2001-2009 (possibly 2010):

  • Governments ignore the insurgency until it develops into a credible threat.
  • Governments fail to address root causes.
  • Governments address root causes half-heartedly or too late, stoking discontent.
  • Governments fail to identify major shifts in strategic momentum.
  • Governments fail to extend credible control into rural areas.
  • Governments become dependent on a fickle sponsor.
Which is pretty depressing. More heartening, the study also argues that "No insurgency ending is inevitable." Let's hope so.

Second, their emphasis on the role of political/social/economic discontent is a healthy reminder to keep our priorities in line even as the Marines in Helmand fight to retain (or regain at this point?) the momentum, and the Kandahar offensive slowly builds:
The kind of grassroots support necessary to build and sustain an insurgency is fed on social, economic and political discontent. If a government successfully addresses root causes, it is possible to defeat an insurgency without defeating the insurgents themselves.
I do note with concern that the study consistently mislabels the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces as the 'Arab Deterrent Force' (who were, um, Syrian, and in Lebanon), and claims that it lasted from 1986-2000 (the ADF in Uganda fought from 1996 until, arguably*, they were chased out of their sanctuary by a joint UN-Congolese operation in 2005). I suspect this is a small blip on their data, and not indicative of larger data or coding problems, but I'd suggest keeping an eye out for any other issues.

*Arguable, because the Uganda Army claims to have been hunting them down as recently as 2007.

Friday, April 23, 2010

As good as being there: Army War College Strategy Conference YouTube channel

Remember that conference where I was pal-ing around with Martin van Creveld? No? Well, me neither, or at least probably not as well as I should. Lucky for me, the Army War College has its own YouTube channel, complete with extensive video from the conference.

Some highlights:
  • Carafano craps on conference concept
  • Vlahos* acts like a total nut
  • Standard Hammes (which is always worth your time)
  • Nathan Freier, who I thought gave pretty much the best presentation of the conference

There's a lot of good stuff there, so take a look. I'm hoping to delve back into a few of these subjects in greater depth now that I've got this resource.

*Readers will no doubt be disappointed to note that this is Mike Vlahos (who is nuts), not Kelley Vlahos (who is not nuts, just contrarian, and also a little bit hot).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Serious question on a totally different subject:

Do all these jokers like Todd Akin and Mackenzie Eaglen know about the historical baggage associated with their use of the term "fighter gap"?

Now, to be fair, a lot of people are doing it. Defense News, for one. (Or two. Or three.) Colin Clark at DoD Buzz, too. Then there's Navy Times and Air Force Times and National Defense magazine. But this is all pretty much just reportage and not advocacy or rhetoric, right? So that's not such a big deal.

It's a little more pernicious when the term starts getting tossed around as a mechanism to advocate policy changes. Like, for example, in this op-ed by Akin, who is the ranking member on the HASC Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee. The good Congressman argues that the Defense Department can "mitigate the impending fighter gap" by entering into a multi-year contract with Boeing to procure additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers (the latter of which is an electronic attack aircraft, which is not exactly a "strike fighter"). Congressman Akin, in what is surely one of history's great coincidences, represents the St. Louis area, home to Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

Heritage Foundation defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen apparently enjoyed Rep. Akin's piece, tweeting this yesterday: "Quantity has a quality all its own. The US military has a fighter gap. RT@ToddAkin: It's simple - carriers need planes]"

There it is again: "fighter gap." Just rolls off the tongue (and the keyboard), doesn't it? Why so familiar? Well, we've had other gaps before, you know. There was that missile gap back in the late 50s, when then-Senator John Kennedy warned that the US was "losing the [ballistic]-missile race with the Soviet Union because of... complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching, budget cutbacks, incredibly confused mismanagement, and wasteful rivalries and jealousies." And before that, in the mid-50s, there was that pesky bomber gap, when some analysts convinced themselves that the Soviets were dramatically out-producing the U.S. in the long-range, intercontinental bomber race. And now there's about to be a fighter gap, we're told, as Super Hornets exceed their allowable flight hours and are retired from service before sufficient numbers of Joint Strike Fighters have rolled off the production line to take their place.

So what's the problem with all of this? Well, the bomber gap and the missile gap were COMPLETELY MADE UP, that's the problem. Not only that, but some folks - led by an academic named Albert Wohlstetter - COMPLETELY MADE UP the missile gap all over again in 1974!

Am I saying that there's no such thing as a fighter gap? No, I'm not saying that, because I have no idea. Todd Akin may be exactly right, and a long-term, multi-year contract for additional Super Hornet procurement may be the absolute best thing for national security. I'm not an aviation expert, and even those folks can't seem to agree on whether there will be a strike shortfall or how significant it might be. So it's not about whether the fighter gap is as made up as the bomber gap or the missile gap, really.

What this is about is messaging, and the meaning of words. Shouldn't Akin and Eaglen be aware enough of history to know that they're using a tainted phrase? That they're directly ripping off an expression that was used more than once to identify an entirely fabricated national security scare, a military bludgeon created expressly for one candidate to smash another during a campaign?

Aren't they embarrassed to echo Wohlstetter, whose claims about a missile gap extended to accusations that the CIA was falsifying intelligence, deliberately underestimating the number of Soviet missiles in order to shape policy in a less confrontational direction? The same Wohlstetter whose anti-intel aspersions would drive the formation of the ludicrously politicized waste of time called "Team B," the CIA red team whose final report (pdf) "turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point"?

Basically, from a rhetorical perspective, couldn't they have come up with something better?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Serious question: does anyone give a damn about export-control reform? (UPDATED)

Because seriously, I know a lot about this. I think it's pretty boring, and I think most other people think it's boring, but I used to be involved in it professionally and can probably tell you a whole lot about it if suddenly you've got the itch.

The reason I ask is that Secretary Gates, following up on a directive by President Obama last August to undertake a thorough review of the USG's export-control regime, today made a major speech to a meeting of the Business Executives for National Security outlining exactly why the old system isn't working and how he envisions the reform process going.

The fact is . . . America’s decades-old, bureaucratically labyrinthine system does not serve our 21st-century security needs or our economic interests. It is clear our current limitations in this area undermine our ability to work with and through partners to confront shared threats and challenges – from terrorism to rogue states to rising powers. Our security interests would be far better served by a more agile, transparent, predictable, and efficient regime. Tinkering around the edges of our current system will not do.

For these reasons and more, in August of last year, the president directed a broad-based review of the U.S. export-control regime. He has called for reforms that focus controls on key technologies and items that pose the greatest national-security threat. These include items and technologies related to global terrorism, the proliferation and delivery systems of weapons of mass destruction, and advanced conventional weapons. In short, a system where higher walls are placed around fewer, more critical items.

Following this directive, and informed by a recent National Intelligence Council assessment of the key national-security considerations, I have worked closely with my counterparts at the departments of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, as well as with the director of national intelligence and the national security advisor to develop a blueprint for such a system. Our plan relies on four key reforms: a single export-control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement-coordination agency, and a single information-technology system.

This is sort of a big deal, I guess, especially when considered in concert with the SECDEF's article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs advocating for security assistance reform (about which more later). Export-control reform can be seen as a significant part of streamlining the security assistance process, making it more flexible, agile, and responsive -- something that everybody wants.

So if you care about this, tell me. Or if you have questions, ask them. We can go into this deeper, and I can provide you with a whole lot of context and explain why this is important to national security, or how the old system works, or why the new system will or won't be better, or whatever, or we can all be happy to say "export-control regime(s) being reformed and streamlined, check, duly noted, carry on smartly," etc. It's up to y'all.

(Note that this reader discretion does not extend to security assistance reform, which I am going to beat you over the head with whether you like it or not. But again, more on that later.)

UPDATE: I initially forgot to include the link to this transcript of a "senior defense officials" press briefing on export-control reform from Monday (prior to the SECDEF's speech).

While we're at it, here's some other coverage, too: Post / Spencer / Hill / Reuters

And Bernard Finel pops in to usefully link us to Evelyn Farkas' report on the subject for the American Security Project, which strikes me as thorough and well-done (if perhaps a touch OBE as a result of these most recent announcements).

The Combat Arm of Decision

I'm sure most of you have read Gian Gentile's latest at SWJ on the death of the Armor Corps. I don't intend to dissect the entire paper here, but I do want to talk about a couple of points.

Gian is absolutely correct that today's mechanized force does not know how to do a combined arms operation at the brigade level (he mentions division, but I'm not so concerned with that - I'm not sure what that would even look like). Now, being a cavalryman, I have no time or patience for breech operations - I'm more of a bypass, re-gas, haul ass kind of guy - but you older tanker folks know how hard a battalion/brigade-level obstacle breech is. If you think COIN is graduate-level war, a brigade breech is something closer to post-doc. And we don't train it anymore at NTC with live bullets like we used to. If I recall correctly, my brigade was one of the last to do it and that was back in 2004 sometime. Someday, somewhere, the U.S. Army is going to have to do that and we won't be prepared for it.

Gian is also partially correct on individual crew skills. I think that gunnery skills are important for tank and Bradley crews and it's true that we don't spend the time we used to on those skills. On the other hand, tank platoons are doing what they can to prepare their units for combat. Rest assured, the M1 series tank has been used quite a bit in Iraq. In 2008, one of my favorite tank platoon sergeants was slinging 120mm all over Sadr City when that area rose against the government again. And he and his platoon did it very well and played a big role in pacifying the area. I don't imagine he was the only SFC making sure his crews were ready for a big fight and I don't think that gunnery skills have eroded to the point where the Armor Corps is now dead.

Many of our readers will dismiss (or embrace) Gian's paper out of hand. I don't agree with all of it nor do I think all of it is accurate, but there are a number of points in it that need to be heeded. The Armor Corps is certainly not dead and is not nearing its demise. Yet. Hopefully longer dwell times will help bring competencies back to the level where they were and provide the time to train those skills required in today's fights.

Friday, April 16, 2010

CPT Jeremiah Ellis and the Senjaray school

I don't have time to provide a whole lot of commentary on this new piece by TIME's Joe Klein, but I encourage you to read it. There are a lot of interesting details that we can hopefully discuss in the comments; in general it just shows exactly how difficult it is to execute COIN and development at the company and battalion level, even in what's considered to be a priority area.

The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed the school in 2007, breaking all the windows and furniture, booby-trapping the place, lacing the surrounding area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), daring the Canadians to reopen it. But the Canadians were overmatched, and it wasn't until December of 2009, when the Americans came to Senjaray, that people began to talk about reopening the school.

It was, in fact, a no-brainer, a perfect metaphor. The Taliban closed schools; the Americans opened them. That this particular school was located deep in the enemy heartland, in a district — Zhari — that was 80% controlled by the Taliban, an area the Russians called the Heart of Darkness and eventually refused to travel through, in a town that will be strategically crucial when the most important battle of the war in Afghanistan — the battle for Kandahar — is contested this summer, made it all the more perfect.

"From the start, the people here said they wanted better security and the school," said Captain Jeremiah Ellis, the commander of Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, the 120 soldiers who represented the American presence in Senjaray. "We are required to ask certain questions on patrol: What are your problems here? What do you need? It's called a TCAF interview, for some reason." Ellis, a young man well acquainted with the uses of, and need for, irony when dealing with the command structure, raised an eyebrow and smiled. Later, I looked it up. A TCAF is a Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework — in English, an interview script. "Anyway, we've been asking the TCAF questions for months now. People look at us and think, 'Why do you keep asking the same questions and not doing anything? You must be one stupid bunch of Caucasians,' " Ellis continued, replaying the dialogue. "It's totally insulting: 'What do you need here?' 'Open the frigging school, just like last week.' "

No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis. He had worked on it for months; he figured it would be Dog Company's legacy in Senjaray. It fit perfectly into the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: protect the people, provide them with security and government services, and they will turn away from the insurgency. Unlike many of his fellow officers in Zhari district, and many of the troops under his command, Ellis really believed in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.

Take a look and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And here's where the buzzwords completely kill your effort

Canadian LTC J.J. Malevich, an exchange officer at the COIN Center at Ft. Leavenworth, wrote today about adapting counterinsurgency methods to differing social structures -- particularly with a view to Afghanistan. He asserts that our acceptance of "tribal elders" as a meaningful liaison between coalition forces, the Afghan government, and "the people" may be counterproductive to our efforts to do effective COIN.

In our construct, we are used to and take for granted a system of government that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.” We assume that everywhere we go we are dealing with the same construct. We also assume that all leadership that we deal with has its community’s best interest at heart.

In Afghanistan, in our efforts to reach out to the people, we are dealing with “village elders.” We assume that these older, white bearded men speak for their community’s and share our goal of a greater Afghanistan with freedom and liberty for all. Have we asked ourselves if this is true or have we just assumed that by some sort of custom or tradition we are dealing with some sort of representational government? I would question not our motives but our approach. I think we need to take some time to examine the “Elders” and determine whether they represent “population-centric” COIN or if they stand in the way of it.

I've got no problem at all with thoughtful study, and tactics and methods of operation should absolutely be adapted to local circumstances. But I fear that LTC Malevich's post is suggestive of a sort of misconceptualization of the mission, and of a confusion of means and ends. To wit:
By ensuring that all government affairs pass through them; the Elders can skim commission money for themselves, decide who will and who will not pay taxes and decide who works and who does not. In earlier eras, they decided who was drafted and who was not. This seems like an awful lot of power that is given to an unelected body. If I was going to compare it to our society I was say we are empowering rural elites, local power brokers and land owners. Where is the population-centric COIN we are supposed to be conducting? [emphasis mine]
To be frank, though hopefully not glib: who cares?

Population protection is a means to gain intelligence, isolate the insurgent, and make conditions inhospitable to his comfort and success. While building a claim to legitimacy is important for long-term governance, the counterinsurgent's primary goal is population control, not popular support.

And so if our methods appeal to what we may believe are "illegitimate" intermediaries but those folks are able to deliver the goods, to mobilize their "constituents" in the service of coalition objectives, then what difference does it make whether they're popularly elected or rule by force? Whether they're wildly popular or popularly resented? I would've thought one of the lasting lessons of the Sahwa in Iraq is that "the people are the prize" is more sententious wordsmithing than operational guidance; the real prize is the man or men who can deliver the people.

The rejoinder, of course, would be that this approach lacks long-term legitimacy and thus is bound to fail. But considering our timelines and objectives, isn't it more realistic to approach the problem this way than to imagine that we can remake Afghan social structure in a more "just" fashion over the next 18 months, even if we accept that our conception of justice is even meaningful here?

Big Gulps, huh? Ahhriiighht... Welp, see ya later!

U.S. troops have left the Korengal Valley.

U.S. troops are pulling out of Afghanistan's perilous Korengal Valley as part of a new focus on protecting population centers, NATO said Wednesday.

The isolated mountainous region of caves and canyons on the eastern border with Pakistan has seen fierce fighting between NATO and Taliban insurgents, who use it as a route for infiltrating weapons and fighters into Afghanistan.

The repositioning reflects the new thinking among commanders that forces are best used to protect the civilian population rather than placed in scattered outposts that are highly exposed to militant activity and difficult to resupply and reinforce.

"This repositioning, in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces, responds to the requirements of the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy," Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, joint commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement e-mailed to media. "The move does not prevent forces from rapidly responding, as necessary, to crises there in Korengal and in other parts of the region, as well."

Greg Jaffe has more details on the move, including a lot of quotes from the young captain who last led U.S. troops in the valley (from which unit we're inexplicably not told, though I'm sure Tintin is all over this).

It was as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding -- a tragic, bloody misunderstanding.

More than 40 U.S. soldiers have been killed, and scores more wounded, in helicopter crashes, machine-gun attacks and grenade blasts in the Korengal Valley, a jagged sliver just six miles deep and a half-mile wide. The Afghan death toll has been far higher, making the Korengal some of the bloodiest ground in all of Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, the American presence here came to an abrupt end. Capt. Mark Moretti, the 28-year-old commander of U.S. forces in the valley, walked two dozen Korengali elders around his base and told them that the United States was withdrawing. He showed the elders the battle-scarred American barracks; a bullet-ridden crane; wheezing generators and a rubber bladder brimming with 6,000 gallons of fuel.

Moretti, the son of a West Point physics professor, and Shamshir Khan, a valley elder whose son had been jailed for killing two U.S. soldiers, sat together on a small wall near the base's helicopter pad. In keeping with local custom among friends, they held hands.

Moretti gently reminded Khan of the deal they had reached a few days earlier: if U.S. troops were allowed to leave peacefully, the Americans wouldn't destroy the base, the crane and the fuel.

Khan assured him that the valley's fighters would honor the deal.

"I hope that when I am gone you will do what is best for your valley and the villagers," an almost wistful Moretti said.

"I want you to travel safely to your home, to your family," the 86-year-old elder replied. He gazed at the American officer through thick glasses that magnified rheumy, brown eyes, and beamed.

Over the previous week, hundreds of U.S. Army Rangers and Afghan commandos had pushed into the valley to control the high ground the enemy would need for a big attack on departing troops. Dozens of cargo helicopters hauled off equipment. By
Wednesday morning, the last Americans were gone.

We had a question in the comments back in December from a Steve S., who was interested in re-enlisting for what seemed like the express purpose of going to the Korengal. So, Steve: sorry to disappoint, but you missed your window.

For more background on the Korengal, check this out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In which the tragedy of Polish history is borne out

Seventy years ago this spring, the Soviet secret police murdered more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals that had been made prisoners in the previous year's offensive. More than 4,000 of those Poles were shot in the head or neck and dumped into a mass grave in the Katyn Forest, just west of the city of Smolensk in what is now the Russian Federation. For half a century, the Soviet Union denied responsibility for what would come to be called in Poland the zbrodnia katynska -- the "Katyn crime" -- only acknowledging in 1990 that it had not, in fact, as Soviet propaganda insisted, been perpetrated by the Nazis after the invasion of Russia.

On Saturday, a Tu-154 airplane carrying 96 people -- including Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife, his national security adviser, the chief of the Polish general staff, the commander of the Polish land forces, and nearly a score of MPs -- crashed on approach to Smolensk airport. All aboard were killed. From Smolensk the delegation was meant to have made the 12-mile journey to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Russian mass murder, and President Kaczynski was to have delivered a speech later that day. (If you speak Polish, or if you just want to hear how beautiful the language is, you can listen to a narrator reading the text here.)

Poland has suffered through a tortured existence -- and for a time, even non-existence. After two partitions had failed to completely dismember the state in the latter portion of the 18th century, Poland's greedy neighbors finally consumed her in 1795: Russia bit off the east, Prussia the west, Austria-Hungary the south, and Poland ceased to be. Not until Versailles would Europe's first modern democracy again rule its own territory... at which time the newly constituted republic went immediately to war with the Bolshevik behemoth on the frontier.

I won't belabor the well-publicized suffering of the Second World War and the communist People's Republic of Poland, though most will surely know of Oswiecim/Auschwitz, the Warsaw ghetto and its uprising, and of martial law in the 1980s. Suffice it to say that it's been a rough go, and Katyn was among the low points.

The great irony of all this is that the compassionate and sympathetic response of the Russian government and people to President Kaczynski's death -- a reaction perhaps as unexpected as the tragedy itself -- may foretell a thaw in Polish-Russian relations. Irony abounds not only in the surreal symbolism of Katyn, but in the identity of the most celebrated victim: Lech Kaczynski, conservative, patriotic, perhaps even nationalist, prone to strident assertion of Poland's uniquely besieged sense of self... and erstwhile thorn in the Russian diplomatic side. To see Vladimir Putin embracing Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother and a former prime minister, was a really, really surreal moment.

As you may have worked out by now, I have a special place in my heart for Poland and Poles. I lived there for two years and went to grad school there, speak the language (if only very occasionally now, and quite poorly), and really enjoy the people and the culture. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich, one of the only senior defense officials not to have been aboard the plane, was a grad school professor of mine and something of a mentor. President Kaczynski and First Lady Kaczynska will be buried this weekend at Wawel Castle, less than a mile from my old apartment in Krakow, home to the tombs of Polish royalty. (The White House announced today that President Obama will attend.) And on top of all that, I'm a twin, so I feel a special horror at how Jaroslaw Kaczynski must feel mourning not only his president, but his brother.

The Kaczynskis aren't exactly my cup of tea from a political perspective, and they've been wildly controversial as leaders of Poland. (The article linked above about the burial at Wawel alludes to some of that controversy.) As might be clear by now, Lech in particular stepped on quite a few toes -- including those of Russia.

The text prepared for delivery by President Kaczynski frankly stated (in the English construction of an Australian translator named Kilroy, apparently) that
Katyn became a painful wound in Polish history, and has for many decades poisoned the relations between Poles and Russians. May this wound fully and finally heal. We are already on this path. We Poles acknowledge and value the actions of Russians of recent years. This path, which is bringing our nations together, we should continue to travel, not halting on the way or retreating back.
Let's hope the two countries stay on that path. And let's spare a thought today for the Polish people, who have suffered just about enough loss by now.

*Apologies to Polish speakers for the lack of correct spelling (by which I mean diacritical marks, really), but you don't even want to think about the fiasco that it is to try to accurately render Polish typography on blogspot.

CFR interview on Afghanistan with David Rohde

Ok, since Madhu requested links and SNLII thinks we should write about New York Times reporters who are not "he's so dreamy" C.J. Chivers, I thought I would post this link to an interview David Rohde gave to CFR on "Miscalculations in U.S. Afghan Offensive."

I found the first question was phrased in a particularly inane fashion:
U.S. and NATO military commanders in Afghanistan are not being coy about their planned Kandahar offensive scheduled for June. You have a unique perspective on the situation in southern Afghanistan and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan. What's your crystal ball telling you about the pending offensive?
What do you think of the rest?

Wargaming Season

I think it's been a little while since I've last posted. I was previously unaware that while the spring is the fighting season in various parts of the world, it's also wargaming and conference season in D.C. and elsewhere. It seems everyone is somewhere other than their offices figuring out how to win wars. I've been doing just that for the better part of the past three weeks or so.

The first event I went to was the Tribal Engagement Workshop (TEW) that the Small Wars Foundation (parent organization of the Small Wars Journal) put on March. This is the workshop's official webpage which has the background reading, the official summary report, and will link to posts and articles that come out of the workshop. I highly recommend reading Josh Foust's posts at Registan on this topic (links provided on the TEW page). Another great summary of the workshop is over at AM. There was a lot covered over those two days and I'm hoping to write about some of them this week.

The second event I went to was move one of Joint Irregular Warfare 2010, cosponsored by the Marine Corps, JFCOM, and SOCOM. It was only move one, so I'll won't go into much detail about it now. It was a pretty good crowd of military and interagency folks. Move 2 goes down in a little over a month, so I'll probably write more about it then. So stay tuned for that.

It seems that I'll be keeping this pace up for a couple/few months, which is great for meeting people and having interesting conversations. On the other hand, it plays merry hell with my schedule and makes blogging time hard to come by. But I'll do my best. I'm sure some of you will enjoy the respite from my screeds...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Africa and gross oversimplification

Jeffrey Gettleman, the Africa Bureau Chief from the New York Times, has this ridiculous column on Foreign Policy's site. It's titled ''Africa's Forever Wars: Why the Continent's Conflicts Never End" and it features his usual drivel about senseless violence and the "baffling" nature of conflict in Africa.

I'll take a page from Texas in Africa and Derek Catsam--whose comprehensive criticism you should read--and paste the first two paragraphs to give you a preview.

There is a very simple reason why some of Africa's bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don't have much of an ideology; they don't have clear goals. They couldn't care less about taking over capitals or major cities -- in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today's rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people's children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent's most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.

What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else -- something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you'd like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars.

They don't have ideologies? They don't have political grievances or clear goals? There are no political dimensions to these conflicts? They're un-wars because the rebels don't want to take the capital? What planet does he live on? This kind of nonsense drives me up the wall. I'll spare you the rest of my rant.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

So Martin van Creveld, T.X. Hammes, Andrew Bacevich, and Gulliver walk into a bar...

I'm hitting the road in a couple of hours for scenic Carlisle, PA, where I'll be attending this awesome-looking conference at the Army War College.

The DC conference circuit can get a bit stale, if not on account of the speakers then simply for the repetitiveness of the subjects. (As much as I enjoyed hearing him speak, I saw Dave Barno three times in two weeks last month. What's more, on two of those panels he was joined by some of the same folks.) I've never heard van Creveld speak, so I'm particularly looking forward to that part. And an old undergrad history professor of mine who has since hit the mainstream big-time is also speaking, so that should be a trip.

The broad subjects being covered this week -- "The Meaning of War"; "The Historical Context"; "How Do We Know When We're at War?"; "How Do We Know When a War is Over?"; "Who Participates in War?"; "What Rules Govern War?"; and "Why Does it [War, presumably, and the answers to these questions] Matter?" -- could each support entire blogs, so I'd imagine I'll have plenty to write about.

Anybody else going to this? Anybody else have suggestions about which is the most awesome Arby's in Carlisle/Harrisburg, or the optimal driving route from downtown DC?

Monday, April 5, 2010

War via Wikileaks

It's become a cliche to describe the media as an ever-present factor in modern military operations that can confer strategic importance on tactical actions, but Wikileaks is driving the phenomenon to new heights. As both the BBC and the New York Times have reported, the organization has posted video from an incident in 2007 when American Apaches fired on two groups of individuals on a street in Baghdad, killing twelve. The video is from the Apaches themselves, and thus provides more insight into the situation than is typical because it includes the communications between the two helos, and between the Apaches and US troops on the ground. Watch for yourselves, and please note that if I knew the first thing about video editing, I'd get rid of Wikileaks' inflammatory comments. But I don't, so try to ignore them.

The group that was targeted in the first instance included two people that appear to be armed, but it also includes two Reuters reporters carrying cameras that the pilots mistakenly identify as weapons. In fact, when one of the reporters crouches down and pokes his camera around a corner, the pilots report seeing an RPG. Partially mistaken or not, the Apaches opened fire on a group that did in fact include armed men. As tragic as the reporters' deaths are, this seems to me part of the risk assumed by journalists who embed (however informally or momentarily) with combatants on either side. Notably, this seems to be Reuters' position as well, who characterized it as a tragedy, rather than murder as Wikileaks alleges.

A couple of issues do seem to bear consideration. First, these pilots seem awfully eager to engage, and one has to wonder if that eagerness led them to mis-identify the cameras as RPGs. I could be wrong (and I'd welcome correction), but I'd imagine that the pilots may have felt a greater urgency to engage if they believed they were in the threat envelope of RPGs. Eagerness by pilots to engage has led to tragic mistakes elsewhere, and therefore might constitute a problem unto itself.

Nonetheless, there were two guys with weapons there, so it seems reasonable to have engaged. However, I am genuinely at a loss to understand the rationale for firing on the people who arrive in a van following the attack to help the wounded. None were armed. They weren't spotters for other combatants. Their only actions were picking up one of the wounded reporters and moving him towards the van. Am I missing something here? What would the justification have been to engage? I'm not leaping to judgment, but on the face of it this seems outside the line.

Whatever the reality was, whatever events led up to this incident (note that 38 minutes of video were released, of which Wikileaks posted 17), this is an info ops failure. The pilots come across as awfully cavalier, particularly when told there were small children in the van they demolished with 30mm fire. We may be missing a lot of context here, but revelling in the carnage when they weren't under threat seems likely to make that context irrelevant for a lot of people.

So, what do you all think? Were they justified in opening fire on the van? More broadly, is this incident symptomatic of the new pervasiveness of media scrutiny? If so, what are the implications for how we manage our communications?

UPDATE: So as usual I'm behind the curve on this one. Schmedlap started a thread at SWJ that's drawn some informed comments, and Starbuck is all over it. And the report of the Army's investigation ca be found here. Go read those smart people and then come back here and discuss further. H/T to Schmedlap, and thanks to the other insomniacs who've already weighed in.

UPDATE II: Schmedlap has a great post you should all read, especially the section entitled 'Positive Identificaiton (PID) and Basic Human Decency' .

UPDATE III: Foreign Policy has just put out an article about this issue. Remarkably, it manages to radically misquote Anthony Martinez' analysis of the incident in the second paragraph. My contempt for FP deepens.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Uh, we don't anticipate that"

I don't know how I missed it until now, and maybe you guys have already seen or heard about this, but I have to share a literally almost unbelievable story with you from the PACOM commander's testimony to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this week. The hijinks took place during a rather drawn-out series of questions from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) about Guam's length and breadth and width, and then a zinger about the ability of Guam to apparently physically, literally support the presence of more U.S. personnel:

Addressing Adm. Robert Willard, who commands the Navy's Pacific Fleet [sic -- Willard was formerly at PacFleet, but now commands PACOM], Johnson made a tippy motion with his hands and said sternly, "My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize."

Willard paused and said: "We don't anticipate that."

Like other islands, Guam is attached to the sea floor, which makes it extremely unlikely that it will tip over, even if there are lots and lots of people on it. Guam is 30 miles long and up to 9 miles wide in certain spots, with a population of 175,000 civilians. The military is proposing the addition of 8,000 U.S. servicemembers and their families.

Reached for comment, a spokesman for Johnson said the lawmaker had visited Guam, and his concern was that the influx of military personnel would overwhelm the island's infrastructure and ecosystem.

The spokesman's explanation makes little sense when you consider that Johnson led into the whole tip over and capsize thing by trying to pin down the island's precise dimensions. Apparently he thought Guam was just a rather large raft.

So, uh, yeah... we don't anticipate that.

Check out the video yourself. It boggles the mind. I honestly would have thought this was some sort of April Fools' thing if I hadn't seen it for myself.

Mark Bowden needs a geography lesson

The author of Blackhawn Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, among other books, has a much-ballyhooed and pretty mediocre profile of GEN Petraeus in the newest Vanity Fair. In describing his first meeting with the CENTCOM commander, Bowden writes this:
Petraeus has kept a low profile since taking over at CentCom, one of the U.S. military’s six combatant regional commands, and by far the most active of them. Its responsibilities include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and its domain stretches from Sudan east to Pakistan, and from Kazakhstan south to Kenya.
This strikes me as a really unusual way to describe the CENTCOM AOR, which does not include either Sudan or Kenya... or Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, or Somalia, the countries in between Kenya and Sudan, all of which (along with those latter two) are in AFRICOM's AOR.

The only explanation that I can imagine is that Bowden actually wrote this piece in 2008, pre-AFRICOM. Oh, no, wait, there's another alternative: sloppy research, an old copy of the Unified Command Plan, and a lack of fact-checkers.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Gunslinger on display today at the Pentagon

This seems like a questionable career move, dude. Those pictures will be around forever.
The Department of Defense will host a display of a Gunslinger Package for Advanced Convoy Security (GunPACS) outfitted vehicle on April 1. The GunPACS display will be held in the North Parking area of the Pentagon Reservation, adjacent to the Pentagon Conference Center, at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

GunPACS is an integrated package of hardware and software which, when installed on a vehicle, provides enhanced situational awareness, immediate threat detection, and cooperative engagement capabilities for group and combat logistics elements. Utilizing networked data fusion, such cooperative engagement enables more accurate and effective fire to protect convoy elements. This security package highlights the department’s capacity to rapidly develop, demonstrate, and deliver capabilities to the warfighter for the current fight.

GunPACS capabilities will be on display and available for photographs. Subject matter experts from the program office and its partners will be available to take queries.
So, uh, check it out, if that's what you're into.

(OK, so it's not exactly April Fool's, but it's this Gunslinger, not that Gunslinger.)