Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Belgium bans the burqa (UPDATED)

Only in Europe can legislation restricting your freedom to make your own choices be construed as granting you more freedom.

A top committee of Belgian lawmakers voted Wednesday to impose a nationwide ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.

The federal parliament's home affairs committee voted unanimously to endorse a proposal from liberal members to ban any clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.

Officials say the draft law will probably be put to a vote of the full house on April 22.

"This is a very strong signal that is being sent to Islamists," French-speaking liberal deputy Denis Ducarme told the assembly in Brussels.

He said he was "proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter."

"We have to free women of this burden," said his colleague Corinne De Parmentier.

Next up: a law requiring Belgians to eat meat and drink alcohol. (So long as they're saving Muslims from their limiting, retrograde cultural practices, why not Hindus too?)

Good luck with all that, d-bags.

UPDATE: Lil usefully notes that this hasn't actually been passed into law (yet), but rather just validated by the parliament's home affairs committee.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hey Russia, I've got an awesome idea

Don't like the way NATO is doing counter-narco in Afghanistan? Come do something about it!
Russia has accused the United States of "conniving" with Afghan drug producers by not destroying opium crops as U.S. troops advance in Helmand Province, one of the major opium growing regions. The allegation, which came in a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, was the second time this week that Moscow has criticized the West over the opium issue. NATO rejected the charge and said Russia could help by providing more troops to combat the insurgency.
Or maybe just quit your whining and suck it!

(h/t Foust on Twitter)

Monday, March 29, 2010

300K Sikhs in the U.S., and now there's one in the Army

News to me, but the Army has apparently started granting waivers to personal grooming policy for the first time in a quarter of a century, allowing Sikhs -- complete with uncut hair, turban, and beard -- to serve without sacrificing the tenets of their faith.
Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a 31-year-old dentist, graduated Monday at Fort Sam Houston after the Army made an exemption to a uniform policy that has effectively prevented Sikhs from enlisting since 1984. "I'm feeling very humbled. I'm a soldier," he said, grinning after the ceremony as other members of the Sikh community milled about nearby. "This has been my dream." Rattan had to get a waiver from the Army to be allowed to serve without sacrificing the unshorn hair mandated by his faith. An immigrant from India who arrived in New York as a teenager, Rattan said it was important for him to serve a country that has given him so many opportunities.
The article I've linked above has a picture of CPT Rattan at his graduation and contains a little bit of info about uniform modifications and wear:
During training, Rattan wore a helmet over the small turban, which he doesn't remove, and was able to successfully create a seal with his gas mask despite the beard, resolving the Army's safety concerns, said Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition's legal director. Rattan worked with an Army tailor to create a flash, the insignia patch worn on soldiers' berets, that could be affixed to his black turban, she said.
But the way I first found out about this whole story was coming across this picture, which is totally badass, and shows Rattan in ACUs and a Universal Camouflage Pattern-ed (UCP) turban with captain's bars on the front. Awesome.

I wonder if he carries the kirpan, the iron bracelet, and the undergarments, too? (As an aside: when I spent my fabulous summer in Quantico, a Mormon guy in my platoon got an unbelievable amount of crap from the Sergeant Instructors over his wearing of what's apparently called the Temple undergarment. Nonconformity + military = fun & yuks.)

Seriously, though, I think this Sikh thing is pretty awesome. Sikhs have a long and distinguished history of military service: while they make up only two percent of the Indian population, they account for nearly one-third of the Indian army's officer corps. The British military has managed ethno-linguistic/sectarian nonconformity in personal appearance for centuries, so you'd figure the U.S. military can sort out a way to create an effective gas mask seal around facial hair. This is a good-news story for the country and the Army.

On the reactionary incoherence of our terrorism policy

1. Two suicide bombers detonated themselves on the Moscow metro this morning, killing at least 37 people and injuring dozens more.

2. "In response to the Moscow bombings, the NYPD is increasing police coverage of the New York City subway system," according to department spokeman Lieutenant John Grimpel.

3. The bombings cited in (1) took place in the Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations, each approximately 4,600 miles from Manhattan. Early reports suggest that these acts of terrorism were perpetrated by separatists from the Russian Caucasus, probably Chechen.

4. New York city does not have a Chechnya policy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Campaign continuity" and the specialization of the force

Yochi Dreazen of the WSJ reports today that the Defense Department is embarking on an initiative that will send Army and Marine units to the same AORs repeatedly, hopefully allowing those units to retain some of the geographic, cultural, and human terrain knowledge that contributes to effective operations.
The Pentagon is revamping the way it deploys troops to Afghanistan, putting in place a new system that will return units to the same parts of the country so they can develop better regional expertise and closer relationships with local Afghan power brokers.

Senior military officials say the “Campaign Continuity” initiative will determine the specific provinces and regions where many of the 30,000 soldiers and Marines who are being sent to Afghanistan as part of the Obama administration’s retooled war strategy will end up serving.

The plan represents a significant change for the military, which has long rotated its combat forces through both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under the new system, the Pentagon will essentially be assigning responsibility for the Afghan war to the same small number of Army and Marine units.

“They’ll be going back to the same place and seeing the same faces, so they won’t need to relearn everything from scratch,” said a senior military official familiar with the plan. “It will allow for continuity of effort in a given location.”

The new system is the latest example of the military’s continuing effort to remake itself for the long war in Afghanistan.
I find this move really interesting, if only because the argument has been consistently made over the last decade that specialization is objectively bad for the total force. There's something to that argument, I think, which has usually been made in opposition to the creation of specialized units for training and advising foreign security forces.

As we've discussed here in the past, the Army is adopting a model that treats the training and advisory (or Security Force Assistance) mission the same as every other mission that a combat brigade engages in -- which is to say major combat operations, COIN, stability operations, etc. Units being sent to do SFA are identified at the beginning of their ARFORGEN cycle, provided with a brief period of specialized training, an augmentation of three- to four-dozen additional field grade officers to lead training teams, and are ready to be sent on their way to perform any SFA mission in the AOR of the COCOM to which they've been made available. Then when their "Available/Deployed" period is up, they go back into the ARFORGEN cycle as a regular old combat brigade, doing a year of Reset, and then training up for a "traditional" deployment.

This model is being developed for a couple of reasons, which the Army hasn't stated expressly but which are still pretty obvious: 1) to retain force structure by using the SFA/training mission as a means to justify the continued existence of a large number (in this case, 45) of Active Army brigade combat teams, and 2) to retain flexibility in the force, by allowing a brigade that spent all of 2012, say, doing SFA to deploy to Freedonia for combat operations in 2015. The unit maintains the capability for full-spectrum operations, and so do its individual members.

So what does this have to do with "Campaign Continuity"? Well, for one thing, you're tying up a certain number of brigades on a certain mission and a certain piece of terrain for an intederminate period (that is, the rest of the war). You're also making those units unavailable for what we've identified as high-priority training missions elsewhere in theater, and even beyond. Brigades from the 101st Air Assault and the 82nd Airborne divisions, for example, have performed or have been tapped to function as SFA brigades (or AABs in Iraq). If we assume that those two divisions will be assigned pieces of terrain in RC-East, then we lose those brigades to the training and advisory mission.

All of which means that there's a smaller pool of available units to pull from when picking SFA brigades, which means that that mission will rotate through a pretty limited number, which means, at least in some sense... specialized advisory units. (Except not that specialized.)

I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I... [I don't know if I can do it!] I agr... [Seriously, I just can't write this down!] I AGREE WITH TOM DONNELLY AAAGGGHHH!!!
Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Gen. McChrystal “clearly has the strong personal backing” of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he presses for initiatives like the Campaign Continuity plan.

“It’s no longer a question of adapting a previously existing force for a different kind of war,” Mr. Donnelly said. “At this point, it’s a question of restructuring the entire force for Afghanistan.”
[Man, that was painful.]

I'm sure there's someone on this, but we ought to be thinking about whether all these great ideas about Afghanistan are 1) reducing our flexibility in that war, and 2) foisting limitations on the force that will make it less useful in the future. I know this is the root of the back-and-forth that's been taking place on a grander scale over the last several years -- win the wars of today versus prepare the force for future contingencies -- and I think we all know where I generally come out on that one.

But isn't the point of the ARFORGEN model creating a flexible, rotationally deployable force that can be tailored to specific mission sets? I know you can't develop "campaign continuity" in a 12-month train-up period, but how much tangible positive effect can we expect from this? And are we working towards something like the Vietnam model, where we had "campaign continuity" by unit but individual replacement rendered that unit-level continuity completely irrelevant (and had a number of other pernicious side-effects)?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"If nominated, I will run to Mexico. If elected, I will fight extradition."

Ok, so Dave Petraeus' "Shermanesque statement" wasn't nearly so entertaining as Mo Udall's in 1980, but the general was pretty clear that he's not interested in being president.
"I thought I’d said no about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no. We have all these artful ways of doing it. I’ve tried Shermanesque responses, which everybody goes and finds out what Sherman said was pretty unequivocally no. I’ve done several different ways. I’ve tried quoting the country song, ‘What Part of No Don’t You Understand?’ I mean, I really do mean that. I feel very privileged to be able to serve our country. I’m honored to continue to do that as long as I can contribute, but I will not, ever, run for political office, I can assure you. And again, we have said that repeatedly and I’m hoping that people realize at a certain point you say it so many times that you could never flip, and start your career by flip-flopping into it."
(Now if only we could get Condi Rice to do the same thing!)

By way of comparison, here's what Sherman said when pressured to run in 1871:
"I hereby state, and mean all that I say, that I never have been and never will be a candidate for president; that if nominated by either party I should peremptorily decline; and even if unanimously elected I should decline to serve."
This is more often rendered, somewhat more poetically, as "if nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve."

Some people just can't take no for an answer, though. In 1884, the folks at the Republican convention sent Sherman a telegram that basically said dude, we don't care, we're nominating you. According to this book,
Sherman's son Tom later recalled his father's response to this telegram: "Without taking his cigar from his mouth, without changing his expression, while I stood there trembling by his side, my father wrote the answer, 'I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.'"
A touch more unequivocal, I suppose. Anyway, seems to me Petraeus might do a little better in the South.

I don't understand why people continually rally behind certain non-political individuals like Petraeus and Rice when their views on a broad range of issues relevant to the presidency are completely obscure (or, in the latter case, apparently flexible). Maybe it's a reflection of our deep dissatisfaction with with the political class and with the status quo that we're so eager to elect people without having a damned clue what they believe.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Photo of the day

This awesome picture from the Guardian's website, depicting a couple of hard-chargers from the 97th MP Battalion contesting the Yakutsk-Kamchatka frontier in a can in Kandahar, was sent to us by friend of the blog Vanessa (twitter: RIVanessa).

The Guardian's unfortunate caption notes that the guys are taking a break from training Iraqi police. In Kandahar. (Oops.)

Look out, Afghanistan! Here come the Campaign Continuity Language Training Detachments!

In response to GEN McChrystal's November 2009 directive that each platoon-sized element in Afghanistan have "at least one leader that speaks Dari at least [sic] 0+ level, with a goal of level 1 in oral communications," the Defense Language Institute and the Army have collaborated to develop specialized language-training detachments to offer pre-deployment classes to troops at three major Army installations.

Soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Carson, Colo., are now taking language courses that will better prepare them to meet the demands of operations in Afghanistan.

Since Feb.1, more than 70 Soldiers at Fort Campbell have studied either Dari or Pashto in advance of their upcoming deployments to Afghanistan. At Fort Carson, 270 Soldiers began learning Dari, March 8. It's expected some 70 Soldiers will begin Dari instruction in early April at Fort Drum, N.Y.

The three installations now host "Campaign Continuity Language Training Detachments." The detachments are the result of a partnership between the operational Army and the Defense Language Institute. The pilot program is a direct response to requirements put forth by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, to put more "language-enabled" Soldiers on the ground there.

"His goal is to have one leader in every platoon or platoon-sized element that will
interact with the Afghan population who is familiar enough with the Dari language to go beyond the 'hellos' and 'thank yous' and platitudes -- but to instead have rudimentary conversations," said Lt. Col. Stephen J. Maranian, executive officer for the Army training directorate, G-3/5/7.

The three detachments were built with funding from the Joint Staff from the overseas contingency operations budget. Maranian said money is allocated already for fiscal years 2011-2015 to expand the program to more installations.

The first class at Fort Carson is only seven weeks as a result of time constraints, but future courses will last 16 weeks. Here's what the article has to say about the relationship between course duration and desired end states:

Most students in the past who have taken a 16-week language course ended up with a "0+/0+" level of language capability -- a rating that refers both to speaking and listening capability -- but many have achieved the higher 1/1 goal.

Clare Bugary, the director of operations at DLI, said the 16-week course will meet the 0+ requirement set by McChrystal, but for Soldiers to exceed that and achieve the goal of a level 1 skill, they will need to push themselves."The key is motivation," she said. "If they want it, they can get there. And what we are seeing at Carson and Campbell now is a motivated group of Soldiers who are applying themselves."

Bugary said to guarantee higher levels of language proficiency, students will need to spend more time in class. The DLI's normal Pashto-basic course is 64 weeks long, for instance. "There's no way the Army can send everybody through that.""It's an issue of time really," she said. But she added that the 16 weeks the Army is committing "says a lot" about their willingness to have Soldiers learn both the language and the culture of Afghanistan. "It's a big commitment for the Army to do that, and it's very
encouraging that the Army takes the steps to incorporate language and cultural training. It's going to have a positive effect."

Bugary said the language skill levels, "0+", or "1", for instance, are defined by the Interagency Language Roundtable. On the scale, a level 0 learner has "no ability whatsoever," while a level 0+ learner is "able to satisfy immediate needs with learned utterances." A level 1 student is "able to satisfy basic survival needs and minimum courtesy requirements."

(Here's some more information about skill level descriptions from the Interagency Language Roundtable's website. And here's some related video from DLI.)

It may be that I'm not reading closely enough, but I don't see any mention of how many classroom hours this training entails. Courses on-site at DLI are intensive and take up the bulk of the day, so I'd assume that's the model they're transporting to these other installations. But if this is a one-hour-a-day deal, then that's an entirely different story. You can't really expect people to learn a complicated and very foreign language without a serious commitment to the process, commitment that involves not only time but also centrality of focus. This really can't be something that you're doing alongside your other duties and training modules.

That being said...
Sam G. Garzaniti, director of the Campaign Continuity Language Program at Fort Campbell, said the classes focus first on basic listening and speaking skills before moving on to more practical applications for Soldiers in theater. Maranian added that counterinsurgency doctrine makes it absolutely essential to be able to communicate with village elders about such things as governance, economics and security."After a month, they know alphabet and basic phrases," he said. "In the coming weeks, they will learn social, economic, and military vocabulary to assist them when partnering with and operating amongst the Afghan people."
...are you effin' kidding me? A month to learn the alphabet and basic phrases? That's about how long it took the language retards in my Persian class to learn the alphabet and basic phrases... except we had class one night a week for two hours, and all other study was self-directed (and not really expected)!

I'm not an expert in philology or anything, or in memory, or in syllabus design or human cognition or pretty much anything relevant to this subject (or in pretty much anything at all, now that we're right down to it), but this strikes me as a shockingly un-ambitious learning plan. If you're doing five hours a day, then the first month involves 100 hours of exposure to the language. The entire sixteen week course of study makes 400 hours! As far as I know, Pashto and Dari are both State Department Category II languages, which are meant to require 1100 classroom hours for "minimal proficiency." I see that designation as being considerably more advanced than "basic survival needs and minimum courtesy requirements," mastery of which is what's necessary to demonstrate Level 1 speaking ability.

Does anybody else know anything about this program (particularly the length of the class day)? Has anyone learned a Cat II or Cat III language at DLI or the Foreign Service Institute? How long do you think it should take to be 0+ or 1 in Dari or Pashto? I'd love it if Lil would chime in here, as she's actually taught a language to USG personnel. Maybe I'm being a bit over-ambitious here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is precision-fire artillery less important than we thought?

I noticed an interesting comment in Defense News' account of GEN Peter Chiarelli's testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness Tuesday:

The vice chief also discussed the series of portfolio reviews the Army is conducting as it develops its next six-year spending plan. By looking at a portfolio of systems, for instance precision munitions, rather than looking at individual systems, the service can make more informed cost-benefit decisions about the capabilities it needs, said Chiarelli.

"There are probably systems that we have in the United States Army that have precision that don't need precision or don't need to be at the numbers we thought," he said.

"Not that precision isn't important, but does that mean that every system has to have a precision component? I would argue that's not the case," he added.

For example, a round from a 155mm cannon costs roughly $650 apiece, said Chiarelli, but if it is made into a precision round with an accuracy of 10 meters, the
round's cost goes up to $78,000 apiece.

I've really only included the first bit for context, as I'm not that interested in talking about the POM or whether portfolio review versus system review is a more effective or efficient process. The interesting bit is the last part, about the importance (or non-importance?) of precision artillery rounds.

The 155 round that Chiarelli referred to is Excalibur, which has proven itself to be both devastatingly effective and shockingly expensive... or at least, that's what I've always heard. (Just ask Gunslinger, who will rave about his experience with the munition.)

How exactly do you quantify the marginal utility of that extra $77K? Well, it turns out you might not really have to, seeing as precision artillery rounds and "dumb" rounds really are meant to perform different missions. Here's a clip from a 2004 article in National Defense entitled "Army has high expectations for smart artillery rounds" (which, interestingly, cites Raytheon's pre-production cost estimate of $29,000 per round for Excalibur, as compared with $4,000 for a standard 155 round):
A source of continuing debate within the Army is whether artillery should serve in a “precision strike” role, as opposed to its traditional “area suppression” function, for which pinpoint accuracy is not as important.
The article also mentions the 2002 cancellation of the Crusader self-propelled Howitzer, originally intended to replace Paladin -- that is, the system that was meant to fire Excalibur. If you'll remember, Crusader's cancellation is often cited as a move away from set-piece, big-war, firepoweritis and towards mobility, speed, and flexibility: Secretary Rumsfeld criticized Crusader as being too slow and too heavy to support the rapidly-moving shock forces so vital to his network-centric Revolution in Military Affairs. Back to National Defense:

Excalibur made headlines two years ago when the Defense Department cancelled the high-tech Crusader 155 mm howitzer, intended to replace the aging Paladin. At the time, Pentagon officials said advanced munitions such as Excalibur were more important than the guns themselves.

“The accuracy touted for Crusader really comes from Excalibur and not from Crusader,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters in 2002. Many artillery experts disagree, however, claiming that no matter how precise a round might be, artillery units need a fast vehicle that can keep up with the tanks and infantry carriers.

So after Crusader's cancellation, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz assured everyone that the good parts of the system were really a product of the round that was being fired, which wasn't getting cancelled. And that brings us back to today: we've got precision tube-fired munitions, but what's the point? Which is the more important mission - -or even, really, the fundamental, primary mission -- for artillery: precision strike, or are suppression?

Well, like pretty much all system/program decisions, this sort of hinges on what kind of wars you're trying to fight. But to say that big war requires one system and small war requires another is to oversimplify, seeing as the range of combat and stability tasks will be present to some greater or lesser extent in nearly every sort of campaign. A whole lot of precision fires were used during the theoretically hug-centric Surge, for example. But couldn't these missions be executed by air assets in most instances, and even occasionally (depending on geography) by naval gunfire? Isn't that what the Joint Force is all about?

If we're looking for uses for slow-moving or stationary gun batteries, it seems to me that the traditional area-denial, suppressive-fire role is a more natural one. I seem to recall reading that that's how H.R. McMaster used his guns in the much-ballyhooed COIN effort in Tal Afar, though I can't recall where. (Does anybody know where this was? I'm certain the piece talked about how 3rd ACR shaped its AO by firing high-volume missions on certain zones, denying open fields and whatnot to the enemy and channeling insurgents into a more concentrated area.) And artillery certainly played a role in shaping operations leading up to the battle of Fallujah. In a world where the threshold for infantry units justifying supporting fires has been raised so dramatically (as GEN McChrystal has done in Afghanistan), where troops in contact must give assurances that the area is free of civilians, isn't it far more likely that artillery will be used in scenarios where the AO has been largely cleared of noncombatants?

In 2006, then-LTCs John Nagl and Paul Yingling made the opposite case in an article in Field Artillery magazine (which, tangentially, basically makes the argument that the field artillery should focus on developing advisor skills as a secondary competency, considering what the two assert as its declining relevancy to modern operations):

Precision fires will play an essential role in future combat and are essential for America to maintain her dominance in MCO. In those comparatively rare instances when our enemies choose to mass and defend terrain, precision fires enable US forces to destroy targets with minimal losses to friendly forces or innocent civilians. Coupled with our superb maneuver and support forces, precision fires enable us to destroy our enemies’ capacity to defend terrain.

Precision fires also play an important but more limited role in COIN. Time sensitive targets in areas where friendly security forces cannot strike are ideal targets for precision fires in COIN. However, effective COIN makes such targets rare by denying insurgents sanctuaries outside the reach of friendly security forces. Precision fires have a more limited role in COIN due to the inherent difference between COIN and MCO.

In MCO, friendly forces use the maximum force allowable to destroy the enemy. The rapid and overwhelming application of force hastens the collapse of enemy forces with minimal loss to friendly units. In COIN, the opposite is true—units must rely on the minimum force needed to subdue insurgents. In fact, in COIN,“the more force you use, the less effective you are.”

In a COIN environment, the use of fires can affect intelligence collection adversely, and intelligence is the lifeblood of COIN. When we capture an insurgent, we can exploit his knowledge of the terrorist network; when we kill an insurgent, his knowledge of the terrorist network dies with him.

The use of fires also can affect civilian perceptions of security adversely. After the use of fires, insurgents often claim that the strikes were necessary due to the host-nation government’s inability to provide security or that the victims of the strike were innocent civilians. The truth of these claims is beside the point; by employing fires, we create an insurgent propaganda opportunity. Commanders must weigh these adverse effects carefully when employing fires in COIN.

So while writing "precision fires have a more limited role in COIN," the message is really that "fires, period, have a more limited role in COIN" -- Nagl and Yingling aren't making the case that precision fires are more useful, but rather that artillery isn't particularly useful at all.

Lester Grau, whose work on Soviet operations in Afghanistan is unparalleled in the English language, drew a different lesson while concluding that artillery used in the Soviet style was not particularly effective in COIN. In the conclusion of a 1997 article entitled "Artillery and counterinsurgency: the Soviet experience in Afghanistan," Grau notes as the sixth of his seven major historical lessons that "precision-guided munitions and other specialty rounds have an increasing role in counterinsurgency." This seemingly common-sense observation is followed, though, by the seventh lesson: "the biggest problem artillery has in counterinsurgency is finding a viable target." One might reasonably contend that under the policies GEN McChrystal has instituted at ISAF, the difficulty of finding a viable target comes from the very definition of "viable"; that is, it's hard to find viable targets because there aren't any, by ISAF ROE.

Back to GEN Chiarelli: is he right to suggest that precision artillery may be less important to future operations than we think? Understanding that 1) the effects of these fires are often replicable through the use of air power; 2) western commanders are increasingly constrained in their ability to employ any type of fires in urban areas or in the presence of civilians; and 3) that terrain denial and area suppression missions, which do not require precision fires but rather a high volume and rate of fire, can be used effectively to shape the AO and control enemy movement in either a COIN or MCO environment... I think it's worth considering.

"Joint IED Mitigation Organization" just doesn't have quite the same ring to it

"I don't think you can defeat the IED as a weapon system. It is too easy to use."

So says LTG Michael Oates, director of JIEDDO. Yeah, that JIEDDO: the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Oates said technological advances have enabled the military to save lives by providing better armor and other forms of protection for troops. But he said the high-tech approach -- despite billions of dollars in research -- has failed to produce an effective way to detect IEDs in the field. About four-fifths of the devices that are found before they explode are detected the old-fashioned way: by troops who notice telltale signs, such as a recently disturbed patch of dirt that might be covering up a bomb.

Despite the insurgents' crude approach, the explosive power of their IEDs is growing. Each bombing in Afghanistan, on average, causes 50 percent more casualties than it did three years ago, Oates said Wednesday at a House committee hearing. U.S. officials say even armored troop-transport vehicles that were designed to protect against roadside bombs are now vulnerable.

IED attacks in Iraq have plummeted, you surely won't be surprised to learn.
Oates credited U.S. countermeasures -- such as interrupting the flow of military-grade explosives and detonators from Iran -- for some of the decrease. Other military officials said a bigger factor was the overall reduction in the intensity of the insurgency; as sectarian fighting faded, people simply stopped planting bombs.
Chicken or egg? Seems to me that while the interdiction of high-end bomb materials from outside the country would certainly have helped stanch the violence, it's far more likely that the stabilization of the security situation in Iraq was accompanied by a decrease in basically all types of violent incidents, including IEDs. After all, the Post article cited above -- and the military officials quoted therein -- emphasizes the fact that IEDs don't need to be built from bits off the Radio Shack shelves or Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) from the IRGC.

Political considerations made the adoption of a vehicle like the MRAP an inevitability. MRAPs have also saved a whole bunch of lives, so I don't mean to disparage their utility. But once the current conflicts are done, we're going to be left with a fleet of heavy, highly-armored vehicles well suited for buttoned-up patrolling on hardened roads in urban areas -- hardly the optimal system for the sort of conflicts we're likely to be engaged in over the coming decades. We can unload a few on the Iraqis and the Afghans, sure, but the program is an expensive one and has entailed some trade-offs.

So what's the point? I guess I'd say that we're learning that high technology might not be the answer to the IED problem. While a country like the U.S. certainly doesn't want to cede its technological advantage and should bring to bear whatever scientific and industrial capabilities may help to mitigate casualties and increase operational effectiveness, the conclusion I've drawn from Gunslinger and other combat soldiers and Marines is that the best counter-IED system is the Mk 1, Mod 1 eyeball. We can talk about network analysis and all the things the intel folks are doing to target construction and emplacement networks (or maybe we can't: I have no idea how that stuff works, and the details are mostly classified), too, but I think the conclusion here -- if we hadn't already drawn it -- is that there's not going to be a push-button answer to protecting our troops from IEDs.

Booby traps, mines, and hidden bombs will always be a cheap, unsophisticated, and effective countermeasure against foot patrol-intensive operations, and counterinsurgencies are very often going to be dependent on that sort of method of operation. I'm not saying we ought to give up looking for the magic bullet, but maybe there's a better way to think about how we spend our money and allocate our other resources to this mission.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Now this is a totally hilarious quote

Ok, so here I am this afternoon just minding my own business when I see this tweet from @USArmy:
U.S.-Afghan operation in Marja is, "the greatest in the history of counterinsurgency"
Uh, ok. So I click on the link, which takes me to an article on from someone at the American Forces Press Service called Jordan Reimer. The piece starts with this:

The ongoing U.S.-Afghan operation in Marja, Afghanistan, probably is the greatest in the history of counterinsurgency, the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said in a weekend television interview.

The United States made a concerted effort to introduce combined units from the U.S. and Afghan militaries, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Afghan government officials to the area as part of its "clear, hold, build, and transfer" policy, Richard C. Holbrooke told CNN's "GPS" host Fareed Zakaria.

Hmm, ok. No quotation marks. Is this a direct quote, or what? And if it is, what the hell does it mean for something to be "the greatest [operation] in the history of counterinsurgency"? A little more digging and I find the transcript from Holbrooke's appearance on Zakaria's show, and then this:

ZAKARIA: How would you describe the operation in Marjah and how would you particularly describe the - the transference of authority from American forces to locals? Do you think that the Afghans who are likely to take charge are going to be able to hold the territories that General McChrystal clears?

HOLBROOKE: Well, that's the test, and I would agree with General Petraeus' comments to you last Sunday on this program. Clear, hold, build and transfer is the shorthand for the strategy. That's why we made a major effort, probably the greatest in - in the history of counterinsurgency, to bring in with the military forces, as soon as the area was secure, civilians. The U.S. government, the State Department, AID put together a small but very high quality team that's been moving into Marjah and, most importantly, accompanied by Afghan officials.

A little more context here. What it looks like Holbrooke is saying is that Operation Moshtarek included the most significant effort in history to emplace follow-on civilian administration after the AO was cleared of insurgents, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than saying that the operation was the "greatest in the history of counterinsurgency."

Hell, it's probably even true.

(Man, that guy who thinks the sole purpose of this blog is to criticize other people's writing is really gonna hate this one!)

While we're talking civil-military relations...

In many parts of the developing world, it's a pretty bad idea to run for high elective office and lose. No one is experiencing that truth more directly this week than Gen. Sarath Fonseka, hero of the kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out school of COIN.

The former Sri Lankan army chief who lost his opposition bid for the presidency objected Tuesday to his court-martial hearing, saying the panel formed to decide his fate was biased against him, an ally said.

The arrest of Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been condemned by the opposition and human rights groups, who accuse the government of retaliating against a man who dared challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his re-election bid.

The court-martial Tuesday of Fonseka, considered one of the heroes of the government's war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, has been shrouded in secrecy, with the military barring reporters from the event and refusing to release a detailed account of the proceedings.

Military spokesman Major General Prasad Samarasinghe said Fonseka, accompanied by his lawyer, appeared before a three-member panel at the country's navy headquarters to face charges that he prepared the groundwork for his presidential campaign while still in military uniform.

A second charge that Fonseka violated regulations in purchasing military hardware will be taken up Wednesday, he said.

Details of the charges are sort of unclear, but most of the commentary suggests that President Rajapaksa had Fonseka arrested in order to sideline a formidable challenger for power.

Many have been critical of the proceedings and expressed concerns that Rajapaksa is using all the levers of power to quash any opposition to his rule.

"Sarath Fonseka's arrest continues the Rajapaksa government's postelection crackdown on political opposition," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director.

Apparently the government tossed around a bunch of allegations after Fonseka's arrest last month, including the charge that he had planned to assasinate the president. The fact that this didn't make it into the charging documents is a pretty good sign that the government is making stuff up, I'd expect.

The most interesting thing for me is that Fonseka really wasn't much of a threat, at least not if you go by polling numbers: after quitting the army at the beginning of the year, he got beat by a clear 18% by Rajapaksa in the 26 JAN election.

In related news, the Tamil National Alliance -- the most influential Tamil political party in Sri Lanka -- dropped their demands for an independent Tamil state over the weekend. So there's that. A TNA spokesman was quoted as saying "well, we wanted our own state, but then we got our ass kicked. So now federalism seems cool."

(Ok, no one really said that. But the rest of the story is true.)

Changes to Basic Training

On the bus this morning, I read this AP story about how the physical training part of basic training has changed recently to focus more on "core fitness."

The article explains:

Adapting to battlefield experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army is revamping its basic training regimen for the first time in three decades by nixing five-mile runs and bayonet drills in favor of zigzag sprints and honing core muscles.

Trainers hope the switch will better prepare soldiers physically for the pace of combat, with its sudden dashes and rolling gun battles. They also want to toughen recruits who are often more familiar with Facebook than fistfights.

The exercises are part of the first major overhaul in Army basic fitness training since men and women began training together in 1980, said Frank Palhoska, head of the Army's Fitness School at Fort Jackson, which has worked several years on overhauling the service's fitness regime.

The new plan is being expanded this month at the Army's four other basic training installations - Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky.

"We don't run five miles in combat, but you run across the street every day," Palhoska said, adding, "I'm not training long-distance runners. I'm training warriors" who must shuttle back and forth across a back alley.

Drill sergeants with combat experience in the current wars are credited with urging the Army to change training, in particular to build up core muscle strength to walk patrols with heavy packs and body armor or to haul a buddy out of a burning vehicle.

I don't know much about basic training so I wanted to ask all of you: what do you think about this?

Friday, March 12, 2010

When did that happen?

I don't typically get a lot of satisfaction out of Robert Haddick's "This Week at War" columns at Foreign Policy. It may be that I spend enough time at SWJ that most of what Haddick covers amounts to a recap, or it may be a product of the lowest-common-denominator sort of writing that FP seems to encourage. Recognizing that "This Week at War" is expressly designed to deliver a dumbed-down summary of SWJ's original content to a more general audience -- as evidenced by the ludicrous subhead "What the four-stars are reading" -- I suppose I ought not fault either Haddick or the site for that.

But there are a couple of recurring themes that jump out at me and rub me the wrong way a bit, like the sort of low-grade, snide China hawkery or the off-putting suggestion that Haddick's got an exclusive handle on what constitutes "correct" civil-military relations. It's on this latter subject that this week's edition focuses.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced civil-military relations in the United States to grow up and leave behind a naive adolescence that prevailed at the start of the last decade. Before the wars began, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, described in Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command) still ruled. Under the "normal" theory, civilian leadership determines war policy and then leaves the generals and admirals alone to run the war. Thankfully those days are gone; hardly a month passes without the secretary of defense or some other senior figure heading out to the field, questioning not just generals, but also colonels and sergeants about their tactics. Likewise, soldiers now deeply immerse themselves in questions about the connections between policy objectives and military strategy, the evidence for which can be found every day at websites such as Small Wars Journal. By dropping the normal theory and letting policymakers and military officers into each other's "lanes," the result has been a generally smarter use of military power.
Really? When did that happen? I'm shocked by this assertion. What evidence do we have of any "smarter use of military power" over recent months or years? It's hard to believe that Haddick could be talking about the process through which President McChry... er, Obama arrived at his Afghanistan escalation plan. (Bernard Finel wrote extensively on this subject late last year. I don't want to suggest that I agree completely with Bernard on this subject, because I don't, but only to present the alternative case to what Haddick suggests is "mature" and "smart.")

Where else has the use of military power been "generally smarter"? Is it the fact that the Obama administration has wholeheartedly accepted the dictums of the COIN crowd in Afghanistan? Or the refusal to get directly involved in Yemen and Somalia? Or decisions about the withdrawal timeline in Iraq, which have been pretty well settled for a while now?

What evidence is there, really, to suggest as Haddick does that "U.S. civil-military relations are more mature" now than ten years ago?

For me, an advancement in U.S. civil-military relations would constitute the following: (1) politicians learning how and when the capabilities possessed by the military can be used to effect certain desired end-states, and taking the proper decisions with regard to funding and organization to facilitate the military bringing these capabilities to bear; and (2) military officers expressing an understanding for and appreciation of the ways that military action can effect these changes, that is to say, a better understanding of the linkage between the operational and the strategic, between design and result. I don't know how you measure these sorts of changes, but then, I don't know exactly on what basis Haddick asserts that positive change has already taken place.

Haddick cites Mackubin Owens in calling for a closer integration between policy and strategy, which all sounds good to me. Maybe we all agree and I'm just too dense to figure it out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

RMA Redux

John Arquilla, the self-anointed prophet of net-centric warfare and proponent of the Rumsfeldian RMA, has a strange piece in the March/April edition Foreign Policy modestly entitled 'The New Rules of War.'

In it he decries the alleged myopia of the modern US military for remaining wedded to outmoded force structures, technology and doctrinal concepts, and proposes three new rules to kill by:

1. 'Many and small' beats 'Few and Big'

2. Finding matters more than flanking

3. Swarming is the new surging

I'll leave it to you to read his arguments in their original (and relatively concise) form rather than rehashing them here, but a couple of contradictions seem to to leap out.

First, at various points Arquilla applauds the Army for expanding the number of brigades and points to the limited pre-Surge establishment of small JSS/COPs as a positive example, but then proposes massive cuts in the number of personnel, arguing that:
The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces "horse soldiers" who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving "first waves" and dealing with other crises.
Are we really back to citing a sort-of operational success that abjectly failed to achieve our strategic objectives as a model for the future? Aside from that absurdity, I find it bizarre that Arquilla seems to ignore the requirement for 'many' in his own construct of 'many and small.'

Second, he professes great admiration for the 'social networking' by US forces in Iraq that allowed them to hunt down insurgents, holding it up as an example of how the military should adapt to become a 'sensory organization.' Yet he manages to ignore the fact that quantity mattered: in general, Iraqis began providing information when there were enough American and/or locally trusted Iraqi troops around to convince them they'd be safe from insurgent reprisals. In some cases Iraqis took chances and reached out to the US before those troops were fully in place, but seemed to do so in the expectation that they were on their way. Moreover, such 'networking' isn't technological - it's human! Yes, linked databases, social network mapping software, biometric population control measures and other technological tools are important, but they aren't a replacement for the people who employ them effectively.

Finally, in all the discussion of ending heavy US investment in the capability to overmatch near-peer competitors in a conventional fight, I feel like we're kind of missing an obvious point. As Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh's now legendary whiteboard scribblings depicted, the move to adopt hybrid warfare, anti-access strategies, and cyber-warfare by our adversaries represents strategic adaptation to American dominance of the conventional battlefield. While we clearly need to adapt in turn to deal with those threats, it shouldn't be at the expense of conventional dominance: that would just create a new gap for adversaries to exploit. Of course this is easier to say than to do, particularly in the age of multi-trillion dollar wars, global financial crises and fundamental changes to the world economy. But it should at least be acknowledged in the ongoing debates about the future threat environment that if the US is to remain the global hegemon, it's got to be able to deal with entire spectrum of threats, not just the bits that interest one pundit or another.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CT Lab is dead. Long live Current Intelligence.

One of our favorite blogs, CT Lab, and shuttered its windows and started a new site called Current Intelligence. The "about" on the new site states:

Current Intelligence is a journal of opinion and analysis. Its editors and writers are preoccupied broadly with culture, politics and current affairs; narrowly with conflict,crisis, and the state of the world "out there"; and laterally with the intellectual concerns of those who research, teach, and write about the issues.

There are quite a few contributors - all very impressive - to the new endeavor, led by frequent Ink Spots commenter Mike Innes. Other contributors that you may recognize from these pages are Christopher Albon, Josh Foust, and Tim Stevens (I name these three only because they have commented here or their own blogs are likely well known to our readers). The new site is on the blogroll and we'll keep the old one up as long as it stays up. So go read and enjoy!

COIN and coalitions

At last week's conference on the lessons of Vietnam (and their potential application to Iraq and Afghanistan) organized by Texas Tech and SAIS, a participant asked a broad question to which he could not find an answer. I happen to have asked myself that question too, and could not find an answer either.

The question is: Has a coalition ever won in a counterinsurgency? I mean here a coalition with some sizable allied contingents. Insurgencies seem to be the exact type of conflict (because they tend to last longer than other types of wars, do not rely only on military means, and require flexible tactics that in turn necessitate coordination between different forces) that are most likely to make a coalition implode.

Iraq could be potentially one case, although it is too early to tell. But other cases?..

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

US Support to Somali Forces

This story ran in the New York Times this weekend (and I'm late in posting about it)--it explains current US support to Somalia.

The interesting part starts with this:
But it seems there has been a genuine shift in Somali policy, too, and the Americans have absorbed a Somali truth that eluded them for nearly 20 years: If Somalia is going to be stabilized, it is going to take Somalis.

“This is not an American offensive,” said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa. “The U.S. military is not on the ground in Somalia. Full stop.”

He added, “There are limits to outside engagement, and there has to be an enormous amount of local buy-in for this work.”

The article then goes on to discuss an upcoming offensive to help the Transitional Federal Government take full control of Mogadishu and concomitant work to provide food and other essential assistance to Somalis. So here are my questions--how different are these efforts? Is it a cosmetic thing or is it really being done differently?

Monday, March 8, 2010

To censor or not to censor? Reader feedback requested

This recent post at Zenpundit, authored by guest-blogger Charles Cameron, has had me thinking about the comments section here at Ink Spots. Mr. Cameron takes Abu M to task for not policing his comments section and allowing the nut cases to usurp the conversation. I think he takes his living room metaphor a bit far in the post, but was probably more accurate with his coffee-house analogy in the comments. That said, the point is worth considering.

I may think that because I am one who rarely comments, or even reads the comments, at AM because of the trolls that now inhabit it. The discussions contained in the comments were what drew me there in the first place and it was disappointing to see the quality degrade so much, so quickly. More personally, that virtual meeting-place is where the Ink Spots crew met and led to the creation of this blog. It is also where we virtually met a number of our regular commenters.

Sentimentality aside, as this post isn't about AM and his comment section, I'd like to hear what our readers have to say on the subject. Obviously, we don't really have the same issues here, what with our readership numbers being a fraction of his (this is merely an observation, not a complaint - I'm much happier with higher quality). Ex has his reasons for his policing policy and stated them in the comments at Zenpundit. As for us, we have had a couple of comments that we discussed deleting in the interest of not providing nut cases a platform for their vitriol, but have left that decision to the post's author to police as he or she sees fit. I don't have any exact data, but I think that right has only been exercised once by our crew, with all of us concurring that it was the correct move.

I think this topic raises a number of questions, from the philosophical to the practical. I can't speak for the other four, but one of the main reasons I blog here is to engage in conversation with our readers (although bloviating for its own sake can be therapeutic). So if you'll oblige me, I'd like your take on the following questions.

  • In open comment blogs, do the commenters have some ownership in the blog?
  • Is the blogosphere really the coffee-house of the internet age? Is it really a useful place to exchange ideas? (I guess I'm trying to get at the discussion vs. soapbox bit.)
  • Do bloggers have a responsibility to engage and respond to their readers in the comments section? (I'm not always very good at ensuring I take the time to do this myself...)
  • Are our readers happy with the conversations in the comments section? What could we do better?
  • What are your thoughts on whether or not Ink Spots should have a comments policing policy and if so, what would that look like?
This is really just scratching the surface and to be honest, I'm oddly intrigued by the whole subject. So please let us know what you think about these questions or any thing else you think is relevant. (And for heaven's sake, if this post doesn't have any comments by noon tomorrow, someone, anyone please just leave at least one - I'm not that big a fan of irony, or at least of being its victim.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hot quant on qual action

Over at Abu Muqawama last week, Ex posted a quantitative analysis manifesto that he thinks quantitative analysts in security studies should follow - a post that has generated a moderate amount of buzz around the interwebs. I'm not going to through each of his six points individually, but I encourage you to read the whole post. Suffice it to say and not surprisingly, this has really pissed off a lot of the IR community, with interesting commentary here, here, here, here, and here. I didn't look too much, but here is a supportive post on Ex's position and I'm sure there are others.

I certainly appreciate Ex's position on this, there are few things more irritating than some social scientist who creates models completely at odds with reality. So my interpretation of Ex's manifesto is that social scientists who employ quantitative measures should use humility in describing their systems and recognize and acknowledge the downsides of their models. On the other hand, I understand why these IR folks are upset - specifically about the last three points (which strike me as unnecessary swipes at social scientists, but hey, flippant statements are a hallmark of blogging).

I've written on a related topic before (metrics specifically), and having an undergraduate in math, I firmly believe there are uses for quantitative analysis in security studies. As long as that analysis framed with qualitative analysis to better describe these complex human endeavors. In fact, I would argue most social scientists would agree with this. But I think the same goes for qualitative analysts - while logic and common sense can often win a debate, those two things could often simply be conventional wisdom. Qualitative analysis is much more persuasive when backed by quantitative analysis, otherwise it's pretty much somebody's opinion.

This whole argument strikes me as silly. Both factions need to (and many do) understand and state the limitations of their chosen methods of analysis. I firmly believe bad analysis is and will be identified for what it is, no matter if the analysis uses words or graphs. As for me, I like both.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What we're reading #6

In "What we're reading #5," I lamented the fact that we hadn't done one of these in two months. That was three months ago. We're getting worse. Here's what we're looking at these days.


That bit of reading material pretty much has me occupied for the next 96 hours or so. (Yes, SNLII, believe it or not -- I do work sometimes.) But as I board my flight in a few hours, I'll be carrying a few things with me:

  • John Mackinlay's The Insurgent Archipelago just arrived in my mailbox yesterday at long last (because I'm apparently too stupid to order it from the U.S. version of Amazon. Oh well, at least I got the paperback!). Mackinlay's gotten good reviews from his colleague David Betz at KoW, and props from Carl Prine, Gian Gentile, Ken White, Niel Smith (quite the impressive cast of characters!) and others at SWJ. I'm looking forward to this one.

  • Just this morning I was sent Jason Lyall's article from the Winter 2010 International Organization, entitled "Do democracies make inferior counterinsurgents? Reassessing democracy's impact on war outcomes and duration." I've just skimmed through it and feel reasonably unconvinced of Lyall's thesis, which is that once you've corrected for various selection biases, democracies and autocracies have similar levels of tolerance for extended counterinsurgency campaigns.

  • That piece neatly dovetails with another book I'm about halfway through, which also focuses on state consolidation and counterinsurgency in medieval Europe: The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr, by R.R. Davies. (Somehow I scored the last reasonably-priced copy on the interwebs, I guess -- I think I paid $4 including shipping, and now all I see is $115 and up!) I'm just now getting to the good bits, which is to say the actual burning and looting and whatnot. (Joke, people.)

Co-bloggers, let us know what you're working on!


I'm focusing on some of the "classic" books on COIN and small wars these days - mainly due to a couple of nice Christmas gifts that I'm still working through. Since I spent a bit of time doing COIN, I didn't get a whole lot of reading done on the subject and I'm making up for that now. After finishing "The Sling and the Stone" earlier this week (which I did not particularly enjoy), I'm paging through the following:

Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency by Roger Trinquier. It's only 90 pages so it's the low-hanging fruit of the group. It seems to apply mainly to colonial wars, but interesting non-the-less.

The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars by Stathis Kalyvas. It's awfully dense so this is taking some time. So far so good (I'm about a third of the way through), but so far I'm skeptical about it's applicability to U.S. operations because he narrowly defines the conflicts that he analyzes. Time and pages will tell though.

Small Wars Their Principles and Practice by C.E. Calwell. This book gets a bad rap among a lot of COINdinistas. Other than some extremely racist language and dated ideas of norms in war, there are some real nuggets in this tome.

After these I still have a whole pile more to go through along the same vein, but it's been slow-going because of my schedule of late.


I am looking forward to finishing Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, which I abandoned in mid-course... last Summer. This does not speak to the quality of the book, which is excellent, but rather to my being caught in other things and trying now to clear the backlog of books started in a distant past and not finished yet.

When I am done, I will get started on H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, which I should have read a long time ago but, well, it is never too late...

On that same topic, I will also have a look at Jonathan Caverley's piece on Vietnam and COIN in International Security, which was flagged on Kings of War earlier this week not once but twice.

And because my weekend can not be spent on war narratives only, I am going to continue Column McCann's Let the Great World Spin. It starts on a beautiful scene describing Philippe Petit walking on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. If you have not yet seen the documentary on this fascinating (and hair-rising) feat, it is here and worth 94 minutes of your weekend time.

I'm a bit behind on this one but here goes. I'm still working on Kalyvas' The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Like Alma, it's not that I've found it boring or anything, I've just been busy with other things (though I did turn the main one in last night!). Sometimes I think we all run a book club because I also have McMaster's book sitting on my shelf.

Today, I picked up the latest copy of Prism, the journal of the new Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. It has some articles about state fragility.

Finally, I grabbed Building Peace after War by Mats Berdal from my boss' shelf.

Screwing the troops - hopefully for the better

On Ann Marlowe's newish blog (to me at least), she links to an Army Times article on how GEN McChrystal has ordered the closing of a number of "morale" facilities in Afghanistan. It seems that the hardest hit will be fast food restaurants and car dealerships on major camps (the dealerships don't actually have the cars there - you order a car/motorcycle and don't have pay any taxes on them). Ms. Marlowe does not support this order as "young men and women who volunteer to server there deserve some consolations." She goes further state "taking away their little comforts isn't a substitute for a strategy."

I'm sure this order isn't all that popular with a lot of the troops. But most aren't going to care. And here's why. Fast food restaurants and car dealerships are usually on huge camps only - camps that have one or more flag officer commands on it. Camps that house that much maligned but important creature: the Fobbit. Camps that don't usually house trigger-pullers who go on patrol.

In the nearly three years I spent on and operating out of FOBs in Iraq, I never lived on a camp that had these types of establishments. Sure we had a few Iraqi-run knickknack shops that supported the local economy, but we didn't have Burger King, KFC, or a Harley dealership. There were varying reasons for each camp on why this was the case, but it wasn't really a big deal.

I'm supportive of this order (except for the dealerships which I don't really understand unless Joe is spending an inordinate amount of his time and energy buying multiple cars). Big camps with support units or general staffs became the "haves" while the more austere patrol bases and homes of maneuver units became the "have nots." These types of facilities only increased the animosity between the two groups. I also agree with GEN McChrystal that they are distractions (as pointed out by Gulliver on Twitter, he actually said "destracter", but that's another subject). While all camps, large and small, do receive indirect fire, trying to replicate the home-front in a combat zone tricks those that live on a large camp into thinking they are actually at their home stations. It causes them to lose focus on why they are there in the first place, which I think must have an effect on how they perform their duties.

The third reason I agree with this order is purely financial from a tax-payer's perspective. The contractors who run the dining facilities get paid to feed every person on that camp every meal, whether they eat there or not. Soldiers who then go and eat at these fast food places spend their own money on food when the government has already bought them food. And lots of it. It's just not financially reasonable to back your own competition.

There are going to be lots of you that disagree with me and I'm okay with that. I'm not bitter about not having BK down the street from my can or tent - I actually liked mess hall food. But any of you who have spent any time at the food court at Camp Liberty would probably agree with me - especially if you didn't live on Camp Liberty. I feel that removing these distractions will help everyone focus on the fight at hand.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nulla dies sine Ricks

Because I hate to disappoint SNLII, I volunteer to make Inkspots' daily update on Tom Ricks.

While doing this, I may however cause unnecessary pain and elevated blood pressure in a few of my fellow bloggers, for Ricks' blog is among the finalists for the National Magazine Awards for Digital Media 2010. Ricks competes in the "best blogging" category, which "Recognizes excellence in online reporting, commentary and criticism in the form of a blog." Is the American Society of Magazine Editors mischievously trying to save printed press by promoting the worst of online journalism?

De la contre-insurrection

Francophones interested in COIN should check the latest issue of Securite Globale (No.10, Summer 2009). Stephane Taillat, whose blog En Vérité still holds, to my knowledge, the monopoly over francophone COIN blogging, co-edits a series of articles on “contre-insurrection(s).” Among other contributions, David Ucko has an article on the dilemmas of the US COIN doctrine, Michel Goyat describes the British experience in Helmand, and Christian Olsson examines the link between COIN and the responsibility to protect. Not to surprise anyone, Gian Gentile has an article denouncing the “myths” and “dangers” of the COIN doctrine where he offers a “vision critique de l’US Army” (no translation needed for this one, I believe).

Gentile has found a new fan on the other side of the pond. Jean-Dominic Merchet from the (usually excellent) Secret Défense blog had a “Aha!” moment when reading Gentile’s contribution. In a post titled “To get down with the counterinsurgency dogma” (“Pour en finir avec les dogmes de la contre-insurrection”), Merchet marvels at Gentile’s revelations about the “mythification of the 2007 surge,” (apparently paying off the Sons of Iraq played some part in that success—oh, really?) and the fact that it is now “more important for the army to learn and adapt than to be capable of fighting” (what I usually read runs more along the lines of “it is important to learn and adapt to be capable of better fighting”, but I may be unnecessarily subtle here). Apparently unaware of the fact that Gentile has as much a vested interest as Petraeus in promoting his own Iraq narrative and interpretation of what worked or not there, Merchet concludes that the French army should learn from Gentile’s article and not get carried away by the COIN precepts.

I'd say that the French army will be just fine, thanks, but I may simply be blinded by the COIN dogma...

Two different ways of thinking about war movies

I just saw "The Hurt Locker" for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was a reasonably good story, and that it did a pretty good job of capturing the look and feel of the Iraq War (or at least how I imagine it to be/to have been, as I've never been to Iraq). Recently a number of people have expressed to me their disappointment in the movie, particularly the feeling that aspects of it were not realistic; as several of these folks have spent time in theater, I took those objections to heart. At the end of the day, though, I feel like it was a reasonably entertaining movie that didn't do any great violence to the truth, and that's enough for me.

In this post on Abu Muqawama, Ex seems to agree: war movies are about entertainment, even though they're always going to miss a few details.
But I do not understand my fellow Iraq veterans complaining the Hurt Locker isn't realistic enough. When did war movies suddenly have to be realistic? Did Blackhawk Down start this? Was it the bank robbery scene in Heat? The reason I say this is that one of my best childhood friends was walking through a Walgreens in Nashville, passed a $9 DVD Double Feature of Kelly's Heroes and the Dirty Dozen and immediately thought, correctly, "Oh, man, this would make Ex's year if I bought this and sent it to him." Now there is very little that is realistic about either movie, but c'mon, they are surely two of the greatest war movies ever.
The comment thread there is interesting, as it covers a wide range of views: Ex is right, movies are entertainment; Ex is wrong, war movies should get the war parts right; and basically everything in between. Like I said before, I don't have a really strong opinion about this, but as a historian I suppose I trend towards favoring realism and authenticity.

So it was with great interest that I read this op-ed from yesterdays online Times. It was authored by Michael Jernigan, an Iraq vet who was severely wounded in Mahmoudiya. Jernigan isn't so much concerned with whether war movies are realistic or unrealistic (though he does say that he "saw a lot of reality" in "The Hurt Locker"), but rather with the entire genre's fundamental theme: that there is something commendable or positive about war. I'm going to excerpt the article at length here, because I think it helps you to understand Jernigan's criticism.

Later in the deployment my Humvee was hit by a large I.E.D. I had my forehead crushed in, lost both eyes, had to have my right hand fully reconstructed and took severe damage to my left knee. One buddy lost a foot; one of the others took shrapnel to the forehead but lived; one took superficial shrapnel wounds to the arm and one of my best friends died.

On a later deployment to Iraq that I did not go on, I lost three more friends to I.E.D.’s. One of them was the Navy Corpsman (Marine medic) who saved my life on the battlefield back in Mahmudiya. I have a tattoo over my left breast (where my heart is) that says “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for “Always Faithful” and refers to always accomplishing the mission. Around the “Semper Fidelis” are four names. “Thompson,” “Belchik,” Cockerham” and “Hodshire.” All great guys that I would let date my sister.

“The Hurt Locker” and all the other movies I mentioned, whether they are good or bad as entertainment, are still war movies and war movies glorify the acts of violence that I described above. How do you feel about that? Would you bring your children out to the battlefield to witness it live and in person? There is no happy ending. Kelly does not get the gold, Stryker does not make it to the top of Mount Suribachi and 8-Ball gets cut down by a sniper. Please remember that when you watch a war movie you are watching stories about young Americans who went far from home and risked their lives; some of them died there with only their brothers in arms to witness. Hollywood is now taking our money by walking on their graves.

Maybe that’s extreme. Of course I understand why people watch war movies. I watch them, too. But I have seen my friends die and most of the movies just bring up very painful memories.

While I agree that "taking our money by walking on their graves" is a bit "extreme," it's hard to ignore the kernel of truth in what Jernigan says: war movies, at least in some part, are profiting by offering to viewers a tiny slice of some imagined simulacrum of war, a taste of what it's like "being there" without any of the downsides. Sure, a lovable character might die, or the mission might go bad, but at the end the lights come on and you can walk away. Jernigan didn't just walk away.

It's almost certainly true that modern war movies, with more realistic effects and less societal censure for graphic violence, do a better job of at least hinting at the horror of war. "Saving Private Ryan," for example, does a better job of showing exactly how much it sucks to be an infantryman than did "Patton" or "A Bridge Too Far." Is that an improvement, or just an indulgence in the fantasy that anyone who's not been there can ever really understand just exactly how much it does suck?

It's probably not fair to suggest that these are two ends of a spectrum of opinion about war movies, because Exum and Jernigan are really answering two different questions. So do you think that the makers of war movies have a responsibility to authenticity, to exposing the awful realities of war and whatnot? To convince young people that war isn't fun, and that soldiering isn't a great adventure?

Answering these questions isn't really about movies, I don't suppose, but about morality: even in a world that needs soldiers, and that knows it needs soldiers, do writers, filmmakers, and other entertainers have some responsibility to create art that refuses to glorify war? Would it even be effective if they did? After all, we've had Stephen Crane and Robert Service and so on, and "Platoon" and "The Thin Red Line" and "Dances With Wolves" and others that make it clear that war's no picnic. But there will always be Virgil and Tennyson and John 15:13. And what about art for its own sake? Should we be similarly critical of literature and film that deals with drug abuse, or murder, or suicide?

Take a look at the AM thread and the Times piece and let us know what you think about this stuff. This is one of those rare instances where I don't have a firm, calcified opinion on the issue at hand, so take advantage!

Relatedly, here's Thomas Rid's "Great Films on Small Wars" post from Kings of War a couple of weeks ago. I should probably be embarrassed to admit I've only seen four of them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Welcome to the party, David, even if you're like three years late

Did you know that America's global competitors are focusing on the development of anti-access technologies to counter U.S. power projection and expeditionary capabilities? Oh, you did? Yeah, me too. I heard from Andy Krepinevich like a year ago. And Bob Gates even before that. David Wood just caught on, apparently from "Pentagon strategists." But, I mean, that's cool -- keep getting the word out!

The United States, Pentagon strategists say, is quickly losing its ability to barge in without permission. Potential target countries and even some lukewarm allies are figuring out ingenious ways to blunt American power without trying to meet it head-on, using a combination of high-tech and low-tech jujitsu.

At the same time, U.S. naval and air forces have been shrinking under the weight of ever more expensive hardware. It's no longer the case that the United States can overwhelm clever defenses with sheer numbers.As Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the problem this month, countries in places where the United States has strategic interests -- including the Persian Gulf and the Pacific -- are building "sophisticated, new technologies to deny our forces access to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace.''Those innocuous words spell trouble. While the U.S. military and strategy community is focused on Afghanistan and the fight in Marja, others – Iran and China, to name two – are chipping away at America's access to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the increasingly critical extraterrestrial realms.

On the bright side, Wood links to Krepinevich's new study Why AirSea Battle?, which focuses on DoD's efforts to develop a counter-anti-access operational concept. It's worth a read. While you're at it, you might also take a look at Gunslinger's Document of the Week: The U.S. Navy's Vision for Confonting Irregular Challenges (or as Bernard Finel described it on Twitter, "fascinating document. Shows the power of the COIN/hybrid war junta inside the building." Um, right).

I probably wouldn't highlight this Wood piece on any other day, but I have a case of the redass about an appearance he made on the Diane Rehm Show the other night, in which he said some frankly idiotic things about what's going on in Afghanistan. (My favorite part is where he says that U.S. forces are pursuing "in essence a conventional, industrial-age strategy in Marja, not unlike one you saw in the American Civil War 150 years ago.") I would really encourage you not to listen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Happy St. David's Day!

I'm sure you all have a daffodil (or a leek) in your lapel, right?

Spare a thought today for the boys of the Royal Welsh, celebrating the fourth anniversary of the regiment's formation (through the agglomeration of the historic Royal Welch Fusiliers and Royal Regiment of Wales) by kicking ass in TF Helmand.

Waterboarding does not result in "the experience of feeling unable to breathe"

It is in fact the experiential reality of being unable to breathe. So why do we keep seeing the formulation used in the title, rather than the more accurate one? Waterboarding is not simulated drowning, it is actual drowning. Of course, the process is controlled by the interrogator/administrator/torturer, but that doesn't magically transmogrify "controlled drowning" into "simulated drowning."

The reason I write about this today is that there's an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the doctors and other medical professionals involved in the justification and authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques ought to be held to account for their alleged misdeeds. (As neither a medical professional nor an attorney, I'm not going to pass judgment on this claim, but I think the piece is worth a read.) The offending sentence seemed a bit out of place in a column that is aggressively anti-EITs: "The [CIA's Office of Medical Services] did allow that waterboarding could be dangerous, and that the experience of feeling unable to breathe is extremely frightening."

Again, we're not talking about feeling unable to breathe. We're talking about being unable to breathe. Here's what Malcolm Nance, former Navy SERE school trainer and counterterrorism/intelligence professional, had to say on the issue in his thorough critique of waterboarding on Small Wars Journal (entitled "Waterboarding is Torture... Period"):

2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.

Call it “Chinese Water Torture,” “the Barrel,” or “the Waterfall,” it is all the same. Whether the victim is allowed to comply or not is usually left up to the interrogator. Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo.

No doubt, to avoid human factors like fear and guilt someone has created a one-button version that probably looks like an MRI machine with high intensity waterjets.

Whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture is a question that's been debated extensively for at least the last three years, so I'm not all that interested in re-litigating it here. (Nance does a much better job; read his piece.) I just want us all to come to a consensus on the fact that the actualized reality of something is different from a simulation of that same thing.

(While we're on the subject, it's sort of coincidental that just last night I listened to this episode of "This American Life." I should note here that there's almost no relationship between this particular radio program and the point I'm making above, except for the title and general concept: "Simulated Worlds." It's premised on the argument that the desire for hyperreality -- and relatedly, an appetite for simulations and recreations of nearly everything -- is a uniquely American trait. The episode closes with a musing on how "Morning Edition" (NPR's daily morning news show), like all radio news, engages in a sort of Russian-dolls format -- anchor kicks it to reporter, reporter kicks it to guy on the ground, guy on the ground kicks it to actual footage from on the scene: "the actuality," in radio parlance -- that results in the news consumer only getting about a six- or seven-second window into "real life" in every minutes-long news segment. Our hunt for reality and truth keeps getting us less and less of real life. But I digress.)

I know this whole standing-up-a-foreign-security-force thing ain't an overnight deal, but...

...this has got to be just about the funniest bureaucra-speak I've ever come across around the military (and that's saying a lot):

The Marines are moving to boost Afghan training by emphasizing combat leadership among the enlisted ranks and more accurate use of M-16s. The project goes by the acronym TLSR: Transition of Leading Security Responsibility.

"There is plenty of room to improve marksmanship training," said Col. Burke Whitman, the Marines' liaison to the Afghan army and police. "Our biggest focus of training is shooting skill."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not laughing about the necessity for marksmanship training. I just think it's hilarious to imagine shooting lessons as the first step in a rather grandiloquently titled process of Transition of Leading Security Responsibility. "Once they know how to shoot, they'll definitely be ready to take the lead. At least, that's what the general and ISAF PAO told me to say."

What's perhaps even more funny (or at least ironic) is that this clip comes from an article touting improvements in ANSF performance during the Marja offensive.

The Afghan troops who supported the U.S. Marines in the battle to end Taliban control of this town in Helmand province showed marked improvement over last summer's performance in a similar fight but still need much more training, Marine commanders say.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top Marine here, said that overall the Afghan battalions exceeded his expectations. Nicholson said he would give some Afghan units an A-minus or B-plus but that others, particularly those with soldiers fresh from basic training, would get a C-minus or D.

C.J. Chivers' latest dispatch suggests that the ANSF he's been exposed to trend towards the latter ratings:

The Afghan soldiers who accompanied Company C, [one Marine officer] said, had looted the 84-booth Semitay Bazaar immediately after the Marines swept through and secured it. Then the Afghan soldiers refused to stand post in defensive bunkers, or to fill sandbags as the Americans, sometimes under fire, hardened their joint outpost. Instead, they spent much of their time walking in the bazaar, smoking hashish.

Company K had stories of its own. As its own Marines stumbled wearily across friendly lines, much of the Afghan platoon that worked with them was straggling behind, unable to keep pace.

Step 1 in Transition of Leading Security Responsibility (TLSR): teach ANSF to shoot.
Step 2 in TLSR: teach ANSF to respect human rights, not violate the law, not get high on duty, and to behave as a professional fighting force
Step 3 in TLSR: Transition Leading Security Responsibility!
Step 4 in TLSR: PROFIT!!!