Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Policing and counterinsurgency

I'm reading a really interesting book right now called Cop in the Hood, by Peter Moskos. The author is a Harvard-trained sociologist who spent a year as a cop in Baltimore's Eastern District. I've never been terribly interested in the subject of urban policing, but I am a huge fan of The Wire (and, as we've seen in the past, of pretty much anything that relates to counterinsurgency theory).

Now I should go ahead and put out the disclaimer -- drilled into me by SNLII, who wrote pretty extensively on this subject on the old Abu Muqawama (and this is a good thread on that) -- that there is a huge difference between policing and COIN, and a huge difference between police and soldiers. Their methods are different, their operating environments are different, their desired endstates are different, their legal authorities are different, and so on and so on. We don't want to live in a world where we think of our police as counterinsurgents (though imagining our counterinsurgents as police is a bit more desirable, at least when we're a little further along the spectrum of conflict and into Phase 4 and 5 scenarios).

Having said that, there are some undeniable parallels when it comes to things like patrolling, presence, and the necessity for dependable, timely information/intelligence. This passage from Moskos stood out for me.
One officer complained: "Nobody here will talk to police. Half the public hates us. The other half is scared to talk to us. I would be, too. But we can't do anything without the public. They know who's dirty and who's not. They know who's shooting who. We don't know. They live here. We just drive around in big billboards..." [emphasis mine]
This is obviously the same rationale behind combat outposts (COPs) and joint security stations (JSS) in counterinsurgency: presence among the populace, access to current intelligence directly from the source, and the credible promise of protection from retaliation by those who would prefer silence.

I think there's also an interesting parallel to be drawn between the attitudes of the run-of-the-mill, generally somewhat moralistic and socially conservative police officer fighting the drug war (to the extent that we can generalize, and Moskos does) and the perhaps reluctant counterinsurgent, the specialist or lance corporal who signed up to drive tanks and shoot bad guys and instead ends up sharing a tent with a foreigner who doesn't shower very much, or building a school, or vaccinating goats. The way that the organization helps its personnel to understand the broader context of the mission, and tries to avoid stigmatizing mission-essential tasks that are often derided by the rank and file, is vitally important to relating mission performance to objective effectiveness. (Here's a great example of a senior leader trying to do exactly that, emphasizing the change in mindset that is necessary to institutionalizing security force assistance as a core mission of the U.S. Army.) A big reason that modern policing seems not to negatively impact crime rates to the extent that it could or should is a complete lack of buy-in on the part of patrol officers when it comes to concepts like community policing, foot patrol, reconciliation, or (even more out there) legalization/decriminalization of drug use.

NOTE: Don't get into drug politics here, because I'm not interested. Or crazy race-baiting. Please and thanks.

Friday, September 25, 2009

This is a new one for me

Secretary Clinton on the subject of possible strategic re-assessment in Afghanistan, and the associated resource question:

But Clinton was not necessarily swayed by McChrystal’s assertion that the US must add more troops to accomplish this.

“I can only tell you there are other assessments from, you know, very expert military analysts who have worked in counterinsurgencies that are the exact opposite [of McChrystal’s],” she said. “So what our goal is, is to take all of this incoming data and sort it out.”

So, uh... who? Who are the "very expert military analysts" who think that we can wage an effective counterinsurgency campaign with the number of troops we've got?

There are a series of assumptions nested in the McChrystal approach:

1) The Afghan mission as set forth by the president is a necessary one, and the interests defended or advanced by such an effort are reasonably balanced with the necessary effort and resource expenditure

2) The most effective way to accomplish the stated objectives in Afghanistan is through a broad-based counterinsurgency effort

3) In order to effectively execute the counterinsurgency mission, more resources are required

Now all of these assertions are debatable, obviously. I'd contend that we're probably better off seeking more limited objectives with a smaller troop presence. And I think you can argue that there's a way to seek the same end-states through a different operational approach. But seriously, I have not heard a single person say "we need to do COIN to accomplish our objectives, and we have exactly the resources we need to do the job." I have not seen one person say "yeah, the status quo is cool, we just haven't gotten there yet." There have been a lot of vague noises to the effect that "we don't even have all the troops in place from the last 21,000 to go in, so let's be patient," and all that, but I'm not aware of anyone who's advocating for a broad-based, wide-ranging counterinsurgency effort and NOT asking for more troops.

There's plenty of legitimate skepticism about the first two assumptions, and debate is welcome and healthy. But on the third assumption, isn't this pretty much the specific purview or area of expertise of the military leadership, for one thing? And by appointing a guy as the senior military commander in theater, aren't you sort of saying that his "expert military analysis" is the one you want to go with?

I'm not saying that the political leadership should simply defer to generals on resource requests -- not at all. What I am saying is that once you've laid out objectives and given a mission to your military commander, it seems to me that you're going to trust his expert assessment of 1) how to best accomplish that mission, and 2) what resources are required to do so. If you want to change the mission, change the objectives, change our foreign policy, then fine. But that's not what Secretary Clinton is talking about here. She's saying that the policy, the mission, and the objectives remain the same, and that GEN McChrystal's opinion might not be the most important one when it comes to deciding how to get this done. So why is he your commander? If you decide he's wrong, is he going to be dismissed?

And who's the next guy? Who's the guy with the good idea? I mean, if there are all these competing visions (about how to do COIN with 100K ISAF troops), then... where are they? Any ideas?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tired conventional wisdom about this unconventional war?

As should be pretty clear by now, I'm not wholly convinced that escalation in Afghanistan is a good idea. Actually, I shouldn't equivocate so much: unless I see some new and compelling argument to convince me otherwise, I am wholly convinced that escalation in Afghanistan will do little to secure the strategic objectives that we should be pursuing, and that the expenditure of resources required to prosecute an expanded war in that country (and region) will be completely out of balance with the potential strategic gains consequent to that escalation.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me tell you an anti-escalation argument that I do not find convincing at all: that an increased foreign force will agitate the Afghan populace into greater support for the insurgency. We saw the same argument in Iraq, by the consistently-wrong GEN John Abizaid:
Abizaid had advised Joe Collins, the Pentagon's chief civilian peacekeeping expert, that U.S. forces would be an "antibody" in Iraqi society and it would be important to put an Iraqi face on the occupation.
Secretary Gates has repeated this worry with regard to Afghanistan (though lately he suggests that a change in approach to a more population-centric counterinsurgency could mitigate these concerns), noting that the Soviets had 120,000 troops in the country and worrying that a similarly significant intervention could alienate Afghans.

Which is why it's interesting to read Robert Mackey's blog in the New York Times The Lede, entitled "How Many Troops to Secure Afghanistan." He closes with this:
One man who has suggested that more American troops are not the answer is Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who was a K.G.B. agent in Kabul during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Last October Mr. Kabulov told my colleague John Burns that the U.S. had “already repeated all of our mistakes,” and moved on to “making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.” One of the biggest mistakes the Soviets made, Mr. Kabulov said, was letting the force grow too large. “The more foreign troops you have roaming the country,” he said, “the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked.”
Allergy, antibody, immune reaction, and so on. It's almost taken for granted that this is true. My question: WHY? What Gates has been saying lately is much more compelling: Afghans are less concerned with how many troops are in-country than what they're doing! (After all, does some guy in Spin Boldak really see a difference between 68K and 110K if the engagement in his village remains the same?) Does the top-level number even matter to anyone other than Taliban propagandists?

More worryingly, this is just yet another example of a disturbing trend in the conversation about this war (and others): assertion disguised as argument. Ok, so you think that foreign troops are an antibody, and that the population will have an auto-immune reaction to displace them? Then show me when that's happened! Explain to me why I should believe this to be true! Don't just keep repeating the same old canards and expect everyone to believe them. Even the Russian ambassador resorts to this: we lost, so it must've been something about the Afghans, something about the numbers, something about the swarthy Oriental's unique and intractable character. It couldn't be the fact that we did a million other things wrong, like killing a whole bunch of civilians or propping up an unpopular, illegitimate government.

So really, why should I buy this "antibody" argument, especially when its main proponent in Iraq was basically proven dead wrong?

"Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops." No Kidding, It's Called War.

Ann Scott Taylor has a front-page article in today's Post on the effects of the recent changes in the rules in engagement in Afghanistan with regard to the use of air and artillery fires. There are a couple of anecdotes in this article that concern me if they are true that tell of fires being held for no specific reason in heavy battles in which US servicemen are being killed. It seems that that concern is what this piece is trying to prompt.

In the second story about the Marine advisory team that was ambushed, a relative of one of the casualties stated that he or she had been told that women and children had been feeding ammo to the insurgents engaging the Marines. And yet they had been denied artillery support because of the new rules. (The first story should be well known to our readers now - LCpl Bernard and comments from his father, a retired USMC 1st Sgt and Vietnam veteran).

First of all, if the women and children were feeding ammo to the enemy (whoever they were), then they lose their noncombatant status. Plain and simple - it is not a situation of collateral damage. Obviously it's up to the commander on the ground to decide whether or not to engage in that instance - but it's just that: the commander's decision.

Second, and at the risk of sounding like a heartless bastard, the family members of casualties are not a good source of what happened on the battlefield. On top of being inexpert on the environment and not actually being on the ground, their grief and helplessness in the situation skews their perspective on what happened. They look for reasons why this tragedy had occurred to their loved one that has destroyed the lives that they knew. I am not saying that the story is wrong or inaccurate, I'm just saying that it is one perspective. The allegations of which should (and probably were) looked into. But their saying so doesn't make it so. I won't go into details, but I've dealt with lots of problems of this nature when I was deployed - it's the nature of modern warfare. This also ties back to a previous post I wrote on expertise.

That said, the other thing that bothers me about this article is the use of Vietnam vets as expert opinion to members of the Senate who are looking into the ROE. SEN Susan Collins cited 1st Sgt. Bernard and his letter discussing strategic interests in theater and other issues (to include the fact that Afghans "hate us anyway") that lead to his son's death. And SEN Mark Begich cited an Army colonel who served in Vietnam which lead the good Senator to say "You know, we're engaged or we're not. We're not halfway in." While I appreciate their service and insight, let's get something straight. The way in which the U.S. conducts wars has changed drastically in the last 30 years. ROE recommendations from Vietnam vets, based on their Vietnam experience, is about as welcome, I'm sure, as WWII vets' recommendations to them in Vietnam. You cannot allow liberal fires policies that kill lots of civilians to be used. Period. On top of bad policy, it's bad morality. To us, our soldiers and Marines are very valuable and should be used only when our strategic interests warrant putting their lives at risk. But they are willing combatants whereas civilians are not. The lives of Afghan civilians are not cheaper than those of any other human life. And killing lots of civilians unnecessarily is counterproductive to our mission in Afghanistan, whether we're doing CT or COIN or even if it's in the interest of force protection. Unnecessarily is the operative word and where we've failed before in Afghanistan.

Now that that's all out of the way, it does sound as if a review of the ROE should be done. The enemy has adapted well to it and uses it to their advantage. That's fine, they're going to do that no matter what the ROE is. But it sounds as if commanders are hesitant to pull a trigger because of the message the ROE sends, even if they should have. That's not good. I've said before, CAS and artillery should be used in this fight. It just needs to be used smartly.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New French Brigade and Special Forces in Afghanistan

Over at Secret Defense, Jean-Dominique Merchet has news on the French deployment to Afghanistan. Since JDM is usually well-informed, I'm going to do my usual translation job (Alma might have to take over on this front for the next month though, since I'll be traveling for work).

Ok, here we go again.

Starting in November, the French deployment will be significantly reorganized, with the creation of a French brigade, which will be baptized Lafayette...The Americans will appreciate the recognition to a French hero of the American war of independence but the British might not feel the same [this is JDM not me! back to the actual point].

This La Fayette brigade will be responsible for Surobi and Kapisa districts, which are already under French responsibility. The brigade will be commanded by a General, with headquarters in Nijrab. The brigade will have two joint tactical groups. One will mostly be the 13th battalion of chasseurs alpins and the second will be the 2nd foreign parachutist regiment.

Each group, other than its command, will have support elements and three combat companies. In total, six combat companies were to be deployed. It was therefore necessary to find two more than we have today but without looking like we were increasing the numbers deployed.

The guard for Warehouse Camp in Kabul will be transferred to the Georgian Army which will free up the French company currently assigned there. For the second, the general staff will no longer count the sailors deployed in the Indian Ocean with OEF, thereby allowing the deployment of 150 men to the theater.

Similarly, the 150 gendarmes assigned to train the Afghan police will not be counted....because they are on a different mission. The ten helicopters will remain at the Kabul airport.

Second, still at Secret Defense, this time here, French Special Forces are returning to Afghanistan. Apparently, approximately 150 troops would be deployed. What would be their role? Merchet says this remains to be determined because it's hard to explain exactly what makes operations special in COIN.

In any case:

The special forces would be under commander of the Lafayette Brigade commander and would work closely with allied special forces, especially American forces...Since their return from Afghanistan [in 2007, French special forces were deployed during Operation Ares at Spin Boldak and briefly in Jalalabad], French Special forces suffer from not being used in what they view as the main operational theater for the French Army. General Georgelin, who leaves his post in February, was reluctant to send the forces to Afghanistan.
Ok, this time I'm done...

McHugh assumes duties as SecArmy

Following his confirmation last week (and his nomination three and a half months ago; thanks Congress!), John McHugh has started work as the new Secretary of the Army. In related news, it looks like his wife might be kind of hot.

Joseph Westphal was also confirmed as the Under Secretary of the Army.

Friday, September 18, 2009

More On Kunduz: Colonel May Have Lied to Get Strike (UPDATED)

According to an article in the German FT, the colonel who ordered the air strike in Kunduz may have lied about the danger facing his troops in order to get the planes to strike. Now I need someone to translate this article for me so I'm relying on this usually reliable French blog, Zone Militaire.

A quick translation of what I'm reading there--at Zone Militaire (and like I said, as soon as I've talked to German friends, I'll update) :
The article, using sources close to the investigation, say colonel Georg Kelin gave false information to justify the airstrike. He was already suspected of not complying with ISAF rules to avoid these types of incidents but Colonel Klein may have assured that his troops where "in contact with the enemy" when this was not the case. The Washington Post indeed reported that the officer requested the air strike based on the information of an informant on the ground.

If and it's a big IF that turns out to be true, then well, the rest is pretty obvious.

UPDATE: I finally got some help on the German FT article. Here goes (and here I'm going with paraphrasing instead of direct translation). The article says that the Colonel claimed her had troops in contact--which he needed to justify an air strike request to the command center in Kabul. When asked what kind of contact, he said he had visual contact even though he had no soldiers anywhere near the tanker trucks. Just before the air strike, he again stated that there was immediate danger to his troops.

Now, obviously this is about rules for getting close air support. In this case, the Colonel would have to follow ISAF rules, which are very restrictive. As far I'm told, for ISAF, having troops in contact is required to get close air support but it's not supposed to be a technicality. You have to have troops being or about to be fired on. They have to be immediately threatened. All this to say, if the Colonel did lie and did break the rules, the German prosecutor in Potsdam is going to be looking into this VERY closely.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

French Defense Minister: "Why We Should Not Leave Afghanistan"

French Defense Minister Herve Morin gave an interview to RMC earlier this week about France's involvement in Afghanistan and France's commitment to continued presence in Afghanistan. The minister doesn't often speak to the media (or at least not that I've seen) so this is interesting for several reasons. First it gives some insight into his thinking on the French presence and gives some idea of how he's selling it at home. Second, it gives at least a glimpse of the level of discourse and complexity of discussion on these issues (from what you'll see below, it doesn't seem like very much). So let's get to my quick and dirty translation of some key points:
"If we leave, there is a major risk of contagion in this crisis arc. Pakistan...has nuclear weapons. We must therefore revise our strategy, particularly by focusing less on the Taliban and more on the population. We must manage to create conditions of trust with the population so that the people cooperate with coalition forces and not with the Taliban."
"If we leave, we make Afghanistan the base for terrorism. Our compatriots must keep in mind that, around the world, every day, thanks to cooperation between intelligence services, we stop terrorist plots and curtail terrorist networks. This is the main threat. "
In the interview, Morin apparently also discussed the need for benchmarks for withdrawal, casting them as a tool to educate the public (and presumably build support for continued support). Mostly though, he said that leaving would mean a lot of wasted effort. He specifically mentions the roads built, the children put in school etc and argues that if France leaves all of that would be for naught.

So it seems the Minister has the basics down on COIN but it's still not a terribly sophisticated discussion. An important thing to remember though is that French policy, until last year's Defense White Paper, (and ensuing legislation) did not mandate parliamentary consultation for deploying forces overseas. Indeed, that required a mere presidential notification to the lower house. What does that mean? That the French executive branch is still learning how to justify its decisions. It's going to have to get better at it though because the laws that were passed following the publication of the White Paper say that the lower house must periodically re-authorize deployments .

Missile defense: SECDEF told us this was coming five months ago!

This morning I woke to a "breaking news alert" from the Washington Post, headlined as follows: "Czech Premier: Obama Scrapping Missile Shield" (here's the updated story). Within half an hour of getting to the office, I'd had three people ask me "so what do you think of Obama cancelling the missile defense program?" There's probably a rant to be had here about sensationalist media and misleading headlines, but I'll leave that alone.

So as you probably know by now, the administration has decided to abandon plans to continue the Bush-era European-based missile defense system that would have become operational around 2017 or 2018. Ballistic missile defense is not being abandoned, though, despite what the headlines might've suggested. Here's what the President had to say, and here's the transcript of Secretary Gates and General Cartwright's Pentagon press conference on the subject.

The new program will be based around the Army's forthcoming Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile and Navy SM-3s, building off the sea service's success with Aegis-equipped ships performing the theater missile defense (TMD) mission. Secretary Gates insists that our international partners are still being encouraged to participate in this system, and that the changes from the old system are intended in large part to protect European allies against short- and medium-range Iranian missiles (which are much more likely threat than an imagined Iranian ICMB capability). Over time the system will include land-based missiles and radars (unidirectional X-band), also, and the Czechs and Poles will be encouraged to host those sites (well, the missiles, at least -- the radars are likely to be based in the Caucasus).

I don't really want to get bogged down on technical details and all that nonsense, because if you care about that stuff you can find it yourself. The point of this is to bring to your attention the fact that THIS STUFF IS NOT NEW. Everyone's running around like there was no sign of this announcement, as if it's a dramatic change that came without any warning. But remember Secretary Gates' April 6th news briefing, the one where he came out and announced some key points in his budget recommendation? You know, when we all focused on the cancellation of FCS ground vehicles, the presidential helicopter, the 187 cap on F-22, "a fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition, and contracting," and the "rare chance to match virtue to necessity, to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements, those things that are desirable in a perfect world from those things that are truly needed in light of the threats America faces and the missions we are likely to undertake in the years ahead; an opportunity to truly reform the way we do business"?

Yeah, me too. But here's the bits I didn't remember until I reread it this afternoon (this first part coming in listing of "new or additional investments and shifts in several key areas," on the lines immediately below the one about F-22):

Fourth, to better protect our forces and those of our allies in theater from ballistic missile attack, we will add $700 million to field more of our most capable theater missile defense systems; specifically, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, and the Standard Missile 3 programs.

Fifth, we will add $200 million to fund the conversion of six additional Aegis ships to provide ballistic-missile-defense capabilities.
And then later, when discussing acquisition and contracting reform, and more specifically program cancellations:

[...] in the area of missile defense, we will restructure the program to focus on the rogue state and theater missile threat. We will not increase the number of current ground-based interceptors in Alaska, as had been planned, but we will continue to robustly fund continued research and development to improve the capability we already have to defend against long-range rogue missile threats, a threat North Korea's missile launch this past weekend reminds us is real.
There it is in black and white: the Defense Department has been planning for six months to shift to a more theater-oriented BMD network, rather than a continental defense. How did so many people (including me) miss it?

Oh yeah, and something else that I forgot to mention the first time through -- here's GEN Cartwright on where this all came from: "Most of this work has emanated from the congressionally directed Ballistic Missile Defense Review that is a part of our QDR analysis." In light of the fact that Secretary Gates' April speech came before most of the QDR work was done, that seems dubious. Congress does mandate, of course, that DoD perform a BMD review as part of the QDR. Congress mandates the entire QDR, but it would be silly to suggest that the strategic realignment that's going on Department-wide was something that "emanated from the QDR;" it's more accurate to say that the QDR is shaking out along the lines of the changing conventional wisdom about these issues.

WAR NERD ALERT: Army camouflage drama! (UPDATED)

I've written a little bit about the Army Combat Uniform in the past, but mostly have limited my rants to its unsuitability for wear in office buildings rather than its combat effectiveness. Via Wings Over Iraq, I've stumbled across a blog called Strike-Hold! that is all over the debates (that I didn't even know existed) about replacing the ACU with a more, well, camouflagey camouflage. If you're interested in this subject, then check out these posts:

Wings Over Iraq -- 16 SEP Links of the Day (check out the third bullet)

Wings Over Iraq -- 16 AUG Don't tell me I need to buy ANOTHER uniform...

Strike - Hold! -- 31 JUL The US Armed Forces, Congress and The Great Camouflage Controversy – the extended remix

Strike - Hold! -- 31 AUG Mirage, MultiCam, UCP -- a quick comparison

Like I said before, I hadn't heard anything about this stuff, which is a serious blow to my nerd cred. Thanks to Starbuck and Lawrence for their good coverage of the camo drama.

UPDATE: Starbuck is back on this subject today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back to you, Bernard

I recently had an exchange with Bernard Finel in the comments section of his blog about the purported effectiveness of the Taliban as an insurgent group, and by extension, the ineffectiveness of the ANSF. He responded in a separate post to some questions that I posed, and I keep promising to get back to him. Now that I've waited so long as to let his post fall off the front page, I figure I'll deal with his responses here. Check out the whole post on Bernard's blog, though, as I haven't reproduced the entire exchange here. (My questions in bold, and his responses set off as quotations.)

1) What do you mean when you say that “the Taliban and associates are so effective”? Why are you certain that this is true?

I’d say that results suggest the Taliban is more effective. With less money and fewer men that ISAF/ANA they have steadily expanding their reach in the country. While Joshua Foust is probably correct that the ICSD report that the Taliban has a permanent presence in 80% of the country is likely an overstatement, I don’t think anyone doubts that the Taliban has widening its operational area. The insurgent forces seem to act with a high degree of self-sufficiency. They are continuing to function even in areas that are ostensibly under coalition control. And remember, the Taliban presence in the country was rebuilt after the shattering defeats of 2001-2002. In short, while we seem to be having an inordinate amount of trouble building reliable Afghan forces capable of accomplishing their assigned missions, the Taliban and associated networks have been able to build a force capable of acting in most of Afghanistan in a disciplined fashion to implement what seems to be a coherent strategy.

I admit this is a subjective assessment. And I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but on the whole the insurgents seem to more effective that the Afghan security forces.

I'm not really that familiar with the data on this, so I don't know if "the Taliban [is] widening its operational area" or not -- it's all anecdotal. Acting "with a high degree of self-sufficiency" and "continuing to function even in areas that are ostensibly under coalition control" seem to me to be hallmarks of an extant insurgency, not signs that it is growing in power or reach.

Yes, it's clearly true that we're having difficulty building effective enough ANSF quickly enough to combat the insurgency. Building security forces from whole cloth is an expensive and time-intensive process, particularly when that newly established military must be tailored to confront threats very different from the ones our military has trained, equipped, organized, and educated itself to do. Insurgent groups don't face the same sort of obstacles for the simple reason that they don't require institutions, at least not at this stage of the insurgency. The Taliban need only figure out what's effective in combat and replicate it, adapting as necessary.

In summary, I don't think it's at all clear that Taliban forces are objectively more capable than ANSF, only that their circumstances confer certain advantages that allow for tactical (even if geographically broad) success.

2) If we do accept your assertion that the insurgents are more effective than the ANSF: isn’t it fair to say that what is required for insurgents to be considered “effective” is considerably less difficult to achieve than what we’d need to see to assign such a label to the ANSF?

I agree, and I have indeed argued that “Insurgencies, once established, run downhill. Counter-insurgencies, always, run uphill.” But there two caveats. First, “once established” is a significant qualifier as our good friend Che might have acknowledged. There was nothing inevitable about the Taliban resurgence. Having ruled brutally before being been chased from power after having provoked a foreign intervention, it would seem the Taliban would have an uphill battle to become again a significant force. They are not receiving significant foreign support. When the history of the Taliban is written far in the future, when passions have cooled, and the issue is studied purely as a matter of military history I suspect people are going to recognize in the recovery of the Taliban an instance of a movement/insurgency that is rare for its resilience. The point is, that yes, insurgencies have some structural advantages, but nonetheless, I think we have to acknowledge that thus far the Taliban is proving itself to be more effective than most historic insurgencies.

Second, saying that it is easier to be an insurgent does not mean it is easy. I admit, I don’t wholly understand why the Taliban — and affiliates — is able to operate outside of Pashtun areas. But I think some observers subscribe to a caricature that portrays the Taliban as just a bunch of thugs and killers. They are that, certainly. But from what I can tell — and I happy to be corrected on this score if I am wrong — they seem to using a relatively sophisticated operational concept. They are blowing stuff up, yes. And threatening “collaborators.” But they are also, somehow positioning themselves as an anti-corruption and nationalist movement. They represent more than just a coercive force. So while being an insurgent is potentially easier, just as we hope to “live among the people” and build institutions, I think Taliban fighters are also similarly required to balance military and political action. Indeed, it is this ability that, I think, explains part of what make them such a challenge, unlike, say, AQI which was just a source of insecurity. Anyway, long story short. Creating insecurity is easy. But generating a successful insurgency requires more than that… and I suspect that if we captured Mullah Omar’s IN guidance, it would at least mirror some of McChrystal’s COIN guidance.

I agree, there was nothing inevitable about the Taliban's return to prominence. But let's also be clear about the fact that they are not close to returning to power as a government, even in the limited geographical range where they held power in 2001. And let's also be clear about the fact that roughly seven years of relative coalition inattention has permitted a resurgence in certain limited areas.

As you know, and as you allude to in this post, parties to a civil war that can be seen to have success find it much easier to gain control and support, so it's perfectly reasonable that the insurgents' success in some under-resourced areas to which we've paid little attention would snowball regionally or nationally. This isn't due to a failure of the ANSF as a tactical force, but rather to a failure of strategic and operational planning. The prior administration actively resisted the stand-up of capable ANSF for several years, and there weren't sufficient numbers of coalition troops to pacify the countryside unilaterally. This, really, is an answer to the broader question (if we do accept that the Taliban are more capable, which I don't, exactly): the Taliban have had a few years' head start.

I still don't accept the assertion that any progress made by the Taliban is directly attributable to any unique capabilities or appeal, but rather believe that they've successfully made use of both structural advantages and specific geographic ones: insurgencies thrive in mountainous areas and other difficult terrain, in places where population density is sparse and villages and towns isolated from one another, and in areas that lack modern transportation infrastructure. These realities obtain in basically all of the places that the insurgency has met with significant success.

It is absolutely true that the Taliban "represent more than just a coercive force." It's widely understood that the Taliban's provision of law courts and consistent justice is something that aids their standing among many Afghans, particularly when contrasted with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Afghan government. They absolutely do -- at least on limited occasions -- "balance military and political action." But isn't it clear that the bar is much lower on this, seeing as they're not the legitimate government? If the Taliban were so effective at doing this, then why the popular discontent during the period where they were actually in power?

Right now, the Taliban have a "successful insurgency" simply because they haven't lost. They have manipulated circumstances such that it looks even less likely that they will lose in the future, so I suppose that could be considered progress. But when you write that "creating insecurity is easy... but generating a successful insurgency requires more than that," I'm curious what the "more than that" is. I don't think I necessarily agree with you. Creating a successful revolution, or providing a governing alternative, those are things that require more. But generating a successful insurgency only requires the creation of insecurity and momentum... the appearance and reality of some limited success. Then others will jump on board, whether or not they share the political ideology or specific grievance of the insurgency's core.

I'm not going to specifically address questions three and four because I think that the former is somewhat irrelevant (though I apologize if I misrepresented you) and that the latter is covered above. Thanks for the opportunity to explain myself, though, and for making me consider these questions more deeply.

Two reviews of Krakauer's new Pat Tillman book

So now that I've positively recommended a book that I haven't read, it's time to share with you some reviews of another new book I haven't read, one that sounds like it might not be that great: Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

Everyone knows the story of Tillman by now: the NFL player who left a multimillion dollar contract to join the Army, killed in Afghanistan, lauded as a hero and recommended for a Silver Star... only for it to later be revealed that the Army had cooked the story, that the medal was a fraud, and that the man who had become a symbol of patriotism and broad public support for the "Global War on Terror" had been mistakenly killed by his own comrades. Sounds like it has the makings of a great book, right?

Jon Krakauer is a talented writer, and I really enjoyed Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous 1996 expedition to summit Everest. (Incidentally, I read that book after learning about it from my mom, a nurse, who cared for one of the climbers during his recovery from surgery related to injuries he suffered as a member of the ill-fated party.) But from the sounds of these two reviews, he didn't really do justice to the Tillman story.

First we've got Andrew Exum's "He Didn't Come Home," from Sunday's Washington Post. Ex's criticisms are mostly related to the way that Krakauer approaches the Tillman drama as a political story, an exemplar for the failures and dishonesty of the Bush administration.

If Krakauer had committed himself to telling Tillman's story, "Where Men Win Glory" might have been the latest in an unbroken string of superb books. But his book falls flat -- not least because he is more eager to launch an inquisition into the crimes of the Bush administration than to explore this single extraordinary life.

War takes place at four levels -- the political, the strategic, the operational and the tactical. The Bush administration deserves the lion's share of the blame for the political and strategic blunders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too many years, U.S. troops were spread too thin to accomplish mission-essential tasks in either country. But the errors that led to Tillman's death were all operational and tactical -- and the responsibility for these mistakes must be placed on the men making decisions under stress. Why or how an army was sent into combat is often irrelevant to the men on the ground. Their lives are, for the most part, in the hands of the enemy and their fellow warriors.

I am no fan of many of the Bush administration's decisions. I did not vote for the former president in either 2000 or 2004 and was so cynical about the U.S. invasion of Iraq that my platoon went so far as to engrave my judgment of the war -- "This is (expletive, gerund) ( expletive, noun)" -- on my going-away plaque. All of this would surprise Krakauer, who, among other things, labors under the misimpression that U.S. military officers are mainly political conservatives better at following orders than thinking critically. In reality, the men and women who serve in the U.S. military are as diverse as the people they defend.

Blaming the Bush administration for all that has befallen the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan unfairly excuses the military itself for the many errors it made.

The real story, Ex suggests, is more about the military messing up, not the politicos covering up:
An Air Force officer I know likes to say that whenever one seeks to understand an epic failure of our nation's military, one must first draw a line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" at one end and "buffoonery" on the other. Those who have spent time in the military and have seen it struggle not just with war but with everyday barracks life tend to err on the side of incompetence, while those who never have -- such as Krakauer -- tend to suspect conspiracy.
Dexter Filkins -- the outstanding war correspondent for the New York Times and author of what I believe to be probably the best book to come out of America's post-9/11 military adventures, The Forever War -- takes a different approach. In his review, Filkins is critical primarily of Krakauer's decisions on the structure of the book (not to mention factual errors).

The biggest problem with “Where Men Win Glory” is that nearly all the drama and
import — Tillman’s death and the cover-up — are saved for the last hundred pages. The first two-thirds covers Tillman’s early life, his ascent into the National Football League and his decision to quit and enlist. Tillman doesn’t arrive in Afghanistan until Page 230.

It’s not that his life was dull — he emerges as a man of exceptional character, who lived according to a set of principles he had developed from deep thinking and reading. Still, that life, as described here, is not large enough to carry the reader to the momentous events that we already know are on the way.

Krakauer skillfully sketches Tillman’s singular personality, laying the groundwork to present his remarkable decision to take the Army over the N.F.L. Tillman was very much his own man: he wore his hair to his shoulders, rode his bicycle to training camp each morning and “never went anywhere without a book.”

But after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman found his professional life suddenly hollow. "Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”

So Tillman said goodbye to the N.F.L., to stardom and to the three-year, $3.6 million contract the Cardinals had offered him to stay. In deciding to enlist, he moved hard
against the grain of contemporary wartime America, which demands extraordinary
sacrifice from a few while asking almost nothing of everyone else.

Unfortunately, too many of the details of Tillman’s life recounted here are mostly banal and inconsequential. Do we really need to be told, at extended length, how Tillman — or “Pat,” as Krakauer cloyingly refers to him — jumped off a granite ledge in Sedona, Ariz.? How he got drunk and threw up with his pals in Paris? How he beat up a guy at the pizza parlor in high school? It feels like padding, and so do Krakauer’s long digressions about Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration, most of which are only tangentially related to his subject’s life (and some of which are inaccurate: Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, was not a major mujahedeen commander during the war against the Soviets; Ismail Khan is not a leader of the Hazaras). This would have been a better book had it been a hundred pages shorter.

Filkins does commend Krakauer for assembling in one place the many already-revealed details of the Tillman drama, particularly those related to the cover-up. He has more patience than Exum with Krakauer's decision to focus on the political or propagandistic elements of the story, but similarly seems to come away from the book disappointed at what might have been.

Considering the negative reviews from two people whose opinions I respect, I'm unlikely to pick the book up. Read the reviews and see what you think.

One day at war

On this blog and others like it, we go round and round about the strategic consequences of the war in Afghanistan, like the Iraq war before it. COIN versus CT. Taliban versus al-Qaeda. Nation-building versus forward defense. Et cetera, et cetera. The same conversations take place in the media and the halls of government, most often with an even greater degree of abstraction: this is why the war is good and must go on, this is why the war is bad and must end, this is what the American people will support, this is what the American people won't tolerate, and so on.

Sometimes we lose perspective. Sometimes we need a reminder that the same war that's a political event for those of us in the chattering classes -- even those among us who have been there and done that -- is a life for other people, a daily struggle to do your job and stay alive and keep going.

Did anyone else understand that, though? Because while the news in Rustamiyah on Sept. 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who had lost both legs and a fifth who had lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm, that wasn't the news in the United States. It was about President George W. Bush arriving in Australia, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, "We're kicking ass." It was about a Government Accountability Office report that noted the Iraqi government's lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq, which Republicans seized on as one more reason Democrats were unpatriotic, which pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

Sometimes, at Rustamiyah, the soldiers would watch the screaming and wonder how the people on those shows knew so much. Clearly, most of them had never been to Iraq, and even if they had, it was probably for what the soldiers called the windshield tour: corkscrew in, hear from a general or two, get in a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin, corkscrew out.

The soldiers would laugh about this, but after more than half a year here, one thing they had lost sight of was how different the Iraq war was in Iraq as opposed to in the United States. To them, it was about specific acts of bravery and tragedy. Three dead inside a burning Humvee -- what else could a war be?

But in Washington, it was more strategic, more political. Three dead? How sad, and this is why we need to get out of Iraq, to honor the sacrifice, and this is why we need to stay in Iraq, to honor the sacrifice.

This is an excerpt from an outstanding essay in last Sunday's Washington Post, taken from David Finkel's new book The Good Soldiers. On this evidence, I think it'll be worth the read.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's Great Being Surrounded by Smart People

For starters, it makes you look smart. Gulliver and Alma, of whom I refer to in the title, have great posts on what a more CT (or enemy-centric COIN) fight would be like, or at least the implications and efficacy thereof, in Afghanistan. They came at it from different directions with very valid points and I think these two posts show the brackets for what that option actually looks like.

So what do I have to add to this? Not much other than suggest a change in strategic context in which these posts could be used effectively. Alma is 100% on as far as HUMINT requirements go (at least per my experiences in Iraq). Gulliver is 100% on with the fact that you can kill some really bad dudes with this method without significant ground forces and really stick the enemy in the eye. (To be sure they both present many more arguments and questions than that, but for our purposes here...) So the question becomes (to me at least), in what strategic context would these operational forms take place?

The last eight years in Afghanistan suggest that these operations have no hope of defeating the Taliban or al Qaeda in and of themselves. To suggest that it suddenly could in the future is absurd based on historical precedence. But I don't think these operations are useless, they're just useless to thus far poorly defined ends (that is the defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda).

At the operational or high-tactical level, we would make an area like this a disruption zone (for all of you engineers out there, I'm not talking about the term in the doctrinal-complex-obstacle sense). In a disruption zone, you're just trying to make it hard for the enemy to do what it wants. I guess it could be called a "hassle zone", but that just doesn't have the same ring to it. The disruption zone would allow us to harass al Qaeda and the Taliban to the point that while they probably exist in the region, it would be hard for them to organize effectively or govern. For other examples of this, look at JTF-HOA. This is pretty much what those guys are doing - a huge disruption zone.

So let's be realistic here. We will not drone ourselves to "victory" in Afghanistan. But we'll make life hard for them to be there. Which isn't too much less than what we're doing there now with tens of thousands of soldiers and marines on the ground.

How GEN Chiarelli understands the advisory/SFA brigade concept

There's an interview in this month's National Defense Magazine with GEN Peter Chiarelli, former commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and Multi-National Corps-Iraq, and current Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. Here's what he has to say about the Modular Brigades Augmented for Security Force Assistance (which he confusingly refers to with the term "advisory brigades," reminiscent of the soon-to-be-defunct terminology of "Advise and Assist Brigades"), covered in the past here.

The Army also is under pressure to train more “advisory brigades” to assist Iraqi and Afghan commanders. To that end, the Army is planning to add more officers to existing brigades. The Army wants advisory organizations to remain combat brigades rather than become specialized units, says Chiarelli. “We believe that as much as we can keep the force from specialization the better off we’ll be,” he says. “The brigade combat team is now the centerpiece formation.” The brigade is versatile and can be augmented with field grade officers for advisory missions, he says.

“The skills you’re looking for in an advisory brigade are from operations officers” who are trained for combat, he says. “Formations can be pulled out from a BCT and used in advisory missions when you don’t need a full brigade,” says Chiarelli.

This is consistent with what I've been told in the past, which is that SFA brigades will "maintain the capability to perform full-spectrum operations." I'm not really sure what he's on about in the last bit, but I mostly blame that on the writer. Is he saying that you can pull guys out of a combat brigade to perform the advisory mission when the entire brigade isn't needed for combat operations? Because I thought the point of having a brigade augmented for SFA was that it would be an SFA-centric, dedicated advisory/training brigade (at least in the sense that the brigade would serve as the force provider for multiple training teams, led by the augmentee officers) -- NOT that it would be a regular ol' brigade with a few extra dudes that could be used for the SFA mission when they're not too busy pulling triggers and calling for fires.

It might be the case that I'm just sort of getting wrapped up in semantics, but it's a confusing subject and I'm not entirely sure that anyone in the Army really has their arms around it.

The whole interview is worth a read if you care about stuff like Army procurement lead-times and whatnot.

Should I stay or should I go?

If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double. Or so goes the song.

It was also the (foregone) conclusion of the panel the CATO Institute held yesterday in DC on “Should the US withdraw from Afghanistan?” To this question, the authors of a new CATO report on Afghanistan, Malou Innocent and Ted Carpenter, provide an unambiguous response: “Yes, and fast.” Their report states that:

“In short, as the war in Afghanistan rages on, President Obama should be skeptical of suggestions that the defeat of al Qaeda depends on more and more U.S. troops. First, al Qaeda terrorist havens can be disrupted though covert operations and supported by unmanned aerial vehicles. Second, an oppressive regime in Afghanistan does not necessarily threaten the United States. Third, it is not clear that the Taliban, if they were to regain control of much of the territory, would again harbor al Qaeda. And fourth, troop increases are likely to incite fierce resistance to foreign forces rather than enhance the prospects of success in a country as large, rural, and impoverished as Afghanistan.”

The report echoes George Will’s op-ed in the Washington Post two weeks ago: “[…] forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”

I am no Afghanistan or UAV specialist, but this seems to me like an extremely optimistic view of what drones and cruise missiles can achieve. My understanding was that both of them need a lot of HUMINT to be able to strike in the right spot and at the right time. At this stage, there are still a number of high-value targets we can not locate and take out. So how do we expect that with the Talibans back in power and Al-Qaeda again its guest (which I think is likely to happen, but Innocent and Carpenter disagree), those targets will be more exposed and vulnerable to drone attacks? I see how this option is a seductive way out, but we should not get fooled about its ability to achieve even limited objectives—unless someone can point to me a convincing study about the high rates of success of such operational means.

In addition to the potential lack of effectiveness of this option, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling added a few days ago this major caveat (in his response to General Krulak’s email supporting George Will’s op-ed): “General Krulak advocates the use of ‘hunter-killer teams’ backed by airpower governed by minimal rules of engagement to ‘take out the bad guys’. This light footprint tactic has failed for the last eight years. Aircraft operating with few or no ground forces cannot distinguish between insurgents and innocent civilians. Minimal rules of engagement result in maximum civilian casualties, tacitly assisting our enemies as they seek sanctuary and support from civilian populations”. Or are civilian casualties suddenly acceptable because, with fewer troops on the ground, we don’t care anymore whether they hate us or not?

Back to the CATO panel, Celeste Ward’s intervention was less about what to do in Afghanistan than about denouncing COIN as a “worldview” that “now borders on theology”, in an intervention that was reminiscent of her Washington Post op-ed of last May—with more citations of Gian Gentile. Her main argument is that applying the COIN cookie-cutter approach to Afghanistan is lazy and dangerous (on top of being not based on convincing historical precedents), since conflicts are largely unique and “groupings obscure more than they illuminate”. She does have a point, and any political scientist attempting to find patterns to conflicts and their resolution is faced with this shortcoming (see on this issue the recent and excellent post by Marc Lynch on whether there is a “political scientists” consensus on the future of Iraq). This, however, should not prevent political scientists/analysts from trying to do so, while keeping in mind that how they apply such models to amorphous, changing and novel situations is a daunting challenge. Or is it to say that lessons learned are worth nothing?

Patrick Cronin from NDU was the lone defender of the alternative view according to which the US should not withdraw from Afghanistan, or at least not yet. Arguing that a serious strategy has not yet been attempted, he cited Anthony Cordesman on how resources for the Afghanistan war have been insufficient and scattered over the past eight years, and concluded that we should give the new administration at least 12 months to see if progress is possible—and if the new strategy can offer any hope.

Friend of Inkspots Bernard Finel was in the audience and asked a good question on the relevance of human (and, more specifically, women’s) rights in the decision to let go of Afghanistan and let the Talibans gain back control of the country. Malou Innocent’s reply, along the lines of “we care, but intervening in one place when we can not intervene everywhere is hypocritical anyway”, was far from convincing. Celeste Ward’s take on it (“we care, but we don’t need a full-blown nation-building endeavor to do something for women’s rights in Afghanistan”) was more astute but I wish she could have elaborated… What exactly did we do for Afghan women’s rights between 1996 and 2001, and why would that be different after a US withdrawal?

I only touched on a couple of questions debated at this panel, so if you are in the mood for more, it has been taped and can be found here.

This is exactly why a light footprint counterterror campaign will never work in Afghanistan!

Stand-off CT missions lack necessary intelligence. We can't get to targets in time. We'll never tell friend from foe. The bad guys will never show their faces if they're allowed to live in places controlled by sympathetic regimes or factions. Al-Qaeda is too capable and dangerous to try to fight from the other side of the globe. Large troop commitments are necessary to sustain the logistics and support operations that accompany counterterrorist trigger-pullers. Like so:

American commandos killed one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa in a daylight raid in southern Somalia on Monday, according to American and Somali officials, an indication of the Obama administration’s willingness to use combat troops strategically against Al Qaeda’s growing influence in the region.

Western intelligence agents have described the militant, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, as the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya responsible for the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002. Mr. Nabhan may have also played a role in the attacks on two American embassies in East Africa in 1998.

American military forces have been hunting him for years, and on Monday, around 1 p.m., villagers near the town of Baraawe said four military helicopters suddenly materialized over the horizon and shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert. The trucks were carrying leaders of the Shabab, an Islamist extremist group fighting to overthrow Somalia’s weak but internationally recognized government. The Shabab work hand-in-hand with foreign terrorists, according to Western and Somali agents, and in the past few months, as the battle for control of Somalia has intensified, the group seems to be drawing increasingly close to Al Qaeda.

American officials on Monday provided few details, but confirmed that Special Operations forces, operating from a nearby American warship, participated in the helicopter raid.

Whoops. Turns out all that stuff I said up there was wrong, and this is an example of exactly how the light footprint can be done.

Ok, ok, I'm being smarmy and I'm not really engaging substantively in this debate. I get it. And just because you can do it in one place doesn't mean you can do it -- or that it's the best way to do it -- in another place. The Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier is less accessible to offshore assets. There are more targets there. Surveillance is probably more difficult than in the desert of Somalia. I get all of this.

But please, please, can we stop dealing in self-assured assertions like "remote, kinetic counterterrorism would never work in South Asia"? Killing one guy ain't the same as winning the war, I know. But until we (all of us that are involved in this debate, I mean) stop taking everything so personally and clutching on to our beliefs like baby birds, stop refusing to accept anything that doesn't fit into our construct, stop labeling people as "gets it" or "doesn't get it," it's going to be really difficult to make any progress.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

African Union Soldiers and Killing Camels

This story is either funny or not, depending on your perspective. Maybe some readers can shed some light on whether this is unusual or not.

Anyway, here's the story:

African Union soldiers shot dead 11 camels in the Somali capital on Saturday night, mistaking the galloping animals for an insurgent attack, residents said.

Al Shabaab rebels sometimes use passing civilians and vehicles to give them cover before attacks, police said, and the peacekeepers from AMISOM mission thought they were behind the camels which ran past the entrance to Mogadishu's airport.

"We thought Islamists and AMISOM were fighting last night, but this morning we just saw 11 dead camels," resident Farah Aden told Reuters. "Each camel had at least 10 bullet wounds -- the whole area was covered with blood."[...]

"It was our new forces and they were not aware of the camels' movements. They say they were attacked, and so opened fire," [an AMISOM spokesperson] told Reuters.

Are these the preemptive/offensive operations that follow the change mandate we discussed recently? Is it easy or not to mistake camels for insurgents? It just strikes me as weird.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Michael Scheuer hates everyone and everything

Except America, I guess. But especially "contemporary American paganism, death-loving, and libertinism." If that makes any sense.

(I think one could be excused for asking how a guy that avowedly loathes modern America and its culture can be taken seriously when he advocates a narrow, isolationist, "America-first" foreign policy.)

Anyway, Scheuer and several others were asked to respond to this set of questions:
Should Obama gamble that more troops and new tactics will turn the tide, as Bush did in Iraq, and how many more troops would it take? Or does Obama risk his presidency by getting bogged down in another Asian land war in support of an increasingly undemocratic government? And what's the alternative to an "Afghan surge" -- perhaps, as conservative columnist George Will wrote last week, withdrawing and relying on special forces, intelligence and drones just to monitor the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?
And below is a bit of Scheuer's response. (I'd like to copy the whole thing in full, just so you can get a feel for how scattershot and angry this tirade is, but I'll fight the urge.) Watch out -- the crazy comes so fast it's kind of hard to focus.

This week’s question is an apt one to follow the discussion on summer reading. Summer was once the time when adults indulged in beach reading that allowed them -- in a child-like fashion -- to escape the hard realities and simple right-and-wrong choices of adult life. The books chosen allowed the sea-side reader to create his own reality for a few days and to intellectually experiment and wrestle with creating the world he or she would want to exist.

Sadly for America, virtually all of our ruling elite -- politicians, generals, teleprompter-reading news “experts” like Stewart, Hannity, and Olberman; print commentators and pundits, and most especially the great bulk of the thoroughly pagan, ahistorical, and anti-American academy -- now live the beach-reading experience the year round with no time off for reality, or for right and wrong. Although examples of this are legion -- witness the child-like world conjured by the communist/ultra-green/felon-loving/9/11-truther that our president wanted to advise the White House -- there is no better example of the nature of our perpetually child-like elite than those who offer us the vision of a world where there is legitimate reason for hope on the issue of Afghanistan.

Quite simply, there is no hope. The Afghan war is lost beyond recall, and all the young men and women who have died there since 9/11, and all those who will die from today forward, have died in vain. Their lives have been wasted by those in both parties who have governed us since 2001. These are men and women who find the idea of fighting to win repulsive and inhumane, but do not mind a lick wasting our kids lives for such non- essentials as human rights, women’s rights, secularism, and democracy for non-Americans, most of whom want no part of them and will fight them to the death. The simple reality is:

--Bush had a window for savagery for the first 12 or 15 months after 9/11; he could have done anything in using the U.S. military to achieve the only mission that could -- or can -- be accomplished in Afghanistan-- the annihilation of al-Qaeda and the Taleban. He and his tough-talking but always effete Neocons advisers and pundits did not have the courage to effectively destroy America’s enemies in Afghanistan. Obama’s team, on the other hand, has a clear affinity for America’s Islamist enemies and has dismantled most of the U.S. intelligence and covert-action programs that helped hold the Islamists at bay without having anything to put in their place.

--Rumsfeld and his clique fielded a tiny force in Afghanistan; foolishly believed George Tenet‘s lie that Afghans would sell their families and faith for money; assigned the task of closing the Pak-Afghan border to the Taleban’s tribal brothers in the Pak Frontier Corps; and so allowed most of al-Qaeda and the Taleban escape to regroup, refit, and fight another day. That day has arrived.

Et cetera. Good luck with all that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The LDCOA and Strategic Planning

I am currently reading through CSBA's Regaining Strategic Competence (boy that Dr. K is a smart guy). I hope to do a longer analysis of it when I'm done, but thought it prudent to discuss some of the earlier points in it - especially as some of it has been bothering me for a while.

The premise of the monograph is to demonstrate America's waning ability to competently think about and plan strategy - and not because of Iraq alone (which might be proof enough). Additionally, while the authors believe that some organizational changes are required, the organization of the national security apparatus is not the core problem with our strategic deficiencies. It is more about process.

From a military standpoint, planning is a fairly set process in how it is done. I was not a strategic planner in the Army, but from the ones that I know, it isn't terribly different than planning at the operational or high-tactical level - from a process point of view. It is a balancing of your own resources and capabilities versus those of your adversary towards some desired endstate. Pretty straightforward, right?

It seems not. Krepinevich and Watts lay out a list of strategic performance pitfalls. While they all seem valid to me, two jump out immediately. Check out numbers 9 and 10. First, there are few people who have the natural acumen for strategy (which I hope to address later) and second is the failure to understand the adversary (which we'll talk about here).

In standard military planning, on top of templating the enemy (equipment and disposition), the intel planner should lay out two very specific things that are somewhere between extremely educated guesses and wild assed guesses: the enemy's Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA) and Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA). The former is if everything went right for the enemy and is a worst-case scenario for your side. The latter is what the enemy is probably going to do. The command needs to be aware of the MDCOA and hopefully have branches of the plan to address it. But the plan should generally be built around the MLCOA. Simple, right?

Except lately, at the strategic level, we've completely ignored the MDCOA. I'm not sure why this is: optimism or ignorance I imagine. Had that analysis been done correctly, we probably wouldn't have gotten as mired in Iraq and Afghanistan as we are now because we would have had viable plans years ago. But it gets worse. That same optimism/ignorance has degraded the MLCOA so it doesn't even come close to reality. Iraq and Afghanistan (and arguably Kosovo before it) were plans based on the Least Dangerous Course of Action (LDCOA - my invention and not in FM 1-02 or whatever it's called these days) - that is if the enemy did everything you wanted it to so as to make quick work of your operation. Why wouldn't the enemy do everything in it's power to destroy itself in our interests?

Assuming (or really hoping) that things will get better or just betting that whatever you and your allies do, in a vacuum separated from the enemy's resources and capabilities, will bring about victory is just stupid. A platoon leader would be fired for doing that - why shouldn't a G/J staff? Or some of the NSC? Intellectual laziness, ideology, and just downright stupidity have no place in the framing and planning of the nation's strategy.

I would argue that most of the evidence I've seen thus far in the monograph is not new. Putting it all together to frame our ability (or lack of ability) to effectively plan at the strategic level is new. Please go read this paper - it is worth your time.

Airstrikes down in Afganistan

According to a report in USA Today, the number of airstrikes conducted by coalition forces in Afghanistan has dropped by close to 50 percent since GEN McChrystal took command three months ago.

NATO fixed-wing aircraft dropped 1,211 bombs and other munitions during the past three months — the peak of the fighting season — compared with 2,366 during the same period last year, according to military statistics. The nearly 50% decline in airstrikes comes with an influx of more than 20,000 U.S. troops this year and an increase in insurgent attacks.

The shift is the result of McChrystal's new directives, said Air Force Col. Mark Waite, an official at the air operations center in southwest Asia. Ground troops are less inclined to call for bombing or strafing runs, though they often have an aircraft conduct a "show of force," a flyby to scare off insurgents, or use planes for surveillance, Waite said.

The decrease in air attacks may also be the result of having more ground troops, Waite said. Air attacks are often used when ground forces aren't available to secure an area or seize an objective.

So instead of repeating platitudes about how civilian casualties are the key metric for success in a counterinsurgency war, I'll just post a relevant quote that I recently came across in Kalyvas. It's from John Paul Vann, a U.S. adviser in Vietnam and prominent participant in the CORDS program (and the source of several other quotable COIN-ish witticisms):

This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle -- you know who you're killing.
Interestingly, during his active-duty Army time, Vann was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in coordinating the battle of Ap Bac from a spotter plane while serving as an ARVN adviser. He would later (posthumously) be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross -- the only civilian recipient in the Vietnam War.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the hard-working USA Today reporter sought out two COINtras to challenge what COL Gentile calls "the dominant narrative":

By exercising so much restraint, the U.S. military may sacrifice a key firepower advantage on the battlefield and expose ground troops to more risk, some officers and analysts say.

"There is a tradeoff," said Col. Gian Gentile, a former battalion commander in Iraq who has publicly criticized counterinsurgency doctrine. "You reduce civilian casualties, but you potentially increase your own casualties."

Doug Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and military historian, says the emphasis on having conventional forces trying to win over the population is futile.

"You surrender whatever military advantage you have by compelling the U.S. conventional soldier or Marine to fight on terms that favor the enemy, not the American soldier or Marine," Macgregor said.

Gentile's comment is entirely accurate. Though I disagree with him on a great many other things, it is absolutely true to say that executing counterinsurgency tactics in an effective manner will erode some long-established strictures that privilege force protection over other mission concerns. Doug MacGregor, on the other hand, is just lost in the sauce. But then, are we surprised?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Washington Times series on Congo and Rape

I don't normally read the Washington Times much but this headline today caught my eye as I was walking to work this morning: "Congo's shame: rape used as a tool of war." The Times (for our international readers, the Times is considered a right-wing newspaper here in Washington and it's not as well regarded as the Washington Post) is running a three day special on DRC--more specifically on rape as a weapon of war. The series is based on six weeks of reporting in the war-torn country.

I've read the first article and it's a pretty good introduction to the problem of rape in DRC. There's also a couple narrated slideshows/videos that you might want to watch/listen to (while the pictures are difficult, the narration/interviews can be rather graphic).

There's not really much to say except move coverage of this is a positive development. I think it's a good thing that a paper like the Washington Times is covering this because I suspect its readers aren't normally exposed to the reality of war in DRC.

Well that really clears things up

Today's Post includes a piece by Karen DeYoung on White House debates about increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan. Anonymous senior officials are also quoted on the subject of strategic direction, specifically whether or not the president is concerned by or interested in the recent criticisms of withdrawal advocates like George Will and Russ Feingold.

But this official and others, who agreed to speak about the upcoming national security discussions on the condition of anonymity, gave no indication that withdrawal would be seriously considered. "There's not a lot of rethinking that the strategy we have pretty much worked on to go forward with needs some drastic or dramatic revision," a second official said.

"We can't deny that they've had their successes," the second official said of the Taliban. But McChrystal's recommendations are "all in the scope of how do you refine your tactics, not your strategy."

Uh, what? The first sentence seems to indicate that there's consensus that "the strategy we have pretty much worked on... needs some... revision," right? But then the second part tells us what (I thought) we already knew, which is that the administration is considering new tactical approaches but not the strategic necessity of continued involvement.

So what exactly is this guy saying?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Important Change in Mandate for AU Force in Somalia

The African Union's mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will apparently be working with a new mandate.

A Ugandan official told journalists:
..the earlier mandate constrained the UPDF [the main troop contributors are Uganda and Burundi] and was deadly as it demanded the peacekeepers to fight back only if they were attacked first.

The new mandate now means that the UPDF can carry out pre-emptive attacks on the insurgents in the war tone Horn of Africa country.

I wonder how much this will help given that the 4,000 strong contingent is undermanned, insufficiently equipped etc. Does this really mean that the peacekeepers will start operating differently? It will be interesting to see what happens and how these "pre-emptive" operations actually go.

Meanwhile, government and insurgent forces clashed in the capital, killing 6 civilians.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Charles Taylor's trial continues

Have you been reading about Charles Taylor's trial? If not, as I think I've said before, you're missing out on some really good stories. And by that I mean stories that should provide a much needed laugh.

Over the last couple days, Taylor's testimony has focused on his denial of accusations that he illegally armed both Sierra Leonean rebels and of course his own troops during the war. Of particular interest, is ongoing discussion of allegations made against Taylor in the report of the UN Panel of Experts on Sierra Leone. The document under discussion is S/2000/1195 and it can be found here.

Today, the story was that officials at Robertsfield International Airport in Monrovia were so corrupt that it would have been easy to bribe them and bring weapons in. While that's certainly true, you expect me to believe that, despite the large amounts of weapons coming in (and they weren't coming in on foot over regional borders, no they were being flown in thank you very much) that all of this happened without either his knowledge or consent? Give me a break.

That's a pretty tall tale and just because it's fun and I like linking to things that prove that he's wrong, I'll refer you again to Global Witness, to the UN sanctions committees' expert group reports (on Sierra Leone and on Liberia), to the International Crisis Group and of course to Small Arms Survey. Put together, the evidence against Taylor is pretty overwhelming. Still, it's great that he's getting an opportunity to defend himself, even if he has tell massively outlandish stories to do so. The bottom line is this, if the prosecution does its job right, that's what will come out of this process: that Taylor's tales are largely just that.

Beautiful Photos from Eastern Congo

The New York Times has these beautiful photographs from Eastern Congo.

There's more I want to write about but I just got back from a business trip to New York and need to finish follow up...so weapons trafficking will have to wait a bit (though with my luck, it's probably actually work to look at it).

In the meantime, go take a look at those photos.

Voulez-vous acheter des armes avec moi, ce soir? (UPDATED)

Are we entirely sure that this isn't actually an episode of "Rocky and Bullwinkle"?

A Belgian arms dealer who allegedly tried to smuggle fighter-jet engines and parts from the United States to Iran has been indicted, U.S. officials announced Wednesday, days after he was arrested in New York City after stepping off a flight from France.

Jacques Monsieur, 56, was charged Aug. 27 by a federal grand jury with six counts of conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering, and violating weapons-trafficking laws and export controls related to a U.S. trade embargo on Iran.

But wait, it gets even better:

Authorities say Monsieur, nicknamed "The Field Marshal," according to U.S. officials, in February contacted a person he thought could supply him with engines for F-5 fighter or C-130 cargo transport aircraft. That person turned out to be an undercover ICE agent. Monsieur subsequently met with undercover agents in Paris and London, authorities say.
The dude's name is Jacques Monsieur? His real name? Was the ICE agent who arrested him named Joe America? I know the guy is Belgian and not French, but is there a more hilariously stereotypical frog-eater name? (Half of this blog is French, ok? So I get some slack on the ethno-national slurs.) And then he goes by "The Field Marshal"?

I'm going to go ahead and nominate Jacques Monsieur, AKA The Field Marshal as my Favorite Francophone Villain. I know he's trying to sell plane parts to the bad guys and all that, but this is just too funny.
UPDATE: Here's a lot more info on The Field Marshal from some place called the Center for Public Integrity. (Slightly dated, as it seems to have been written around 2002.) Sounds like he's had his mitts in the Congo mess, so maybe Lil has something to add to this.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Complications with the "new G.I. Bill"

Today's Early Bird featured a nugget from the Associated Press about the first students to receive financial aid under the "Post 9/11 G.I. Bill," passed last year.

Facing a rush of last-minute claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs has cut housing checks to tens of thousands of veterans returning to college under the newly expanded GI Bill, but officials acknowledge that several thousand could get their money later than expected.

With the academic year recently under way, yesterday was the first day many veterans were due their first monthly housing stipends, which range from under $1,000 to upward of $2,500 depending on factors including location.

So this sounds great, right? Some delays, but really, why would the VA expect a "rush of last minute claims"?

Enter Alex, a young veteran, student, and the author of the really well-written blog Army of Dude.

When the Post 9/11 Bill passed through Congress with a veto-proof majority, I cheered. When it was signed into law, I was elated. But on August 1 of this year, when the bill went live after almost three years of legislation, hopes, dreams and well-wishes, I was silent. I did not want to commemorate a non-event as a moment of triumph. I took part in lobbying on Capitol Hill for the bill when it was just that - a scrap of paper that promised financial security in a post-Army life where almost everything feels uncertain and nebulous. I knew it would take at least a month after August 1 to see how it would play out. Through fears that the VA would fumble this rare opportunity to make good on a solemn promise made by FDR sixty five years ago, I watched August crawl by, swept up in a lazy mosaic of final exams and term papers that capped a full semester. With the old GI Bill in hand and the new one on the way, I took a leap of faith. With my bank account dwindling and rent, utility bills, school tuition and other obligations on the table, coupled with the advice of my VA counselor, I bet it all on the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

And I lost.

Go read about the depressing details of his experience here.

Army of Dude is one of those blogs that I check in on every few weeks, and every time I scold myself for not reading more regularly. Bet you'll feel the same.

The Calm in a Stormy Sea

And his name is Thomas Rid. Go read Kings of War.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to lose in Afghanistan

That was the title of yesterday's Cordesman op-ed, but probably the simplest way to accomplish that task would be by listening to Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. His response to the question "is the war in Afghanistan worth fighting?" was featured in yesterday's Post alongside Nagl, Bacevich, Erin Simpson/"Charlie" (who is listed as a contributor to Abu Muqawama even though she hasn't posted since, what, April?), Clint Douglas, and Danielle Pletka. Here's Johnson:

The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting only if we have well-defined goals and a realistic political and military strategy to achieve our objectives. Right now, we have neither. If the goal is to build a stable, "democratic" regime in Kabul, we will almost certainly fail. Afghans will never see such a government in Kabul as legitimate because democracy is not and has never been a source of legitimacy for governance in Afghanistan. Legitimacy in Afghanistan for thousands of years has stemmed exclusively from dynastic and religious sources.

Just as we misunderstand the basis for regime legitimacy in Afghanistan, we also profoundly misunderstand the nature of the enemy. In Afghanistan, we insist on fighting a counterinsurgency strategy based on secularly defined objectives, while the enemy is fighting a religiously inspired jihad. It's hard to defeat an enemy if you don't understand him. Most insurgencies end through some combination of negotiation and reconciliation, but the jihadists will never sincerely negotiate with us. Our "clear, hold, and build" approach is failing in Afghanistan for the same reasons it failed in Vietnam -- because we insist on prosecuting the approach sequentially -- not simultaneously. We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we need a strategy that is village-based and represents decentralized, bottom-up nation building based on traditional Afghan tribal leadership and legitimacy.

"It's hard to defeat an enemy if you don't understand him." Yes, correct. The problem, of course, is that he's got everything else pretty much exactly backwards.

First things first: it's not a terribly controversial argument to say that American-style democracy is unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan. "American-style" anything is pretty unlikely in a country that doesn't share our history, not to mention our prosperity. I'm no great supporter of democracy promotion as foreign policy, but it's getting a little boring to consistently hear critics say "there's no way the _________ will ever be able to pull off American democracy!" when there isn't really anyone suggesting that this is necessary or likely.

That digression aside, let's examine Johnson's specific assertion that "legitimacy in Afghanistan for thousands of years has stemmed exclusively from dynastic and religious sources." Bottom-line up front (BLUF), as they say in the military: this is the plainest BS.

I appreciate that the format is limiting, and that there isn't a whole lot of room for examples, evidence, or explanation. But there is simply no way to justify the argument that "legitimacy in Afghanistan has stemmed exclusively from religious sources," and the only way to understand "dynastic sources" as determinative is to misread history pretty dramatically. I happen to have just finished reading a great paper that speaks to the way legitimacy has historically been established in Afghanistan. It's called, conveniently enough, "Problems in Establishing Legitimacy in Afghanistan." The author, Thomas Barfield, notes that leadership in Afghanistan has usually been a prerogative of the strong and the (comparatively) rich. But perhaps even more interestingly, the Pashtuns have been something of an outlier to this trend: rather than falling in behind powerful leaders and accepting the legitimacy of those warlords and princes whose armies prevailed in battle, Pashtuns are more apt to ask what you've done for them lately:
If there was an alternative model to this system [of rule by victors in war], it was to be found among the tribal warriors who inhabited the marginal zones of steppe, mountains, and deserts of the region. Organized through segmentary kinship groups which were often egalitarian in social structure and prone to reject the legitimacy of any hereditary leadership, they had a high rate of participation in warfare, open political systems, and rarely considered defeat in war anything other than a temporary setback.
And then a little later:
Leaders had little formal power to command because their authority depended on building consensus to create a coalition of the willing. In the absence of such a consensus they had no power to command obedience or to punish the recalcitrant.
No mention of whether the "coalition of the willing" was religiously-mandated.

So it doesn't sound much like the Pashtuns derive legitimacy "exclusively from dynastic and religious sources," does it? That may not be democracy, but isn't there something at least a little democratic about a people who accept leadership from those most capable of serving their interests?

That leads in to Johnson's second paragraph, where we learn that our counterinsurgency approach is misguided because you can't talk a religious zealot out of fighting you. Only the vast majority of the enemy are not religious zealots, whatever the talking points might say about mujahedin or jihad. Johnson's argument may pertain to al-Qaeda, and perhaps even to the most committed, hard-core Taliban, but it most certainly does not apply to the bulk of Afghan insurgents. (This fact is so well-understood by this point as to be taken for granted, so I was almost shocked to see it invoked by someone considered to be a serious commentator on Afghanistan.) As Stathis Kalyvas has proven, the populations embroiled in civil and sectarian war generally support the party that proves itself most capable of providing security. Violence is instrumental, designed to serve a purpose, and typically not a product of the motivations to which it is more often ascribed: ideology, the breakdown of social norms, political polarization, ethnic identity, and so on.

All of which is to say that Johnson has it about as wrong as you can get it. Josh Foust has highlighted poor analysis by Tom Johnson before. Here's yet more evidence that superficial (often ideological) appeal is more important when trying to get in the papers than, you know, being right.