Saturday, October 31, 2009

Contrasts--Kinshasa, Monrovia, and Abidjan

One of the things that I thought was most interesting about my short visits to all of these places was the different attitudes that locals had towards their countries' police and military forces. Since we hadn't been to any of these cities before, we always had someone drive us around town for a couple hours after checking into the hotel, just to get a feel for things.

Kinshasa is big, messy, bustling and crazy. The main artery, the Boulevard du 30 Juin (the day of independence from Belgium), has been completely torn up so it can be widened. In the process, the Chinese companies who are doing the work have removed all the decades old trees that I'm told used to line up the avenue (I had people almost crying when they told me about the trees, it's really awful, now there's just this sewage ditch on each side of the street, lovely).

Anyway, cops stand on platforms at intersections directing traffic and stopping white people in expensive looking cars. We asked the driver to take us down by the river, where some government buildings and embassies are. "No, we can't go there, there are too many military guys there," was the response. Ok, not that good, you have a problem if people are scared to come too close to government buildings. Over the next few days, we quickly found that taxi drivers would rather add 5-10 minutes to the trip in order to avoid getting too close to the Presidential palace...This is what happens when cops carry AKs--just like soldiers--and no one gets paid, or at least not paid enough. This is also what happens when soldiers are doing the jobs of police officers and when presidential guard units have complete impunity.

So, next stop Monrovia, where basically every permanent structure suffers from bullet holes. There's a lot of property disputes going on because seemingly sound structures (besides the bullet holes) lack roofs and windows and are not being used, despite the fact that there's a clear lack of housing/shop space/office space, you name it. Like in Kinshasa, there's construction everywhere.

On our little tour around the city, the driver pulls right into the driveway of the Ministry of the Interior. We're thinking "this guy is completely nuts." So we ask, "is it safe?" and get a puzzled frown in response, "Of course it's safe it's the ministry of the interior." And then you realize, there are no soldiers patrolling the streets, only unarmed police. They're directing traffic too but it seems they're harassing drivers a lot less. Not only that but it seems many of them actually do get paid. Now this creates another set of problems, which is that unarmed police have a hard time trying to respond to armed gangs...In short, people would like the cops to do more to address crime. Meanwhile, the military it seems is esconded into a big base for training. Signs on the gate and on the wall say "Barclay Training Center: Security Sector Reform for the Liberian People, from the American People."

Next stop Abidjan, which is different again because the buildings are largely intact (almost no bullet holes). The roads are paved, the traffic lights work and unless there's no one around, people actually abide by them. There are also bus lanes and nice highways along the laguna.

Here there are all sorts of police and military milling about, some almost unrecognizable because they're neighborhood cops and they just wear pants and a special kind of polo shirt that says "police municipale" in washed out capital letters in the back. The policing model is of course French. Here the gendarmes and military guys are armed again but not the municipal cops--these people are mostly seen talking to locals on the street, walking around the market. Here, ministries are surrounded by big fences and high walls and guarded by some kind of private guard company (yellow polo shirts, black pants, unarmed). These yellow shirt guys also stand guard at banks, supermarkets, and the nicer restaurants. Here, it seems military, police and gendarmerie patrol and sometimes set up "checkpoints" to steal money from hapless taxi drivers (small red corollas--they have meters!). So here again, we have the problem of unclear distinctions between police and military tasks.

All this to say, the reform needs for these countries are different and the way in which forces in country behave gives these cities a completely different feel.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Crisis in Guinea (updated)

After spending the last two weeks in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire--mostly in Monrovia and Abidjan but also a whirlwind afternoon in Bouake, the capital of the Forces Nouvelles in the north--I wanted to write about the ongoing crisis in Guinea.

The simple reason is this: Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, and of course Sierra Leone are very fragile countries. If things really deteriorate in Conakry, it could get really ugly. Just the refugees fleeing Guinea could threaten the shaky balance that the UN is trying to maintain in the region. I'll write more about Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire themselves, as well as about my two weeks in DRC a little later but really, you need to know about Guinea. It's sad, scary, and frankly outrageous.

After the death of Lansana Conte late last year, a young, likely illiterate "captain" named Dadis Camara took over in a coup. At first, people were hopeful because he announced presidential elections and promised not to run for election. Since then, he has been hedging (of course). At a protest at the Stadium in Conakry on 28 September, where people from the opposition gathered to encourage Camara not to run, over 150 were killed by security forces who entered the stadium. They simply started shooting people and gang-raping women.

This guy is a nut job: he gave France 24 (the French CNN basically) an interview defending himself. Take a look (you don't need to speak French to see why he's nuts): he's in bed in his PJs, talking to France 24. I saw another one where he was unable to string two sentences together and he was wearing Mugabe glasses...

So you can imagine that people I spoke with always brought up what would happen if things were to really go south in Guinea. In Liberia,they wondered how locals would deal with refugees flows. In Cote d'Ivoire, they wondered if the crisis would serve as yet another excuse for delaying the November presidential elections. They also asked why the US, France, and the EU had not done more to get rid of the crazy captain who has taken over in Conakry.

In the meantime, ECOWAS, the EU, and today the African Union, have imposed sanctions on Guinea and President Obama has called on Camara to step down. And just because you needed another reason to be outraged, Human Rights Watch reports that the massacre on 28 September was premidated. Still, I think we need to do a little more than that because I'm not sure that the UN can handle another operation in West Africa.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oil spots/ink blots approach in Afghanistan?

According to the New York Times and "administration officials," that may be what we're looking at.

President Obama’s advisers are focusing on a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers, administration officials said Tuesday, describing an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability.

Mr. Obama has yet to make a decision and has other options available to him, but as officials described it, the debate is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed. The question of how much of the country should fall
under the direct protection of American and NATO forces will be central to deciding how many troops will be sent.

At the moment, the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital, seen as a center of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances.

Might this be the best possible middle road? It sure seems to beat the hell out of "muddling through," the other non-drawdown, non-escalation path currently being advocated by some people, in which we'd, uh, just keep doing what we're doing (because that seems effective).

The best line in the whole story cites one official calling the plan "McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country."

Of course, if this approach is adopted, there will be critics who object to the "abandonment" of parts of the country, and others who question the effectiveness of a sequential, oil spots approach. Bernard Finel has raised some reasonable questions on this point here, and I hope to discuss them a bit more in the near future.

As I've indicated over the last several weeks, I'm not convinced of the strategic necessity of this Afghan campaign, or that a pacified Afghanistan is vital to the maintenance of American security. I'm skeptical about the chances for success of a broad-based and open-ended COIN campaign in the region, and I think a massive, extended resource commitment to Afghanistan is a pretty bad idea. That said, I appreciate the political challenge that this poses for the President. I think it would be nearly impossible at this stage for him to seriously consider a substantial drawdown or redefinition of the mission (as much as I would welcome those things). So in the meantime, maybe this is the least-bad option...?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Send Me...

The 2d Brigade Combat Team of the 3d Infantry Division is deploying back to Iraq in the coming weeks. This is the Brigade's fourth year-long rotation in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (in six and a half years of the Operation - for those of you keeping score at home) and while there are other (conventional) units that have as much time in theater as this Brigade, I don't believe there are any that have more. The Spartans did the Thunder Runs, overwatched the national elections, were the last surge brigade, and many, many other things and now go to do whatever it is that we're doing these days in Iraq. But most importantly they've fought their asses off because that's what Soldiers do. This Division isn't called the Rock of the Marne because of their ability to hand out HA (which they also do very well...).

So Godspeed to COL Sexton, CSM Martin, and the thousands of other Spartan Soldiers going once more into the breach. Rock of the Marne. Send Me.

This will make Gian Gentile's head explode

Last Saturday's New York Times finds lessons of counterinsurgency on the fields of Agincourt. James Glanz on how some historians are challenging the legend of English supremacy in the face of massive numerical disadvantage:

The work, which has received both glowing praise and sharp criticism from other historians in the United States and Europe, is the most striking of the revisionist accounts to emerge from a new science of military history. The new accounts tend to be not only more quantitative but also more attuned to political, cultural and technological factors, and focus more on the experience of the common soldier than on grand strategies and heroic deeds.

The approach has drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes, to Napoleon’s disastrous occupation of Spain, to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. But the most telling gauge of the respect being given to the new historians and their penchant for tearing down established wisdom is that it has now become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts.

The most influential example is the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” adopted in 2006 by the United States Army and Marines and smack in the middle of the debate over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of the United States Central Command, drew on dozens of academic historians and
other experts to create the manual. And he named Conrad Crane, director of the United States Army Military History Institute at the Army War College, as the lead writer.

Drawing on dozens of historical conflicts, the manual’s prime conclusion is the assertion that insurgencies cannot be defeated without protecting and winning over the general population, regardless of how effective direct strikes on enemy fighters may be.

Mr. Crane said that some of his own early historical research involved a comparison
of strategic bombing campaigns with attacks on civilians by rampaging armies during the Hundred Years’ War, when England tried and ultimately failed to assert control over continental France. Agincourt was perhaps the most stirring victory the English would ever achieve on French soil during the conflict.

The Hundred Years’ War never made it into the field manual — the name itself may have served as a deterrent — but after sounding numerous cautions on the vast differences in time, technology and political aims, historians working in the area say that there are some uncanny parallels with contemporary foreign conflicts.

Out of concern for COL Gentile's health, I cut off the excerpt just before some lady compared the French forces who opposed Henry V to al-Qaeda in Iraq. No, I'm serious.

This is a really odd article. It's ostensibly about research related to Agincourt and competing claims about the relative strength of the forces in the field, but the digression about counterinsurgency and history repeating itself is just... well, weird. I'm not sure where Glanz is trying to go, or if maybe it just helps you get things published if you drop "COIN" in somewhere. Anyway, worth a read if only for the chuckle you'll get when you think about steam coming out of COL Gentile's ears* when he thinks about the clear, objective lessons of clean, decisive conventional combat being muddied by these damned revisionist, Sorley-esque dilletantes!

Technical aside: does anybody else find it strange that Glanz and his editors 1) note that GEN Petraeus now oversees the wars as CENTCOM commander, but didn't clarify that he directed the writing of the COIN manual in one of his old jobs as the commander of TRADOC's Combined Arms Center?, and 2) began a paragraph with "[d]rawing on dozens of historical conflicts..." just two sentences after writing that Petraeus "drew on dozens of academic historians and other experts" in the writing of the manual? Isn't that the sort of amateurish repetition that you'd edit out of your kid's eighth-grade history paper?

*Just kidding. Mostly. Seriously though, I'm obviously caricaturing Gentile and having a little fun at his expense, so you don't need to tell me how wrong I've got it in the comments, and how Sorley really is wrong, and so on. I get it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Does this confuse anybody else?

Or am I just too dense to understand what the hell is going on here? From the Jaffe/DeYoung piece about wargaming various Afghanistan escalation options in today's Post:

McChrystal's analysis suggests that 44,000 troops would be needed to drive Taliban forces from populated areas and to hold them until Afghan troops and government officials can take the place of U.S. and NATO forces. The extra troops would allow U.S. commanders to essentially triple the size of the American forces in the southern part of the country, where the Taliban movement originated and where the insurgents have their strongest base of support.

McChrystal would also use the additional troops to bolster the effort in eastern Afghanistan, which has long been a focus of the U.S. military, and push additional troops into western Afghanistan, where the military has maintained a tiny presence and where the Taliban has made inroads, U.S. officials said. A surge of 44,000 soldiers and Marines would also allow McChrystal to designate a brigade of about 5,000 soldiers to train and advise the Afghan army and police forces, accelerating their growth.

The increase of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers would give McChrystal one U.S.
advisory brigade of about 5,000 troops to speed the development of Afghan forces
and a large number of support forces to include engineers, route-clearance teams and helicopters. McChrystal's analysis also suggested the option of increasing the number of troops by 80,000, but that isn't drawing serious consideration. [emphasis added]

We've already got a dedicated "train and advise" brigade; it's called a modular brigade augmented for security force assistance (or in Iraq, an Advise and Assist Brigade), and the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division is currently executing that mission in Afghanistan. 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Carson has already been tapped as 4/82's replacement; they'll go over next summer.

So what the heck are they talking about here? A troop increase would mean more SFA brigades, or what? What would escalation do to impact the rotational cycle that these units are already on? As far as I can tell, so long as we're only talking about having one brigade perform this mission at a time in-country, we're set for SFA brigades through late spring 2011.

Any ideas what this means?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What we're reading #4

Not sure that the others will have the opportunity to chime in on this one, so it may just be "what I'm reading"!


I'm going out of the country for the weekend (again) starting tomorrow -- about six hours of flying and lots of time on the beach -- so hopefully I'll get a couple of these books done. First is Galula's Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958, a monograph that he wrote for RAND in 1963. It's a tactically-oriented catalogue of what Galula did as a company commander during the pacification of Algeria.

Criticisms of Galula's more famous Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice seem to center around the allegation that it abstracts company-level lessons from one specific geographic sector (and one that happened to be reasonably calm, at that) into broad maxims intended for application in all counterinsurgencies in all places. Some of the people who level this criticism are a lot smarter and more well-read than me, so I'm not going to try to debate that here. But it seems like Pacification in Algeria is more narrow in its aims and application -- there's even a sort of disclaimer in the introduction, in which RAND's editorial staff explains the reasons that they've chosen to present the book in the form it is written, with its admittedly limited perspective -- and probably less susceptible to that sort of criticism. Good so far, if not particularly earth-shattering.

I'm also hoping to finally crack open Rufus Phillip's Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned. Amazon usefully informs me that I purchased this book on November 4, 2008, so unless I selected 11-month shipping, this should be taken as evidence that I'm a lazy bugger.

That's pretty much it for this weekend, I think. I've also recently taken in Andrew Exum's Afghanistan 2011: Three Scenarios; Steven Biddle's "Is There a Middle Way?" (Biddle's answer, unsurprisingly: no!) in The New Republic, which Ex calls "important and timely" and I think is neither; LTC Daniel Davis' "Go Big or Go Deep: An Analysis of Strategy Options on Afghanistan," which is really excellent (and which answers Biddle's question in a very different way); and am a couple of pages into Tony Cordesman's "The Levin 'Plan:' A Wrong Approach in Afghanistan," which has a hilariously patronizing title if nothing else.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Hasta next week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What we often seem to forget in Afghanistan... that it's full of Afghans.

I'm being trite, obviously. But I think it's fair to admit that those of us who believe in the efficacy of counterinsurgency doctrine occasionally abstract those tactics, techniques and procedures from their specific cultural context.

There's a perfectly rational explanation for this: COIN's usefulness is explained and underpinned by social science, and particularly by social science of a sort that ascribes importance to situationally exogenous factors. There's a language of "control," "collaboration," "penetration," and so on, and a "logic of violence." (There are obviously those who make a case for the primacy of factors like ideology, geography, ethnicity, religion, and so on, but those explanations tend to be pretty objectively weaker and often contested by historical evidence.) And let me go ahead and go on record as saying that I find that language and that particular sort of social science to be compelling, convincing, historically supportable, and basically correct.

Now having said that... There's a piece in today's LA Times by Gilles Dorronsoro, one of those rare undisputed Afghanistan experts, that highlights the challenges Westerners face in waging a counterinsurgency campaign in that country.

I'm hesitant to excerpt from it because I think it should be read in full, and I'm not sure that I can choose a suitabily representative section. But here's a longish, good bit:

History is not encouraging. In two centuries, the Pashtuns have never once tolerated a permanent presence of armed foreigners. Defending families and villages is a cultural duty of local men, and the presence of outsiders is generally perceived as a threat, especially when they are non-Muslim. Historical memories are long in this part of the world. Some Afghans still say prayers for mujahedin who fought against the British -- in the 19th century.

Because the Afghan culture highly values politeness, Westerners rarely understand how unpopular they are in the region. Locals are annoyed by the road-hogging conduct of NATO patrols. They have a suspicion of men wearing sunglasses. They are outraged at the mistreatment of prisoners and the killings of civilians.

In the countryside, Westerners are essentially perceived as corrupt and threatening
to traditional Afghan or Muslim values. Contrary to our self-perception, the villagers see the foreigners as the main providers of insecurity. The presence of coalition troops means IEDs, ambushes and airstrikes, and consequently a higher probability of being killed, maimed or robbed of a livelihood. Any incident quickly reinforces the divide between locals and outsiders, and the Afghan media provide extensive and graphic coverage of botched airstrikes and injured civilians.

The cultural misunderstandings between the Pashtuns and Western forces provide fodder for the Taliban. Its members have capitalized on Afghans' natural distrust of outsiders to propagate conspiracy theories, including the claim that the Americans are helping the Taliban to give themselves an excuse to stay in the country and exploit its natural resources.

As I wrote above, I'm naturally suspicious of what you might call "culturalist" explanations for why failure is guaranteed. But I think it is worthwhile to consider the many ways in which well-intentioned but less-than-fully-committed efforts can be brought to failure (and this completely aside from the question of whether "fully-committed efforts" are justfied to secure the objectives and interests at stake).

Is it possible that we could apply all of our best practices, all of our hard-won lessons of the last eight years, all of our doctrine and TTPs, and still fail? Yes, certainly. Is it possible that we could do all of these things and still fail as spectacularly -- and I suppose here I define "fail" as "end up with endstates that are unwanted or even basically unacceptable to us" -- as if we were to do nothing, or do draw down our commitment, or to focus on CT alone, or to pursue any of the other ideas that Biddle identifies as "half-measures"? Yes, certainly. There is no question that this is possible, and a failure to acknowledge that is disingenuous.

And again, as I wrote before, all of this is completely leaving aside the question of whether the endstates we've identified are even worth fighting for, or worth fighting for in the ways that many people advocate fighting for them (which is to say, COIN).

We can fail. Failing may or may not be all that bad, but it's helpful to consider that all the resources and all the best practices in the world won't guarantee success.

Let's get our "colonialist generals" and COIN heroes straight, shall we?

I just came across this presentation (credit to SWJ on Facebook) -- which I take to be recent -- by Hero of the COINtras Doug Macgregor. There's plenty to criticize and some to agree with, but I just wanted to whinge about a relatively small factual mistake for right now.

This excerpt comes from slide 4:

There is nothing new in General McChrystal's strategy, it is merely a rehash of the failed oil spot (tache d'huile) strategy, first tried by French colonialist General Louis-Hubert-Gonsalve Lyautey in Algeria; then tried again under various guises by the US in Vietnam.
1. Tache d'huile, represent!

2. Lyautey was actually a Marshal of France after he was a general, and he held this title at his death. It seems appropriate to refer to him as "Marshal" if we're identifying him by his highest achieved rank.

3. "General" Lyautey was a lieutenant when he first went to Algeria, and a captain when he returned to France. The counterinsurgency achievements for which he is most well-known took place in Madagascar and Morocco, not Algeria (though securing the Algerian border was significant to his Moroccan success).

4. Lyautey was an understudy to Joseph Gallieni, posthumous Marshal of France and one-time governor of Madagascar.

5. While Lyautey may have first employed the term, Gallieni was the real originator of the tache d'huile approach to pacification.

6. "Tried again under various guises by the U.S. in Vietnam"? Here he's likely alluding to the Strategic Hamlets Program, which was pretty much done with by the time the U.S. committed significant resources to the fight and was admittedly a failure. But one of the other "guises" might be the Combined Action Program, which was one of the most effective American counterinsurgency efforts of the entire war.

7. Macgregor is right to say that there's not much new in the McChrystal report. So what? There's plenty in there to criticize besides unoriginality, so what difference does it make if an oil spots/ink blots approach has been tried at times in the past (and successfully, at that!)?

Ok, enough complaining about this PowerPoint. I'm not sure how I missed this in the past, but during the Gulf War, Macgregor was the operations officer for Cougar Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the parent unit of then-Captain H.R. McMaster's Eagle Troop, which beat the ass off an entire brigade of Iraqi Republican Guard Corps tanks at the Battle of 73 Easting. (Macgregor's author bio and Amazon page say that he "trained and led Cougar Squadron into battle," which is sort of confusing to me. He was the ops officer, right, not the squadron commander?) Anyway, to show what a good guy I am, I'm going to pimp Macgregor's latest book (which I have not read). I'm also going to link to Macgregor's hilariously hagiographic Wikipedia page, which shares some commonalities (er, verbatim rips) with his author-provided bio on at least one website to which he is a contributor.

While we're on the subject, ask Gunslinger about the time that his platoon pulled 73 Easting-Lite on an Iraqi tank battalion back in OIF I. I may have the details wrong, so I'm sure he can straighten you out.

Friday, October 16, 2009

1/10 Mountain "off-ramped" from Iraq deployment

The First Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division has been "off-ramped" from its previously-scheduled deployment to Iraq, expected to take place in January of next year. They've yet to receive a new mission tasking, but this announcement is fueling speculation that the brigade is being made available for a potential escalation in Afghanistan.

The 10th Mountain is light-infantry and has a ton of experience in Afghanistan -- 1st BCT went as 1/87 Infantry in 2001, then again as 1st Brigade in 2003 (along with the division HQ), then after modularization to Iraq in late 2005 as 1st BCT -- not to mention being the only division in the U.S. Army that's purpose-trained for combat in mountains and harsh climes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some interesting numbers on the cost of individual soldiers' gear

Yesterday I heard a pretty wild comparison between the costs of the personal gear that a soldier would wear into combat on 10 SEP 01, during the Iraq Surge, and today in Afghanistan. How significant would you expect the difference to be? I figured maybe a couple thousand dollars, but nothing so significant as what the guy telling the story actually claimed. He said that a pre-GWOT infantryman in an old k-pot, Vietnam-era flak vest, ALICE gear and so on (not including weapons and ammunition) was wearing $370-odd worth of gear. That sounded a little bit low to me, but ok.

Over the last several years, personal gear has changed pretty significantly, getting more sophisticated, lighter, more protective, and thus (obviously) more expensive. Schmedlap (and pretty much anybody else who has served, but particularly Schmedlap because he's got this whole gear-weight-calculator thing) can probably do a much better job of providing specifics on this transition, so I'm not even going to try. So back to the point: a surge-era infantryman in Iraq supposedly wore ~$14,000 worth of personal equipment.

And now infantrymen serving in Afghanistan have added another $3K worth of stuff, apparently, and are wearing $17,000 worth of stuff.

Isn't this a pretty shocking transformation over such a short period of time? I suppose it tells you something about the sophistication of personal protective gear, about the devolution of communications equipment and electronics down to the squad and team level, about the relatively recent proliferation of night-vision devices to every individual, and so on, but I just can't help but draq any more complicated conclusions than "dude, that's a lot." None of which is to suggest that it isn't worth it, obviously, but rather to express my surprise that our guys were so under-equipped on 9/10.

In an only very loosely related bit of news, I also heard it mentioned that an addition of 10,000 troops to overall end-strength costs roughly $1 billion, for whatever that's worth these days. Obviously we're talking about more than personal gear here: training, pay, medical care, other benefits, and so on.

Like I say, there are people much better equipped to go into the details of this little factoid than I am, but I thought it was kind of interesting.

(NOTE: If I didn't suck so bad at the internet or want to save time, I would do a little more research and find some pictures that showed the gear more comprehensively and in more detail. Instead you've got a picture of some 1st ID soldiers from KFOR in October 2001, some 2nd ID guys in Iraq at an unknown date, and another recent one of some guys from the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More light posting excuses...

For the first time in a while, I have a semi-reliable internet connection: I'm on a research trip for work that's taking me to DRC, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. There was no almost no way to connect for more than a couple minutes in the DRC. Also, don't get me started on the electricity in Kinshasa. I was staying at one of the two supposedly always on hotels...very funny, the power went off all the time, as it did at MONUC HQ, making for ideal work conditions.

Anyway, stories from all these places to come on my return and thanks to Gulliver and Gunslinger for keeping things going!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Giving the Taliban Ink by the Barrel

Go read Scott Wilson's article in the Post today discussing the Administration's developing policy on how to handle the Taliban in Afghanistan - it's a pretty good synopsis of the current issues and friction points in the debate. However, in addition to validating Michael Cohen's Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch (somehow defeat, disrupt, and dismantle al Qaeda translates into preserving a corrupt government engaged in what is essentially a civil war), there was another statement in this article that bothered me.

Wilson is not the first to report on this (and it's actually old news) and Wilson hits on the problem, but it keeps bothering me. I do not like this transfer of units from the countryside into the towns and cities, ceding that terrain to the enemy. So while we complain about the safehaven that the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan, we are going to hand over to them a large safehaven inside of Afghanistan itself from which to launch attacks on population centers.

But this problem goes beyond military operations. Counterinsurgency is about governance. If we remove coalition forces from the countryside the likelihood of the Afghan government governing effectively there is slim. Gee, who could fill that political vacuum? Oh right, the Taliban who has experience in this and being local actors are more likely to be well received in these regions. Instead of creating ink spots in urban areas, we'll be giving the Taliban their own ink spots from which to expand their own influence and governance. This will be exasperated when attacks from the countryside will cause turmoil in the cities. It will make the less than perfect, but relatively calm Taliban governed areas look pretty nice in comparison.

Even with the addition of 40,000 troops, we won't be able to effectively control the cities and the countryside. It will be a battle of our ink spots versus theirs and I don't know how well that will turn out.

(Editorial note: apologies for the dearth of posting - that whole day job thing has been keeping me pretty busy. Thanks to Gulliver for keeping up the momentum!)

(Also, apparently I shouldn't post before I've had my coffee. Otherwise words like "barrell" sit in the title all day.)

This is going to come as a shock, but...

...posting will be light over the next few days. I'm going to be in Mexico (blessedly without internet, unless the BlackBerry works) until late Monday. If I'm lucky I'll read the paper on Sunday.

I've had a lot of thoughts brewing over the last several weeks and just haven't managed to operationalize them, as they say, so hopefully a little break will help me to get some things down. I've been contemplating the mother of all Afghanistan posts (aside: did you know that expression -- "the mother of all..." -- was introduced into the mainstream by Saddam Hussein?) for some time now; maybe I'll get to that one.

Anyway, I hope everyone enjoys the weekend. And if you're at the Jaffe/Cloud CNAS book event on Tuesday night, you'll be joined by 60% of the Ink Spots crew.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Summer 2010 Iraq rotations announced

The Department of Defense just announced the units that have been tapped for deployment to Iraq next summer. Each unit will serve as an advise and assist brigade (AAB) and will be replacing a departing unit, so there is no increase in the overall force level in theater. The units identified for deployment are:
  • 4th (Vanguard) Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga.
  • 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Wahiawa, Hawaii
  • 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (Brave Rifles), Fort Hood, Texas
  • 4th (Long Knife) Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas
Many people will remember the 3rd ACR as H.R. McMaster's old command. The regiment earned great credit for the pacification of Tal Afar, memorably chronicled by George Packer in the New Yorker.

In keeping with my habit of commenting on the coolness or weirdness of various unit identifiers, here's a weird coincidence: 4th BCT/1st Cav is called the Long Knife Brigade, while 4th Squadron of the 3rd ACR is called the Longknife Squadron. (I mean, seriously? There aren't enough nicknames out there? It reminds me of back when the CFL used to have two franchises out of eight with the same name, and two different spellings: the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders! Is Canadian football really that rough?)

Previously: Fall ('09) Iraq rotations announced

"Well, well, look: I already told you, I deal with the goddamn customers!"

"I have people skills -- I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that?? What the hell is wrong with you people?!"

Geoff Morrell pulled his very best Tom Smykowski at yesterday's Pentagon press briefing, pretty much losing his shit when repeatedly asked about the process by which GEN McChrystal's resource request "unofficially" made its way to the president's desk late last week.
MR. MORRELL: The secretary late last week provided to the president at his request an informal copy of General McChrystal's resource request. He then also at the president's request on Monday provided the principals with copies -- informal copies of the request. The request is now a -- is now formally working its way through the chain of command -- the U.S. chain of command and the NATO command -- and so that's the latest on where the resource request stands.

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, formally, this should and is working its way up through the respective chains of command in the United States military and NATO, and that is the process it is undergoing right now. The secretary requested early on that he be given a copy of this even before it goes through the formal chain of command.

And as I mentioned to you previously, he was going to hold on to that copy until such time as he felt it was appropriate to share, or, frankly, if the president requested it. This is a case where the president requested it. The secretary provided it to him, as well as to the principals. Now it is working its way up the formal chain of command here and in NATO.

Q Why is it that when the president requested the troop resource request, he didn't get the actual copy? Why doesn't he -- does he not get the actual formal copy of the resource --

MR. MORRELL: The only difference between what he was provided in the formal copy is it hasn't yet been vetted through the chain of command. Once it is formally vetted and the comments that are provided by the likes of CENTCOM and the Joint Chiefs and the chairman and so forth, the president will receive those comments as well.

But he wanted to read this over the weekend, I understand it, and so the secretary provided it to him.
The press secretary then spends the next ten or fifteen minutes getting badgered about what this development means for civil-military relations, and all because he just does a piss-poor job of explaining exactly how staffing actions work in the military. So let's do that here.

I've seen reference to the fact that this resource request isn't a standard request for forces (RFF), including by Morrell in this briefing. He suggests that this request is a more analytical product, that there's more narrative, etc. This is understandable, since it wouldn't make much sense for GEN McChrystal to ship up a stack of paperwork to the SecDef with "40,000" on the bottom line. I'm sure there's some sort of justification associated with all of this, and perhaps a bit of elaboration on where and how the additional units will be employed.

Now having said that, I'm nearly certain that this document would be circulated in much the same way as every other staffing action in the military gets worked. First of all, the thing is not written by GEN McChrystal. This isn't going to come as a shock to most people, but a four-star doesn't just sit down at his desk and say "let me think about what else I could use around here." There's likely been a pretty significant amount of staff work put into this at ISAF, and the J-3/5 (operations and plans) shop would develop a document to reflect the commander's recommendations (formed in conjunction with his planners). That document gets circulated within the ISAF staff, and finally a version is settled on and the commander signs off on it.

So now there's a final product. This was prepared weeks ago, it would seem, to coincide with COMISAF's strategic assessment. Secretary Gates asked that GEN McChrystal hang on to this request/recommendation until the president and his national security principals had the opportunity to digest the strategic assessment and settle on an appropriate course of action. Amid talk that the White House was trying to stifle COMISAF or lay down some appettite suppressants, Secretary Gates later asked for a copy of the request in order to relieve some pressure on McChrystal and escalate the resource question to the Department level.

Meanwhile ISAF's staff officers were working the traps on the normal staffing process, which is to say elevating the document through the chain of command. As I said, Morrell did a really poor job of explaining what this means. Any product that's being circulated from one organization to another organization (or to highers) must first go through review from the parent command, and this one is no different. So the resource request goes up to CENTCOM, where people in the plans shop dissect the work done at ISAF and add their comments, criticisms, and recommendations. The product then either gets returned to ISAF for changes or pushed further up the chain to the Joint Staff. (I would assume in this case, because of the importance to the president of getting GEN McChrystal's unvarnished assessment, that the request kept moving upward with comments appended to it and contributors identified. I wouldn't expect that the request would be repeatedly socialized for consensus considering the sensitivity of the subject.) So it goes to the Joint Staff, where the same thing happens: the J-5 shop (and probably the chiefs) look over it, add their comments, and pass it up to OSD.

This is how the process usually works, and probably is working alongside the more high-profile socialization going on right now with the president and his principals. Some of the journalists just didn't seem to understand why it would happen this way, or why the SecDef would respond to the president's request to take a look before the formal review process (via CENTCOM and the Joint Staff and OSD) had taken place, or why this doesn't speak ill of the Secretary or the President, or something.

Q My question was, if Admiral Mullen and Petraeus have had an opportunity to see this request --

MR. MORRELL: Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus have seen the request.

Q Then why --

MR. MORRELL: There is nobody who is involved in the chain of command who has not seen --

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: -- who has not seen or studied or is intimately familiar with the request.

The only thing that has not taken place thus far is them formally weighing in, in terms of officially vetting and commenting on it.

Q Why wouldn't they have waited, if they've already seen the request? Why would it have to go to the president, without their assessment in it, if they've already seen it?

I think that was the question that Philip was getting at.

MR. MORRELL: Listen, we are involved, as I'd said before, in what is a somewhat unconventional process. And normally -- listen, we saw what happened frankly with the assessment and the leaks that took place. And I think we want -- we wanted to avoid any opportunity for leaking of this, before the president had an opportunity to see it himself.

And so I think that is why the secretary wanted to own it and make -- be the one who determined where it went and when it went there.

. . .

Q I'm still unclear on the resource request, why the secretary and the president found it appropriate to overstep the military chain of command on this request -- on this resource request; why the secretary had this informal copy and provided it to the president before his military leadership. I mean, doesn't this just --

MR. MORRELL: What don't you understand about it? What do you find troubling about it?

Q Just doesn't this just further -- doesn't this further exacerbate this argument that there's a division between the civilian and the military leadership on what you're going on?

MR. MORRELL: I don't -- I don't think so at all. I mean, again, let me remind you of the facts. At every stage in this process, the military has been represented in every discussion. They've participated in every discussion. General Petraeus has a seat at the table today, just as he has in the previous two conversations. General McChrystal will be -- (inaudible) -- in from Afghanistan, just as he had in the previous conversations. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of course, has a seat at the table. So the military is strongly represented in each of these discussions, and will continue to be.

Dude, why are you talking about leaks? Why can't you just say "yeah, all the big boys have seen it, but the document is being processed by their staffs and they haven't had the opportunity to formally comment"?! Do these people think that the military decision making process consists of a bunch of greybeards sitting around a conference table bullshitting and then saying "listen Prez, this is the plan"?

Anyway, the president and everyone else involved in the conversation now knows what to expect as far as resource requests, and have apparently known for about a week now. So anything that's come out of the White House or the Pentagon this week should be considered in that light, including the president's comments to the effect that a substantial drawdown is not being considered.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

1/4 ID to be the next SFA brigade in Afghanistan

Today the DoD announced that the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division will deploy to Afghanistan next summer in support of OEF, and "will continue the ongoing training and mentoring mission of Afghan National Security Forces in Afghanistan." I take this to mean that they'll be replacing the 4th Brigade of the 82d Airborne, currently serving in Afghanistan as a "modular brigade augmented for security force assistance." (This assumption is based on the fact that 4/82 deployed this past August, and will be approaching a year in country come next summer.)

What this means is that 1/4 is going to spend the rest of their Train/Ready cycle getting Afghanistan-specific training at the readiness centers, along with SFA-specific training from the 162d Infantry Regiment (the SFA training brigade) at Ft. Polk. Somewhere along the line they'll get their augmentation of two to four dozen additional field-grade officers to serve as training team leaders.

I got into SFA brigades and 4/82 here.

Eight years of war

As everyone who pays attention to the world probably knows by now, today is the eighth anniversary of the start of U.S. combat action in Afghanistan. President Bush, in announcing the campaign to the nation, gave the following explanation:

More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: Close terrorist training camps. Hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in our country.

None of these demands were met. And now, the Taliban will pay a price.

By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.

Initially the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.

Back to today: President Obama made it clear yesterday that he is not considering a significant drawdown in Afghanistan.

President Obama told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially reduce American forces in Afghanistan or shift the mission to just hunting terrorists there, but he indicated that he remained undecided about the major troop buildup proposed by his commanding general.

Meeting with leaders from both parties at the White House, Mr. Obama seemed to be searching for some sort of middle ground, saying he wanted to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,” as White House officials later described his remarks.

This on the same day that his Secretary of State said this:
...we're, you know, we're trying to look at it from ground up and make sure that we're examining every assumption, because what's important is that at the end of the day, the president makes a decision that he believes in, that he thinks is going to further our core objectives of, you know, protecting our country, preventing attacks on us, trying to protect our interests and our allies. [emphasis mine]
All the recent talk about "looking at it from the ground up" would seem to imply that the President intends to determine the most appropriate objectives in the region and (with the guidance of his theater commander) how best to achieve them, then decide what resources are necessary to execute that approach. Of course, if we're limiting any such "new approach" to something that doesn't really dramatically differ in strategic intent or resource application from the current approach or the old approach, then we're not really starting from the ground up or with a blank sheet of paper, are we?

And so now we're in the worst of all possible worlds: the President seems to be signalling that he accepts GEN McChrystal's assessment, acknowledges the necessity for a wide-ranging counterinsurgency campaign, but disagrees with (or is uncertain about) the general's recommendation about troop numbers. All of which seems like a recipe for status quo ante and everyone being unhappy.

So I guess we're back to the question I asked a couple of weeks ago in reference to another statement by Secretary Clinton: who are the people out there who think that we can wage an effective counterinsurgency with the resources we've currently got in country? And if those people do exist, what's their plan?