Friday, February 26, 2010

Iranian rebel leader received U.S. backing

Oh, no, wait, that's just what he told Iranian authorities after he'd been captured and likely tortured.

Sunni Muslim rebel leader Abdul Malik Rigi, arrested Tuesday by Iran, said the United States had offered to provide him with a base, cash and weapons, according to Iranian state television, which showed him purportedly making the admissions.

Iranian authorities said Rigi's group, Jundallah, was responsible for several deadly attacks in southeastern Iran and is backed by the United States. They said he was provided with an Afghan passport and had been at a U.S. base in Afghanistan 24 hours before the arrest.

U.S. officials, of course, deny anything of the sort.

While I think this guy would probably tell his government tormentors just about anything they wanted to hear, it's fair to note that there were rumblings during the prior administration that the U.S. ought to support Jundullah. Here's what Bob Baer had to say about that in Time last October, after a suspected Jundullah bomb had killed IRGC leadership alongside a number of other people:

"American intelligence has also had contact with Jundullah. But that contact, as Iran almost certainly knows, was confined to intelligence-gathering on the country," Robert Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer wrote on the, IRNA reported early on Saturday.

However, he noted that the US-Jundullah relationship "was never formalized, and contact was sporadic."

The news comes amid US denial of any involvement in a recent terrorist attack in Sistan-Baluchestan province in southeastern Iran, which Jundullah claimed responsibility for.

"I've been told that the Bush Administration at one point considered Jundullah as a piece in a covert-action campaign against Iran, but the idea was quickly dropped because Jundullah was judged uncontrollable and too close to al-Qaeda. There was no way to be certain that Jundullah would not throw the bombs we paid for back at us," said the former CIA agent who is a columnist in the weekly, and very probably an advisor in the Middle East.

Baer also noted that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has had relations with the Jundullah leader, Abdolmalek Rigi.

"Pakistani intelligence has indeed had contact with Jundullah over the years, but there's no good evidence that Pakistan created Jundullah from scratch. And there's certainly no evidence that Pakistan ordered the attack," Baer said in reference to the terrorist attack that took place in Iran on Sunday, October 18, which killed 42 people including the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commanders.

There are a million good reasons why our association with Jundullah should never have progressed beyond the point where it apparently stopped (according to Baer), so this explanation has a ring of truth. That the Iranian regime would try to associate Rigi with the U.S. is about as surprising as it is compelling, which is to say not at all.

I know this doesn't even rank in the 1,000 most frivolous and idiotic pieces of legislation proposed this year...

...and I know it's probably going to piss off SNLII and others, but that doesn't stop me from thinking that this piece of legislation (registration required) is frivolous and idiotic:

A quiet, nine-year effort to give the Marine Corps equal billing in the Department of the Navy went high profile Thursday with a Capitol Hill news conference featuring retired Marine generals, a wounded Marine, parents of Marines and a Hollywood star.

The event was aimed at giving momentum to a perennial effort by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., to expand the name of the department and its secretary to the "Navy and Marine Corps."

Jones, whose district is home to two Marine Corps facilities, Camp Lejeune and the Cherry Point air station, has introduced legislation to change the department's name every year since 2001.

Although the proposal has been included in the House defense authorization bill every year, it has never been accepted by the Senate, largely because of the opposition of former Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a Marine Corps veteran and former Navy secretary who was Senate Armed Services chairman or ranking member for many years. With Warner retired, the main obstacle may be Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., a retired Navy captain.

Ok, so why exactly would we expect McCain to oppose the bill... just because he was in the Navy? I mean, that's only peripheral to the story, but it seems like a silly assumption to me.

But really, who out there feels burnt up about the fact that there's no Department of the Marine Corps? Well, I guess this guy:
"We'll always be part of the Navy, but we'll always be Marines," said retired Marine Sgt. Eddie Wright, who lost both hands in Iraq. "We're out there fighting, putting our butts on the line. I don't see anything wrong with a little recognition."
See, that's the thing, though: the Marine Corps is not "part of the Navy." (Interestingly, the British Royal Marines are a part of the Royal Navy). It's just part of the Department of the Navy. The Navy is a service, and the Marine Corps is a service. The Department of the Navy is a military department, and there is (obviously) no Department of the Marine Corps.

I don't suppose I'd have any big problem with it if they changed the name, but really, why bother? I guess I just have a difficult time understanding why anyone feels slighted about this.

I wonder if anybody's asked Jim Webb what he thinks about this. Sen. Webb, after all, was a Marine officer in Vietnam, and later served as SecNav in the Reagan administration.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tom Ricks Policy Brief on Iraq: Expectations Met

CNAS just released a new "policy brief" by Tom Ricks entitled The Burden: America's Hard Choices in Post-Election Iraq. Basically, it is a 6-page version of his NY Times op-ed from yesterday with pretty graphs and maps (ostensibly to give some semblance of 'analysis'). I don't think this violates my New Year's resolution because it was emailed to me and is not on his blog.

I think there are quite a few things wrong with this brief, but I'll just focus in on a couple points. First and foremost is the complete and utter lack of analysis used to derive his recommendations. Ricks recommends keeping 30-50K troops in the country to prevent another civil war from breaking out. This fails in two ways. First, he does not adequately show that a civil war is likely in post-election Iraq. Saying that there was a lot of violence over a couple of key issues, and that those issues are not yet resolved, and considering the last year of relative calm in spite of this is "isolated", does not prove, suggest, or even hint at the fact that violence will break out again. Secondly, he does not tie his recommended troop levels to any concept of how they might actually prevent his imminent civil war, other than by sheer presence. Where did he get these figures from? I'll guess a random number generator because I don't see the connection. As a side point, if 110K U.S. troops weren't enough to stop the 2006 civil war (requiring the surge of 30K additional troops), what the hell are 30K going to do to stop one? And if their mere presence doesn't stop an outbreak of violence, what are those troops supposed to do?

Second is his recommendation to renegotiate the SOFA. Unlike his op-ed, at least here he says it needs to be Iraqi driven. "Sending signals, early but privately" that the U.S. might stomach staying longer has been done very publicly this week by GEN Odierno. The Iraqis know they can ask for more help if they need or want it - but this completely ignores the fact that Iraqi politics probably prohibit their asking for more help unless significant violence does break out.

Third (and I'll end on this instead of beating a dead horse), is the complete lack of sources. I know: this isn't a dissertation. But the constant use of "observers", "leaders", footnoting his own two (somewhat dated) books, and anecdotes is not a substitute for rigorous research and analysis. Ricks is just screaming into his own echo chamber.

Should you chose to read this briefing, just keep these things in mind. This is not analysis. These are not serious policy recommendations based on anything tangible. This paper is using anecdote to support preconceived beliefs. In other words, it's a piece of Tom Ricks' recent work.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Paul Pillar wrote the essay I should've written six months ago

I never sat down and did it, and then it was December. By then I would've just looked like a bandwagoner, right? Oh well. Mine would have been an obnoxiously over-sourced 9,000-word jeremiad, totally lacking in the clarity and elegance of Pillar's piece. So go read his. Here's a taste:
It would be fruitless to search the contours of current international terrorism for a compelling explanation of why the United States is escalating a military campaign in Afghanistan. Clearly there is a disconnect between where war is being waged and where terrorism is rearing its ugly head. The appropriate response is not to run off, guns blazing, to find new battlefields, be they in Yemen or anywhere else. The U.S. military, pressing the limits of sustainability and winding up one war while slowly winding down another, does not have the resources to open a new front in every territory that may become associated with terrorism. There is no shortage of such places.

Regardless of the available resources, it is a mistake to think of counterterrorism primarily, as Americans have become wont to do, as the application of military force to particular pieces of real estate. This pattern of thinking is rooted in a history in which the vanquishing of threats to U.S. security has consisted chiefly of armed expeditions to conquer or liberate foreign territory. The pattern has been exacerbated by the unfortunate “war on terror” terminology, which confuses and conflates the seriousness of, the nature of and the means used to counter the threat.

The strength of a terrorist adversary, al-Qaeda or any other, does not correlate with control of a piece of territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere. If a terrorist group has a physical safe haven available, it will use it. But of all the assets that make a group a threat—including ideological appeal and a supply of already-radicalized recruits—occupation of acreage is one of the least important. Past terrorist attacks, including 9/11 (most of the preparations for which took place in scattered locations in the West), demonstrate this.
Also, if you're interested, John Nagl disagrees. (Or as Josh Foust put it, Nagl says we're at war because the President says we're at war. Or something like that.)

Are we winning in Afghanistan?

Skeptical as I am about terms like "victory," I actually do believe the frequently asserted axiom that "in counterinsurgency, if you're not winning, you're losing." Adm. Mullen's been pitching that one for a while -- at least since September 2008. So it's a fair, now that the strategy and resources have shifted, to ask the Chairman if his opinion has changed.

Q Do you still believe that the U.S. is not winning in Afghanistan and is therefore losing?

ADM. MULLEN: When I said that, the main -- which was September '08, I think -- the main thrust of that statement was to get to the underresourcing effort -- the underresourcing of the Afghanistan campaign and to be very clear about that, which it had been and certainly I think even more so, as General McChrystal showed up, than I had understood at the time.

So the main focus was there.

I think that what -- with the strategy, with the resources, with the leadership with a focus on the people, as is indicated in this operation, that we can succeed there. It's going to take some time, and I think it's going to be hard.

Q But just on the winning or losing question, what would you say today?

ADM. MULLEN: I haven't -- I mean, I'm just -- I haven't -- I haven't really made any assessment with respect to that. I think we're headed in the right direction. We got the right leadership, the right strategy, the right resources. And I think we can succeed.
I've got to be honest with you: I think that's a pathetic answer.

He hasn't really made any assessment with respect to that? Had he made an assessment in the fall of 2008, or was he just speaking off the cuff?

Is he telling us now that he wasn't saying anything about whether we actually were winning or losing, but that we had not created conditions conducive to victory by adopting the right strategy, prosecuting the most effective operational approach, and contributing sufficient resources? ("The main thrust of that statement...", etc.) Because that, to me, is a totally different question.

As far as I can tell, the honest answer should be something like "I thought we were losing then, and a big part of the reason is that we didn't have the right approach, the right people, or the right troop numbers. Now we do, but it's going to take some time to turn it around. So where I would have told you before that we were losing and needed to make some dramatic changes to start winning, right now I'd just say that yes, we're still losing, but we've made the necessary changes and are waiting for events to bear that success out."

Of course, that's not me talking, and that's not my opinion. That's just what I think would constitute an accurate reflection of Adm. Mullen's true opinion and not some mealy-mouthed question-begging -- that is, assuming that the only reason we were ever losing was because of resources and strategy, and assuming that every listener agrees.

And so I pose some questions to the online commentariat:

1. Are we winning in Afghanistan?

2. What conditions would constitute a "win"? (Please be specific. If you think we are winning, then how much more winning to we have to do before we call it a win? If you think we're not winning, then what do we need to change to start?)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Elections? We Need to Hold Elections? But...Bienvenue en Cote d'Ivoire

As you know, elections in Cote d'Ivoire have been postponed five times in the last five years. Surprise, surprise, it has happened again. What's the reason this time? There is "uncertainty" about the legitimacy of about on million people's place on the voter rolls. You'll remember that elections were formally delayed for the fifth time back in October.

Since then, as you could expect, that voter issue hasn't been addressed. In fact, you could basically say it's made no progress at all except to publicize President Gbagbo's accusations that elections commission officials have found "fraud" on the rolls. Specifically, Gbagbo is claiming that the elections commission has allowed half a million "foreigners" to be on the rolls. Then on Thursday February 11, the government announced that it had stopped reviewing the rolls...the catch? The elections can't be held until the rolls are finalized.

And then on Friday, February 12, President Gbagbo hit the reset button: he dissolved the government and fired the elections commission. Both institutions will reportedly be "reformed" within the week, though in a smaller format. The President says this will make them more effective. He's asked former rebel leader Guillaume Soro to stay on as Prime Minister.

Well, it's been ten days and the country still doesn't have a new government, in large part because the opposition parties have announced that they would request Gbagbo's resignation, not recognize Soro's new government, and demand that the elections commission resume its work (in its previous configuration). As a result, Gbagbo had to temporarily re-instate the Defense and Finance Ministers because Soro has yet to form a government.

Meanwhile, five people were killed by security forces (they opened fire) at a protest on Friday and frustration is mounting. The protests have spread to Bouake (the capital of the rebel-held north where several thousand people marched through the streets, setting fire to cars etc). Protests also erupted in Abidjan and Khorogo. Today, President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso will meet with opposition leaders to try and defuse the situation.

Ok, so what does all this mean? I think it means that Ivorian (and international) fears that the electoral process is in jeopardy are pretty well-founded. I think this has pretty serious implications for the Ouagadougou peace process and they're worrisome (MK could write a short dissertation--if he hasn't already--on the fact that Cote d'Ivoire is the only country for which a genocide alert has ever been issued).

I think this confirms that Gbagbo and Soro are reluctant to hold elections because they fear not only that they'll get pushed out but also that they will lose out on currently lucrative arrangements (lucrative for them). And I think that tensions are still so high that this could spell disaster. Combine that with a spineless UN mission, led by a diffident Special Representative of the Secretary General who views his job as requiring nothing more than support for the government, a significantly decreased French presence, and high tension, and you have a pretty volatile mix.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Army announces switch to MultiCam for troops in Afghanistan

Our long national nightmare is over: the Army has decided on a new camouflage uniform for Afghanistan. Starting with troops deploying this summer, the Army will issue MultiCam, a commercially-available pattern that a lot of people who know about this crap seem to think is pretty good. I've written about this debate here and here.

Here's the DoD press release:

The secretary of the Army announced today that the Army will provide combat uniforms in the MultiCam pattern to all soldiers deploying to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, starting this summer.

This decision follows a rigorous four-month evaluation and reflects the Army's commitment to giving soldiers in Afghanistan the most effective concealment possible.

Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan this summer will receive fire resistant Army combat uniforms in MultiCam, along with associated equipment including body armor, rucksacks, and helmet covers.

The Army's selection of MultiCam for soldiers in Afghanistan culminates phase III of a four-phase plan to thoroughly and deliberately evaluate camouflage alternatives.

The Army took action in fall 2009 to provide two battalion-size elements in Afghanistan with uniforms and associated gear in patterns other than the standard-issue universal camouflage pattern (UCP).

One unit received uniforms and gear in MultiCam, and the other in a variant of UCP known as UCP - Delta.

In addition, the Army deployed a team of experts to Afghanistan in October to gather extensive data and photos on the diverse environments of Afghanistan, where soldiers often travel through multiple environments in a single mission, from snow to woodland to desert.

The Army incorporated the information gathered into a photo simulation study it then administered to nearly 750 soldiers who had deployed to Afghanistan. The study asked them to compare six patterns against eight different environments. The results, along with surveys of soldiers in the two battalions who received alternate camouflage, formed the basis for the Army’s decision on MultiCam.

The Army will now implement phase IV of its plan for camouflage, which is to evaluate long-term Army combat uniform camouflage options for all soldiers.

Camouflage alternatives represent one facet of the Army’s ongoing efforts to improve the Army combat uniform. The Army has made more than 26 improvements to the ACU since it was first fielded in June 2004.

And finally, here's a link to some photos of dudes wearing MultiCam uniforms alongside other camo patterns (from Strike - Hold!, which is really where you should be going for Camo Talk).

Morrell explains Gates' uniform directive

Here's what I wrote on this a month ago.
In a move that I roundly applaud, Secretary Gates has apparently told his military staff to stop wearing cammies/ACUs/utilities/battle dress/whatever else you want to call it to the office.
Geoff Morrell got asked about it in his press conference yesterday, and he elaborated on the decision. His answer is copied here in full for your edification and education.

Q Real quickly, has there been a decision made to change within the Pentagon -- to change the dress code for the military? And if so, what's the thinking behind that?

MR. MORRELL: Let me try to do this in one minute.

There's not been a decision from on high about this. To give you the quick history of this, the secretary has for a long time been thinking about making a change in his office. When he came back from Christmas vacation, he asked his military staff to switch out of their BDUs, out of their fatigues, and into dress uniforms, their more appropriate work uniforms.

His thinking was simply that this is the headquarters of the United States military in our nation's capital. He hosts leaders from around the world. The people we do business with, from across the river, the professionals that come to see us are all dressed in business attire. And he thought it was time for his office to be dressed accordingly.

This is -- he understands fully why this building changed in 19 -- in 2001 into its fatigues. This building was hit, it was attacked. We were at war. Not only was that the appropriate dress, in the aftermath of that attack, it showed solidarity with the warfighter.

I think we are at a point now where he believes at least that what one dresses in does not necessarily reflect their commitment to the warfighter or, and that there are other ways to demonstrate their solidarity. Frankly it's by doing everything you can, once you walk in this door every day, to make sure they have what they need to succeed.

This was not a mandate for the building as a whole. This was meant for his staff. If others take notice, as they clearly have, and make adjustments, that is their decision. And I think you've seen some offices go about that.

You'll certainly see the people you deal with in Public Affairs, starting Monday [March 1], dressed in their business or dress attire. And I think you'll likely see other officers in the building as well. But it was not by fiat. It was not mandated. It's -- they've probably taken notice of the change upstairs and re-evaluated their own policies.

So there's that handled.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

If you're interested in any IRAQI FREEDOM, get it by 01SEP2010 (UPDATED)

According to a memo from the SECDEF to GEN Petraeus, that's when Operation IRAQI FREEDOM will cease to be known by that name. Get ready for Operation NEW DAWN. The switch is timed to coincide with the changing mission for U.S. forces in Iraq, and "presents opportunities to synchronize strategic communications initiatives, reinforce our commitment to honor the Security Agreement, and recognize our evolving relationship with the Government of Iraq."

Interestingly, publishers and headline writers (not to mention the Obama Administration) have been using the hell out of the expression "new dawn" since at least 2004, and the GoI's Arabic name for what we called Operation PHANTOM FURY (the Fallujah offensive) was al-Fajr: "the dawn."

UPDATE: Here's the text of the memo, via Mike Allen via Jake Tapper of ABC. For what it's worth, Tapper was reporting this as an "exclusive" at 6:37 p.m. yesterday. You heard it here first!

Thanks, that was useful

Maybe it is a natural backlash after years of over-dramatic reporting on the then-called Global War on Terror, or the sign that John Mueller is winning hearts and minds, but there have been an interesting number of articles out there on how the terrorist threat is largely overestimated. It certainly is in some cases, but pushing this point to the extreme makes for rather absurd articles. a Foreign Policy blog post on “Drugs, Failed States, and Terrorists. Oh My” on the Foreign Policy blog criticizes United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa for stating that:

“‘There is more than just spotty evidence’ indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.”

The post’s author goes on to add that:

“There seems to be an awful lot of hand-waving happening here. What we know is that drug smugglers are moving cocaine through West Africa, including regions where Al Qaeda linked militants also operate. This, in itself, may be cause for concern. But many, including prominent politicans, seem to be assuming that an established link exists when the only reported case of a suspected al Qaeda affiliate making a coke deal --again trotted out as evidence in this article -- was with someone who turned out to be a DEA agent. Until there's some more evidence, a little more cautious reporting might be in order.”

More cautious reporting is always welcome, but I fail to see why it would be needed here. It is an established fact that the FARC engages in, and benefits from, cocaine production and trafficking in South America. It is equally established that a number of AQIM members, particularly in its cells of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali, are as much traffickers as they are terrorists, and make a living of convoying cigarettes, arms, migrants, and drugs through the Sahara.

Now if cocaine trade has increased in West Africa as much in the past six years as UNODC reports, is it that much of a stretch to conclude that these two groups have financially benefited from at least part of this increase? Costa is stating the obvious here. The story that came out last December about the DEA investigation is interesting to get the details of how some deals are done, and what type of intermediaries get involved, but it does not teach us anything we did not know regarding the fact that a number of terrorist groups, in West Africa and elsewhere, gets funded through drug trafficking.

Oh, and one last sentence from this FP post:

“if al Qaeda is getting into the cocaine business, it would seem to suggest that the organization is moving outside its core competency in order to raise money”

This completely neglects the fact that there is not one Al Qaeda in this part of the world. AQIM is remotely linked to AQ central, and is itself largely divided between competing cells and leaders with different levels of ideological commitment and strategic priorities. Trafficking all sorts of goods, including drugs, has always been a core competency of some of AQIM southern cells.

Advice on writing well

With a h/t to Texas in Africa and an apology for not posting because I'm trying to finish a paper, go read this. It's an essay by Henry Farrell on writing for political science.

Chris Blattman also has a good post about this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

See, this is what happens...

...when we just train our guys on touchy-feely COIN stuff and they forget how to fight!
“This is difficult,’’ Lance Corporal Michael Andrejczuk, 20, of Knoxville, Tenn., said yesterday. “We are trained like when we see something, we obliterate it. But here, we have to see them and when we do, they don’t have guns.’’
Oh, never mind. (Emphasis mine.)

Why Marja?

Or even better, why Helmand? That's what Steve Coll was trying to figure out yesterday on his New Yorker blog.

It is true, of course, that U.S. forces cannot operate in large numbers in Pakistan, and are dependent on Pakistan’s fitful, ambivalent cooperation against the Taliban. Yet that still raises the question of why the thousands of U.S. Marines available in southern Afghanistan are concentrated largely to the west of Kandahar, rather than reinforcing struggling Canadian troops in the province itself.

In my Washington rounds, I’ve heard several overlapping explanations. Some argue that the U.S. cannot afford to yield ground in Helmand taken by the Marines last year, before the current counterinsurgency approach was fully cooked. U.S. commanders have also said that Helmand must be cleared and held in order to open transport routes to the West, toward Herat. (That makes sense.) Perhaps control of Marja will eventually become a staging area for a gradual push east into Kandahar, to take back those parts of the city and its surroundings where the Taliban now exercise disturbing degrees of influence.

I have also heard it suggested, however, that the big and visible Helmand operation is being conceived as a sort of “demonstration project” of joint U.S. and Afghan security and governance capabilities - that “clear, hold, and build” there will be constructed as a sort of theme park of revived counterinsurgency practice. In this explanation, it is hoped that the operation and its aftermath will so dazzle fence-sitting Afghans and the Taliban alike that it will contribute to a shift of perceptions about which side in the war is gaining momentum. If this is part of the command’s thinking, it seems a potential prescription for Potemkin architecture.

I've seen it said that Marja is the enemy salient in an otherwise solid belt of government-controlled areas crossing the southern provinces, and that this explains the focus there. So what's the story?

Protecting civilians in extremis

This Washington Post report gives a much more in depth look at the rules of engagement established by GEN McChrystal to stem mounting civilian casualties. While I completely agree that some constraints had to be put into place, this struck me as somewhat drastic:

Not seeing any civilians on a video feed from a drone or through one's rifle scope is no longer enough. Under a tactical directive McChrystal issued last summer, troops must verify that there are no civilians inside a house by watching it for at least 72 hours to establish a "pattern of life" before an airstrike will be authorized.

Emphasis mine. Even if armed insurgents were observed going into the house or going into a different house. Or stay or move in the vicinity of houses. Given some of the scenarios Marines are facing now in this new offensive (as reported in this article), this seems somewhat extreme. 72 hours of watching a house?? Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been economy of force missions - trying to do more with less. Even with the assistance of UAVs to keep eyes on larger tracts of land not controlled by forces on the ground, 72 hours is a long time to observe anything and devotes significant resources that could be used elsewhere. I don't see how this helps prevent civilian casualties when less amount of time would suffice for the command to justify the use of force (oh, I don't know, maybe four to six hours?). I'm all about observing the situation and minimizing civilian casualties, but 72 hours??

I also highly doubt these limitations are guiding drone strikes across the border in Pakistan - given that those operations do not fall under the purview of ISAF (to my knowledge at least) and that they are usually conducted by the CIA (I should note that I don't know if they have these rules or not, but given the reports of these strikes lately it doesn't seem to be the case). Essentially, it suggests that killing "high payoff targets" of both Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda requires less rigor than destroying imminent threats to our soldiers and Marines on the ground. Understanding the strategic effects of killing high-ranking enemy, there are pretty significant effects to wiping out a platoon of insurgents armed, grouped, and about to attack your own forces. I have to say that would make me pretty angry if I were on the ground.

This also hamstrings commanders and removes the onus of decision making from him. That is what commanders get paid to do - make decisions based on the information he has in the interest of mission accomplishment. There is plenty of room for error of course, but this order essentially removes the ability of commanders to neutralize threats in any built up area. What if the Taliban guys just move from house to house every 48 hours? That will tie up large amounts of resources, either UAVs or putting boots on the ground to clear the area.

I'm not very keen on this order, and it's not even my ass hanging in the wind because of it. This strikes me as extreme and only used to appease the Afghan government while debilitating U.S. forces' ability to destroy enemy forces. This is no way to win a war.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Top Taliban commander captured (UPDATED)

The New York Times is reporting that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most senior Taliban official after Mullah Omar, has been captured in a joint U.S.-Pakistani intelligence operation. (h/t Leah Farrall on Twitter)
Mullah Baradar has been in Pakistani custody for several days, with American and Pakistani intelligence officials both taking part in interrogations, according to the officials.

It was unclear whether he was talking, but the officials said his capture had provided a window into the Taliban and could lead to other senior officials. Most immediately, they hope he will provide the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who is the group’s spiritual leader.

Disclosure of Mullah Baradar’s capture came as American and Afghan forces were in the midst of a major offensive in southern Afghanistan.

His capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations, at least in the short term, said Bruce O. Riedel, a C.I.A. veteran who last spring led the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review.

Details of the raid remain murky, but officials said that it had been carried out by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and that C.I.A. operatives had accompanied the Pakistanis.
This is undeniably good news, particularly in light of what looks like extensive cooperation from Pakistan. I'm not sure I'm ready to say that the ISI has turned the page here, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. In related news, for the first time ever, Michael Cohen is more optimistic about Afghanistan than me.
Not only is this enormous as far as the US war in Afghanistan, but it suggests for perhaps the first time that the Pakistan government is willing to cooperate with the US in going after the Afghan Taliban. One can only imagine the impact on Taliban feelings of security and reliance on Pakistani support: that safe haven ain't feeling so safe anymore. One has to think this will affect the drive toward political reconciliation in a dramatic way - because if you're the Taliban this news suggests that time is no longer necessarily on your side.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this may be the most important to thing to happen to the US war in Afghanistan - as Leah Farrell suggests this might be the more significant US capture since 9/11. This has the potential to change the entire complexion of the war in Afghanistan - and for the better. For the first time in a very long time, there is reason for optimism.
Let's cross our fingers that he's right. I don't see how it changes a lot of foundational dynamics of the war (including the cost-benefit analysis that underlies American involvement in Afghanistan), but if we're gonna be there, we may as well be shutting down the bad guys.

UPDATE: Here's a good backgrounder on Baradar from Newsweek last summer.

Links and Notes

Since I've been doing that day-job thing a lot lately without time to really put together coherent thoughts of my own, I figured I would pass along a couple of things that I've read in the last week that were really good.

First up is from SWJ from the pens of Adam Elkus and Crispin Burke (AKA Starbuck) on Operational Design. This is a great article on the history and nuances of Design. Great stuff.

Second was posted today at al Sahwa. Josh McLaughlin writes on his experience on trying to bomb the correct target in Mosul in 2008 in order to shed some perspective on the rocket attack in Marja that killed a number of civilians. I have to say that I've been his shoes a few times - trying to figure out which building the enemy is holed up in and making sure you blow up the correct one (and the correct people with it). It can be extraordinarily difficult to do in ideal circumstances. I've never bought the maxim that COIN is the graduate school of war. Killing bad dudes, whether insurgents or tank companies, is pretty hard to do in any environment. Especially if you're trying to avoid killing civilians, which you should be doing in COIN or HIC.

And now for some notes. As things finally settle at work a little, I hope to be writing much more here. For those of you in the DC area, a few of us will be at the CNAS event on Thursday (free booze! And you know, policy stuff, too). It should prove interesting at least, if only because my favorite Air Force officer, Charlie Dunlap, will be on the panel.

I've also followed Gulliver's lead and am now on Twitter ( Yes, I'm a little behind the times, but better late than never.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Which part of Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build are these guys doing?

The London Daily Telegraph today reports on a British unit called the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) in Helmand, incidentally under the eye-catching headline "Taliban Fly Bloodied British Uniforms as Warning." The article focuses on a raid by BRF troops on a small compound where Taliban have been reportedly spotted, mentioning how the British troops were stopping vehicles leaving the area and collecting biometric data on military-aged males. (I gather the drivers of those vehicles are responding to ISAF's call for civilians to evacuate the Marja area in advance of Operation Moshtarak, but I suppose that's only peripherally relevant.)
The force attacked the Taliban position, killing a commander and two fighters. “What we have to do out here is kill low-level commanders, that’s the key. But we are not some hunter-killer force, we are here to find the enemy, gather information and then it’s up to others what to do with it.”

The Daily Telegraph joined the BRF for a mission into an area, whose location cannot be disclosed, that is known to harbour Taliban commanders and bomb-ferrying routes. Setting out in a fast-moving column of Jackal off-road vehicles that, while vulnerable to bombs, can drive across difficult terrain avoiding ambushes, we left in darkness using night vision goggles to navigate.

Mounted with grenade launchers and .50 calibre heavy machine guns, the Jackals swept through to a compound where intelligence had suggested arms were hidden. Accompanied by Afghan commandos, the soldiers found an AK47 and Makarov pistol and the compound owner was detained. In another home, three pairs of handcuffs, a cosh and binoculars were found in a haystack.

Along a narrow dirt road, BRF soldiers stopped vehicles driving close to the area targeted by Operation Moshtarak.
But here's the real money quote:
The 100-strong BRF, which is similar to the Parachute Regiment’s Pathfinders, was formed specifically for the six month tour and takes in men from 12 different regiments who have passed a selection course that has a 50 per cent failure rate. “We operate behind enemy lines where ground holding troops cannot go,” said Capt Robin BourneTaylor, a BRF troop commander. “Our job is to disrupt, screen and find the enemy.”
I'm not sure exactly how this differs from what SOF are doing, particularly when Capt BourneTaylor draws a distinction between his men and "ground holding troops." What exactly constitutes "behind enemy lines"? Does this mean that they're capable of swift raiding in places that would draw more resistance if slower-moving, heavier forces were to enter the area?

Listen, I think we can go beyond the COIN buzzwords and understand that there are things going on that might not seem to fit the template. I'm not willing to go so far as Ex and offer up a blanket condemnation for anyone who's talking about chasing bad guys. But really, this sort of raiding -- what's being accomplished? That house where they found an AK and a Makarov and detained the owner... isn't it possible that this is the proverbial one weapon per house for self-defense?

And what of "what we have to do out here is kill low-level commanders, that's the key"? Is it, really? He goes on to note that this isn't really their job, that they're just an intelligence-gathering force. Well, ok, but are they doing intel-gathering for more hunter-killer raids? It's fine to collect intelligence that informs offensive and kinetic operations, but (and this all links back to the Flynn report from last month) there's a difference between what they're calling "mapping the human terrain" and collecting strike-targeting data.

So I guess the answer is that these guys are doing what's called IPB -- intelligence preparation of the battlefield, "a systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and environment in a specific geographic area. It is designed to support staff estimates and military decision making. Applying the IPB process helps the commander selectively apply and maximize his combat power at critical points in time and space on the battlefield" -- in an enemy-controlled area in advance of an offensive there. Which is to say that they're shaping the battlefield for the Clear portion, I suppose, if we're being charitable.

Am I reading too much into this? I don't want to be the guy who objects just because people are using the wrong words, or failing to echo BG Nicholson's repeated refrain that "the people are the prize in counterinsurgency."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Turns out the SECDEF also thinks it's a bad idea for allies to sell advanced weapons systems to countries working at cross purposes to NATO

Remember how the French were gonna sell Mistral-class amphibs to Russia? (Perhaps surprisingly, the posts "Dirty French!" and "Dirty French pt 2" had nothing to do with this.) Yeah, I didn't think that was that cool of an idea when it came up three months ago, and now the deal has been inked. Turns out Secretary Gates agrees with me on the fundamental un-coolness of this.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told French officials Monday that he was concerned about their plans to sell Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, although there is little if anything the United States could do to block the deal, officials said.

Russia has been engaged in negotiations for months over what would be the first significant purchase of advanced NATO weaponry since the collapse of communism. Each Mistral warship costs up to $750 million, and the vessels, which can launch helicopters and armored vehicles, would be viewed as a notable addition to the Kremlin’s rusting fleet.

Mr. Gates chose the well-known diplomatic code for disagreement in describing his discussion of the arms sale with his French counterpart, Defense Minister Hervé Morin.

“I think I would just say that we had a good and thorough exchange of views,” Mr. Gates said.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said later that Mr. Gates’s meetings here were “very amicable and positive” on issues that included the NATO effort in Afghanistan, but that Mr. Gates “made our concerns very clear” on the arms sale.
According to media reports, France has agreed to sell one Mistral to Russia and the sale of an additional three ships is under discussion. Information Dissemination, which can be a bit dense for this idiot non-engineer but ought to be your go-to blog for maritime stuff if you care about all that, expresses some confusion on this point. I've seen it reported elsewhere that only three Mistral-class ships exist: the one being sold to Russia, and two currently in the French fleet. That means that the three additional ships would have to be built to order, and some people are even speculating about a licensed production agreement with Russia.

Uh, what?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the U.S. should have veto power over anyone else's arms sales or other military contacts, but aren't we supposed to be on the same team here? Russia's certainly entitled to its own defense program, and I'll be the first to say that there are certain things we can do to give Moscow assurances about its own territorial integrity and security. But amphibious assault vehicles? Really? Where are these things gonna be based? And what missions are they gonna be used for? It seems clear to me that they'll go to the Black Sea fleet (if only because there aren't a whole ton of other warm-water ports), and that they'll be used to menace the Georgians (and perhaps the Ukrainians).

Dmitry Gorenburg of the Russian Military Reform blog does a good job of dissecting the rationale from a Russian perspective here in "Why the Mistral":
Whether this is the ship that should be built is another matter entirely. Various authors have made the case that the Mistral is not the ship that the Russian Navy needs. It may be that at least part of the reason for its purchase has to do with political factors, such as improving Russian-French relations. Or it may be that the Navy wants a versatile ship that can be used in many different ways.

While because of its versatility I don’t think it would be wasted in the Russian Navy, it’s probably not the best use of the limited procurement budget. It might make a good utility ship, good for “conducting independent amphibious operations in distant locales” but is that really going to be a primary mission for the Russian Navy in coming years? It seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the Navy’s main missions will consist of protecting sea lanes and showing the flag. The Mistral could be used for these kinds of operations, but they are not its primary purpose. Given the money that would be spent on this ship, it seems that the RFN might as well get exactly what it needs.
So is this some kind of malign action by the the Russians, or are they just being stupid? (Or, as I always ask in the case of U.S. defense procurement, is there someone with a significant stake in the successful conclusion of this deal exerting inappropriate pressure on the decision-makers?)

And perhaps the more important question, and the one over which the U.S. and other NATO allies should have more influence: WTF are the French doing? I've yet to see any explanation from the French side of things, any justification of how this advances French foreign policy or security objectives. So: anybody want to speculate? Any of our French readership (or authorship!) want to speak up in defense of the strategic calculus behind this decision, or try to explain to us exactly what that is?

I'm normally not a big fan of linking to things that I hate, but...

Seeing as we haven't gone into DADT too much beyond a string of comments in a mostly unrelated thread, I might as well link to somewhere else where they do.

If you want to get a taste for how many of the dinosaur breed of general officers and senior field-grades allow their political ideologies, religious beliefs, complete misunderstanding of the Constitution, and just genuine, literal, honest-to-goodness homophobia to shape the way they think about openly gay individuals serving in the armed forces, go check out UltimaRatioRegis's post on the U.S. Naval Institute's blog.
Those who hold religious or moral objections to homosexuality because of their faith are being swept aside and their views marginalized. Worse, such is being done (again) with taxpayers’ dollars. Those who hold that system of faith and values are having their own government undermine that system. No longer is it proper to believe that a category of behaviors does not equate to race or gender.

Other issues that have not been given anything close to serious discussion:

The “diversity industry” will ensure that the gay lifestyle will be advocated for and promoted. Despite those who find it offensive, such reminders will be purposefully omnipresent. This same industry that has made such hash of womens’ and minority issues by the advocating for discrimination and favoritism (doing great disservice to all they “advocate” for) will do the same with gays in the military. Gay advocacy and promotion will result in command-sponsored “gay pride” events, gay history months, and the glorification of a lifestyle a vast majority of Americans find objectionable.

The tolerance shown gay service members now serving under DADT may not translate into acceptance when open advocacy begins. The effects on morale and unit cohesion have the potential to be disastrous. Sexual tensions, unwanted advances, relationships within a chain of command, sexual assaults, all those things that plague current commanders with the integration of females, will likely be exacerbated. We consider all these currently to adversely affect combat readiness. Yet, we are advocating policies that will very likely give us more of those problems?

Also, one has to ask: What will be next? Transsexuals being allowed to serve? Gay quotas for promotion and command?

None of the above issues have been given serious consideration.
The commenters have covered most of what I'd like to say, and my efforts to engage with URR in the past -- you can always count on him for some good ol' big-war China hawkery! -- have been unsatisfactory, so I'm gonna leave it alone. But take a look if you dare.

Tintin at War

Again. Which makes us look really bad for like, putting one post up every six days. (But seriously, it's snowing here!) This one's a little, uh, lighter than the last one. (That could go for the snow, too; just ask Jim Kosek, who is awesome, about the weekend's storm.)
Like many who have spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have come to consider latrine graffiti as something of an art form — the only interesting entertainment to be found on many dismal patrol bases and outposts.

When I seat myself in a latrine and find that some arm of the military powers-that- be — a local contractor, a junior officer, I don’t really know — have spray-painted over the crude art that I so enjoy, I feel a bit frustrated. What else, after all, am I supposed to read in the cubicle? What other character does a largely prefabricated combat outpost have?

I first encountered latrine graffiti on my way north to Baghdad in the summer of 2007, at the Kuwaiti purgatory called Ali al-Salem Air Base. Odor aside, what I noticed was the vivid obscenity of the things scrawled there. Words were everywhere — poetry, rap, curses, illegible scribblings.

But what the eye jumped to were the drawings: huge, extraordinarily explicit pornographic drawings. Fifteen-month tours in a war zone devoid of Internet pornography, it appeared, brought out the artist in many soldiers. Evidence, I suppose, that for all the millions of dollars spent on it, training cultural sensitivity to traditional Muslim mores into American servicemen of the YouTube generation is something of a Sisyphean task.
Click the link to go see some Chuck Norris goodness with your own eyes. (No, there are no examples of the "huge, extraordinarily explicit pornographic" form, you sicko. (And to echo Starbuck's lament, now we're going to have a whole bunch of weirdos googling "Iraq pornography" and ending up on our site. Awesome. Thanks, Wes!))

Friday, February 5, 2010

It's about time

Imagine: holding commanders responsible for their failure to do their jobs! I'm absolutely stunned. We have now (re?)entered a new phase of military officer professionalism.

Now, I've not seen the reports mentioned in the article and I have no idea if the commanders mentioned were or will be punished appropriately. Without reading the reports, I'm not terribly keen on reigniting the many debates surrounding Wanat and Kamdesh. But I think it's about damn time that commanders are held accountable for their actions.

Having had some experiences with incompetent commanders in Iraq, I was always amazed at how hard it was to fire them. Thankfully, when these guys screwed up, the soldiers in my unit were lucky enough to walk away. But there were way too many close calls based on the poor leadership or tactical ignorance of a select few commanders. I hope these investigations and punishments end the command-protecting practices remaining from the old zero-defect officer corps, which protected officers from their mistakes because of the fear it would jeopardize their careers. Of course, it seems that ending those practices should have occurred eight years ago when service-members first started fighting and dying, but I'm content that it's occurring at all. It will be interesting to see what actually happens to these officers (especially when and if the reports become public) and how this new age of accountability progresses.

There is a fine edge to this that higher leadership needs to be cognizant of. Soldiers die in combat no matter how good their commanders are. Some concerns mentioned by anonymous officers in the article need to be heeded: if punishing the commanders of units that have casualties goes too far, it could cause risk-aversion among the force. The one officer who laments the possibility of too many investigations may carrying that a bit far. While I served in a different theater and an increasingly longer time ago, our command always investigated the soldiers' deaths - it was SOP. I would like to believe that all units everywhere do that, if only to inform a lessons learned process. But if command negligence or incompetence is identified in the course of those investigations, then surely those commanders should be held accountable. That seems the only fair recourse, in my mind at least, to ensure our soldiers are being best served by those officers who are entrusted to lead them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Our commenters are way more impressive than us

Well, at least one: Wes Morgan, AKA Tintin, appears today on the New York Times' At War blog.
One day last summer, in the back of a bug-like armored truck in southern Afghanistan, an American infantryman my own age asked me a question, one I’ve heard countless times from countless soldiers when they learn that at home, I study at an Ivy League college: What do they think of all this back there, in your world?

I knew what answer he expected because of the surprise that registers on such soldiers’ faces when I offer a different one. He expected that in my world of left-leaning professors and privileged students, the war he and his unit were waging would be viewed with scorn or disgust, and maybe that he and his profession would be, too.

That wasn’t the case, I told him. From his expression, what I told him was worse: that in my world (if it really is my world, but that’s another question) most students — young people who are his peers, at least in terms of age and video games and music — rarely spare his war more than a passing thought.

Now back in college after spending much of a yearlong hiatus embedded with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a reality I’m used to, one that I understand but still find disturbing: For me, it’s easy to forget that there’s a health care debate or an immigration one. But for almost everyone I know at school, even my closest friends, it’s easy to forget there’s a war — let alone two of them.
Yeah, that's the same blog that Ink Spots hero C.J. Chivers writes for. Not that we feel insignificant or anything.

Ahmed Rashid Column on "How to End the War in Afghanistan"

Ahmed Rashid has a new column today, posted on the BBC website.

He argues that the London Conference has united the international community around the idea that it needs to "provide sufficient security for development while at the same time allowing foreign forces to leave."

He then discusses who has been talking with the Taliban, how much, and for what reasons.

The column ends with this:

"Nato's job in this surge of commitment is to make sure that the Afghans do not just increase their dependency on the West, but actually take charge, become responsible and make themselves accountable for their actions.

President Karzai should realise this is a tougher job than talking to the Taliban."

Go take a look. Overall, I found it disjointed--thoughts?


As you might imagine, the publishing of the QDR (document, site) and the defense budget request results in a lot of follow-on work for strategic planners in the Department and at the services, so apologies for the hiccup in your regularly scheduled programming. At some point I'm going to get around to making some comments on the QDR (even though that's probably going to have been pretty well covered elsewhere), but for right now, the chains of salaried employment rest heavily on my shoulders.


Mike Innes of Monkwire and CTLab alerts us to a new blog.
Eric Randolph, late of Jane's Country Risk and a CTlab contributor, recently relocated to India to get a close look at the underside of AfPak - literally, by looking at goings on in India and reporting it, some of it via Janes and other outlets that pay him for his freelance work, and a lot of it on his blog, The Kikobor.
I haven't had much opportunity to take a look yet, but I trust Mike on this one so it's added to the blogroll. Check it out.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jenio firing update

John Ramsey of the Fayetteville Observer is all over this story. As the initial speculation indicated, this isn't an operational issue. Here's the news as of Saturday:

A racially offensive PowerPoint slide meant as a joke led to the removal of two 82nd Airborne Division leaders from their positions in Afghanistan this month, an Army official has confirmed.

Lt. Col. Frank Jenio and Command Sgt. Maj. Bert Puckett were in charge of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 82nd's 4th Brigade Combat Team. The team has been in Afghanistan since August.

Jenio and Puckett were relieved of command on Jan. 13 after an investigation that was prompted by a slide shown during a command briefing, according to an Army source with knowledge of the investigation and to a friend of Puckett. The two spoke independently and on condition of anonymity.

The slide - a parody of ubiquitous motivational posters - shows a picture of Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo with his arm wrapped around point guard Mateen Cleaves. Izzo is white; Cleaves is black. The text below the photos reads, "Slavery Reinstated," with smaller letters adding, "Catch yourself a strong one."

According to the Army source, the decision to remove Puckett and Jenio came from the top of the 82nd Airborne Division, which is commanded by Maj. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti.

To be honest, I'm not that interested in this story now that it's clearly about something that's more about Army politics than operational effectiveness. (That's not to say that I don't think this is a fireable offense, or that this isn't a big deal, or that it's just "PC nonsense," or anything like that. I just don't want to spend a whole lot of time going round and round with people on the subject of political correctness, because it's boring. And also not gonna change, no matter what you or Bill O'Reilly wants.) So I offer this as a sort of administrative update to the original story rather than a meaningful contribution to the discussion about Afghanistan.

My one substantive comment is that this ought to remind us that we'll all be a little bit better at our jobs (and a lot less fireable) if we remember four simple words: don't be an idiot.