Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In support of GEN Odierno's selection as CSA

I, for one, am glad to see GEN Odierno's selection as the next Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA) to replace GEN Dempsey. I've heard a number of reasons why he's a bad choice: Gulliver feels that having a wartime commander will be problematic (granted, he's quoting the President here), that his failure as a division commander in Iraq should have precluded his selection (I've heard this in private fora), or that he's risen too fast, too far, without an appropriate breadth of experience usually seen in a CSA (also heard in private fora). All jokes about the possibility of his taking the position to close down the Army aside, to all of this naysaying, I say bollox.

GEN Odierno was not, by any measure, a fantastic division commander and there is plenty recorded on that matter. But I think he has proven himself since then - as MNC-I commander and then USF-I commander. He has shown great adaptability in dealing with counterinsurgency during the Surge in Iraq and following that in dealing with what must have been a dicey diplomatic position in the drawdown (that continues today under GEN Austin's command). He may have spent most of the last decade in Iraq, but it's been such a unique time in Iraq that it has given him a very unique experience. In fact, his last year or so in Iraq and his command of JFCOM refute the idea that he was selected for his wartime experience (in spite of the President's statement). The fact that he's been chosen to close out Iraq and JFCOM show that he's widely respected in skimming the fat (if you'll pardon the term). With the Army facing imminent funding cuts, why would you not want your resident expert on making economies the guy to lead those economies? No, in this regard he's the perfect fit.

From my perspective, I think GEN Odierno gets a little screwed in who gets credit for whatever successes the Surge saw in Iraq. As the Corps commander during that time, it seems that a lot of the initiatives that saw success must have been his and not GEN Petraeus'. I'm sure it would be hard to delineate who started what, but if you examine U.S. policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan (understanding that the latter has many more complications - but look just at what the U.S. did), you'll see that many things were done in Iraq that assisted in gaining advantages there, but were not implemented in Afghanistan. Even after GEN Petraeus took command.

As a former planner, my Exhibit A is the use of Joint/Unified Common Plans between the military and civilian USG agencies as their agreed-upon counterinsurgency/development plan. Although not perfect, this simple method of making brigade commanders and PRT leaders jointly plan and brief (to GEN Odierno and the DCM) their 6-month to 18-month plan did wonders to get all of the U.S. actors on one page of music. It did wonders. And as far as I know, it is still not theater-wide policy in Afghanistan and we're seeing what we'd expect with interagency coordination. Yes, the Department of State deserves a ton of credit as well, but I think it's fair to say that this type of initiate, if not thought of, was at least implemented by GEN Odierno. You know what helps in times of austerity? Being able to work with partners outside of your organization to make the most of a bad situation. GEN Odierno has ample creds on that.

Let's all take a step back and take a look at what GEN Odierno has actually done since 2004. He's proven that he's not a Neanderthal commander any longer. He's shown is chops in leading large organizations facing drastic cuts. He's proven that he works well with others. And he does bring significant combat experience to the table - which any good CSA does in times of peace or war because war will always be the Army's business. That all said, he's a great pick for CSA in my mind - I endorse this selection and wish him the best.

Monday, May 30, 2011

What makes a good CJCS?

If all goes according to plan, GEN Martin Dempsey will be was announced this morning as the president's nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The commentary and analysis surrounding his surprising and contentious selection (and suggestions of a nefarious whisper campaign against Hoss Cartwright, the current Vice Chairman) provide a window into the priorities of various constituencies when it comes to the military and its senior leadership. The CJCS debate is an important one not for the third-hand speculation about personal character and management styles, but for the way it distills many of the major national security debates into concentrate: what should our military look like in the future? Against what threats should we be oriented? What doctrinal concepts should dominate the bulk of training time and force transformation efforts? And beyond that, what do this one man's biography and personal priorities tell us about what's important to the president?

But the conversation is often limited by unfamiliarity with the structure of senior military leadership and the way each power base -- the Joint Chiefs, the Combatant Commanders, and the Service Chiefs -- have different equities and priorities. I had a number of brief Twitter exchanges on this subject late last week and realized that a lot of people really just don't understand what each guy's job is and how it differs from the others. I figured a post was in order to lay out what each of the very most senior U.S. military officers is responsible for, and thus what ought to be most important when selecting them.

First, let's talk for a second about Goldwater-Nichols and the organization of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 made a number of very significant changes to the way the DOD does business, changes that were fundamental and foundational and still widely misunderstood by the broader public. Here's the most important one: since 1986, the department has been organized in a way that is meant to facilitate jointness and the most effective use of all military tools in an integrated, rational way.* One set of organizations -- the military services -- is responsible for generating and sustaining combat power, while the other set -- the combatant commanders -- is responsible for using that combat power to win wars and meet national objectives. The individual services and their chiefs have no operational responsibility or authority -- they are merely the force provider to the combatant command "customer," who is responsible for requesting and employing appropriate forces to accomplish warfighting missions. Remember this, because it's really important.

The Department of Defense, as you know, is headed by a civilian Secretary of Defense. His or her job is to be "the principal assistant to the President on all matters relating to the Department of Defense." It's as simple as that. He's tasked with a number of statutory responsibilities, many of which he executes "with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Here's what it all comes down to: the SECDEF is responsible to help out the president as needed; to report up to Congress on what the DOD is doing and planning; and to report down to the service secretaries (more on them in a minute) and the Chairman on what's expected of them, i.e. the way DOD and national plans influence their job responsibilities. The SECDEF is also the only individual other than the president invested with command authority over the armed forces.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is identified by law as "the principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council [now National Security Staff], the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense." Interestingly, early versions of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation included in their title "to Strengthen the Position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" alongside "to Provide for More Efficient and Effective Operation of the Armed Forces." But President Reagan's 1986 letter to Congress on the subject of defense reorganization expressly stated that "the strengthening of other offices or components of the defense establishment should never be, nor appear to be, at the expense of the authority of the Secretary of Defense." While the Chairman was now invested with the responsibility to represent the interests of the entire uniformed military in providing advice to senior political leaders, he is not the SECDEF's military equivalent or peer.

Just like the Secretary, the Chairman has responsibilities to those below him as well as to his superiors: it's his job to take the warfighting requirements articulated by the combatant commanders and pass them to his higher -- that is, to the SECDEF. He serves as the synthesizer and integrator of joint warfighting functions, which is really just a jargony way of saying he's the guy who looks at the range of possible mission requirements, lines them up against the combined capabilities of the joint force, and sees if there are any gaps in what the U.S. military can do. He's a bit like a service chief for the joint force, which will make more sense in just a second.

So now we've got the service chiefs, whose fundamental responsibility is support the individual service secretaries in their mission to organize, train, and equip forces in order to provide capabilities to joint force/combatant commanders. That means, according to the law, recruiting, organizing, supplying, equipping (including R&D), training, servicing, mobilizing, demobilizing, administering, maintaining, construction of facilities and equipment... everything that goes into providing trained and ready forces. It includes everything from doctrine writing and personnel policy to capabilities development and force management. In short, service chiefs are responsible for taking whatever actions are necessary to produce readiness: to develop forces that know how to fight and are properly organized and equipped to do so.

That's where the combatant commanders come in: they're responsible for the accomplishment of missions assigned to them by either the president or the SECDEF and transmitted via the CJCS. They take the forces generated and provided for them by the military services and employ them in order to accomplish national objectives. A CCDR has authority for all U.S. military activities and operations in his AOR, whether functional (as in the case of JFCOM, STRATCOM, TRANSCOM, or SOCOM) or geographic, and he develops war plans and contingency plans that specify the way he intends to use the forces at his disposal to win wars and deal with emergent threats to American security interests.

I hope you'll forgive me the drawn-out explanation, but I think it's absolutely essential to understand what it is that the president needs from each of his senior military leaders. Now that we have a feel for all that, how do these appointments shake out?

Dempsey's ascent to Chairman is a disappointment to a great many people, but not because he's poorly suited for the job -- rather because he was viewed as a perfect fit for the Army Chief of Staff job. He's diversely experienced in both operational and institutional roles, having headed the U.S. advisory and assistance organization in Saudi Arabia (what's called PM-SANG, or Program Manager for the Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program); commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq; led the training and equipping command in Baghdad (Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, or MNSTC-I); served as the interim commander of U.S. Central Command; and spearheaded the Army's efforts at intellectual and doctrinal transformation as the commanding general of TRADOC (Army Training and Doctrine Command). It's hard to think of a job for which GEN Dempsey wouldn't be a good fit. He's shown an eagerness to learn and adapt, and also to aggressively engage with both soldiers and interested outside communities in order to communicate his goals. And that's a big part of the reason Dempsey seems like such a big loss to the Army: as a big-think guy who has clearly spent a great deal of time considering the meaning of the soldiering profession, he seemed perfectly suited to help the Army reset after a decade of war and position itself to meet national needs in the future.

The CJCS needs to be a straight-shooter when advising the president and SECDEF, while also serving as an honest broker for all of the military services. Some have suggested that an Army general might not be the right man for the job in light of the need to re-balance capabilities after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that a green-suiter might be too focused on healing and resetting the Army with big budgets and deformed concepts to help the joint force get ready for future threats. I think this is bogus. In 1958, President Eisenhower insisted that the individual "service responsibilities and activities must always be only the branches, not the central trunk of the national security tree." Shouldn't we trust that one of the most forward-thinking four-stars of our era would agree, especially when it's a part of his legal mandate?

I'm mystified by suggestions that Petraeus or Cartwright would have been better choices. Some will certainly disagree with me on this one, but I think Petraeus (health concerns and interest in the CIA job notwithstanding) would have been nearly the worst possible candidate for either CJCS or CSA. He has demonstrated a mission-focus that's admirable and desirable in a combatant commander, the sort of "damn the rules, let's just get this done" attitude that you want a wartime leader to have when lives are on the line. But that same attitude means he's shown a willingness to push his own preferences and priorities in a way that borders on the inappropriate, and one wonders if someone so strong-willed and committed to a particular operational orthodoxy is best-suited to serve as the lead advisor to the president and the voice of the entire uniformed military. When it comes to senior military leadership, lanes are important; GEN Petraeus would probably assert that he has more important things to worry about.

The tension between the priorities of service chiefs and combatant/joint force commanders is often palpable, as it was when GEN Casey elaborated a classic service chief's concern about the war in Iraq: that operational demands could be breaking the Army. "The forces are stretched. I don't think there's any question of that."** The only problem is that he articulated these concerns in 2006... when he was the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Sometimes even the man in the arena seems not to be sure to what he ought to be paying attention. Which brings us to the Odierno-as-CSA pick: I think it's an interesting choice, but the timing is all wrong. As the president said, "after years on the front lines, Ray understands what the Army must do to prevail in today's wars, to prepare for the future, and to preserve the readiness of soldiers and families." GEN Odierno knows what capabilities the Army must generate to be useful to a wartime commander, but I'm afraid his understanding of this is tailored to a specific context: short-duration, decisive maneuver warfare plus manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stability operations in irregular war. I have less confidence that he's prepared to be the reshaping visionary I feel certain GEN Dempsey would have become. Odierno would have been the perfect CSA two or three years ago, when his direct experience as a battlefield commander could have informed pre-deployment unit preparation, but I'm not sure he's the right guy for the future.

Who would I have picked, as if it matters? I think ADM Stavridis, currently at the helm of EUCOM, is an incredibly intelligent and forward-thinking officer. Galrahn has noted that some Navy folks are pleased he was  overlooked, as now they've got him around to be CNO. He's served as a CCDR in both the SOUTHCOM and EUCOM AORs, and so he has some perspective on the sort of non-traditional missions being executed by a command that is not primarily warfighting-focused as well as on the multinational coordination and preparation so essential to our operations in Afghanistan and Libya. But as I've said above, I think GEN Dempsey will do an outstanding job, and Stavridis' time may come yet.

In any event, I hope this little digression into roles and responsibilities will help to inform the discussion about the senior leadership shakeup.

* The idea here is that the commander of a joint force would be able to select among the wide range of capabilities offered by forces from the various services rather than being constrained by functional boundaries, or worse, having the services develop duplicative and overlapping capabilities in order to ensure that they could complete those missions without going outside their own organization.

** The great paradox of the service chief's job: there is nothing that is more destructive to readiness than actual war. If your priority is to have fully-manned, well-trained, appropriately-rested, maximally lethal combat units on the shelf for employment by combatant commanders, then having a significant portion of your force dedicated to one particular fight will clearly get in the way of that. If your whole job is to make sure a race-car is in tip-top driving shape, the last thing you want anybody to do with it is to actually race.

See you at Fiddler's Green

On this day of remembering those who we lost in our wars, I thought I'd share a bit of cavalry mythology with you. It is how we memorialize our dead and I hope that such a place exists. As this poem is fairly old (by American standards), I would guess that in this era of jointness and combined arms, Fiddler's Green isn't reserved solely for cavalrymen these days and all who pay the ultimate sacrifice are welcome to come and fill their glass.

Fiddler's Green

Halfway down the trail to Hell,
In a shady meadow green
Are the Souls of all dead troopers camped,
Near a good old-time canteen.
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddlers' Green.

Marching past, straight through to Hell
The Infantry are seen.
Accompanied by the Engineers,
Artillery and Marines,
For none but the shades of Cavalrymen
Dismount at Fiddlers' Green.

Though some go curving down the trail
To seek a warmer scene.
No trooper ever gets to Hell
Ere he's emptied his canteen.
And so rides back to drink again
With friends at Fiddlers' Green.

And so when man and horse go down
Beneath a saber keen,
Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee
You stop a bullet clean,
And the hostiles come to get your scalp,
Just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head
And go to Fiddlers' Green

So to SFC Parson, CPL Williams, SFC Suzch, SSG Mitchell, SPC Cardinal, 1LT Adams, 1LT Bryant, CPT Bunting, CPT Garner, CPT Gurbisz, CPT Jensen, 1LT Smith, CPT Mallard, CPT Moshier, and the other 1,343,798 Americans who gave their lives in defense of their nation: some day we'll see you again to have a drink at Fiddler's Green.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A persuasive argument for COCOM consolidation

Nathan Freier is an extremely smart guy. I've thought so since first hearing him speak at Carlisle just over a year ago. He works at CSIS now that he's retired from the Army, and this week he wrote an excellent piece about the missed opportunity to make significant changes to the Unified Command Plan. Read the whole thing; his argument is very compelling.

I particularly enjoyed the closing paragraph, which hits on one of my (many) betes noirs:
Span of control is frequently an argument against merger as well. How, for example, is a single command going to manage engagement with all the countries of Europe and Africa combined? The response is as uncomfortable as it is necessary. As resources decline, larger COCOM AoRs [areas of responsibility] will ultimately demand greater discrimination about where and how limited means are applied. To secure core U.S. interests in a specific AoR, four-star commanders will increasingly need to allocate resources and effort according to consideration of what absolutely must and can be done with what’s on hand and not what could and might be done with additional time and money.
What Freier is describing here is, in my consistent refrain, the essence of strategy. It's also basically the opposite of how the military develops budgets and petitions for resources. Particularly now, as the operational demands of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars begin to decrease, the services are looking for combatant commanders to articulate a "demand signal" for forces to satisfy other missions, like security cooperation (or what Freier refers to with the fraught and awful term "building partner capacity"). If CCDRs are telling the services they need forces to meet their requirements (God, the Pentagon loves this word!), then the service chiefs can justify expensive force structure and personnel retention. Which means bigger budget asks, and so on and so on...

It's nice to imagine a world where combatant commanders set priorities and adjust their appetite to available forces and resources, but usually the nation is instead made to sacrifice its social unnecessaries to the "needs of the warfighter."

[insert pithy, non-profane post title here]

I don't like to scream profanity into cyberspace via post titles, which are embedded in the URL, so I'm just going to bump it down into the body text.

Max Boot: Are you fucking kidding me?
To head off the dangers that may come with “catastrophic success,” it is important for the coalition to plan now for stabilizing a post-Qaddafi Libya. If policymakers haven’t already done so, they ought to consult The Beginner's Guide to Nation-Building put out by Jim Dobbins, Seth Jones, and their colleagues at RAND. In particular look at page 39, which lists “peak military levels for peace enforcement” in a variety of conflicts from 1945 Germany to 2003 Iraq. Iraq was on the low end of force levels—only 7 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. Germany was on the high end—101 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. This helps to explain why post-war Germany was so much more peaceful. Bosnia and Kosovo, also relatively successful exercises in nation-building, were in between—with 19 and 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants, respectively.
What does that mean for Libya—a country that, according to the CIA Factbook, has a population of 6.6 million? If the aim is to replicate the Bosnia/Kosovo experience then 330,000 peacekeepers would be called for. If Iraq is the model, 94,000 peacekeepers would be needed.
Of course, as with all such metrics, these are very rough rules of thumb that need to be adjusted based on circumstances. In Libya there are a number of factors that suggest lesser levels of risk, including the fact that the eastern portion of the country around Benghazi has been relatively peaceful and stable under rebel control. So perhaps even 94,000 peacekeepers won’t be needed. But it is likely that a need substantial if smaller force will still be required, and it is imperative for NATO policymakers to begin planning for such a deployment. As part of that planning process, they need to shine greater public attention on this issue and make clear why a peacekeeping force would need to be sent. Otherwise they risk shock and opposition among publics that have not been prepared for yet another deployment.
For ten minutes after I read this post, I could do nothing but stare blankly at the screen.

Are you fucking kidding me?

The political and public will to secure, stabilize, state-build, or otherwise involve U.S. forces and resources in a post-conflict scenario in Libya simply does not exist. A significant majority of Americans oppose U.S. involvement even at current levels: when asked last week "do you think the U.S. is doing the right thing by using military force in Libya now, or should the U.S. not be involved in Libya now?", only 33% of those polled approved of the enterprise. (See question 31.) There's no small irony in Boot's exhortation to policymakers to "shine greater public attention on this issue and make clear why a peacekeeping force would need to be sent," considering the way Boot himself is manifestly incapable of offering a persuasive rationale to his own audience.

Beyond that, Boot's analysis of force requirements is so stupid it practically drools. One can only assume that the RAND state-building study is cited and linked as a sort of bluff; surely Boot knows that his foolishness will be revealed if the reader takes time to examine it even cursorily. "In particular look at page 39," we're told, where a chart compares the peak troops-to-inhabitants ratio for Germany and Japan in 1945 with six peace enforcement missions from the post-Cold War period. Here's Max:
Iraq was on the low end of force levels—only 7 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. Germany was on the high end—101 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. This helps to explain why post-war Germany was so much more peaceful. Bosnia and Kosovo, also relatively successful exercises in nation-building, were in between—with 19 and 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants, respectively.
Yes, force levels do help to explain the success of peace enforcement and stability operations. Dobbins et al. agree: "High levels of forces have generally tended to correlate with high levels of security and order and low levels of casualties." But they don't completely explain outcomes: just look at Japan, where post-conflict violence was nonexistent with a ratio of only five occupying troops to every 1,000 people -- the same as violent Somalia in 1992.

It is, of course, intuitive to assume that high force levels are conducive to low violence. But the sample size of the RAND study is troubling, as is the lack of consideration given to a number of other qualitative differences between the various campaigns. The wars against Germany and Japan, for example, ended with the surrender of each country's high military command, to the evident relief of populations that had been battered by years of total war. The Bosnian war had a similarly settled conclusion, with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic (acting by proxy for Bosnian Serbs) agreeing to the Dayton Accords alongside the Bosnian and Croatian national leaderships. The Kosovo conflict, on the other hand, ended with the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province and the entry of KFOR peacekeepers, who were joyously received by Kosovar Albanians. (In this sense, it can hardly be classed as "peace enforcement.") And the Iraq war, of course, merely shifted from conventional to irregular war in 2003, the year the data was reported; the government in Baghdad had collapsed, the armed forces scattered, and the anti-coalition resistance taken up by sectarian militias and loyalist irregulars.

What this brief exploration should show is that a great many variables related to conflict termination can impact the level of violence in the peace enforcement or stability operations phase, and troop levels are not uniquely determinative. Boot seems to acknowledge this when he writes that "these are very rough rules of thumb that need to be adjusted based on circumstances." But he goes on to conclude that the risk of post-Qaddafi violence in Libya is likely even lower than in any of the scenarios mooted above, and that a stabilizing occupation could perhaps be effected with an even lower force ratio than Iraq in 2003 (which, contrary to Boot's assertion, is not "on the low end of force levels," but rather just above the median in a set of eight cases). Of course, there's a serious problem with this line of reasoning: if the post-war situation in Iraq were reproduced in Libya this year, that would be a totally unacceptable result for the United States and the international community! The force levels in 2003 Iraq didn't come close to assuring stability!

There are a good many reasons to believe the precise opposite of what Boot asserts -- to believe that the risk of violence in Libya is much, much higher than in Japan or Somalia or Kosovo. Many Libyans have already insisted that a Western troop presence in the country would be unacceptable to them, even during a phase of the conflict when the outcome is still uncertain. If Libyans are unwelcoming of American combat power that could aid in Qaddafi's demise, how much more likely are they to resist a foreign presence once the dictator is gone? As Boot has clearly noticed -- he reminds us early in the piece that "Libya has been a major recruiting center for Al Qaeda" -- Arab North Africans in authoritarian countries are solidly within the target demographic of America's most committed foe; should we expect that AQAM will be unable to rouse resistance fighters to the anti-crusader cause in an Arab country with weak borders, surrounded by other Arab countries with weak borders and populations presumably susceptible to the bin-Ladenist pitch? We should instead pretend that post-conflict conditions in Libya will be less like the disaster of post-Saddam Iraq and more like Kosovo, where occupying forces had come to the aid of a weaker ethno-religious faction after the expulsion of an aggressive, invading army?

In the end, we can't know whether Libya would violently oppose a Western occupation (even one that Boot would surely proclaim as salutary to the cause of Arab freedom). Steven Goode, summarizing the findings of a study on force levels by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, adverted to just this point.
Another caveat of the work is that the analysis cannot predict the violence level before a conflict starts. Many insurgencies simmer at a low level for years before becoming serious enough to provoke a significant reaction from the government. In contrast, the Soviet Union faced intense resistance immediately upon invading Afghanistan, with more than 4,000 Soviet and Afghan soldiers killed every year of the conflict (or more than 250 fatalities per million Afghan residents). Policy-makers contemplating intervening in other nations should remember that not only can invasions lead to insurgencies; they can also lead almost immediately to levels of violence more than three times that currently [in the winter of 2009-10] seen in Afghanistan after eight years of war.
All of which by way of saying what almost everyone except for Max Boot seems to have learned by now: this kind of thing isn't as simple as you think it is. (Or more succinctly: STFU.)

Scheduling Defeat

In a surprising result, the House narrowly failed to pass a bill that would have required some immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to set a timetable for the remainder. With 26 Republicans joining the Democrats, it seems that the death of bin Laden and disillusionment with what we're doing in Afghanistan generally are driving a shift in political support of U.S. involvement in the war. This has me thinking about withdrawal timelines this morning. The discussion of setting a timetable for withdrawal from conflict is a sensitive one, but I often feel that the two sides often are talking past each other. So here are a couple of thoughts I have on the matter and I how I frame the subject.

  1. Is a timetable an operational or strategic tool? Of course, a timetable would affect both the strategic landscape and what happens operationally in Afghanistan, but the question really is: Who benefits from a timetable? One of the biggest arguments against a timetable is that it will leave the host nation in the lurch if they're not ready or the security situation isn't ready by the time the intervening forces is scheduled to leave. Afghanistan is an interesting case study for this dichotomy as there are some very compelling arguments that a long-term, troop-heavy presence provides the United States virtually no strategic benefit. Al Qaeda could be contained much like what we're doing in Pakistan (and HOA for that matter). In the case of Afghanistan, a timetable would likely screw the Government of Afghanistan, but that's not a strategic problem, really (I'm going to guess a number of you are going to disagree with that and I'd like to hear those arguments). Keeping an unpopular government in power with the intent of improving the lives of Afghans seems to be a pretty low priority on the list of strategic interests - especially with such a low likelihood of success. The maintenance of tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars in a country with little to no global or regional strategic value is a waste of significant strategic resources. In my opinion, in Afghanistan, a timetable allows the United States to withdrawal in an orderly fashion without further waste of strategic assets.
  2. There could be military benefit (and subsequent political benefit) to the establishment of a withdrawal timeline. I'm drawing this statement from my experience in Iraq and the effect of the SOFA on Sadrist militants, but there are many counter examples. The idea here is that organizations at war with the government and the intervening force may react positively to a timetable in two ways: decrease military activities to prepare for when the intervening force is gone OR transition to a more political footing in a possible peaceful nation. My understanding is that the Sadrists essentially stopped military action (and for other reasons, too) in both of these interests. What was interesting though, is by the time the U.S. was no longer responsible for providing security in Baghdad, things had pacified fairly well to the point where it was difficult to get people to fight against a better security force. In essence, the lull in fighting provided that "breathing room" for the government to take control and it didn't matter why the Sadrists took their breather. But the fact remains that the SOFA played a large roll in their decision to do so. I doubt the Taliban would attempt to peacefully politicize their organizations, but they may take a breather if they know when we're leaving in order to get ready for the war that follows. Will the ANA be ready to take them on by then? Unlikely, but possible. I don't see how everyone doesn't benefit if everyone just took a knee for a bit.
  3. We don't lose face. I can't stand this Vietnam vintage argument. You know who didn't lose face with their allies and who didn't embolden their enemies from leaving a strategically insignificant war by a timetable? The United States after doing so from Vietnam. When you have the largest economy and military (by capability, not manpower) in the world, you don't lose face by scheduling to get out of conflicts that don't existentially affect you. Iraq isn't perfect and no one is bitching that we're unreliable allies because of that. Our allies all want out of Afghanistan, too.
I'm still thinking through this and this isn't the answer for why timetables are good - at least in the case of Afghanistan. You may disagree with my underlying assumptions. But the first point is the most important, I think. Whether you're for or against a timetable for withdrawal you have to consider at what level you think a timetable affects. If your interests are merely to help Afghanistan succeed, I don't find your argument all that compelling. If you can make the argument that Afghanistan is a strategically essential place for the United States, then I'd like to hear that case. But more generally beyond Afghanistan, this is an interesting topic that I'm not sure has been fully developed. So if any of you want to throw me some money to research it, I'm very open to it. Until then, I firmly believe that withdrawal timetables are perfectly acceptable ways to get out of conflicts you don't want to be in anymore.

This is what happens when you drink too much coffee and your girlfriend has to work late

I'm not really a terrorism guy, as I think most people know. But I've been reading and thinking about both the causes and objectives of terroristic violence lately, particularly the way that governmental authority and state capacity intersect with individual freedom and factional grievance.

Another interesting idea to me is the way that terrorism as we understand it today is a quite recent and short-lived phenomenon: terror was (in the words of Conor Gearty) "hardly ever to be found in any century up to and including the nineteenth" and simply "was not part of the equation of revolt." This was to some extent a matter of the technologies both of violence and of communication, but it was also a factor of the relationship between government and disaffected petitioner: the would-be terrorist lacked the means to inflict sufficient damage or to spread the message of his success, and in most places the state had no qualms about brutally quashing rebellion or dissent. To put it simply, terrorism didn't exist because it wouldn't have worked.

I'm also fascinated by a certain irony implicit in our 21st-century return to a more expansive definition of terrorism. It may sound absurd to state it in this fashion, but until very recently, terror was the fundamental, critical component to any definition of "terrorism"; violence outside of war was only unambiguously classed as terrorism when it was both politically subversive and indiscriminate -- when its intent was to create real public terror at its seeming randomness and insensitivity to the distinction between citizen and government. I'm not interested in having a drawn-out semantic argument about this, but it's curious the way we often refer to the 9/11 hijackers and to an Afghan who emplaces an IED alike as "terrorists." The aforementioned irony is in the fact that "pure terror" -- that is, indiscriminate violence intended to send a political message -- is less comprehensible to us for its apparent disconnection from the expressed objective just as it terrifies us more. The targeted violence most likely to actually influence policy directly tends more toward political subversion and irregular warfare. Terrorism is, in a sense, becoming less terrifying.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about. And then I drew this:
(Click to make it bigger.) No, it doesn't make very much sense. No, I can't really tell you what the hell I was trying to accomplish when I drew it. No, I'm not going to type out all the captions and clarifying remarks. Yes, I want you to examine it and tell me how useless it is, and how very stupid you think I am, and how I ought to just stop trying to make everything into a damn graph already just because I've been reading a lot about Tufte this week.

Just for the record, the two meaningful lines are the straight line slope running from bottom-left to top-right, which is labeled "susceptibility to mitigation by direct government action," and the dipping arc with red trim, labeled "vulnerability of high-functioning state." I guess the idea was to show the way that different purported root causes of terrorism could be mitigated, and to think about how important state strength is to those various forms of mitigation. Terrorist violence that is motivated by an overwhelming desire for substantive policy change, for example, would be insensitive to state strength (just as likely to occur in a strong state as in a weak one) while comparatively "simple" to mitigate or avoid through concrete, direct action by the government (politically unpalatable as that may be). On the other end of the spectrum you have sociopathic or nihilistic terrorism (which, again, is no less likely in a high-functioning state than a failed one), a type of random and truly terror-inspiring violence that the government is virtually powerless to proactively suppress. [Here I think of the Michael Caine character's quote in one of the recent Batman movies: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."]

Hm, whoa, look at the time! Two questions for you:

1) Is there any chance that this graphic says anything meaningful to you, has any explanatory power, or provides any insight whatsoever (beyond "Gulliver is an asshole with too much time on his hands")?

2) What's wrong with it, from the perspective of conceptual accuracy?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Uh, sir, could you maybe think about using a different word?

My favorite unreadable anti-journalist and China hawk has an item today about this week's SASC Airland subommittee hearing on tactical aircraft. Unsurprisingly, his account focuses exclusively on a China angle.
Asked during the hearing what "keeps you up at night," Rear Adm. David L. Philman, Navy director of warfare integration, said: "Well, the China scenario is first and foremost, I believe, because they seem to be more advanced and they have the capability out there right now, and their ships at sea and their other anti-access capabilities."
The Pentagon refers to China's advanced weapons, including ballistic missiles that hit ships at sea, new submarines, anti-satellite weapons and cyberwarfare capabilities, as "anti-access and area denial" arms.
Adm. Philman said the J-20 rollout is a concern, but with 1,000 test hours on the F-35, the jet is a "far leap ahead from the Chinese fighter that's flown three times."
"But they will catch up. They understand. They're a smart and learning enemy, and if we don't keep our edge, then we will be behind, or at least lose our advantage," Adm. Philman said. [emphasis mine]
So, um, RADM Philman: any chance you could avoid describing the world's most populous country as an ENEMY? Considering the way that, you know, we're not actually at war with them or anything like that, and how in fact we actually have a gradually growing mil-to-mil relationship with them? I know it's just fighter-pilot lingo, and I know you're talking about the PLA more specifically, not the entire country, and I know we're talking about hypothetical future threats to U.S. air dominance and that in that context, it's reasonable to talk about us and "the enemy," even if only as a matter of the way forces are arrayed (as in friendly aircraft vs. enemy aircraft, etc.). But dude, come on.

Can we just go with something like "adaptive adversary"? It's less aggressively inflammatory, it connotes potential rather than actual threat, and it has the added benefit of being consistent with doctrine!

The Will and the Wallet

I don't know how this happened, but I just noticed that our blogroll somehow omitted The Will and the Wallet, the Stimson Center's outstanding blog on budgeting for defense and foreign affairs. It's absolutely essential reading -- the very best there is on this subject. This should come as no surprise, considering who runs the show over there.

Today's post by Rebecca Williams on foreign aid in the context of deficit reduction is a great example of what they do so well: data-driven analysis and explanation, clear language, and excellent supporting graphics.

Add it to your blogroll. (I have, belatedly.) Read it. Learn things. Thank me later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Excuse, Sir.

Just kidding. This whole post is an excuse on my lack of posting of late. The long version as to why this has been the case is (of course) multi-fold. Initially, in the wake of the U.S. decision to take an active and combative role in Libya, I really questioned the utility of blogging. I never had any sort of delusions that the President reads my posts or any such thing, but the (in my view) completely irrational - and growingly un-Constitutional - U.S. involvement made me ask myself why I bother to do this. I'm not getting paid for it and this whole situation made me feel like the crazy guy on a soap box yelling at myself.

After some offline encouragement, I got over that. But then real life took hold of the whole situation. As some of you on Twitter may have read, I'm working on stuff that is new to me. Instead of policy-type work, I've moved into more of the technical, tactical, acquisitions realm of DoD consulting. I'm somewhat happy for the change - I feel that I'll be able to affect things in a more direct way in this capacity. The reason I'm saying all of this is that I've been spending a lot of time learning new things and wrapping my brain around new ideas (well, new to me at least). That hasn't left much capacity for thinking and writing about the things in my free time. I guess it hasn't left me much free time at all. This isn't a complaint, just an excuse.

I haven't been entirely idle over the past couple of months in a strategic/policy sense. I'll link in a few weeks to a paper I wrote on U.S. peacebuilding activities in Afghanistan. It's a real corker and pick-me up. In the meantime, I'm set to receive mode over the blogosphere and once I'm firmly settled in the new situation, I'll get back to writing here regularly again.

Admin announcement: The Progressive Realist blog network

Just a note to let everyone know that we've accepted an invitation to become a part of The Progressive Realist blog network, which the editors describe as "a metablog about American foreign policy." The site doesn't produce original content, but it's not an automated aggregator, either; the editors choose a selection of posts from the blogs that make up the network in order to populate the site. (I'd expect you might see something from Ink Spots on there perhaps once a week.) Read more about the site and the concept here.

I'll admit that I felt some initial trepidation about associating with such an expressly political label. While we do often cover the subject of defense politics, and while several of us have very strong positions staked out along what you might call the defense-ideological spectrum (I think it spans from "Dinosaur" on one end to "Enthusiastic COINdinista" on the other, or something like that), our blog isn't about liberal or conservative or anything else that might connote the primacy of political platform over pragmatic analysis. But I think you'll find that The Progressive Realist represents a wide array of political and policy views and has no truck with ideological orthodoxy or litmus tests, and if it did, we wouldn't be a part of it.

Personally, I'm pleased at the way this development reflects evolving perceptions of Ink Spots: my impression is that we're increasingly viewed not just as a narrowly-focused "COIN blog," but as contributors to the broader dialogue on strategy, policy, and a range of national security topics. Many of the other participants in The Progressive Realist network are folks you'll be familiar with from our blogroll and Twitter feeds. They come from a range of analytical viewpoints and sub-specialties, and I'd encourage you not only to read those posts that are lined up for aggregation on the metablog, but also to click through to their sites and take a deeper look.

Thanks to all of you who take the time to drop in and read us, and thanks to The Progressive Realist for making us a part of what they do.

"So much of what I did before was a war against stupidity"

If I'm drawing up a list of human virtues, of the characteristics I'd most like to evince to friend and acquaintance, then humility and forbearance would be near the top. I aspire to (and consistently fail to achieve) the sort of general attitude that David Wallace described as a Democratic Spirit: "one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others."

When it comes to my experts, though, what I'm really looking for is a fanatically over-informed, supremely self-assured sonofabitch. And on the subject of information design -- that is, the elegant and effective visualization of data -- Edward Tufte seems to be exactly that. (I hope this compliment would be received in the manner it's intended.)

I knew a little about Tufte before today, mostly for his criticisms of PowerPoint, but also for the way his name consistently pops up in the sources I've skimmed while indulging my episodic and amateurish fascination with typography and design. I know a lot more about him now, thanks to Joshua Yaffa's profile in the current issue of Washington Monthly.
Edward Tufte occupies a revered and solitary place in the world of graphic design. Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story. His four books on the subject have sold almost two million copies, and in his crusade against euphemism and gloss, he casts a shadow over the world of graphs and charts similar to the specter of George Orwell over essay and argument.
Tufte is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it. For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design.
The litany of ideologically and functionally diverse Tufte fanboys quoted in the piece is a testament to the man's influence: here's Karl Rove, there Peter Orszag, then Nate Silver and even T.X. Hammes. But why does this guy matter to me, or to the readers of the blog? Well, you may remember that T.X. is our community's very own evangelist for intellection and complexity, enemy of oversimplification, and vocal critic of the Pentagon's "cult of the PowerPoint presentation." He told Yaffa that (in the journo's words) "the rise of PowerPoint in the military has made the decision-making process less intellectually active" and noted that Tufte "is the master on this whole thing." So maybe if we pay a little bit of attention, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information can help to lead us out of this dark place.

I'd bet Tufte thinks so. Remember the thing about self-assuredness?
Some designers have questioned whether Tufte’s reverence for elegance and accuracy can verge on dogmatism, with too little consideration of context or audience. “The world is not filled with professional statisticians,” said Donald Norman, the codirector of the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University and the author of The Design of Everyday Things. “Many of us would like a quick glance just to get a good idea of something. If a graph is made easier to understand by such irrelevancies as a pile of oil cans or cars, then I say all the better.” (Tufte deflects this criticism by pointing out that Norman has been a paid consultant to Microsoft; Norman says his consulting work has nothing to do with his own thinking and writing.)
But when Tufte feels sure of something—which is to say, quite often—he can have little interest in entertaining criticism. “There are some people who have reached a certain position in life and will be amused and interested in a contrary opinion, and have a scholarly banter about it,” said Christopher Pullman, who taught in the design program at Yale on and off since the 1960s. “But that’s not Tufte.” [...] “So much of what I did before was a war against stupidity,” [Tufte] told me not long ago.
Just for kicks, I want to reproduce the figure that Tufte once wrote was "the best statistical graphic ever drawn" [click the link for a big, high-res version] as well as Yaffa's summary of the way Tufte explains it.
“This,” he said, “is War and Peace as told by a visual Tolstoy.” The map is about the size of a car window, and follows the French invasion of Russia in 1812. It was drawn in 1869 by a French engineer named Charles Joseph Minard. On the left of the map, on the banks of the Niemen River, near Kovno in modern-day Lithuania, a horizontal tan stripe represents the initial invasion force of 420,000 French soldiers. As they march east, toward Moscow—to the right, on the map—they begin to die, and the stripe narrows.

The map itself is elegant and restrained, but it tells the story of a sprawling, bloody horror: cold and hunger begin to finish off whatever French soldiers the Russians haven’t killed in battle. As the French army retreats, the tan line turns black and doubles back on itself to the left, or to the west, away from Moscow. A series of thin gray lines intersect the path of the army, showing the winter’s cruel temperatures. On November 9 it is 9 degrees below freezing. On November 14, it is 21 degrees below.
Then, on the 28th of November, a catastrophe: in a rush to cross the Berezina River, half of the retreating army, 22,000 men, drowns in the river’s icy waters. The black line, already thinned to a fraction of its initial size, abruptly reduces by half. Finally, in late December, six months after they set off, the surviving French soldiers cross back over the Niemen River. The map shows their number: 10,000 men. Ultimately, only one in forty-two soldiers survives the doomed campaign.
Tufte pointed to the far left of the map, where the tan and black lines intersect. “And it is there,” he said, “at the beginning and at the end of the campaign, where we have a small but poignant example of the first grand principle of analytical design”: above all else, always show comparisons.
Apart from the fact that this is just really freakin' awesome, there's a lesson here: if we strip out the superfluous, focus on what matters to the story we're trying to tell, and come up with an elegant way to graphically render that meaningful imformation, we can communicate simple, direct messages about complicated subjects. We need to try harder, and try smarter.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lies, damn lies, etc.: "The Army is Tapped Out"

An interesting post ran this afternoon on Time's "Battleland" blog, entitled "The Army is Tapped Out." I've noticed it's getting a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter, so I wanted to clarify some stuff about the "two really interesting things" that its author, Ron Capps, claims to have learned from a recent RAND report (pdf)  on Army deployment data for OIF and OEF.

Here are the two "interesting" revelations:

1. Despite making up only 50% of the Armed Forces' active-duty end-strength, the Army is responsible for 75% of the individual deployments to the Box. This apparently surprises some folks, in spite of the fact that those deployments are in support of two manpower-intensive land wars. You know, the sort the Army is designed to fight.

2. "Second, and more importantly," according to Capps, "the Army is operating at full capacity... So the Army can't do more unless it deploys the Corps of Cadets." This is a serious misreading of the data. Let me explain.

First of all, this report was published last year at the request of the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. One problem: the VCSA requested it in 2008. The data used in the study is only accurate up to December of that year, so keep that in mind.

Second: the report is about individual soldier deployments. It's not about unit deployments, and it's not about rotational readiness. It's about how many of the actual individual soldiers in the Army have deployed to a combat zone, how many times they've done so, how many folks haven't gone, and so on. It's not about readiness.

So where did this "full capacity" conclusion come from? Here's how the RAND report finishes up:
Since the beginning of OIF, the active-duty soldiers who have deployed have operated at a BOG:Dwell ratio of approximately 1:1. Almost 67 percent of the soldiers in the Army in December 2008 had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these soldiers were working on their second or third year of cumulative deployed duty. 
Most of the remaining soldiers (about 20 percent) were new to the Army and still engaged in individual, collective, or unit training. Of the remainder, 7 percent are in key specialties supporting current operations or are deployed to Korea or Europe. Therefore, the active-duty Army is almost completely (about 94 percent) utilized and therefore retains very little unutilized capacity to deploy additional active-duty soldiers.
As you can see from the text, we're dealing with a semantic issue here. I'm not sure if "unutilized capacity" means something specific in some particular academic context, but here it's wildly misleading, and it's easy to understand how Capps made this mistake... if he hadn't just read an entire report dealing with individual deployments.

What the 94% figure represents is the portion of the force that either has deployed, has not deployed as a result of a specific set of operational or professional circumstances, or hasn't been in the Army long enough to deploy with a unit. When the report's authors write that "the Army is almost completely utilized and therefore retains very little capacity to deploy additional active-duty soldiers," they mean that there's no massive uniformed pool of active duty, never-deployed fresh meat available for the Army's needs. Which, frankly, is not a terribly useful statistic, and doesn't tell us much of anything meaningful at all. The only thing "the Army can't do more" of is go through the rolls, find more than about 31,000 "unutilized" soldiers -- those who have never deployed and don't have a particularly good reason -- and stick them on the next plane to the Box.

As I noted on Twitter when I first read the post (but before having taken a look at the cited paper), the Army can, in fact, do a whole lot more from a readiness perspective... even without deploying the Corps of Cadets. It would require taking on additional risk, bypassing standard operating procedures, and shortening the train-up time that units receive prior to deployment, but it could be done. Here's how.

Army brigades train, deploy, and reset on a rotational cycle called Army Force Generation. (Check out the reg (pdf) if, uh, that's your thing.) In optimal conditions, that's a 36-month cycle with what's called a 1:3 BOG to Dwell ratio: nine months available for deployment; at least six months resetting equipment, turning over personnel, and reacquainting with family; and then 18-21 months in the Train/Ready phase getting set to be deploy (or at least be available for deployment) again. At present, the Army's just working on getting to 1:2 (12 months deployed, 24 months dwell time), which represents the service's capacity to surge forces to meet the needs of higher operational tempo.
What this means is that only one-third of the Army's pool of modular brigades is in the "available" phase at any one time, while the other two-thirds is resetting equipment or going through the training cycle. In the steady state -- normal, non-surge circumstances -- the Army can make available one corps headquarters, four division headquarters, 15 Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), and about 75K enablers. In a surge scenario, that goes to 1/5/20/90 -- a yield of an extra five BCTs, or about 17,500 extra combat troops.

Ok, who cares, right? Well, nobody had a rotational cycle in World War II. We pretty much fielded everything we had, with units rotating out of the line for a few weeks at a time to rest and reset. The ARFORGEN cycle spits out a third of the total Active Component brigades as "available," which means they've had the requisite amount of training to deploy at full capability. But if the balloon went up and all of a sudden we were in The Big One, there are 30 more combat brigades -- more than 100K combat troops -- at some stage of readiness. (Remember during the Iraq surge, when deployments were extended to 15 months instead of 12? That was to keep units in the "available" phase of ARFORGEN for longer so as to be able to field more brigades at a time. If the Sovs come through the Fulda Gap, the Army would solve the problem of force availability with 48-month "deployments.") And we haven't even talked about the Reserve Component, which brings another 28 Army National Guard BCTs to the table.

All of which is a long way of saying: I know the whole thing about West Point was a joke, but let's not start talking about the Battle of New Market, ok?

Another anachronism? A word on irregulars and asymmetry

I just finished reading John Mueller's "The Banality of 'Ethnic War'" (pdf), which is, I think, a pretty good debunking of the lazy and misleading clash-of-civilizations/ancient-ethnic-hatreds explanation for allegedly communal violence. It was published in 2000, and has some hints of the argument that would later emerge at the root of Mueller's less-compelling 2004 book The Remnants of War. This latter work basically argues that humanity is getting over war, at least in the developed world, and that what passes for it in the modern era is just the sort of criminality and sociopathy that Mueller convincingly argues (in "Banality") drove the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

While Mueller's general argument strikes me as sound, I'm mystified with the way the paper is suffused with what seems like an unjustified optimism about the evolution of human culture away from mass violence. He goes to quite considerable lengths at times to explain and rationalize the supposed centrality of socially anomalous irregulars (noting repeatedly, almost without exception, that such groups are "often drunken") to modern conflict; the quest to absolve "regular people" of guilt for genocidal atrocities is, for me, alternatingly encouraging and desperate.

The concluding section of the paper, entitled "Extrapolations," is where the future "remnants" argument is most clearly delineated.
[...] Martin van Creveld has proclaimed [in The Transformation of War, 1991] that we have entered a "new era," in which "war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, and robbers." Banditry and depredations by roving militias are hardly new of course, but [Michael] Ignatieff and van Creveld may be correct in suggesting that regular soldiers are no longer engaging in combat nearly as much as they used to. It is not, as van Creveld would have it, that low-intensity conflict has risen to "dominance." Rather it is that, increasingly, warfare of that sort is the only kind still going on--war by thugs is the residual, not the emerging, form.
Moreover, if some states (like Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Rwanda) came to depend on irregulars, it is not because they find this approach preferable, but because they are unable to muster an adequate number of recruits to field a real army. And if, again like Serbia and Rwanda, but unlike Croatia and Bosnia [which were, in this telling, saved from early dependence on the ethnic protection rackets of purportedly nationalist militias by military professionalization and the intervention of professional western forces, respectively], they continue to rely on such corrupt, opportunistic, inept, and often cowardly forces, they are likely eventually to go down in pathetic defeat.
To which I can only respond: are we quite sure?

If irregulars are "corrupt, opportunistic, inept, and often cowardly" by definition, then who can argue? But this strikes me as a bit of truistic question-begging to justify Mueller's optimism about the obsolescence of war: if warring parties are increasingly dependent on marginalized elements of society as instruments of violence, and those elements are increasingly detached from the martial attributes that generate combat effectiveness, then surely they'll be easily defeated by capable peacekeepers or police -- the at least minimally-capable tools of the advanced and morally elevated state... right? If all that is true, though, then we have to ask: why is it taking so long?

What I really want to focus on, though, is the section I've italicized above: "if some states... came to depend on irregulars, it is not because they find this approach preferable, but because they are unable to muster an adequate number of recruits to field a real army." This qualifying conditionality -- "if some" -- is a bit of rhetorical deftness, as it's impossible to deny that some states may have employed irregulars because of problems with recruiting, morale, or sustainment of regular forces.

But should we take this to mean that all states -- or even most states (or sub-state combatants) -- that rely on irregulars do so because of personnel inadequacies? This contention is pretty plainly false: from the post-November 2001 Taliban to the Fedayeen Saddam and associated insurgents to the Jaish al-Mahdi to the Kurds in Turkey and Iran to Lebanese Hizballah irregulars in the 2006 war to the dispersed and civvie-clad Libyan regime forces in 2011, the last decade has seen a virtual parade of organized, dedicated, coordinated fighters choosing to array themselves in irregular fashion and adopt asymmetric tactics against much stronger adversaries.

Some "wars" may be fought by disorganized, drunken thugs because they're the only ones who will show up. Participants in many others, though, depend on irregulars as a tactical adaptation devised to increase fighters' survivability and lethality. van Creveld, as it turns out, is almost certainly closer than Mueller to the truth.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The awesome prescience of obscure, misplaced books

A couple of days ago, I noticed a skinny little paperback on my bookshelf, one I surely hadn't opened in 15 years despite its persistent presence in various packing piles and moving boxes. It's called Terror, written by an Irishman named Conor Gearty and published (only in Britain, so far as I can tell) by Faber and Faber in 1991. I probably picked it up in a shop in Pontypridd around '94 (it should come as no surprise that I was a book nerd even as a pre-teen), back when terrorism was a considerably less fashionable subject, and read it alongside Tim Pat Coogan's more popular work on the IRA.

Gearty's book is pretty tough to find nowadays, and I wonder how many people more conversant in the terrorism literature than I are familiar with it. (?) One might reasonably assume that a book on terrorism written at the end of the Cold War wouldn't have a tremendous amount to teach us after the events of the last decade; hell, part of the reason I took the book up again was a somewhat ungenerous curiosity about how the whole thing held up. I've just begun to read it again, but this bit in the introduction jumped out at me:
Politicians have not been slow to talk of terrorism in a vocabulary of fear previously reserved exclusively for communism. In the first twenty years [Gearty's talking here about the late 1960s to late 1980s], the subject shared its language with the old enemy. General Gadaffi may have been the 'mad dog', but the Soviet Union remained firmly entrenched as the 'evil empire'. Now, however, the death of communism in eastern Europe and its imminent decline in China [!] has left the field of fear clear for terrorism. Recently an undercurrent of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiment has crept into the debate. The Muslim faith stands out as the one remaining alternative to Western values. [!] So it is hardly surprising that it -- or the terrorists it is said to sponsor -- should have drifted into the space once filled by Stalin and his advocates of world domination. If Senator McCarthy were alive today, his questions would be about mosques, not membership.
Hm, quite. (The emphasis is mine.) Remember, this was written in 1991. To think how different the world was then!

The first chapter of the book also has a useful discussion of the definition and vocabulary of terrorism, a subject that has been nearly exhausted in this first part of the 21st century (though I'm not sure we've gotten any good answers). It's interesting to see the assertion two decades ago that "at times... it has seemed as if the idea of terrorism has reached the point where it can now be said to embrace subversive violence anywhere in the world." Who could have imagined how much more expansive our definition would soon become?

I'm sure there will be more noteworthy highlights as I move through the book, and I may share them, but this seemed too prescient to pass up.

EDIT: Here's one I somehow forgot to include yesterday:
If we see their ambitions as low-level or short-term, it is evident that deliberate terror does sometimes work. Terror has after all achieved the release of convicted prisoners from European and Israeli jails. It has led to political concessions which have been made as a way of bringing some crisis or another to a successful resolution. It has forced responses from liberal democratic governments which are out of all proportion, in terms of money spent and human resources allocated, to the mischief it creates; it is only necessary to spend a couple of hours in an international airport to see how a few killers have transformed one whole substructure of the modern world, and in a way which reminds every passenger of the possibility of attack (even though in statistical terms it is too remote to be worthy of notice).
Emphasis, again, is mine. The way airports adapted to a threat of hijacking and other terrorism in the 1980s seems almost quaint to the post-9/11 observer, doesn't it?

Memo to Jennifer Rubin: Israel's QME has nothing to do with the U.S. defense budget

In an unsurprisingly derivative and unconvincing argument about the need for GOP presidential aspirants to oppose cuts to the defense budget, the Post's resident expert-on-everything couldn't help but take a dig at the Obama administration's imaginarily insufficient future military support for Israel:
[The president] bragged at AIPAC :

Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. And it’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels.
That includes additional support — beyond regular military aid — for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. This is a powerful example of American-Israel cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped saved innocent Israeli lives. So make no mistake, we will maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.
How’s he going to do all that if he keeps taking a chain saw to the defense budget? It is, as with his deficit plan and refusal to alter unsustainable entitlement programs, a refusal to level with the public and to lead.
It's funny you should ask, Ms. Rubin, because there's a perfectly good answer. And it speaks to the question of who it is, exactly, that refuses to level with the public.

Israel is the recipient of the largest share of American military assistance by an extremely large margin. How large? Just over $3 billion of the five and a half billion set aside for foreign military financing (FMF) worldwide, as a matter of fact. (The next-highest amount for a single country, as you may have heard in recent months, is Egypt's $1.3 billion.) This THREE BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR comes as part of a 2007 commitment by the U.S. government of $30 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next ten years -- a pledge that candidate Obama insisted he would honor, and that President Obama shows no sign of failing to honor. If that's not enough, Israel is the only recipient of U.S. military assistance permitted to use grant aid to purchase defense articles and services from its own armaments industry, not the U.S.

While we're on the subject, want to know something interesting about that military aid and its relationship to the defense budget? Well, there is no relationship between the two. FMF is a part of the International Security Assistance section of the Foreign Operations account... that's right, the State Department's budget, not the defense budget. You know, the one your buddies on the Hill want to slash?

Iron Dome is another interesting example. How could the U.S. possibly continue its financial support for an Israeli rocket and missle defense system in a time of shrinking budgets? Surely this would be among the first of the cuts, especially considering the Obama administration's manifest eagerness to betray the Jewish state. Strange, but recent history doesn't bear this out. The president requested $205 million in the FY 11 budget to help the Israelis pay for Iron Dome. In case you're worried about Congressional support, don't: the House approved the request by a 410-4 vote. And when shutdown-averting continuing appropriation finally passed last month, that $205 million earmark was included in a $415 million carve-out of the Defense RDT&E fund dedicated solely to Israeli cooperative programs. That was enough for PM Netanyahu to express "his deep appreciation for U.S. funding of the 'Iron Dome' rocket and mortar defense system" to President Obama during an April 18th phone call. I guess he's not worried about the bits of the U.S. defense budget that are dedicated to paying for Israeli defensive systems, at least.

And as for "making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies," well, that doesn't cost us anything at all beyond what's been talked about above: the safe-as-safe-gets cooperative R&D account and the free money to purchase U.S. gear that's included in the foreign aid budget.

So "how's he going to do all that" if the defense budget gets cut? Easy: the same way we've been doing it all along.

Now who's refusing to level with the public, Ms. Rubin? Are you ignorant of these facts, or simply disingenuous?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The legend of COIN as essential CT enabler: the bin Laden exemplum

Spencer wrote a thoughtful post last week on a question I'm surprised hadn't been brought up earlier: does the bin Laden raid tell us anything about the legitimacy of past claims that a large-footprint counterinsurgent force on the ground in Afghanistan is essential to collecting the kind of solid, reliable local intelligence we need to wage effective operations against al-Qaeda? Take it away, Attackerman:
So the bin Laden raid leaves us with an empirical test case for a core counterinsurgency contention.
Proposed by Dave Kilcullen and others, counterinsurgency theorists argue that theirs is the truer path to robust counterterrorism, the pursuit of which is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context. Counterterrorism requires intelligence on terrorists and their environs. Intelligence requires local knowledge. Local knowledge requires the protection of vulnerable populations from reprisal, plus some incentive -- money, justice, political access, whatever -- to make cooperation with the anti-insurgent faction sensible. If you don't provide those resources and meet people where they are, then your counterterrorism hunt is fruitless. 
U.S. counterterrorism just succeeded, massively, in a place where we don't have a counterinsurgency campaign. But we clearly had sufficient local knowledge (read: informers and ground operatives) -- plus signals intelligence, plus persistant surveillance -- to meet our objective.
This seems like a pretty simple deal, right? Let's reformulate what Spencer has written in the simplest possible terms:
  1. Some COIN advocates sold their operational approach by saying that it involves the collection of intelligence that enables accomplishment of the primary national objective, which is the destruction of al-Qaeda and its associated movements. 

  2. A significant step towards the accomplishment of that objective was achieved in a manner that suggests that the COIN campaign in Afghanistan did not meaningfully contribute. 

  3. As such, we should reconsider whether the massive expense, reduced operational readiness, and other sacrifices being made to enable that COIN campaign are actually essential to accomplishment of the fundamental goal; i.e. is the war in Afghanistan really accomplishing anything vis-a-vis the president's stated objective, which is, lest we forget, to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda"?
This isn't going to come as a shock to you, but I completely agree with all of that. I agree with the line of thinking. I agree with the need for re-assessment. (To be more accurate, I think the assessment -- whether or not our ways and means can meaningfully contribute to the accomplishment of our ends -- should have been done and then explained and justified to the American people before the escalation too place, because it's not as if these concerns are new (pdf)... but we all know how that went.) I agree that this should serve as a kick in the ass for policymakers to genuinely think about why we're fighting the war in Afghanistan and what benefits we're reaping in exchange for its various costs. Agree with all of that. But the original post actually requires a little bit of semantic parsing, because the COIN pitch made by escalation advocates was multi-layered, sophisticated, and not vulnerable to a single point of failure. So let's take a second to get some details straight.

During the debate over possible courses of action that preceded the president's announcement of an escalation, the various positions were basically boiled down to "CT," "CT-plus," and "COIN." I'm not going to rehash the details of all of that, because it's boring and you almost certainly already know the broad strokes. (If not, read this.) But!: one of many, many insidious effects of that simplification was the way that "counterterrorism" or "CT" came in the popular lexicon to mean something like targeted direct action against terrorist networks, personnel, and support infrastructure -- i.e. killing terrorists -- without what constitutes the other half of that definition in military doctrine: "action taken indirectly to influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks." Now, it may be the case that the DOD definition is too broad to be meaningful, and you could certainly make that argument. But by this definition and according to the justification of the mission provided by Presidents Bush and Obama, any USG activities undertaken in Afghanistan would constitute "counterterrorism"... including COIN, FID, SFA, development assistance, economic support, etc etc ad infinitum.

Now take another look at Spencer's post in this light. "Counterinsurgency theorists argue that theirs is the truer path to robust counterterrorism, the pursuit of which is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context." He goes on to explain the presumed linkage between security to governmental capacity to popular loyalty to local knowledge to actionable intelligence, which serves to clarify what he really meant by "the truer path to robust counterterrorism": COIN ops will presumably result in military forces getting more information about the environment and the enemy than they otherwise would have (without sustained on-the-ground presence), meaning you can kill more terrorists this way.

I want to vigorously dispute Spencer's characterization of this questionable (and opportunistic) corollary as "a core counterinsurgency contention." What we see here is a cunning conflation of two superficially plausible semi-truths: 1) persistent, visible, dispersed presence by counterinsurgent security forces will enable the accumulation of local knowledge that is essential to effectively targeting insurgent cadres and thus enabling the broader counterinsurgency effort, and 2) the local knowledge that's accumulated as a result of sustained presence and security will include intelligence that allows the counterinsurgent force to undertake targeted, effective offensive operations against al-Qaeda terrorists (whose numbers in the Afghan AO are infinitesimal if not zero).

It's only fair to further note that when Spencer writes "the pursuit of [counterterrorism] is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context," he's engaging in a bit of selective memory (or revisionist history). Many advocates for escalation and a broad-based COIN effort in Afghanistan were proponents of a widely-held view in both liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles, one that has only recently -- with a downturn in popular support and enthusiasm for overseas adventurism -- started to recede from the public forum: faith in what we can call the "state strength" paradigm. They believe(d?) that weak states posed the greatest threat to global and national security, that poverty, disenfranchisement and lack of economic opportunity not only drove local conflicts, but threatened Americans' way of life. Here's how it's pitched (pdf):
We know where extremists thrive. In conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy. In weak states that cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people. From Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim – nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. The extremists encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites.
In this telling, poor economic conditions and injustice stoke disaffection and rage while weak governments are insufficiently capable of taking steps to either ameliorate these conditions or control their disaffected populations, and the whole thing ends up with pissed-off foreigners flying airplanes into office buildings. In short, they believed that failed states created terrorists, and that the best way to fix these failed states would be to build governmental capacity through a wide-ranging nation assistance and state-building effort while taking direct military action to defeat the most immediately dangerous security threats... what's been called, in the imprecise shorthand of our political narrative, "COIN."

In a defense and foreign-policy establishment where this worldview predominates, almost to the exclusion of all others, is it fair to say that "the pursuit of [robust counterterrorism] is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context"? I would argue that it isn't the only reason, and that Kilcullen et al's focus on the CT-enabler angle was merely a matter of opportunistic calculation to appeal to those few "realists" who may not have fully bought into the contemporary conventional wisdom. The real challenge doesn't come from such obviously inadequate policy justifications as the narrowly-circumscribed one that Spencer seeks to highlight, but rather from the undifferentiated monolith that is the state-strength paradigm. It is close to a fact of political science that the risk of civil violence is closely correlated with low per-capita GDP/quality of life (as Jay Ulfelder points out today in a fortuitously-timed post). But it is far more difficult to establish causation, and causation is what we need to understand if we want to bring policy instruments to bear on a security problem. Consider just a few of the multivariate assumptions about the causes of conflict and violence that are embedded in the state-strength paradigm.
Violence is caused by: poverty; unequal access to or distribution of resources; unemployment; the inability of the justice system to fairly adjudicate disputes; the inability of the police to enforce the writ of the state; the inability of security forces to maintain the monopoly of violence; the inability of security forces to defend borders/sovereignty/protect against outside influence and/or infiltration of adversarial elements; the inability of security forces to undertake and/or sustain effective offensive operations against identified targets such as terrorists or insurgent groups; etc.
Some of these may be true, some specious, and some outright absurd. But the lumping of these many purported causes, drivers, or enablers of conflict under one broad rubric -- "state weakness/failure" -- has allowed for that paradigm's furtherance through unified (or at least complementary) advocacy by disparate power bases and interest groups: DoD can talk about the requirement to build capacity and capabilities in partner security forces in order to defend borders and eliminate safe havens; while State can emphasize the need to build whole-of-government capacity with a specific focus on the institutions of justice and so on; and USAID and the development community can pitch the imperative of improving the delivery of basic assistance to address human suffering, economic inequality, and other purportedly fundamental drivers of conflict.

This is how we end up with a sort of meta-COIN, a universalization of vague and arguably specious tactical principles to the level of foreign policy: a global emphasis on development, the effective provision of goods and services, and capacity-building (both in governance and security); counterterrorism in the very most literal interpretation of the definition, emphasizing both the indirect actions that influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks (economic development, conflict resolution, civil governance capacity-building) plus direct action against terrorist networks... but the easier and cheaper version: direct action by partner security forces (military assistance, foreign internal defense, security force capacity-building). And then you've still got the ultimate trump card in reserve: direct military action by U.S. forces, which Kilcullen insists is basically the worst-case, avoid-at-almost-all-costs scenario.

What I'm getting at is this: while advocates of escalation in Afghanistan may have used the troop presence ---> security ---> popular confidence ---> actionable intelligence ---> direct action against terrorists rationale to help justify their preferred operational approach, it's hard to imagine they were being totally serious and/or honest with themselves. (How were COIN ops in Afghanistan going to provide actionable intelligence about terrorist networks and individuals that reside almost exclusively in Pakistan?) Most COIN advocates are (were?) also believers in the bigger idea, the state-strength paradigm; they saw COIN as a means of sanctuary denial, as an extended process through which Afghan society would be inoculated against the threat of insurgency and by extension, al Qaeda influence. And state-strengthening is/was the answer for Pakistan, and Yemen, and Somalia, and... everywhere, right?

What's wrong with all that, then? Well, the whole concept might be totally bogus, for one thing. We don't really understand the root causes of civil violence, even at the sub-national level. There are a whole bunch of different kinds of civil violence, and localized insurgency with a terrorist component is very, very different to international terrorism (even if you want to identify that as a component of "global insurgency" (pdf)). We can't say why, for example, one country's contentious social issues spark civil war, while those of a similar country do not, at least not with any real certainty... and that question isn't half as complicated as why some disaffected individuals choose to engage in international terrorism against a distant adversary, one that is almost certainly unconnected in any clear way to whatever tangible, material grievances that individual may have, while others join a political party or a local insurgency or just do a lot of drugs. And that's something we ought to think about before we decide to re-order our foreign and security policy around the imperatives of global development, state strength, and capacity-building. There may be plenty of good reasons to prioritize state strength, but it's not totally clear that counterterrorism justifies it.

To parrot Spencer: Let's consider this, shall we?