Permissible Arms

Book Review: War, by Sebastian Junger

Posted in admin, afghanistan, american media by Karaka on 7 June 2010

I’m delighted to announce that my book review of Sebastian Junger’s War has been published at Small Wars Journal:

On May 21, 2010, I saw Sebastian Junger speak on the subject of his book War. It was standing room only, with several servicemen and women present; but the audience was mostly older folks. The parents of Private Misha Pemble-Belkin, one of the soldiers Junger writes about in his book, were present that evening, and Junger took care to welcome them. It was clear from that moment on, even before his reading or before I had the chance to read the book, that Junger had written about people who had come to mean a great deal to him. To understand that is to understand the impetus of his account.

More at Small Wars Journal. With thanks to Bill and Dave for all the effort they put into SWJ!

If you find SWJ as rewarding a resource as I do, I hope you’ll take a moment to consider contributing to the Small Wars Foundation. SWJ is holding a fundraising drive until July 4th; the goal is to reach $50,000 in user contributions. Keeping SWJ in operation is a worthwhile goal, one I hope you’ll join me in pursuing.

It’s funnier in the original Pashto.

This morning kind of sucked. I spilled coffee on myself and my books not once, but twice; missed my bus this morning; and spent the first hour putting out work-related brushfires. I guess everyone has to have a bad hump day now and again, but did mine have to involve ruining all the papers, books, and magazines in my bag?

Linkdump time. Danger Room’s interview with Admiral Mike Mullen was great, but I was way too taken with the confession that Adm. Mullen actually does tweet over at @thejointstaff. Oh, Twitter. You are a Chinese curse.

Stratfor’s security brief this week is on the relationships of India, the US, and Pakistan to Afghanistan, which I weirdly feel like I scooped (even though I clearly didn’t). To wit:

Ultimately, with long experience bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan, the United States was inherently wary of becoming involved in Afghanistan. In recent years, it has become all too clear how distant the prospect of a stable Afghanistan is. A tribal-ethnic balance of power overseen by Pakistan is another matter entirely, however. The great irony is that such a success could make the region look remarkably like it did on Sept. 10, 2001…The Indians are concerned that with American underwriting, the Pakistanis not only may be about to re-emerge as a major check on Indian ambitions, but in a form eerily familiar to the sort of state-militant partnership that so effectively limited Indian power in the past. They are right.

From At War, “Military Disputes Taliban on Korangal Valley Outpost:”

The absence of the Americans from the valley has made the area somewhat less secure, according to local people and the Afghan army. That would be in line with American expectations about the impact of their withdrawal. The American military had expected there might be some decline in security, but also thought it was possible that without the presence of the Americans to provoke the insular Korangalis, the area eventually would become calmer. That has not seemed to be the case — at least not yet.

“People are trapped in Korangal because of repeated fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban,” said Major Turab.

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have recently published an Almanac of al-Qaeda over at Foreign Policy, which details the rise of the organization and a fascinating data dump with some rockin’ graphs. One of the best contemporary briefings on the subject, I think, from two trusted authors.

Gunslinger over at Ink Spots posted a criticism of Michael O’Hanlon’s article on non-lethal weapons (NLW) that I found clearheaded and compellingly argued. There’s some good discussion in the comments too.

Anne Marlowe has a column over World Affairs Journal that takes a long view of COIN and Afghanistan. I’ve read it a couple times now, and I’m reacting against it for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. I think it has something to do with the claim about the effectiveness of insuring the security of the population over engaging the enemy with arms, and the implication that that isn’t by definition an underlying principle of COIN. Still mulling it over.

David Wood reports on when Iran goes nuclear, confirming my general hapless view on the matter:

Relying on traditional deterrence against a nuclear-armed Iran would be a mistake — that is the cautionary conclusion of a two-year study at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. It saw three problems with trying to deter Iran:

- The regime is split into factions, making it difficult to know whether to deal with clerics or civilians like Ahmadinejad, the military or the ultra-hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.

- Rather than threatening to launch a nuclear attack, a nuclear Iran would likely be more aggressive in backing terrorist attacks or even minor conventional or very low-level nuclear operations against U.S. interests in the region — nuclear sea mines along the Persian Gulf’s oil routes, for example. Such operations would complicate U.S. decisions about whether a nuclear response would be justified.

- Domestic political instability could affect how Iran’s leaders play their nuclear weapons card, making it difficult to predict how they would react in a crisis.

And finally, also at Danger Room, the Army has been reading you! and you! and you! (Okay, maybe not you.)

Every week, the defense contractor MPRI prepares for the brass a “Blogosphere and Social Media Report,” rounding up sites’ posts on military matters. It’s meant to be a single source for top officers to catch up on what’s being said online and in leading social media outlets. Items from about two dozen national security and political blogs are excerpted, and classified as “balanced,” “critical,” or “supportive.” The vast majority of the posts are considered “balanced” — even when they rip the Army a new one.

I downloaded & read the three reports that were made available, and they’re depressingly poorly researched. I dread knowing how much money gets shelled out for these, and levied some further criticism in the post over at SWJ. Since when are HuffPo and World News Daily balanced?

All I know is that I don’t know nothin’

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 27 April 2010

I haven’t posted about Afghanistan in awhile, due in large part to how much I was reading about it, and due in small part to, you know, not really posting much over the last several months. Afghanistan is in many ways an exercise in continued education for me. No matter how much I read, contemporary or historical, I doubt I will ever be fully versed in the subject. I just find it so damned fascinating.

For example, I had no idea until recently that bodybuilding was such a beloved sport (is it a sport? I’ve never really grasped that either, you don’t really do anything except stand and flex) in Afghanistan. I could sort of work out the attraction of hypermasculinity in such a resoundingly patriarchal culture transitioning from traditional shows of physical force into less violent ones. (That’s my armchair anthology for the day.) But it doesn’t really matter if I get it–the competition for “Mr Afghanistan” is entirely serious.


FP has several more images available here.

Say what you want about Michael Yon, but the man sure can take a bloody picture. Whatever ridiculous controversy is being stoked around him and his Facebook page–seriously?–his most recent report from Afghanistan out of Kandahar was compelling and visually stunning as always.

Speaking of Kandahar, I saw this headline from S&S and wondered if Michael Cohen was laughing darkly into his coffee this morning. Battle for Kandahar may be tougher than expected :

The drive this summer to secure Kandahar was supposed to build on the success of the much smaller Marjah operations.

But so far the U.S. and NATO haven’t achieved their goals in Marjah, military and civilian officials said, as the government has been slow to provide services and villagers have not rallied in large numbers to the Kabul-based government.

“We’re still moving forward more slowly than the people would like,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative, said on a trip to Marjah this month.

And then this morning came news of yet another in a too-long series of attacks on Western personnel in Kandahar City (good overview in this morning’s AfPak Channel brief). Ahmed Wali Karzai has declared his support for the effort, which I suppose means something coming from Don Corelone, the Afghan Variation.

This, to me, puts Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s WP article on the U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban into some curious perspective. Bearing in mind that the Arghandab District is located just outside Kandahar City, Chandrasekaran writes:

The goal was to win support for a program that was hatched at a Pentagon City sports bar last year by Special Forces Lt. Col. David S. Mann and Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political scientist who focuses on Afghanistan. They questioned whether the United States and NATO were missing an opportunity by concentrating so many resources on building up the national police, the army and other formal institutions, arguing that the Afghans should try to re-create the informal village-level defense forces that existed in parts of the country when it was a monarchy.

Mann and Jones’s plan, which senior U.S. commanders endorsed, seeks to allay fears that the effort will breed militias: The forces are not paid or given weapons, and to minimize the risk of warlordism, they are supposed to be under the authority of a group of tribal elders — not just one person.

-and-

It has taken three months of intense effort by one detachment to turn around — for the moment — just one village. Although there are several dozen detachments in Afghanistan, not all of them could be reassigned to this task. And even if a few dozen villages were flipped, it might not have the hoped-for strategic impact.

Among members of the village defense force here, however, questions of growth are less important than what happens once the flow of U.S. cash ends. Will the group demobilize? Or will it, like so many other armed outfits in Afghanistan’s history, morph into something larger and more troublesome?

Nasarullah, the local elder, insists that he does not have the money, or the desire, to sustain the effort himself. Even the members do not regard their current roles as a permanent occupation. Some said they would like to join the police. Others said they will go back to their farms.

“I am only doing this for my village,” said Zahir Jan, who owns a small shop in Kandahar that he has entrusted to his brother while he serves in the defense force. “I am looking forward to the day I can put my gun down. But that day has not arrived.”

I finally bought a copy of Burgoyne and Marckwardt’s Defense of Jisr Al Doreaa, and read The Fifth Dream this morning on my way to work. The last lesson of the chapter is succint and to the point:

16. Transition is primary! To achieve lasting success, the security and government functions of your area of operations must be transferred to local security forces and local government officials.

Now, most any response would note that those local security forces are probably supposed to be a nation’s police force rather than armed neighbourhood watch programmes. But does the Special Forces outfit have the right idea in this particular situation? Still contemplating that one.

Meanwhile in Kandahar City, COIN and humanitarian aid do their slightly awkward dance while trying to keep the lights on for the city’s residents.

USAID officials have asked military commanders to deploy more troops to the Kajaki area so construction can resume. But the question of whether the dam should be a focus for military forces centers on different interpretations of what it means to protect the population, the buzz phrase of counterinsurgency strategy. To the military, it means concentrating troops where the people are — in and around Kandahar. But to some civilians, it makes sense to put forces in less-populous areas if they can secure an important public resource.

Military and civilian officials also remain divided over whether increasing electricity in Kandahar will have a substantial effect on the security situation there. Military officers in southern Afghanistan maintain that if residents’ power supply increases, they will have a better opinion of their government and employment will increase, which will help to marginalize the Taliban.

The top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said increasing power in the city will produce a “head-turning moment” among residents and will lead them to rally behind the Afghan government.

I did some reading up on the Kajaki Dam last year (there are some fascinating pictures out there of the dam’s original development by the British in the 1950′s) and NPR has a decent rundown of the power (bad pun, sorry) struggles behind getting it refurbished and keeping it running, from about three years ago. Seems like this would be a COIN project clearly in line with the ideals of the doctrine, but there are a lot of different entities pulling the strings there.

All this, and then last Friday NATO and the US agreed to start handing various authority mechanisms back to the Afghan government:

“Increasingly this year the momentum will be ours,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He said the transition to Afghan control is important to demonstrate not only to Afghans but also to the Western countries fighting there that an end to the war is in sight.

“Our aims in 2010 are clear: to take the initiative against the insurgents, to help the Afghan government exercise its sovereignty, and to start handing over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans this year,” Fogh Rasmussen said. He added, however, that even if the transition unfolds as expected it will takes decades of additional assistance for Afghanistan to stand on its own.

Sedwill said the first provinces to be transferred to government control would likely be in the north and west, where the Taliban is less active. And he said the idea is to hand over a cluster of contiguous provinces at the same time to increase the odds of their withstanding the insurgents.

Clinton warned of a hard road ahead, but said she was not discouraged by the obstacles.

Honestly, doesn’t this seem rather premature? I know, I know, 2011 deadline, et cetera. But there’s withdrawing troops and there’s banking a lot on an armed national force that suffers from a lack of military resources–both in [highly-trained] personnel and adequate supplies. It makes the local neighborhood watch look a little more appealing, honestly, if a bit less rule-of-law.

From the other side of the country, Greg Jaffe filed a report on the withdrawal of US forces from the Korengal Valley that I wish had gotten a bit more attention, because it’s a window into reticence and failure in Afghanistan, and maybe a hard lesson or two about the operation of COIN from the outset of a campain.

U.S. troops arrived here in 2005 to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They stayed on the theory that their presence drew insurgents away from areas where the U.S. role is more tolerated and there is a greater desire for development. The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets.

In 2010, a new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.

The retreat carries risks. Insurgents could use the Korengal as a haven to plan attacks in other parts of Afghanistan. The withdrawal could offer proof to other Afghans that U.S. troops can be forced out.

The American hope is that pulling out of the Korengal rectifies a mistake and that Moretti’s troops can be put to better use stabilizing larger, less violent areas.

“You can’t force the local populace to accept you in their valley,” Moretti said. “You can’t make them want to work with us.”

Perhaps this is a case of cutting losses to focus on more troublesome spots that could turn into significant gains. Does returning Korengalis to their own authority count towards giving power back to Afghanistan? Because Korengalis sure don’t seem to have much contact with their own government. (The Big Picture published a gallery of photos taken in the Korengal Valley from 2008, which is very much from the soldier’s point of view, but is still relevant today.)

Finally, speaking of Seth Jones above (regarding the Special Forces training neighbourhood watch programmes), he has an article out in Foreign Policy this month analyzing the content of some recently published books on Afghanistan. I’m waiting for my paper copy to come into the mail, but my initial scan shows it to be interesting.

And if all this journalism on Afghanistan hasn’t stirred up something in you, well, maybe this guest post from Kabul Expat over at Registan will at least make you snort derisively in the direction of the Kabul news desks.

Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Afghanistan is big: thirty-four provinces, 30-somehting million people who are too busy embezzling and warring and plotting your death to read your article. The country is full of booming cities, small market towns, lush farmlands, fishing villages and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions stark and sinister and imprecise. Never, under any circumstances, mention peaceful areas like Bamiyan, except on those rare occasions you need a line or two about Buddha statues.

See, this is why I should post more about Afghanistan. I have too much to say. And read.

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