Permissible Arms

Bargaining Chips

Another boring-but-informative (and potentially useful) link dump. Where are my words?

Soldiers smoked late one evening at Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Paktika Province.

Only Quick Patches

Posted in afghanistan, american media, united kingdom, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 2 August 2010

So, while Attackerman’s in Afghanistan, I’ll be chipping in as a guestblogger over at his pseudonymous blog. If I can defeat the evil Comcast internet-giving box tomorrow, I should be back to form; but I’ll be posting both there and here as the DSL gods allow. First post is up, on David Sanger’s piece in the NYT.

Amitai Etzioni has an article up at TNR, “Unshackle the Troops“, that I would really like to read if TNR wasn’t behind a bloody paywall.

H-War and Edge of the American West are ramping up for another Military History Carnival. Maybe I will actually have the time to finish the post I was working on for the last one. (ha.)

Aaron Ellis’ takedown of Melanie Phillips was a tour de force. Of the many things one could say about David Cameron, his lack of foreign policy credentials are not particularly salty.

The Guardian’s portrait gallery of ANA soldiers managed to edge out The Big Picture in remarkable photojournalism this week. (H/t Current Intelligence.)

Ghulam Hidar, an ethnic Turkmen from Jowzjan, near the Turkmenistan border. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP

Blake Hall and Jim Gourley’s guest posts (dispatches? I don’t completely understand the classification at TBD) at Ricks’ blog are heartwrenching. Must read, if you can.

I’m out with a buddy a while back. We’re talking about brands of beer. He hears a car backfire, and suddenly he’s scanning ridgelines. He’s not here anymore. He’s all the way in Afghanistan, and he takes me halfway back to Iraq with him. I think about saying something, telling him that he’s here, not there. That I’m with him. That everything is okay. But that would be the wrong thing to say. A couple of minutes pass as we walk. He keeps scanning, I just stay by him. After that, we go back to talking about beer. We don’t mention anything about the event.

A couple of days later we’re walking along and he says “you know, I really freaked out the other day.” I tell him that I know, and I was right there with him. That’s all that needs to be said. He knows my story. We don’t need any elaborate cathartic rituals or long discussions about it. It’s no different than strapping on armor and walking outside the wire. I trusted him to be able to take care of himself, and he trusted me to catch him the moment he couldn’t. We’re Ranger buddies, not baby-sitters. Giving him dignity and letting him fight the battle on his own is just as important as helping him get up when he gets knocked down.

The World, Viewed from a Hotel Basement

I’m hoping to write more on CNAS’s fourth annual conference tomorrow, when my entire day doesn’t get devoted to live-tweeting the event! To read through the day, check out the #CNAS2010 tag on Twitter. But here’s a couple of my particular notes from the day.

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Tellis: Mutual suspicions between Pak & Ind over Afgh continue unabated. #CNAS2010 The existential battleground is emplaced in Afgh today.

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Okay, Richard Fontaine wins points for addressing Madam President. #CNAS2010

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Fontaine “…Accepting that a US presence in South Asia has become the new normal.” #CNAS2010

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India is unwilling to push Iran to the point where they might lose a potential ally; but India doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. #CNAS2010

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Flournoy: We are still trying to face 21st century challenges with Cold War systems and projects. #CNAS2010

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Flournoy: “We cannot keep spending more and more to get less and less.” #CNAS2010 as with everything, money talks.

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Fick: Rule #4 for future questions: No quoting TS Eliot! #CNAS2010

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Flournoy: “We have never resourced State to build an expeditionary civilian capacity.” #CNAS2010 There is not enough “word” in the world.

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Sanger: You tend to view the engagement strategy through the most challenging country…it’s only interesting if it’s difficult. #CNAS2010

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Cronin: We have a growing mismatch between our means and needs. #CNAS2010

There’s more at the hashtag, but that gives you a good idea of how the day went. I think overall it was a very strong series of panels, asking difficult questions and providing something of a roadmap towards answering them. We’re still left with a lot of uncertainty in a many different directions–how do we build up a civilian reconstruction program that we’ve never funded or incentivized, how do you balance talking to repressive regimes with the less accessible citizens of repressive nations, what will our conflict environment look like in the next several decades and how should we incorporate lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan–but I think it lived up to its playbill slogan of “Shaping the Agenda.”

More tomorrow.

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.

“Belief and seeing are often both wrong.”

Posted in american media, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 May 2010

So, I went with “Permissible Arms.” You don’t have to change your links or anything if you don’t want to–it’ll all point back to the same place–but, you know. Title of the blog and all.

The week was a little hectic (and full of reading), and I never really sat down and wrote about “The Fog of War,” a 2003 documentary of a conversation and oral history with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Vietnam was my dad’s war, and there’s a fair amount of distance between his perception of it and mine. Any reputable academic will say that knowledge starts with what you don’t know, and there’s a lot about Vietnam I will probably never understand. That being said, it seems safe to say that McNamara was a controversial guy. The escalation of the Vietnam War probably couldn’t have happened to the degree that it did without his direct involvement.

“The Fog of War” relies both on McNamara’s recollection of events and archival material that both contrasts and supports his recollection. McNamara, at this point in his life, comes across mostly as a man who has somehow managed to live with the choices of his life and still maintain his humour; he seems like a grandfatherly man, one of those men who takes great delight in his descendants and what they end up doing. And yet he’s talking about one of the great American clashes of the 20th century.

McNamara’s focus on statistical analysis, data analysis, during World War II and subsequently in both his business endeavors with Ford and his work as the Secretary of Defense, seems pretty widely influential; but the filmmaker, Errol Morris, managed to make that objective analysis seem remarkably sinister. The contrast of bombing statistics in Japan with footage of Japan burning is one of the strongest indications of directorial license in the entire film.

The viewer is meant to walk away with eleven lessons McNamara grasped from his life, taken from the oral history Morris is conducting.

1. Empathize with your enemy
2. Rationality will not save us
3. There’s something beyond one’s self
4. Maximize efficiency
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. Get the data
7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10. Never say never
11. You can’t change human nature

They seem like broadly acceptable lessons, but it seems to be that they truly have meaning within the context of McNamara’s account of his life, and Morris’ editing of that account. You walk away from the film without particularly thinking of McNamara as bad or good (at least, you do if you were born after the Vietnam War), rather as a man faced with hard choices, a man whose president died and was left with a lame duck successor right out of the gate. If Johnson was ever more convinced that more should be done in Vietnam, what could McNamara rightfully do to contradict him? Leave his position, I suppose, but I think it must have been hard to consider leaving a position that JFK requested you take.

It was, if not a film I would immediately recommend everyone see, certainly worth watching. Mostly, it means that I’ve added another dozen or so books about the Vietnam to my never-ending book queue.

Also, I watched “Good Morning Vietnam” shortly after “The Fog of War,” which is a weird mental pairing, let me tell you. “Good Morning Vietnam” was funnier than I recalled it being (I’m sure I understand a lot more of the humor now than I did when I first saw it) but it really contrasts the view from the ground versus the view from Washington.

Charlie Wilson’s Weapons

Posted in afghanistan, american media, united states, us congress by Karaka on 16 May 2010

I finished reading Charlie Wilson’s War this weekend. I had eschewed it in part because the film came out while I was in graduate school, and it looked so cavalier about the region and foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it really turned me off; I never tracked down the book because I foolishly assumed it was as overblown and pompous as I thought the film to be.

Never let it be said I don’t admit when I was wrong. George Crile’s book is a novel-shaped thriller of non-fiction, and even talking into account the times the storytelling takes precedence over an unopinionated clarity of fact, it was deeply engaging and very, very funny at times.

I watched the film in conjunction with the book, and was surprised to find they did a reasonable adaptation of the events as they’re described in the book. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos was spot-on, and the strange relationship of these Americans to the mujahideen they are supplying is palpable (as is the vague understanding implicit in the film, and more explicit in the book, that some of the people provided with ordnance and arms will make the US an enemy in ten short years).

It’s a rollicking read, and better than any thriller I’ve read, to be sure. (Except perhaps for William Gibson, who has the distinction of dipping into hard sci-fi and cyberpunk with his thrillers.) But there’s one nagging question I have, having finished: what happened to the $5bn worth of arms and ammunition?

Crile describes the DShK, the Stinger, the Oerlikon, thousands and thousands of AK-47s, Spanish mortars, SA-7s, Blowpipes, even old .303 Enfields. (Not to mention whatever was abandoned by the Soviet Army when they finally retreated.) Now, for three years after the Afghan-Soviet war ended, the US and Soviets both were still supplying Afghans with weaponry, and while it seems safe to assume that a far portions of those weapons were utilized to the point of destruction during the subsequent civil war, I can’t help but wonder what was left when the US returned in 2001.

Is there an unclassified accounting or estimation of what armaments the Taliban held in 2001 prior to their ousting? I’d be very curious to know roughly how many of those were weapons purchased by the CIA. For that matter, is there an estimation of what the Taliban hold now? Inquiring minds, and all that.

The privatisation of world peace

Posted in american media by Karaka on 10 May 2010

For the record, seeing Iron Man 2 only cements my position on robot armaments.

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Best Kept Contained

Posted in afghanistan, american media, counterinsurgency, united states, us military by Karaka on 9 May 2010

There’s something of a culture of Brooks-bashing, I’ve noticed. Many folks respond to whatever he’s published at the NYTimes with skepticism, if not outright derision. Perhaps its because of his tendency to make sweeping claims in his opinion column without ever really backing them up, as if his audience is either expected to know the sourcing he is doing already or to take his word at face value. Those that I read, however, are less than inclined to accept what he says without first questioning, which is for the best, really.

Brooks’ current op-ed is Leading With Two Minds, an eight hundred word romp through the contemporary history of counterinsurgency. Ricks called it, effectively, an account of the dominant narrative, which I suppose is accurate enough, but wow are those some broad strokes Brooks is painting with.

The first women to be trained to serve on submarines in the USN have been selected and are preparing to train this summer.

From Kabul, Shootings of Afghans on Rise at Checkpoints:

Civilian deaths from aerial bombings have declined, General Rodriguez said. But in convoys and at checkpoints, “you’re faced with a different challenge of snap decisions” by troops “much closer to not only the people but the enemy.”

At least 28 Afghans have been killed and 43 wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings this year — 42 percent of total civilian deaths and injuries and the largest overall source of casualties at the hands of American and NATO troops, according to statistics kept by the military.

In the same period last year, 8 Afghans were killed and 29 wounded in similar episodes. For all of 2009, 36 Afghan civilians were killed in the so-called escalation of force incidents by Western and Afghan troops, according to the United Nations. Over all, the Taliban and other militants account for a much larger number of civilian casualties than Western forces do, the United Nations found.

Since last summer, none of the Afghans killed or wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings had weapons that would have posed a danger for troops who killed them, commanders said.

The new military guidelines instruct troops to “tailor” procedures to the local environment by consulting local Afghan leaders, and whenever possible, to remain at the scene of convoy shootings and take responsibility for their actions.

Can anyone point me to discussions on this, if there are any?

Finally, part of the 170th BCT are all shined up for their march on Victory Day. (H/t Danger Room.)

And then they’ll make more news.

Posted in afghanistan, africa, american media, japan, united nations by Karaka on 6 May 2010

As a follow up to yesterday, Okinawans respond to PM Hatoyama’s walkback:

Mr Hatoyama made a fundamental mistake by promising something he knew he couldn’t do. He did that just so that he could win the election. He misled the people of Okinawa, he raised their expectations, he gave them an empty hope.

Relocation might be an option, but the problem is that no-one will accept a US base relocating to their backyard. For instance, the government proposed relocating part of the base to Tokunoshima island and there was an outcry from the local population who refused to accept it. A relocation is not going to achieve anything, it will only antagonise a different group of people.

I do think Hatoyama has lost a good chunk of political credibility. It’s a shame, considering he’s viewed as the ascendancy of the DPJ. They’re off to a rocky start.

Things I’ve been reading:

And I’ve been finishing up my March/April Foreign Affairs; it’s remained readable despite its unfortunate whiskey incident:

But I’ve been engrossed in other things and hadn’t gotten around to it. Next up, the whiskey free May/June FA. (Stupid Foreign Policy still hasn’t shown up. That is the single most delayed paper mail subscription I’ve ever had.)

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?

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