Permissible Arms

Sleeping through the static

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, iraq, united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 1 September 2010

Must reads of the day, Iraq War (or ending thereof) edition:

Mike Few at Small Wars Council; have a quiet moment ready.

Boys, so many of you did not make it to see this day. I love you and miss you much. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Iraq is still a mess, but, officially, the U.S. heavy involvement is done. I wish that you were here to see it. I wish that I could write a letter to each one of you, but I can’t. There’s too many- 30 of y’all to date not counting Afghanistan. I’m gonna start at the beginning.

Today is a strange day. The Army promoted me to Major. Andy Hilmes is about to be a battalion commander. Can you believe that? I’m gonna be who I set out to be. I promised y’all that I would do my best. I stayed the course.

Gulliver, on refuting assumptions about millennial attitudes post-Iraq War.

You know what else has limits? The explanatory power of age-based demographic binning. Let’s give it up. Stuff like this is tired, and it doesn’t teach us anything. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Elizabeth Dickinson? Sure. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Duncan Hunter, Jr., who is 33 and probably doesn’t agree with a single damned thing Elizabeth Dickinson wrote? Sure. We’re not “the Iraq war generation.” That generation may exist in the Army and Marine Corps — a limited, more experientially and culturally homogenous grouping, and one that’s been directly shaped by personal experience with that war — but it doesn’t exist in society. One of the great “lessons of Iraq” is this: people in a society as broad and rich and disparate as the U.S. will always find ways to disagree about what’s best for the country and its security. Let’s not contribute to polarization and acrimony by suggesting that there’s one appropriate way to have experienced the last decade.

I too am wary of painting my (our?) generation with a broad brush. I’m in the later half of my twenties, and the one thing I can say with absolute certainty about my peers and the Iraq war is that for 2/3 of them this whole war business “slipped their minds” in favor of playing Halo or trying to find a job to pay off their student loans or deciding whether they wanted an iPhone or a Droid. Should Dickerson’s piece be qualified even further than what she states near the end of her piece:

Of course, I am but a subset of my demographic group, and no one authorized me to speak on behalf of my peers. But like the generation that grew up in Vietnam, we will be the Iraq generation. What that means is not yet clear, but it begins now. It’s day one of life with no Iraq War.

by saying that even this is only relevant for the, let’s face it, minority of people in the millennial generation who think of “foreign policy” as something more than that wicked backpacking trip through Germany the summer before senior year; or of those who even think of places outside the United States at all. Because I’m going to say that my generation, as much as you can loosely categorize a group of otherwise disparate humans into a collective based on something as broad as age, is as insular as most in the sense that the border of thinking ends at the border of this country, if it doesn’t end at exactly where one lives and works. Claiming any kind of real awareness of Iraq and Afghanistan as nations and not “stuff that shows up in the news a lot” seems to be giving great leeway to my millennial peers that I frankly do not believe exists. I would bet anyone a beer (but not Bud Light Lime) that more twenty-somethings have watched the 82nd Airborne GaGa-dancing than have read a single news report on the effects of counterinsurgency on the advancement of the Afghan people.

I’m pretty cynical on this, I know. It’s borne from my own experience. Dickinson’s article requires at least one (probably more) caveat: her points only apply to those who are paying attention in the first place.

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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 Got One More Step to Go

A little bit of late night blogging; somehow Friday just slipped away from me. Posting has been light as all my blog-related brain cells have been dumped at Attackerman; normal service should resume soon as the vestiges of moving office suites fall away.

Bits and bobs:

I shall attempt substance soon. Promise.

Drums and Guns

Posted in counterinsurgency, iraq, us military by Karaka on 23 July 2010

I’ve been inattentive this week–I’m co-ordinating my office’s move, the first in eight years. How much junk can ten people collect in eight years? A lot, a whole lot, of junk. So until we’re into the new place on August 2, posting will be light to nonexistent. Apologies.

I’ve been reading David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, which may come in as the most difficult book I’ve read thus far this year. And I haven’t been shying away from the hard stuff. Finkel’s observations have a grinding, struggling quality to them. It’s as if he’s describing a drowning in slow motion, wrenching every excruciating detail from the scene and reconstructing it with some of the layers removed to show you the pain and fear in high definition.

In some ways, this is just a variation on the themes explored in Sebastian Junger’s War or The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Stories about soldiers given a task for which they couldn’t be fully prepared, for which there can never be sufficient training; soldiers learning truths about themselves and about life. The hard realities of being in wars which were never meant to be wars.

Where Finkel veers off, though, is in the nature and tone of his descriptions. He scours away the extraneous, leaving behind a stark frame of a story. He clearly wants you to draw your own conclusions, but informs the way you draw them from the way he structures his prose.

There’s a clear and unaffected respect for the soldiers he observes. But Finkel draws on the disgust and bewilderment and FUBARness of the situation by strategically placing certain lines that change your perception of the story he’s telling.

This is not necessarily a criticism, mind. More something I’ve noted over halfway into the book. It does make it a challenge to read at times, because the thread of agenda, or at least of desired perception, is more evident to me now than when I started it. “The Good Soldiers” is a book for a whiskey and ginger evening, when you can lose yourself in the pages and come out the next day not remembering it clearly. Hard to read, but worthwhile for that fact.

Memory (Stop) Loss: Counterinsurgency Edition

My office is knee-deep in a full-scale move to a larger suite, which has eaten away at this week like a particularly adventurous pika with stack of vegetation. I’ve been spending my limited spare time finishing Tamim Ansary’s compelling, thoroughly wonderful Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world from the Islamic perspective (more on that later) and reading the Qur’an for the first time. At some point I realized that, while I had read excerpts from the Qur’an, and interpretations of bits of the Qur’an, I had never actually read the Qur’an itself. This is an attempt to rectify that, though it’s a bit slow going as I try to digest the translation, the footnotes, and the meaning of the suras.

A US Army soldier looks over a note containing Pashto translations of frequently-used phrases June 14, 2010 in rural Dand District, just south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In other reading, Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, has a raw and incendiary op-ed in the Asia Times Online. I disagree with much of the substance of Jones’ article–that counterinsurgency is a failed policy that has not worked in Afghanistan–and, fundamentally, with her understanding of what counterinsurgency is and how it works. She seems to think that proponents of counter-insurgency consider it to be a panacea, a trick that will work to end violence and poverty and insecurity overnight, or at least in the nine months since it was implemented in Afghanistan. But that is simply not so–most expressions of the doctrine pair it with the idea of entrenchment, of a substantial period of time. To look at a policy that has been in place for less than a year, a policy which explicitly requires a substantial duration of time (the relative softness of the July 2011 withdrawal date notwithstanding) and say that it has failed is either a deliberate misreading of the situation or a lack of understanding about the doctrine itself. I won’t recommend that you read the op-ed–it comes across more like the teenaged rage of someone who has just understood what poverty means for the first time rather than a thorough criticism of doctrine as it’s applied in country. And it pains me to say that, because Jones has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan and certainly has earned her bones on the subject. But the piece is sloppy, poorly understood, and far too loose with tone for me to be anything but critical.

Tim Hsia, at the NYT At War blog, has a compelling piece on the military and politics, which is probably another wave in the hopefully terminal RollingStan flap. Worth reading both for commentary about personal politics of soldiers and the larger political frameworks of both the US and Afghanistan/Iraq.

In other words counterinsurgency turns Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is an extension of politics” on its head. Military officers in a counterinsurgency environment realize that “politics overseas is an extension of a counterinsurgency war.”

Counterinsurgency is not just about eliminating insurgents; at its core it is a political struggle that requires identifying and separating political irreconciliables, whilst also shepherding former insurgents into reconciliation meetings. After all, if one has won the hearts and minds of the populace, then one has just as likely won their political affiliation to the incipient national government of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Soldiers with whom I have worked have been more versed in the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan than in domestic politics. Back home, I have yet to meet any American civilian who is more knowledgeable about the politics of Afghanistan or Iraq than the typical Army company commander. This perhaps is the real “political” problem: a civilian population detached from the nation’s foreign policy issues.

Great start to a discussion from that post.

Laleh Khalli at the Middle East Report writes on The New (and Old) Classics of Counterinsurgency, running through names and works familiar to most who are well-read in the subject. However, it does offer a nice overview of COIN literature and a healthy bibliography for someone interesting in wading more deeply into doctrine.

This, frankly, creeped me out. Wanted: Jihadists to Marry Widows at the NYT:

A snippet of news from a shadowy corner of Iraq: Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia recently issued a fatwa telling its fighters to marry the widows of those who have fallen…“Asking current or future fighters to marry the widows means either that they are seeking to re-establish marital ties in an effort to regain some traction in the tribes, or that they have completely moved away from the ideological foundation that fighters are to come to Iraq and immediately die in suicide bombing attacks,” Mr. [Malcolm] Nance said.

“It’s fascinating either way. If it’s the former, then they must believe there is a glimmer of hope that blood ties with these Iraqi women will gain them an edge of protection in a country that wants to be rid of them. If it’s the latter, it’s akin to a call for their fighters to settle down and gain an earthly reward by having a wife and children and to start a new generation of jihadists.”

Mr. Nance said the fatwa was “so absolutely desperate” that it could have come from only the highest levels of the organization.

Either way, it reinforces an idea that women are a possession, and that their husbands, as jihadists, have made them part of a kind of tribe of jihadists who can now claim them for other jihadists. That’s one meta-reading. It also speaks to a consolidation of power and assets within a group that can be controlled. Mostly, I figure it has to do with financial insecurity among widowed families, but the implications are unsettling.

Jason Sigger’s Civilian Strategists Should Be Better is a must-read for the last week(ish).

Rather Late Monday Errata. (Still catching up.)

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, europe, isaf, islam, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 12 July 2010

A handful of links:

  • Paul McCleary has a good article on the Afghan NCOP and police forces: “And generally speaking,” [Ward] added, “when they’re partnered, we see the right kinds of behavior.” But the question is: what happens when they’re not partnered? Good question.
  • The NYT At War blog reviews reports on Afghan opinion polls. According to the findings, corruption remains the third-biggest concern to Afghans, following security and unemployment. One in seven adults experienced direct bribery in the past two years. The total of bribes paid by Afghans in 2009 added to roughly $1 billion, almost double the amount in 2007. The average bribe paid was $156. There are some nice charts, as well. How on earth does an average Afghan have $156 to burn on a bribe?
  • The Big Picture covers Afghanistan, June 2010. Quite frankly the best photojournalism column around. This gets my pick, though there are some truly awe-striking photos in this collection. There are at least three or four of Afghan girls and women, as well.

This June 4, 2010 picture shows the starry desert night over Camp Hansen at Marjah, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Hyunsoo Leo Kim)

  • MikeF (hi Mike!) started a robust discussion of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency at Small Wars Council worth your time; he very kindly posted links to Starbuck’s review and my own. Now that I’m a bit removed from my initial reactions to the book, I do think it has merit, certainly as an introduction to counterinsurgency as a practical concept and as a handy portable version of the doctrine, such as it is. I’m doing a re-read of “The Accidental Guerilla” at the moment, and I do think it’s interesting to see how Kilcullen’s ideas have shifted over time, as he’s gained more insight and experience. Still, as a whole book I do think it has some structural flaws. Well worth the $15 (₤10).
  • And also, h/t Starbuck for Bing West’s review of Counterinsurgency at the National Interest. I particularly liked this line: Stack plays Thomas Hobbes to Kilcullen’s John Locke. Very well put.
  • If you were as baffled by this whole Dave Weigel-getting-fired business as I was, check out this Diavlog with the man in question. (H/t Ackerman.)
  • CHUP on the burqa ban and fear. Such policies and practices, regardless if it means banning the burqa or banning criticism of it, are ultimately unproductive because it further polarizes the debate rather than resolving any of its underlying issues. Good discussion in the comments.
  • As you all surely know, Mattis is for CENTCOM which is an excellent power shuffle around the board. One might think his pass over for Commandant was orchestrated to get him into CENTCOM, if one was a particularly twitchy conspiracy theorist. Which I am not. For more on Mattis, AFJ has excerpts from Tom Ricks’ “Fiasco” available for ungated reading.
  • Paul Staniland recently did a guest post series at the Monkey Cage on how counterinsurgencies end. I wish they were all linked together, but if you have the time its worth poking around for them all.
  • Embedistan, also on the At War blog.

“They Must Fear Us More Than They Hate Us”: Becoming the Enemy in a Counter-Insurgency World

Posted in counterinsurgency, terrorism by ericdcummings on 5 July 2010

by Eric C of On Violence

To defeat your enemy, you have to become him. It’s one of the oldest artistic cliches. Take Aldo Raine, in that trailer-famous, terribly-accented monologue from Inglorious Basterds, he explains the philosophy:

“Members of the National Socialist party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation and terror. And that’s exactly what we will do to them.

We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.”

In the fantastic graphic novel series Fables, the Big Bad Wolf (just go with it) explains his strategy to his arch-enemy, the hegemonic Adversary:

“Every time you hurt us we’re going to damage you much worse in return. It will always happen. Always… And keep this in mind. You have a huge Empire to protect. Guard the ten million most likely targets and there will still be a hundred million ripe, unprotected targets we can hit.”

Yet even today, in the era of religious fanaticism, some people want us to inspire the same fear. A Colonel in Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away tells his men, “Go after them gentleman…until they fear us more than they hate us.”

Fear. Make the enemy fear you. Surprisingly, Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor understands exactly what this turns you into: a terrorist. “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he will surely kill you…Because, in the end, your enemy must fear you, understand your supremacy.”

The point of terrorism is very simple: inspire fear. Make the population afraid. Each of the above speakers is advocating some form of terrorism. Commit terrible acts, and the population will submit.

Of course, we’re not really willing to do this. I’m sure we could carpet bomb villages, rape women and kill children, and I’m sure we would scare the bejeezus out of Afghans and Iraqis. I went to a forum where someone mentioned that Hitler was great at quashing insurgencies. But is that really how we want to win these wars? The obvious answer is no.

Inspiring fear is a pre-counter-insurgency philosophy, the notion that you can bomb your way to victory. But on the modern battlefield, it doesn’t really apply. First, you can’t cleanly kill your enemies–no matter how smart your bombs are–without affecting the population. Second, as McChrystal said in the Rolling Stone article from last week, the Russians tried a scorched earth policy in Afghanistan and it failed miserably.

That doesn’t really matter though. Morality trumps practicality. Fear based warfare is immoral. As Professor Nagl argues, the first pillar of counter-insurgency is “protect the population” for a reason, “The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it.”

Agreed.

Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

The Most Interesting Sub-Plot in the Gen. McChrystal Debacle

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency by ericdcummings on 2 July 2010

by Michael C of On Violence

(Before the post begins, Eric C and I would like to thank Karaka for giving us the opportunity to guest post on her site, both today and Monday. The guest-post exchange continues next Thursday at our site, so check it out.)

“McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.”

Michael Hastings inserted that controversial statement in his recent article on former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. I guess I just want to ask, so what?

Through several paragraph, Hastings shows how disgusted the troops are with the Rules of Engagement in particular. He describes the mood as, “The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal.” In another example, “A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian.” There is also this gem, from a Special Forces Operator, “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

Hastings repeats a few of the misnomers surrounding the rules of engagement himself, but is pretty clever by putting the words in the mouths of troops in Afghanistan. This begs the question, when did we start asking our troops if tactical decisions were Ok with them?

Can you imagine a reporter interviewing Soldiers about D-Day? If there was a worry about excessive casualties, would they have canceled the invasion? We lost more men on D-Day then we have in both the Iraq and Afghan wars–one day compared with ten years. Leaders deliberately kept the men in the dark.

Did Soldiers get interviewed on the tactical logic of Civil War skirmish lines? The Union alone lost five or six times as many men in one day at the battle of Antietem then we have in all of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Were grunts interviewed about their thoughts on World War I full-frontal charges? I doubt it, they thought it was an illogical strategy. In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the Italians resorted to killing every tenth man in a line, as well as punishing their families back at home, if the Soldiers refused to go out.

If Generals believe that restrictive rules of engagement are a tactical necessity that will win the war, that should be the only justification necessary. If the American people don’t want any more casualties, then they should advocate for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, not tactical changes that would lose the war.

The only tragedy of the rules of engagement (and General McChrystal/Petraeus’ COIN strategy) is the poor implementation by subordinate commanders in Afghanistan–including division, brigade and battalion commanders across the country. From what I can tell, extremely poor understanding of the rules of engagement, or a complete disregard for them, is hurting our Soldiers, not the rules themselves. General McChrystal failed in part because he couldn’t communicate to his subordinates. Even General Petraeus isn’t blaming the ROE, but poor execution of subordinates.

A Marine Corps Private First Class gives a quote in the article that explains why Generals, instead of Pfcs, make the strategy and Rules of Engagement: “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place.”

Michael Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

Anti-COIN, the equivalent of a Kinks song.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states by Karaka on 29 June 2010

Madhu pointed me to Thomas Rid’s take at KOW on the Douthat op-ed I rallied on yesterday. It’s definitely a different perspective on the same piece, and while I disagree with some of his conclusions–namely his too-faithful idea that there is any kind of consensus on continued presence vs. withdrawal in Afghanistan, and the idea that those in favor of COIN as a strategy are particularly optimistic or hopeful about it–the post is definitely a counterweight to my own.

Andrew Exum, who seems to be visiting the rolling mountain landscape of my childhood at the moment, has gotten quite a robust comment thread going on at Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope; Carl Prine’s comments in particular are intelligent and strong. (You’ll have to scroll down, the software that powers that blog sucketh for giving comment-specific data.) The discussion is on-going.

Aaron Ellis takes on the same Bacevich op-ed, as well as Bernard Finel’s similar position, in his post today on “RollingStan and civil-military relations” that speaks to a lot of my own thoughts on the subject. I hadn’t really waded into the civilian-military accusations that flew about as soon as the McC flap broke, because I honestly didn’t consider it to be the most significant aspect of the story–though clearly a lot of the internet disagreed with me on that. Finel responded to the Thinking Strategically post, in a manner that kind of baffles me–he refutes the claims, but inasmuch as I’ve been reading him recently, I find Ellis’s points to be apropos. Both Bacevich and Finel have inflated the controversy surrounding Rollingstan to the point of hyperbole, and don’t seem to acknowledge that the matter is, effectively, closed. M4 is out, P4 is in; the counterinsurgency policy stays the same; Obama exerted his executive authority, and everyone seems entirely happy with P4 as his choice. What more is there to hack away at, here?

The answer, of course, is not liking the strategy in the first place; but as Obama’s Rose Garden remarks plainly told, that matter of changing strategy was never up for debate.

Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.

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