Permissible Arms

And now I’m done.

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 27 July 2010

Shorter Fred Kaplan: “Hi n00bs. Welcome to the war in Afghanistan.”

Best section:

By contrast, there’s very little in the raw WikiLeaks documents—at least among those reprinted in the Times and the Guardian—that is at all inconsistent with official U.S. and NATO statements about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama and various allied leaders, as well as their top aides and commanders, have acknowledged and decried all of these nightmares—civilian casualties, corruption, Pakistani collusion, and more—openly and repeatedly.

These problems were, in fact, the main reasons behind the new strategy that Obama put in place in December 2009—after the period covered by all of the WikiLeaks documents, which date from 2004-09.

Yes. Thank you. See also Exum in the NYT.

And now I don’t really want to talk about this any more.

Document Dumping

Posted in afghanistan, intelligence, united states, us military by Karaka on 26 July 2010

Brian Platt at Canada-Afghanistan Blog has it by the nose:

A targeted leak, meant to disseminate information that needs to be brought to public attention, is one thing. Militaries all over the world have a sordid history of covering up scandals. There is certainly a time and a place for whistle-blowing.

But this was a senseless leak, an act of pure treason. A democratic country with an all-volunteer military operating in the field has a legitimate reason to keep action reports classified. To dump almost 100,000 reports into the public detailing what your fellow soldiers are doing is not principled, it’s dangerous and foolhardy, and I hope that everyone responsible for sending these reports to Wikileaks gets locked up for a long, long time.

The Taliban can now go online and read the secret files of the NATO soldiers allied against them. If you want a scandal, there it is.

And as Josh Foust put it at CJR:

You don’t need access to specialized knowledge of the war, or the histories of either country, or insight into the inner workings of the intelligence community to understand these things—you can learn it watching CNN.

Which brings us back to Assange, who seems to lack any sort of insight into the war or where it’s being fought; he just has his own ideology, which involves exposing secrets he thinks are immoral to keep. (There are secrets Assange will not leak onto the Internet—the identities of his sources, for example.) Just clicking at random in the Wikileaks War Diary reveals the names of Afghan sources you hope will not be targeted as a result of this leak: Simon Hermes, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; Mohammed Moubin, who met with the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction team in 2006; Gul Said, who was assisting the PRT near the American Base at Bagram. On and on it goes, name after name of “collaborators” with the U.S. military, name after name of people whose lives are now in direct danger.

The New Yorker had an in-depth profile of Julian Assange last month that provided insight into WL, its founder, and the agenda behind it all. On reading it, I understood more of what drives WL and Assange to release the information turned over to him–not that it makes me agree with that decision at all–but after yesterday’s document release, I’m more inclined to charge Assange with an egoistic drive for publishing these files more than any adherence to a vision or a belief system about making information public in order to drive a resulting agenda.

WL didn’t get the reaction it/he wanted from the publication of the ’07 civilian casualty video. So it upped the ante with these documents to press for action, or at least response, to the Afghan war in the manner Assange and his community view it. I don’t think they’ve ever thought of themselves as something other than an agenda-driven organization, and that agenda includes making public classified information and documents as well as presenting those documents with some editorialization to make them as damning as possible.

Paul McCleary correctly stated that “What the #wikileaks docs describe is war. People are only shocked because they hadn’t paid attention before — but this is how war looks.” That’s the traction that will come out of this. Shock, for the first half of this week’s newscycle, and then retreat from daily thought. Because the important things, about the ISI, about heat-seeking missiles, about civilian casualties, were largely either already known or inferred. And the only real thrust WL has is the scandal of the leak itself–but scandals have expiry dates. This won’t change policy, it won’t force ISAF’s hand, it won’t do anything in the long run but get WL name and Julian Assange’s picture in the papers for a brief moment in time.

The vision fails.

Thursday Errata

My Google reader just ate the 103 posts I hadn’t read from Small Wars Journal, leaving behind only the most recent of posts.

Sigh. I had been looking forward to reading through it after I’d gotten through everything else; it’s just not quite the same, reading it chronologically in one long page versus navigating forward from post to post.

I had wanted to go to the 2010 Milblogging Conference, take a couple days of vacation and poke around DC while I was up in the area, ’cause I haven’t been there in several years. I ended up taking my vacation a little closer to home, but possibly next year? It’s got to be a lot easier for folks on the West Coast, that’s for sure.

Via @BostonMaggie, looks like the Navy has finally launched NavyLive in an appropriate shade of blue.

Looks like elections in Kyrgyzstan have been scheduled for early October; here’s hoping they keep to their own deadline. Iran is mucking about with war games, which I’m sure has the television pundits in a massive tizzy.

I’m interested to see Danger Room reporting on the deployment of Culture Units from the UK to Afghanistan. It’s a fairly explicit practicum of COIN, no?

I still haven’t worked my way through Joe Klein’s Time Maganize piece on US troops in Afghanistan, but there’s a lot of talk about it out there in the blogosphere.

Musing on Iraq looks at the US Human Rights Report on Iraq, tracking failures and improvements. Worth your time to read.

This week’s public STRATFOR intelligence report has to do with Iraq’s strategic placement near Iran, and how the US might fit into the cracks there.

Washington’s way forward depends upon what the American government believes the probabilities are at this point for a viable Iraqi government and security force able to suppress insurgencies, including those fomented by Iran. If the Americans believe a viable Iraqi government is a possibility, they should roll the dice and withdraw. But it is not clear from our point of view what Washington is seeing. If it believes the probability is low, the United States not only will have to halt the withdrawal, it will have to reverse it to convince the Iranians that the Americans are hypercommitted to Iraq. This might cause Tehran to recalculate, opening the door for discussion.

Food for thought, anyway. And now I’m for home, and cracking open the copy of In the Graveyard of Empires that I finally managed to find a reasonable price for. I mean, I already spent a godawful amount of money on books, but a $30 new hardback is like three or four used paperbacks. Pretty easy math for me.

Radio Free Everything

Posted in counterinsurgency, intelligence, isaf, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 15 March 2010

Good grief. Let’s try this again.

I’m sure everyone who (maybe, still) reads this blog has gotten their hands on some or all of Foreign Policy’s War Issue, but in case you haven’t here’s a pdf copy of the magazine.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there (as well as a dreadfully long multipage advertisement for Brazil that I really could have lived without paying for), written by names that will be familiar to anyone who reads in the field regularly; but the article that caught my attention was John Arquilla’s argument for a new mode of warfare for the American military structure. Delightfully, the article is available in full here. It’s worth your time to read.

However, there are two points I think Arquilla misses; or rather, the focus of his article prevents him from touching on these two points, and I think they’re worth bringing up. First:

A networked U.S. military that knows how to swarm would have much smaller active manpower — easily two-thirds less than the more than 2 million serving today — but would be organized in hundreds more little units of mixed forces. The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces “horse soldiers” who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving “first waves” and dealing with other crises. At sea, instead of concentrating firepower in a handful of large, increasingly vulnerable supercarriers, the U.S. Navy would distribute its capabilities across many hundreds of small craft armed with very smart weapons. Given their stealth and multiple uses, submarines would stay while carriers would go. And in the air, the “wings” would reduce in size but increase in overall number, with mere handfuls of aircraft in each. Needless to say, networking means that these small pieces would still be able to join together to swarm enemies, large or small.

I agree with Arquilla on this point, particularly that nothing offers a better model for networked warfare in contemporary history than special ops engagements in Afghanistan (and, rather to some extent, Iraq). But by virtue of using this conflict and the force applied to it, Arquilla doesn’t seem to embrace the secondary component that has proven necessary in Afghanistan where ISAF spec ops forces have intervened: stability.

“[W]ith ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises,” Arquilla says, but the very times special ops has worked in greatest favor in our modern wars as been when the original intervenors could be a continuous presence in the lives of the combatants they defeated and the civilians they end up protecting. I’m thinking specifically of The Mayor of Ar Rutbah and One Tribe at a Time, though there are many examples to draw from; while there are valid critiques of these strategies for dealing with insurgency specifically, and the larger field of warcraft Arquilla is describing in his article, there is a clear application to ongoing conflict that can act as a lens for future conflicts. It’s very clearly not enough just to embrace the effectiveness of swarming a conflict with a small, agile, networked band of soldiers. Those same soldiers either have to establish a kind of semi-permanency of themselves and the security they have created by defeating an enemy; or some authoritative organization, either native or foreign, has to establish itself in the wake of that success immediately, or that security is lost overnight.

But if the idea is to have small, mobile, highly effective units–essentially exponentially more special forces units–with the emphasis on mobile, how does one correlate that with the void left in the wake of success?

Second:

There’s real urgency to this debate. Not only has history not ended with the Cold War and the advent of commerce-driven globalization, but conflict and violence have persisted — even grown — into a new postmodern scourge.

Indeed, it is ironic that, in an era in which the attraction to persuasive “soft power” has grown dramatically, coercive “hard power” continues to dominate in world affairs. This is no surprise in the case of rogue nations hellbent on developing nuclear arsenals to ensure their security, nor when it comes to terrorist networks that think their essential nature is revealed in and sustained by violent acts. But this primary reliance on coercive capabilities is also on display across a range of countries great and small, most notably the United States, whose defense policy has over the past decade largely become its foreign policy.

Probably for good reason, Arquilla doesn’t discuss the other avenues the United States has for exploiting soft power. He’s talking specifically about the military, and intelligence services don’t cleanly align with the military. But it seems an odd exception to make when discussing the hard power inherent in most American military endeavors, because if there is one thing that has been made clear in the last seven years of America At War, it’s that intelligence is everything. Planes can’t drop bombs without a target. (Or, well, they can, but that road ain’t one I’m going down today.) If you act without intelligence, you go in blind, and in the last seven years and particularly the last eighteen months it’s clear that priority is placed on intelligence gathered by military personnel and the contacts they make in areas of engagement. And that intelligence is the difference between action and inaction. I don’t think the military is necessarily blind to this, and whatever problems there are in information sharing between departments, there has to be something getting through for anything to happen at all.

We may love our subs and our carriers and our fighter jets; but I don’t know that such love is necessarily at the expense of information.

I think this counts as a slow news day.

Posted in afghanistan, american media, intelligence, terrorism by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Stratfor put out a concise overview of the challenges in aviation-focused terrorism prevention this week, but I think the most useful part is its succinct breakdown of current terrorist threats:

Currently there are three different actors in the jihadist realm. The first is the core al Qaeda group headed by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The core al Qaeda organization has been hit hard over the past several years, and its operational ability has been greatly diminished. It has been several years since the core group has conducted a spectacular terror attack, and it has focused much of its effort on waging the ideological battle as opposed to the physical battle.

The second group of actors in the jihadist realm is the regional al Qaeda franchise groups or allies, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jemaah Islamiyah and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These regional jihadist groups have conducted many of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in recent years, such as the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the July 2009 Jakarta bombings.

The third group of actors is the grassroots jihadist militants, who are essentially do-it-yourself terrorist operatives. Grassroots jihadists have been involved in several plots in recent years, including suicide bomb plots in the United States and Europe.

It’s kind of like a cheat sheet by which to understand the current news-scape. The rest of the article is well worth reading as well, but I find it interesting to see this summarized so neatly.

In “news heard ’round the world” today, the Obama administration has stepped away from the Eastern European missile defence system [The Guardian], in a move that has strongly displeased the Czech Republic and will likely make significant strategic strides in the US relationship with Russia. I think it’s pretty clear that this has been announced just as the US is going into talks with Iran, and needs Russia at least amenable to US goals; and to be honest, I was never really convinced of the necessity or prudence of the shield anyway. But I bet this will piss Bill Kristol off. (Yay.)

The NYT covers Biden’s continuing trip in Afghanistan, noting that there was more artillery fire in Baghdad, but Biden and al-Maliki both ignored it. That’s kind of classy. Of course, one of the main reasons for Biden’s trip is to push through political reconciliation before the elections early next year.

“I think the threat is that the political process will not give the country sufficient cohesion to work on its economic issues and otherwise become a strong and stable factor in the region,” the American ambassador, Christopher R. Hill, told reporters Tuesday night.

Not an easy task, especially when the Iraqi parliament is currently at a stalemate.

Also in Iraq, AP via Stars and Stripes has news of the largest US military detention camp being shut down.

The U.S. military on Wednesday closed Camp Bucca, an isolated desert prison that was once its largest lockup in Iraq, as it moves to release thousands of detainees or transfer them to Iraqi custody before the end of the year.

While it is likely a result of the plan for withdrawal, it also speaks to a confidence in Iraqi security that this camp is closing down; reverting the custody of over eight thousand prisoners is no small task for any security force. I’ll be waiting to see whether Iraq can in fact keep those prisoners secure.

In Afghanistan today, the main news (other than Karzai vacuously insisting the election was legitimate) was of six Italian troops and ten Afghani citizens dead from a car bomb in Kabul. (AP covers as well.) This is notably the worst hit Italian forces have taken, and the Taliban have taken responsibility.

David Ignatius at the Washington Post takes up recent calls for a reconfigured intelligence direction. I could make some claims about the misuse of intelligence operatives post 9/11, but I suspect we all kind of know this already. Either way, this seems to be a good start:

Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be “politically sustainable,” through more transparency with Congress and the public. “We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years,” he said.

I particularly like “lawful.”

I’m still digesting the Stephen Farrell story, but Forbes.com’s Tunku Varadarajan has some in-depth analysis of the matter. There is a difficult imbalance in Western reporting: Afghanistan is not safe enough for journalists to investigate without security, but because of that security, journalism has a very particular and limited lens. So on the one hand I sympathize with Stephen Farrell’s choice to investigate further despite clear directives from his military embed that it was not secure enough for him to do it; on the other, it was foolish and dangerous to do so.

Speaking of embeds, I’m still working my way through Michael Yon’s latest files; it’s always fascinating, if somewhat militarily biased.

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