Permissible Arms

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.

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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.

No Pity: A Strategic Analysis of “Harry Brown”

Posted in united kingdom by Karaka on 8 July 2010

Continuing from a guest post I’m pleased to announce over at On Violence (read “No Remorse” here, and many thanks to Eric and Michael for letting me contribute!), here’s some more analysis of the Michael Caine film, “Harry Brown.” Spoilers ahoy.

One of the things that so fascinated me about “Harry Brown” was that it acts as a potential allegory for small force action. I doubt this was purposeful–the intent seems to be more focused on vigilantism with the twist being the protagonist’s age and past–but nonetheless it serves the idea well.

The terrain is the Elephant and Castle housing estate in South London, whose population have been affected and harmed by the gang of young men who operated from the pedestrian underpass on the estate. The gang are insurgents, largely jobless young men who have engaged in violence and crime, who terrorize the inhabitants of the estate for amusement and to generate fear that offsets their chances of being reported on to the police. The police are conventional force, attempting to intervene on the estate but are held back from action by the laws of the country, including entrapment laws. And Harry Brown is the small force actor, or singular actor, mobilizing against the insurgents with more freedom than his counterparts in the police.

Brown, by being a small mobile force with a less restrictive engagement strategy, can effect change within the structure of the gang itself both by the use of violence and threats but also by manipulating insurgents into compromising themselves. This action allows for the destabilization of the internal structure of the anti-state gang, while also providing an avenue for the conventional force to engage with the overall system and take advantage of the destabilization to uproot the gang’s membership.

Brown starts with the member of the group with the least power–Marky, the young man he snatches–to gather intelligence. Marky, being the newest member of the gang, has less overall loyalty to the gang and can be compromised more quickly. He’s then turned into collateral for the gang itself, though not for any specific exchange and more to draw out higher-ranking members of the gang so Brown can identify and target them.

But Brown is undercut when a crucial piece of intelligence isn’t revealed until after he has already begun to act against members of the gang–there is an exterior force supplying the gang with means, opportunity, and authority. That would be Sid, the pub barkeep, who is gang leader Noel’s uncle. Sid is a foreign supplier of aid and instruction, making the gang more powerful because of his influence. Thus Brown has two targets: Noel, the leader of the gang, and Sid, the supplier of the gang.

At that point Brown is overwhelmed. His capability is disproportionate to the capability of those two actors together. But again, that is where the conventional force of the police comes in, to back up Brown as part of an overall containment operation.

However, Brown’s involvement in the destabilization of the gang itself, which acted on the estate and which the conventional force could not initially counter, is the operator who builds an inroad of which the conventional force can make use. The small force actor pressurized the situation; the conventional force shut it down.

Admittedly this is imperfect–Brown’s actions weren’t really acknowledged by the police force, and were only marginally sanctioned in Hicock’s nod that Brown was doing them a favor. And likely had the police force not been involved in quelling the riots, Brown would not have known about Sid’s influence over the gang through his nephew Noel, thus opening the door for the gang to return with new membership. Furthermore, the film describes state actors on criminal citizens, where those citizens are not bent on an overthrow of the state but merely thwarting its control.

But nonetheless I think this film has merit for its depiction of small actors against unconventional enemies, working in tandem with conventional state actors. “Harry Brown” is a microcosm of this strategy, all the more interesting because it takes place in such a limited setting, with very few characters, stripped from the traditional images of warfare.

Difficult difficult lemon difficult

Posted in united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 13 June 2010

Over the weekend, on the recommendation of Jason Sigger, I watched In the Loop, a biting political satire of the political relationship between the US and the UK contextualized through the eve of declaration of war. Satire is at its very best when it identifies the very real flaws in the thing it mocks, and In the Loop succeeds on nearly every front–from the miscommunication between departments to the backbiting and sabotage to the framing of information in the best possible light.

Though the film centers around pressing a case for war without having real, solid cause, the realities of war are divorced from nearly every character–they have the power to play with the future with stakes that never take into account the people whose lives those decisions will effect. The one line that cautions is Lt Gen Miller’s: “This is the problem with civilians wanting to go to war. Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go again unless you absolutely fucking have to. It’s like France.” His counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clark, rightly points out that he is removed himself from the realities of war, but it is the only reality check in the otherwise head-spinning politics of it all.

I highly recommend this–the humour was superb, the satire spot-on, and it manages to find the balance between godawfulness and humanity very well.

Transatlanticism

Posted in afghanistan, europe, united kingdom by Karaka on 25 May 2010

Okay, I may have some problems with Rory Stewart’s general perspective on things, but I was taken by surprise to find that he was elected MP of Penrith and the Border in this month’s UK election.

A former diplomat, army officer and tutor to Princes William and Harry, Stewart was a deputy governor in southern Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, founded a charity in Afghanistan and has made the New York Times bestseller’s list with a book about his hike.

He’s already regarded as a possible successor to Cameron, even though he only joined the Conservative Party last summer.

Yet, only last year, Stewart thought a political career was out of reach. [AP]

A possible successor to Cameron–isn’t that something. I wonder how much influence Stewart will end up having over the Ministry of Defence.

Steve Coll wrote today about the new British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Stewart’s advice to David Cameron going forward on the matter of Afghanistan:

During his visit to Washington, Hague spoke cautiously about Afghanistan and emphasized his government’s desire to forge unity with the United States. He said the new government saw no need to “rush into a disagreement” with the U.S. about the subject of talking to the Taliban. Acknowledging that American commanders prefer to postpone serious consideration of such talks until after they have carried out their military push into Kandahar during the next six months, he added, “You can easily see that people would have different views about timing.” Nonetheless, he made clear that “it will be a big part of our job to support the peace process” and that the British push for more politics in Afghanistan, and less fighting, would persist.

Ah, but six months will go by quickly–it doesn’t even mark the end of the calendar year. As Germany finally steps up to the plate and the infil of soldiers and civilians from US agencies continues, how long before inside opinion in Parliament becomes a matter for the floor? Particularly given recent polling that indicates 52% of the British populace are against the war. I can’t help but be chary of what this means, exactly:

Hague was asked to define success in the Afghan war. He replied, “To arrive at a point where Afghans can look after their own affairs without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s one long-term, large-scale project right there.

In other news, the Security Crank has returned from hibernation. Let the verbal savagery begin again.

“A rotating black hole.”

Posted in afghanistan, united kingdom, united states by Karaka on 18 May 2010

That’s what I’m calling my life right now. I seriously do not understand where all the time goes, except being vaguely aware that it is going really, really fast.

In light of that, posting has and may continue to be less frequent; I’m not real keen on that, but such is things.

Over the weekend, I watched a couple programs worth mentioning here. The first, which I brought up on my twitter account on Saturday, was BBC2’s “The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia.” I’d gotten it mostly to refresh my memory about T.E. Lawrence alongside a reading of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and was surprised–but only for a moment–to realize that it was hosted by Rory Stewart.

The two-part special is framed as a walk through Lawrence’s life (with fair attention paid to details of historical accuracy over common misconceptions from the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, drawing parallels of his post-WWI through to post-WWII actions in Arabian lands to entrance of the US and Britain into Iraq (and Afghanistan, which didn’t really do him any favors in his comparison). The thesis of Stewart’s program is essentially that Lawrence himself became disillusioned with Western involvement in the Middle East after the revelation of Sykes–Picot. Lawrence had effectively promised Faisal bin al-Hussein (or Faisal I) an independent pan-Arab state, which Lawrence’s leaders did not deliver. Stewart suggests throughout that the long memory of the people of the Middle East has contributed to the mistrust, unrest, and insurgency in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world of Western nations, which doesn’t seem wrong, exactly, but certainly seems to be a broad claim.

Futhermore, Stewart takes the position that, as Lawrence came to protest European colonization and continued administration of lands in the Middle East, so too should we see parallels in Iraq (and Afghanistan). It’s well understood that Stewart thinks we should scale back our presence and influence in Afghanistan and by extension Iraq (though given the pull-out dates for troops in Iraq it may be less contentious now), and Lawrence is used by Stewart as a vehicle to enhance that argument. “If Lawrence of Arabia did not believe this could be done,” he seems to ask, “what hubris makes us think we can?”

I note above the broad claim, and having finished two hours of this program I concluded that his thought was not merely broad but sweeping. Set against a meandering sort of walk across some truly staggering landscapes–with which Stewart is quite familiar–we, the viewer, are invited to consider the implacability of the peoples by whom we are viewed only as occupiers. Since 1916 Europe (and now the United States) has been viewed as a betrayer of promises, and such are the people we must pacify.

Even acknowledging the troubling impetus for invading Iraq, Stewart’s thesis in this piece takes a deeply narrow gaze and interprets Lawrence’s words as if they are allegorical to the contemporary wars. I do not believe there is any part of the wars of the United States and Britain over the last ten years that is narrow, and they are hardly allegorical.

In Stewart’s piece last year criticizing Obama’s then-sketchy plans for what to Do About Afghanistan, he writes in the London Review of Books of another Lawrence, Sir John the viceroy of India, saying of the British Empire and Russia during the Great Game:

But he undermines the fantasy of an Afghan threat as much through the rhythm of his prose as through his arguments. His synecdoche, ‘the Oxus and the Indus’, emphasizes to a domestic policymaker the unknown and alien nature of the landscape; the archaism ‘wend’ illustrates the circuitous routes; his repetitions enact the repetitive and tiresome journey. He highlights the political and religious energies of the resistance (placing them ‘every mile’) and suggests internal divisions without asserting them (by describing Afghanistan not as a single state but as ‘countries’). His concessive subjunctive ‘let them’ reflects his attitude of uncertainty about the future. It is not an assessment of the likelihood of a Russian march but an enactment of its potential and it reduces the army by the end of the sentence to a decrepit band on the edge of the Indus, which it would be difficult to perceive as a threat.

But there is no “let them” here. There is only “we have,” and if we cannot rewrite the past we also cannot abandon that which we have started–particularly as Afghanistan (if not, exactly, Iraq and its copious oil) is not an exercise in colonialism but one in addressing a long-neglected mess.

Tomorrow, “The Fog of War,” or the curious history of Robert McNamara.

One step closer to living in TRON.

Posted in american media, united kingdom, united states, us military by Karaka on 27 April 2010

Kudos to Starbuck and the SWJ for appearing in the snarky yet appealing NYT smackdown of Powerpoint that is the new Michael Yon of milblogging. (Elisabeth Bumiller has been a favorite reporter of mine for some time now, in particular her excellent coverage of FETs.) Also, I’m amused that Guardian staffers read the NYT so closely.

Speaking of Brits lagging the Americans, UK launches competition to find cyber security experts:

A national public competition has begun to find people with a talent for keeping computers and networks secure. The competition aims to find those with relevant analytical, forensic and programmming skills using web-based games and challenges.

How long before the Ministry of Defence gets a shiny new Cyber Command of their very own? (And how soon before we get to start calling it CYCOM?)

And what can’t be done?

Posted in afghanistan, united kingdom, united nations by Karaka on 22 April 2010

I haven’t done a post on pieces I’ve liked that talk about women lately, so I figured its timely.

Rex at Afghanistan: My Last Tour conducted an interview with female ANA soldiers, which I thought was generally awesome, but also deeply informative.

My next stop was the ANA Family Support Center. Inside I was greeted by two women dressed in traditional Afghan clothing, complete with the hajib hair covering. But these two women are not civilians; instead, they are both Captains in the ANA army. Using my interpreter, I asked permission to conduct an interview so I could learn more about them. They agreed and I used my tape recorder to record our conversation.

Both of the women are married, have 4 children and similar educational backgrounds with completing high school and 3 years of medical studies at a local college. The younger Captain has served in the Army for 20 years and the other 33 years respectively. They are responsible for assisting ANA widows and wounded soldiers’ family members. The younger captain revealed even as a child, she has always wanted to join the Army. Her father was an Army officer and supported her dream and now her sister is in the process of becoming an ANA officer too.

I inquired why they didn’t wear the ANA military uniform. They explained that due to culture perceptions and criticisms, it is better to wear civilian clothes.

I read pretty comprehensively on this subject, so it’s of note to me that stories/accounts like this don’t float up terribly frequently. I appreciate Rex noting both the challenges that female ANA soldiers face, and also the problems of negotiating correct cultural manners when there’s no clear rule to follow–especially when the female soldiers themselves are considered by their fellow soldiers to be breaking taboos.

Last month the NYT had a feature on female-staffed UN peacekeeping units that I thought was generally positive, though a couple stray comments (“the thin pink line”) were desultory and detracted from the strength of their subjects. Sgt. Monia Gusain commands a peacekeeping unit for the UN out of India, based in Liberia.

Liberia — a West African country created in 1847 to settle freed American slaves — is something of a modern laboratory for the rise of women making peace. Women are marching in foot patrols; the head of the U.N. mission, Ellen Margrethe Loj of Denmark, is a woman; and the Liberian president, Mrs. Sirleaf, is the first woman elected as an African head of state, in 2005.

Mrs. Sirleaf — whose nickname is “Iron Lady” — is particularly blunt about the role of women in the recovery of her fragile country, which was battered by 14 years of civil war that left about 200,000 people dead and survivors haunted by torture, systematic rapes and the exploitation of drug-addicted boy soldiers.

“What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring,” Mrs. Sirleaf said in an interview. “I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”

There’s more gender reductionist verbiage in there, and similar ideology propagated by several people interviewed, but it’s generally positive and endlessly fascinating.

Finally, the Guardian’s Elizabeth Rubin wrote a remarkable account of her experience as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan, in the first few months of her pregnancy. Western culture has a strange relationship with pregnancy: revered, unwanted, and political all at once. I think I’d like to meet this woman who took her pregnancy into a war zone.

On a muggy August afternoon, I dragged myself and my flu to an infectious-disease doctor. I asked him if he could give me some antibiotics for Afghanistan that were safe to take when you’re pregnant. His eyes leapt up from his notes.

“How far along are you?”

“Three months and a bit.”

I stared at a James Nachtwey photograph on his wall as he regaled me with stories about his war-photographer patients, all of whom were men. Clearly, I posed a different equation.

“Are you sure you will be able to run?” he said. “Because you’re going to need to run, and I have to advise you not to go in your condition.” Suddenly he was rigging up a heart-monitoring machine on my chest and pointing out my supposedly irregular heartbeat arrowing up and down the page. “I just came for a prescription,” I said. “If I wanted someone to tell me not to go to Afghanistan, I could have called my mother.”

I’m trying to tweet more–you’re welcome to add me there if you like–but I’ll be the first to admit I’m kind of bad at it. Not so great at 140-character expressions of stream of conscious; I think I’m just too long winded.

Impossible to be sure

Posted in afghanistan, kyrgyzstan, united kingdom by Karaka on 21 April 2010

Getting to this a bit late. Work ate me whole today, and has only just spit me out the other side.

First off, two bits on Kyrgyzstan and Bakiyev. Seems Bakiyev still considers himself President despite, you know, resigning; and the interim government has decided to extradite him to answer charges.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government has said it will demand the extradition of the country’s ousted president from Belarus once the investigation into the bloody massacre of April 7 is completed.

“The Kyrgyz people will never know rest until the bloody dictator is brought to justice,” the chief of staff of Kyrgyzstan’s new government Edil Baisalov said.

I have to wonder if the Kyrgyz people are actually that into watching the guy sit in a witness box, or if it’s a little more “hey, let’s vote for a new government now!” But I could most certainly be wrong on that call.

This report on Kabul’s restaurant raids just makes me heartsick. What a terrible, terrible thing.

I’ll admit, I’m not following the British elections nearly as closely as I would be if I were still living in Northern England, but the Guardian’s posting of excerpts of each of the major party candidate’s positions on UK national security and defence, particularly with regard to Afghanistan is worth reading, even if they’re canned. You can download a full text of the remarks in PDF here.

Via Akinoluna, these photos of a FET in action are pretty awesome. I’ve been wondering how effective the FET deployment has been since I was first reading up on them several months ago. If you have any helpful links they’d be well appreciated.

I found this post from al-Sahwa on COIN and culture to be fascinating; I’m still trying to figure out what to say in response but I found it provocative. And in mind-boggling counter information, this FP post titled, misleadingly, Lady GaGa vs. the Occupation set my eyes rolling so hard I think they’ve hit the Sisters by now.

On a far different note, the State Department is apparently looking for freelance writers (via Diplopundit). There’s a second job for you.

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