Permissible Arms

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).

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“Counterinsurgency,” by David Kilcullen

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 15 June 2010

Please join me in welcoming Starbuck from Wings Over Iraq, guest posting today with his review of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency. In turn I’ve guest-posted over at WOI with my review of Counterinsurgency; check it out here!

David Kilcullen’s “Counterinsugency” is a must-read for counterinsurgency practitioners at the tactical and strategic levels, as well as for policymakers, government officials, and NGOs. At a minimum, it should be in the cargo pocket of every officer and NCO headed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Though the book is not without its flaws, Kilcullen has taken a number of critical counterinsurgency lessons–some gained through harrowing experience–and packaged them in a handy, notebook-sized publication. I’ll examine each section of the book in turn.

Introduction: Understanding Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The book begins with a touching dedication to Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, administrators of Small Wars Journal, before moving to a base discussion on the fundamentals of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Often, I’m compelled to skip over the introduction of a book, but the introduction to Counterinsurgency is laden with great information.

Much to my amusement, in offering a brief primer on counterinsurgency, Kilcullen addresses, though does not name, “armchair chickenhawks” who advocate the “brute force” approach to counterinsurgency (this guy, perhaps?), noting that the Romans and even the Wehrmacht implemented state-building approaches in their times.

Though I agree with the argument, I found that it wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, and some might mistakenly find contradiction in the case of the suppression of the Darul Islam movement, which came to an abrubtabrupt end shortly after the capture of its leader and key lieutenants, which Kilcullen discusses later. Again, greater clarification of supporting factors–even a primer on why insurgencies lose–might have been helpful. However, the chapter is, overall, an excellent foundation in the basics of counterinsurgency; though, those familiar with The Accidental Guerrilla might find themselves skipping ahead to the next chapter.

The Twenty-Eight Articles

I have to admit that I skimmed through this chapter, having read Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles a few times before. For those unfamiliar with Kilcullen’s work, “Twenty-Eight Articles” are short anecdotes, written in the style of T.E. Lawrence’s Twenty-Seven Articles, which Kilcullen penned his Moleskine notebook as he sat in a Starbucks coffee shop in Washington. Many of the lessons were learned though practical experience, presumably through some very…difficult…lessons. Take a look at number nineteen.

Engage the women, beware the children. Most insurgent fighters are men. But in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Co-opting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents. You need your own female counterinsurgents, including interagency people, to do this effectively. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population. Conversely, though, stop your people fraternizing with local children. Your troops are homesick; they want to drop their guard with the kids. But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from. The insurgents are watching: they will notice a growing friendship between one of your people and a local child, and either harm the child as punishment, or use them against you. Similarly, stop people throwing candies or presents to children. It attracts them to our vehicles, creates crowds the enemy can exploit, and leads to children being run over. Harden your heart and keep the children at arm’s length.

This reminds me very much of the situation I faced in Honduras, where we would often conduct joint airborne operations with the Honduran parachute battalion. Without exception, children would hide in the tall grass of the drop zone, waiting for American parachutists–recognizable by their uniforms and distinctive MC-1C parachutes–to land. The children would chase American paratroopers as they fell to the ground and beg them for money; even going so far as to actually roll and pack the parachute for them. While I would always give them candy and a little money, I understood the same thing Kilcullen did. By giving out candy and money, we were reinforcing behavior, and our very presence often created the same crowds Kilcullen described.

I won’t comment more on Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles. Far better counterinsurgency practitioners than I have already commented on Kilcullen’s work in Small Wars Journal (Pt. 1234). Suffice to say that if you haven’t read “Twenty-Eight Articles”, you need to.

Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

At this point, we move from a tactical view of counterinsurgency to an operational perspective, with a chapter on effective “metrics”–measures of performance in counterinsurgency. Those that follow Kilcullen and the CNAS gang may have already gotten a large portion of this already during a week-long segment on metrics at Tom Ricks’ blog (here’s part two of five).

As soon as Small Wars Journal linked to the series on metrics, the trolls came out of the woodwork bashing them, crying that human endeavors cannot be encapsulated into equations, diagrams and statistics. This echoes a recent trend, identified not too long ago in SWJ, which suggests that the study of warfare is–rightly so–moving away from a “scientific” study in a more “humanist” direction. Indeed, complaining about statistics is hardly a novel idea.

We all complain about metrics. To a large extent, I sympathize with the critics. It’s impossible to capture the broad range of human behavior in equations, computer models and statistics. T.E. Lawrence once noted that “nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals”. Indeed, metrics in any field of human endeavor–from business, to battle, to baseball–only tell a portion of the story. As one commenter in SWJ noted, you couldn’t measure the improvements in security by mere numbers. You could feel the difference.

Nevertheless, as much as I believe in Jedi senses, they can’t alwayalways accurately measure intangibles. We–and more importantly, the American public–need to communicate security improvements with statistics.

Using metrics to gauge intangibles is by no means limited to the military. We measure the health of our economy with the Dow Jones and S&P, we measure earned run averages and slugging percentages, and we measure Megan Fox’s hotness in terms of 34C-26-24. Verily, as much as we complain, we’ll always use metrics, and Kilcullen’s metrics are as good as any I’ve seen.

Globalization and the development of Indonesian counterinsurgency tactics

They say that confusion is the first step along the path to enlightenment, and nowhere is that more true than in this chapter. While doing a decent job at highlighting the differences between the organizational cultures between the armies of Australia and the US, Kilcullen actually gives us some counterinsurgency wisdom which seems to run contrary to current population-centric doctrine. During the 1950s and 60s, the Indonesian Army was faced with the prospect of an insurgency in West Java from the organization Darul Islam.

However, shortly after the capture of the insurgent movement’s leader, Darul Islam began to crumble. Although Kilcullen mentions that civic action followed military success, he doesn’t elaborate fully upon these methods. Thus, those who feel that simple military action can “crush” an insurgency might look at the suppression of Darul Islam as an example. (For more on this issue, see Pat Porter’s excellent analysis at The Offshore Balancer)

Fortunately, Kilcullen expands upon his analysis of the Darul Islam insurgency by noting that it was a very leader-centric insurgency–one of the greatest flaws an insurgency can have–some critics of counterinsurgency might see this as a misreading of COIN doctrine. In Kilcullen’s defense, though, he does mention that the advances in communication and information technology have led to less transparency, and thus, a decline in “crushing” insurgencies. I think it’s a topic worth researching more, in full.

Reflections on the Engagement at Motaain Bridge

Some reviewers have felt that this was an unnecessary distraction. I disagree, as it demonstrates the types of situations our troops, particularly our junior leaders, might find themselves in “small wars”. From Kilcullen’s lessons on dealing with the international media (get the right message out, and get it out quickly), to lessons on the psychology of combat (post-traumatic stress, “tunnel vision”, hyper-alertness, etc), Kilcullen’s vivid description of combat made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, as I nervously chewed on my highlighter.

Deiokes and the Taliban

A short chapter, Kilcullen explains the need for effective governance in counterinsurgency using a vignette from Herodotus’ Histories. Structurally, it seems as if it might fit well in the earlier portions of the book, as it once again serves as a short introduction to counterinsurgency, though in operational and strategic terms.

Kilcullen paints a very grim picture of Afghanistan, in which ISAF controls the central government in Kabul, but the Taliban hold sway throughout the countryside by practicing effective “bottom-up” governance. Kilcullen proposes a “bottom-up” counter to Taliban influence, strengthening national leadership by improving governance at the local level. Using the example of Somalia/Somaliland, Kilcullen asserts that nation-building efforts in Somalia, led by the UN, have performed poorly in relation to those practiced in Somaliland due to the fact that the UN focuses on central, national governments while Somaliland built its peace dealings from the grassroots level.  Kilcullen doesn’t delve too deeply into this example, although he does provide anthropologist Ioan Lewis as a reference for this subject, so I’ll have to check out her report.  (Possibly this one?)

Countering Global Insurgency

The final chapter is by far the longest, and the most controversial.  In it, Kilcullen expands upon and refines an idea he first put forth in The Accidental Guerrilla, where he first theorized that there is a global Islamic insurgency.  According to Kilcullen, global movements such as al-Qaeda attempt to link together disparate movements–Chechen rebels, insurgents in the Philippines, even Muslim groups in South America–into one larger movement.  It’s an interesting, though possibly a little alarmist, look at the larger threat we face from these sorts of movements.

However, addressing the bigger picture might have been a bridge too far for this book.  Though the chapter is fascinating, it could have been greatly expanded upon.  Indeed, though the title of the chapter is “countering global insurgency”, Kilcullen spends a mere paragraph outlining a constitutional approach to reforming the governments of the developing world, quipping that he could write another chapter on the topic.   I would be quite interested to hear his thoughts on this subject.

Overall

Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5.  Kilcullen is obviously a master of this realm, yet I feel he cut himself short limiting himself to a pocket-sized book on the topic of counterinsurgency.  The chapters feel somewhat disjointed, as if pieced together from separate works on the topic.  In fact, I think that less might have been better, packaging all but the final chapter, saving that one and expanding upon it for a future book.

Nevertheless, Kilcullen’s work is always a joy to read.  Kilcullen, like Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, is one of those few people who has not only the penchant for becoming embroiled in incredible adventures, but also possesses the wit to write them well.  For those that are not familiar with Kilcullen’s “Twenty-seven eight articles” or his series on metrics, this book is a must-read.

I did feel somewhat let down that I had read large portions of this book in various articles throughout the blogosphere.  Yet, it’s still well worth the price.  The first 2/3 of the book contains invaluable advice for the counterinsurgency practitioner at the tactical level, and I’ll certainly have it in my assault bag during my next deployment (whenever that might be).  You should, too.

Falling back is furthest from your mind

Posted in afghanistan, us defense by Karaka on 28 April 2010

Just grabbed the unclassified 152 page report out of the Pentagon released today, figured I’d pass it on. Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan. From Armed Forces Press:

The report, which covers the situation on the ground from Oct. 1 to March 31, cites progress in President Barack Obama’s strategy aimed at disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it offers what a senior defense official speaking on background called a sobering assessment of the conditions on the ground, and a recognition of the importance of what happens within the next six months in determining the direction the operation ultimately will take.

Despite increased violence, the report notes that the downward trend in stability appears to have stemmed, along with Taliban momentum.

It’ll make for interesting reading. Time for that glass of wine.

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?

Lots of goldfish, one tiny fishbowl.

Posted in iraq, terrorism, united states, us military by Karaka on 9 November 2009

I admit, I find it surprising how much Iraq recedes in our view as 2010’s drawdown grows nearer; I suppose there’s only so much ink for a (electronic) page, and Afghanistan is in everyone’s minds. But Iraq remains a fragile state, and the US presence there is significant still. So, a few pieces from here and there that I thought I’d bring to your attention.

First, it did not go unnoticed that the Iraq parliament succeeded in passing election reform [WSJ]:

Lawmakers agreed Sunday on the key sticking point — how the vote will be held in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which is claimed by Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but at least it’s done now,” said Fryad Rawandoozi, spokesman for the Kurdish bloc.

Despite the eleventh-hour agreement, Iraq’s election commission said Sunday that it still didn’t have enough time to prepare for the January 2010 vote. The commission can’t delay the poll unilaterally, however, and Parliament’s agreement appears to have put the election back on track.

In the agreement hammered out over Kirkuk, eligible voters will be determined by 2009 voter-registration records, a condition supported by the Kurds. But a technical committee will be set up to review the votes. If there are a certain number of irregularities, the elections will be repeated in a year, a condition pushed by the Arabs and Turkmen.

I think the key word in the phrase “appears to have put the election back on track” is “appears,” though wrestling with the Kurd bloc is certainly a step in the right direction. Kurdistan has always fascinated me, an island unto itself, almost. However, if things truly proceed only a fortnight or so behind schedule, it shouldn’t compromise the US military withdrawal; though I still remain concerned that security in Iraq is of the smokescreen variety.

From Army News we learn of a key-giving ceremony, granting more MNF-controlled land back to, well, the Iraqis:

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of Joint Area Support Group-Central, helped contribute to that progress, Oct. 25, when they handed the keys to two large properties inside Baghdad’s International Zone back over to the Iraqi government — a symbolic gesture that transferred the property to the Iraqis.

“In terms of square footage of habitable structures, Essayons and Freedom Compound are the largest we’ve turned over so far,” said the 32nd Brigade’s Maj. Gregory Schlub, who is the officer in charge of real properties for Joint Area Support Group-Central, in Baghdad.

The two properties, formerly used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, include about 25 acres of land and buildings with about 380,000 square feet of floor space.

I really hope I’m not the only person rather uncomfortable granting a “key to the city” to the people who in fact possess it; methinks a press pool officer might’ve thought a bit harder about that one.

Stratfor, sharing my wariness about January 2010, writes of Iraq: A Rebounding Jihad:

The Sunni sheikhs are using the [Islamic State of Iraq] to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Sunnis must be accommodated if there is to be real peace and stability in Iraq. One sticking point for the Sunni elders is that a large percentage of the Awakening Council members have not been integrated into the security forces as promised. Of course, the Shia and Kurds then use these attacks as an excuse for why the Sunnis cannot be trusted — and it all becomes a vicious circle.

The political situation that is driving the security problems in Iraq is complex and cannot be easily resolved. There are many internal and external players who are all trying to influence the final outcome in Iraq for their own benefit. In addition to the internal squabbles over power and oil wealth, Iraq is also a proxy battleground where the United States and Iran are attempting to maintain and assert influence. Regional players like the Saudis, Syrians and Turks also will take a keen interest in the elections and will certainly attempt to influence them to whatever degree they can. The end result of all this meddling is that peace and stability will be hard to obtain.

This means that terrorist attacks likely will continue for the foreseeable future, including attacks by the ISI. If the attacks in August and October are any indication, the remainder of the run-up to the January elections could prove quite bloody.

Granted, had IED defenses not been put into place, the attack on Oct. 25 in Baghdad could have done significantly more damage, but in a sense this is the crucible in which ISF will indeed prove itself. Can ISF keep its citizens secure as the Americans leave? Can it prevent politically motivated terrorist conflict? Can it do so and remain a strong independent force not subject to corruption?

I hope so. But the first quarter of ’10 will be an important time to watch Iraq, I think.

Finally, Alissa Rubin’s column in the New York Times, From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War:

And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.

In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down. Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality. The Americans, too, did their share of violence, and among the worst they did was wishful thinking, the misreading of the winds and allowing what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide” to swell. Could they have stopped it? Probably not. Could it have been stemmed so that it did less damage, saved some ofthe fathers and brothers, mothers and sons? Yes, almost certainly, yes.

Ricks tipped me off to this article, and while I find it to be one of the least compelling styles of journalism–personal experience masked as opinion masked as news–I do find it interesting to read in the context of the leavetaking that is being prepared. Lessons learned, people? Bring ’em here.

“Global Jihadist Movement”

Posted in afghanistan, terrorism by Karaka on 20 October 2009

The third installment of David Rohde’s account of his capture and imprisonment by the Afghan Taliban is out today, and it is worth the read. Reader questions are being answered in the NYT At War blog, and this stood out to be as being of particular relevance:

Many readers criticized my statement that I was surprised by how extreme many Taliban had become since 2001 and called me naïve.

The Taliban wanting to brutally impose hard-line Islamic law in Afghanistan was not new to me. What surprised me was that they wished to join Al Qaeda in imposing it across the Islamic world.

This is one of the central questions White House officials face as they try to decide whether to increase American troops levels in Afghanistan. Some experts on the region have argued that the Taliban have not grown close to Al Qaeda and the conflict with them can be settled through negotiations. Those Taliban may exist, but the faction that held me showed little interest in compromising. Given the current debate in the United States on Afghanistan, I felt it was important to publicly describe what I found.

Emphasis mine. Rohde was captured in November of last year and released this summer; Peter Bergen’s Senate testimony from 9 October is consonant with this view:

This influence has been particularly marked on the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. The Taliban were a quite provincial group when they ran Afghanistan before 9/11 and many of their leaders opposed bin Laden‟s presence in their country on the grounds that he was interfering with their quest for recognition by the international community. But since the 9/11 attacks the leadership of the Taliban has adopted al Qaeda’s worldview and see themselves as part of a supposedly global jihadist movement. They have also imported wholesale al Qaeda‟s tactics of planting roadside bombs and ordering suicide attacks and beheadings of hostages, which until recently were largely unknown in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tactics are a key reason why the Taliban insurgencies have become far more effective on both sides of the Durand line in the past three years.

One of the key leaders of the Afghan Taliban as it surged in strength in 2006 was Mullah Dadullah, a thuggish but effective commander who like his counterpart in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, thrived on killing Shia, beheading his hostages, and media celebrity. In interviews with al Jazeera and CBS Dadullah conceded what was obvious as the violence dramatically expanded in Afghanistan: that the Taliban had increasingly morphed together tactically and ideologically with al Qaeda. He said, “Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health. We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other.”

I think it would be easy to dismiss Rohde’s account as being inaccurate or hyperbolic due to his imprisonment, but I believe that would be a mistake. He, not unlike Bergen, has a very accurate window through which to view the Afghan Taliban. Rohde’s view is from as recent as this summer, and Bergen’s from this month. If we take them seriously, it seems to answer (in the public forum) how al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban are connected today.

Stalemate In Perpetua

Posted in afghanistan, isaf by Karaka on 14 October 2009

Yesterday–and it’s still technically yesterday!–Spencer Ackerman posted about AJ Rossmiller’s new column in TNR. I said this in reply to Spencer’s post:

You know, I read this post over my morning coffee, Rossmiller’s over my bagel, and this guest post over at Ricks on the second cup of coffee; and after a couple hours digesting it, I’m still on the damn fence.

I agree in principle with what you’re saying here, but I guess I’m just not entirely convinced that reconciliation will actually, necessarily work in the interests of US national security or in the interests of the Afghan citizenry. It’s a way to get out faster; but I’m not sure it’s the best way to leave.

And Spencer asked me to pull it apart a little more, so I took the thought to my pub and over a pint of Open Bridge Brown I sorted it out a bit.

So, we’re talking about the political reconciliation of the Afghan Taliban with the current established Afghan government. My inclination is to think that such a reconciliation is not the best course of action. I came up with four reasons why.

ONE. ISAF is already present in Afghanistan. If McCrystal’s Assessment is adopted to reaching US/NATO goals in AFG, forces will probably be present in country for at least four to five years more. It seems credible that civilian forces working to reduce corruption in the established government would be a better alternative to inviting our declared enemy into a legitimate role in the government it purports to hate and rebel against; reconciliation only works if there is power-sharing, and there is no indication that the AFG Taliban are interested in sharing power at all.

TWO. Prior to 2009, ISAF was fighting (to the best of my knowledge) a counterterrorism campaign in AFG. I don’t think we can accurately predict the martial outcome of COIN in country, since it hasn’t been practiced to full effect yet; and if COIN proves more effective at fighting the Taliban, political reconciliation becomes less attractive and perhaps less necessary. I don’t see an effective argument suing for reconciliation before COIN has taken a stab at reducing the insurgent threat. Though, I have seen the argument for reconciliation made as a pretext to withdrawing sooner rather than later, and that reaffirms my original statement that it’s a way to get out faster, but not necessarily better.

Further to that, I also think that COIN’s effectiveness could take more than one aspect, namely the reintegration of insurgents into Afghan citizenry, eroding the influence and existing political power of the Taliban, and/or a wide swathe of insurgent deaths. Even one of those things would have the effect of lessening Taliban presence and control and strengthening the central government’s legitimacy.

THREE. I don’t take the Taliban’s public claims seriously. Propaganda always means something other than what is being stated. To take the Taliban at its public word could be foolish–given last week’s bogus claim of harmlessness, it seems apparent that the Taliban’s greatest hope is getting the foreigners to leave what they consider to be their territory. They have every reason to lie or obfuscate to reach that goal.

Taking CNAS intern Kyle Flynn’s comments on Peter Bergen’s senate testimony into account (primarily because it is very recent and also something I touched on in my original response) and the Oral History of the Taliban (also recent), there is no factual reason to believe that the AFG Taliban wouldn’t re-establish their regime if given the opportunity and use that power to provide al-Qaeda with another launching pad.

The argument that al-Qaeda does not necessarily need Afghanistan to accomplish its goals is both accurate and well-heeded; but it sure does make it easier on them. Furthermore, if the US continues to have a presence in South/Central Asia–which the events of the last 18 years indicates it will–it is a matter of US influence and security to have in place a government in line with whatever democratic views we attempted to import there.

The Taliban don’t exactly fit that bill, and should they be reconciled with the current AFG government, it seems probable that they would exploit the control of the 200 districts they currently hold into a grab for political power. It would likely introduce another government, one sourced by Islamic extremism. And that’s not good for US interests even without al-Qaeda’s involvement, given the proximity of AFG to Pakistan, Iran, and India (all nuclear states).

FOUR. Probably the point most important to me, personally, is the relationship of the Taliban to the people it professes to represent and govern. The following is copied from Women Against Shariah, at the most cursory level. (That is a heartbreaking blog to read.)

* Shariah: an all-encompassing and in-transmutable system of Islamic jurisprudence, found in the Koran and the Sunnah, that covers all aspect of life, including daily routines, hygiene, familial roles and responsibilities, social order and conduct, directives on relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims, religious obligations, financial dealings and many other facets of living.

* Ird: the sexual purity of a woman that confers honor to her husband, family and community. Ird is based on the traditional standards of behavior set forth in the shariah code and includes subservience to male relatives, modest dress which could include veiling and the covering of the body, and restricted movement outside of the home. The loss of a woman’s ird confers shame upon her family and can result in ostracism by the community, economic damage, political consequences and the loss of self esteem.

* Zina: the Koranic word for sexual relations outside of marriage. Under shariah law, Zina is punished by lashings, imprisonment or stoning to death.

* Honor Killing: a murder, usually of a female, committed to restore the social and political standing of a family or community when it is believed that the victim has violated traditional behavioral expectations. Such violations can include improper covering of the body, appearing in public without a male relative chaperone, talking to an unrelated male, or exhibiting independence in thought and action. An honor killing can also be based on hearsay or gossip that is perceived as damaging to a woman’s relatives.

* Forced Marriage: a marriage that is conducted without the consent of one or both parties in which duress is a factor. Such duress can include violence or physical intimidation, psychological abuse, blackmailing, kidnapping, or threats of imprisonment or institutional confinement.

Now, there are several stripes of what WAS refers to as militant islam, but I think it’s common knowledge that the Taliban have a fairly strict interpretation of Shariah. To me, turning political power over to men who will use their power to oppress half the population is sufficient reason in and of itself to remain until the population is secured. I don’t want my heart to bleed all over this post, but it is a fundamental problem for me to consider political reconciliation with a group of people who will clearly and unabashedly utilize that power to enact and further systemic oppression of women. And given the Taliban’s grave presence in Afghanistan currently, it would arguably be a lot of political power.

That oppression, too, has the trickle down effect on Afghan children, and the various other minorities within Afghanistan.

One of the recurring arguments I have about political-ethnic divides within Afghanistan relates to the notion that because Pashtuns are the great majority in country they should be taken seriously and, I interpret, be a large political power because of their numbers–about 42% of the population. But what I find troubling about the argument from majority is that the proposed majority almost inevitably uses that power to oppress or eradicate the minorities which (seem to) threaten that power.

I find it hard to distinguish a compelling argument that suggests political reconciliation with the Taliban would not be a problem for the overall security of the Afghan people.

So, I stand by my original, more tenuous claim–political reconciliation may be the fastest way for ISAF to get out of Afghanistan, but I don’t think it’s the best. Not when it leaves several problems both in terms of US security, Afghan security, and problems both immediately and in the long-term.

That was more hawkish than I’d anticipated it being.

And then I get to dress like a spy.

Posted in afghanistan, terrorism by Karaka on 28 September 2009

I have kind of been ignoring the long war recently; amid the terrorist plots foiled and potential bombers arrested in the US, I’ve just been idly keeping tabs rather than get embroiled in the drama of it all. But the NYT has an article on Rethinking Our Terrorist Fears that caught my attention.

But important as they were, those news reports masked a surprising and perhaps heartening long-term trend: Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.

“Al Qaeda is losing its moral argument about the killing of innocent civilians,” said Emile A. Nakhleh, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006. “They’re finding it harder to recruit. They’re finding it harder to raise money.”

It’s heartening to hear that there is some effectiveness in the strategies that existed…

Even counterterrorism officials who agree that Al Qaeda is on the wane, for example, say the organization might well regroup if left unmolested in a lawless region in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia. Moreover, they point out that even a lone terrorist with modest skills can produce mass carnage. Six years before 9/11, with no aid from a sophisticated network, Timothy McVeigh used a simple fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City to kill 168 people. And the 2001 calamity was the work of, at most, a few dozen plotters.

…but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I believe the words are, “it ain’t over until it’s over.” Or so I’ve heard.

Peter Mandaville, a professor of government and Islamic studies at George Mason University, says a series of public recantations” by prominent Islamist scholars and militants in recent years have had an effect. But the biggest catalyst has been bombings close to home. “Right after 9/11, people thought, wow, America is not invincible,” Mr. Mandaville said. “It was a strike against the U.S., and they were for it.” But when large numbers of innocent Muslims fell victim to attacks, “it became more and more difficult to romanticize Al Qaeda as fighting the global hegemons — basically, ‘sticking it to the man.’ ”

Rebels aren’t that awesome if they’re killing their own people, too. Then we just call it civil war.

Even those who are convinced Al Qaeda is growing weaker offer a cautious prognosis about what that might mean. They say that what is growing less likely is an attack on American soil with a toll equal to or greater than that of 9/11. But they concede that the example of Al Qaeda will continue to produce copycats: “Bin Laden has given others a narrative, a grand story of struggle, and he’s given them tactics as well,” Dr. Mandaville said … “Terrorism,” he added, “is here to stay.”

This long war ain’t over yet, that should be clear. And the US will be doing itself a disservice if we use this small progress as a benchmark for withdrawal.

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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