Permissible Arms

Rather Late Monday Errata. (Still catching up.)

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

A handful of links:

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

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

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

Kilcullen Retread, Authors@Google

Posted in counterinsurgency by Karaka on 16 June 2010

Speaking of David Kilcullen, he spoke last year at Google’s visiting author program.

He’s speaking on “The Accidental Guerilla,” and it’s sort of the visual retread of what many of us will already know from his work and from COIN theory in general. The better part of it is the question-and-answer session in the latter half of the video.

I enjoy watching Kilcullen speak–I think when he’s conversational, it reflects well on him both in writing and in speaking. But I also think it’s pretty neat to see all the people Google has hosted at their campus.

“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, 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.

Reach the highest ground

Posted in united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 3 May 2010

My home state is under water right now, and there’s nothing like fielding panicked emails from family members over the weekend when you’re 2500 miles away. Thankfully the flooding hasn’t spread south enough to endanger my particular mountaintop, but seriously, I never want to see Tennessee in the news again.

I mentioned last week that I’d watched the CNAS webcast of their panel on Natural Security, and they’ve now put the panel online. I can’t seem to embed it because wordpress hates me, but you can watch it here. If you have some time, it was a good and interesting panel.

Also, Rage Company (and the iPad) has reached $650. Sweet. There’s still three days to bid; all proceeds go to Soldier’s Angels.

Perfect power

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense by Karaka on 29 April 2010

Yesterday I spent my lunch “break,” or perhaps my lunch-identified semi-working time, watching the webcast of CNAS’s panel on Natural Security: Navigating the Future Global Environment. The panel was moderated by David Kilcullen, whose new book I am eager to get my hands on, and covered a wide range of topics relating to energy security, climate change, and the interaction of the two with military emplacement, shifting foreign policy, and economic necessity. Whoever works the CNAS twitter and smart dude Herb Carmen both live-tweeted the event, as did I, to some extent. (I work in the energy industry, and national security is the thing I spend my not-working time engaged in, so it’s the intersection of two things I’m keen on.)

Sadly CNAS hasn’t made the panel, or the introductory remarks by presidential adviser Carol Browner, available online yet, and I’m not sure they will; though I hope they do, because it was a very good panel. RADM Phillip Cullom, Bob Kaplan, and Christine Parthemore all spoke knowledgeably on the subject, and it generated some interesting thoughts for me personally. The event was held in conjunction with a report released last week from CNAS called Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces (available as a PDF from that link) which I haven’t had the opportunity to read yet.

Anyway, links aside, there were a couple of points I wanted to note.

1. Energy efficiency. Without a doubt–not a single one, and I don’t mean that figuratively, I mean I have exactly zero doubts about this–energy efficiency is the single greatest tool the United States and other industrialized nations has to combat the economic realities of finite resources. The West is very much a culture of waste–we dispose rather than recycle or reuse, we expect to consume more than we actually do and waste the rest, and we do not take simple measures to counter that waste. It’s possible to implement policies and practices that can counter this without a great deal of upheaval; it’s simply a matter of implementing them.

On a small scale, it’s things like sealing buildings to prevent unnecessary overproduction of interior climates. On a large scale, it’s something like “sending a nugget on a second run before bringing him for tanking,” to paraphrase RADM Cullom. Fundamentally we don’t understand our resources–all of them, not merely petrol–as finite or limited, because you can always purchase another one of whatever it is you have. But if there’s anything the economic recession has taught this generation, it’s that we cannot be a nation solely based on economic consumption.

2. Changes in foreign policy. Bob Kaplan made one of the strongest points on the panel, I think, when he outlined the correlation between China’s sweeping population growth, the subsequent need for expanded economic resources, and the shifts to a more aggressive foreign policy mandate from that nation’s diplomatic corps. I think we tend to underestimate or overshadow the driving economic needs of states as precursors to action in favor of rhetoric about political ambitions or historical ties. A nation can be driven to desperation if it needs to resource its people, and if the world’s balance of power can tip because of salt or oil, it certainly can tip because of overpopulation.

3. Infrastructure. I think it was David Kilcullen, with support from Christine Pathemore, who started talking about establishing infrastructure in Afghanistan (both for FOBs and other military emplacements, and also for local villages and towns). Afghanistan is not an industrialized nation, but there is a very strong point to be made that a nation does not necessarily require state-wide industrialization to make basic energy needs available to its populace and governance. A power grid essentially refers to points in a locale that see the distribution and transmission of electricity; such a grid can operate over vast spaces (like North America) or in small populations (several communities in Coromandel, NZ, where I volunteered at the kiwi sanctuary, operated on small self-sustaining power grids in this fashion; it also happens frequently in rural Alaskan communities). The infrastructure can be relative to the size and needs of the population, and generally speaking it’s possible to provide basic services on small independent grids without getting too far into the weeds of industrial planning and building.

Of course, there was plenty more discussed than just the above points. Unfortunately the webcast went out for a bit and I missed the majority of the q&a period. I wanted to ask a question about the use of renewables (particularly wind and solar) in the generation of power on small independent power grids, but I wasn’t sure if someone else had brought it up in the time that I missed. And also, what do I say? “Question from Karaka, from the Blogosphere. You may have heard of us from the Army.”

Anyway, if I were writing a paper it would be about the use of small-build power grids and renewable energy generators to provide basic electrical services to remote communities in Afghanistan. But I should probably leave that to the experts.

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