Permissible Arms

Errata for Tuesday

Posted in afghanistan, american media, united states, us military by Karaka on 20 April 2010

Steve Coll is reporting from Afghanistan this month; I always find him a measured read, and these reports are no different.

To the extent that this pre-negotiating of clearing operations succeeds, not all of the Kandahar campaign may require a lot of shooting.

In some respects the campaign has already begun. Special Forces and C.I.A. task forces have captured seventy mid-level Taliban commanders in Kandahar Province in raids over the last two months, and they have killed dozens of other mid-level commanders, those of us travelling with Mullen were told. (This has degraded the Taliban’s provincial leadership, according to U.S. assessments, and created some confusion and mistrust in monitored Taliban communications. However, the replacement commanders are typically younger than their predecessors, and if they are less skilled, they may also be more vicious and bitter.) In any event, it is a basic precept of revised U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that international forces cannot “capture and kill” their way to victory. The critical aspects of the Kandahar campaign will be political.

I wish he didn’t put period after every letter in the acronyms he uses, because it messes with my line reading, but hey, stupid quibbles in an otherwise solid document. Further down the page, commenter Carter_Nicholas_Charlottesville has a very, very good response.

Dr Jeffrey Groh is moderating the DIME blog this month, which I tend to find hit-or-miss as a resource. He starts with a discussion of network-centric warfare that’s worth a read to dig into the comments (hey, they opened the comments!).

Kings of War moved! Jesus I’m out of the loop. If I’ve messed up a link to your site please do let me know.

I was amused to see this cable from PRT Kunar, Navy Reservist, farmer becomes mayor in Afghanistan:

U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Lewis Nunemaker, a farmer from Argos, Ind., has volunteered after 29 years in the Navy to have his last hurrah at a small forward operating base nestled at the bottom of the scenic, but unforgiving, mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan. Trading in his sea legs for a land locked last journey near the border of Pakistan, the 49-year-old man now wears a very unique hat: mayor of Camp Wright.

“I wish I had done this earlier in my career,” Nunemaker said, as he sat on a weathered and broken couch in his small office that serves as the mayor’s cell. “It really forces you to lead from the front. You have to keep pushing every day here.”

David Wood, who remains one of my favorite reporters on the US military, reports on Afghan vets and paintball:

The majority of troops, of course, didn’t feel the need for specific treatment – but they do seize the chance to blow off steam. At Fort Drum’s paintball facility, retired Sgt. Maj. Gene Spencer, recreation manager, said he offers all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile rides, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, sky diving — any kind of adventure sports soldiers can think up.

“The whole point of this is to ease the mind-set these kids come back with from the killing,” he told me. “To keep soldiers out of trouble you gotta occupy their minds, let them unwind in a controlled environment.”

Several weeks after the troops got back, Spencer had the soldiers and their wives in for paintball. It turned out to be a joyfully explosive release of tension for couples struggling with difficult emotional and financial problems.

Wood manages to convey sympathy without ever undercutting difficulty, and that something I admire about him and his coverage. He’s also done some similarly cogent yet removed work on DADT that is worth reading. Additionally, Stars and Stripes published this flash article, If the military’s gay ban is reversed, what would change? It’s generally unbiased, though the questions it poses to answer seem more bent towards answering concerns that those not affected by DADT’s repeal might have rather than addressing the repeal itself in any critical fashion.

I had roughly 3000 items in my google reader from the last time I was rifling through the many (many many many) sites I follow and have hacked it down to under 400. That’s my accomplishment for the week; but please forgive if I end up retreading old ground as I read backwards.


Radio Free Everything

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

Good grief. Let’s try this again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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