Permissible Arms

Bargaining Chips

Another boring-but-informative (and potentially useful) link dump. Where are my words?

Soldiers smoked late one evening at Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Paktika Province.

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Drums and Guns

Posted in counterinsurgency, iraq, us military by Karaka on 23 July 2010

I’ve been inattentive this week–I’m co-ordinating my office’s move, the first in eight years. How much junk can ten people collect in eight years? A lot, a whole lot, of junk. So until we’re into the new place on August 2, posting will be light to nonexistent. Apologies.

I’ve been reading David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, which may come in as the most difficult book I’ve read thus far this year. And I haven’t been shying away from the hard stuff. Finkel’s observations have a grinding, struggling quality to them. It’s as if he’s describing a drowning in slow motion, wrenching every excruciating detail from the scene and reconstructing it with some of the layers removed to show you the pain and fear in high definition.

In some ways, this is just a variation on the themes explored in Sebastian Junger’s War or The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Stories about soldiers given a task for which they couldn’t be fully prepared, for which there can never be sufficient training; soldiers learning truths about themselves and about life. The hard realities of being in wars which were never meant to be wars.

Where Finkel veers off, though, is in the nature and tone of his descriptions. He scours away the extraneous, leaving behind a stark frame of a story. He clearly wants you to draw your own conclusions, but informs the way you draw them from the way he structures his prose.

There’s a clear and unaffected respect for the soldiers he observes. But Finkel draws on the disgust and bewilderment and FUBARness of the situation by strategically placing certain lines that change your perception of the story he’s telling.

This is not necessarily a criticism, mind. More something I’ve noted over halfway into the book. It does make it a challenge to read at times, because the thread of agenda, or at least of desired perception, is more evident to me now than when I started it. “The Good Soldiers” is a book for a whiskey and ginger evening, when you can lose yourself in the pages and come out the next day not remembering it clearly. Hard to read, but worthwhile for that fact.

The Airships Return!

Posted in us military by Karaka on 13 July 2010

To the hearts and minds of steampunk nerds like me, anyway. Via Helmand Blog:

The LEMV could also be used to move heavy equipment while in Afghanistan, a massive advantage over competing UAVS.

HAV’s Gordon Taylor told The Engineer: ‘Traditional airships only float when they’re in equilibrium. If you put ten people on board you’ve got to take ballast off before you go anywhere.

‘Then, as you fly you burn off fuel becoming too light and making it hard to land: a hybrid overcomes these issues.’

The aircraft – the first of three similar three similar vehicles – is expected to make its maiden flight next summer and will be deployed in Afghanistan by January 2012.

I have to admit, I find these things fascinating, at least in part because Aeon Flux infiltrated my brain at a young age, followed up by a great deal of steampunkiness. I want this to exist at least in part because it’s just cool. And capable. Totally capable.

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I got 99 problems, but a General ain’t one.

Posted in afghanistan, japan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

Okay. Time to turn to more productive and less hand-wringing matters. It’s done, it’s over, the lady has sung and that song is a Rolling Stones cover.

This afternoon, Secretary McHugh released its review of Wanat.

After careful consideration of the additional information, Campbell concluded that the officers were neither negligent nor derelict in the performance of their duties and that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Therefore, he withdrew the adverse administrative actions.

“In every review and study conducted to date, the courage, valor, and discipline of the soldiers who fought at Wanat have been universally praised. These soldiers were well-trained, well-led, and fought bravely to defeat a determined and intense enemy action to overrun their base in Wanat. They persevered in a fashion that deserves broad recognition of their bravery and tenacity,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff. “Our hearts go out to the families of the fallen soldiers.”

You can access the public (redacted) files from the CENTCOM investigation here. This is probably for the best, though I’m refraining from saying anything firm until I’ve had a chance to review the CENTCOM files.

Newly affirmed Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has apologized to the Okinawans who live in close proximity to the US bases on the island, in a smart early political move.

“On behalf of all of our people, I apologise for the burden,” Mr Kan said, but added that it was integral to the “peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.”

“I promise to seriously try all the more to reduce Okinawa’s burden related to the US bases and eliminate the associated dangers.”

Okinawa currently hosts more than half of the 47,000 US soldiers in Japan. Mr Kan was speaking at the ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, in which some 200,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.

He states he will adhere to the 2006 US-Japan agreement, which is what his predecessor finally acceded too; rebuilding Japan’s relationship with the US was a quick follow. Okinawans will likely not be happy, but they weren’t happy before, and at least PM Kan is being honest about the limits of his influence on this issue.

The NYT’s Lens Photojournalism column features photographs from Restrepo’s Tim Hetherington. Some of them are dramatic; others are a study in contrasts.

How does your Afghanistan work tie into what you just said?

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

And how did you do that in Afghanistan?

By working across the spectrum, by first saying, “O.K., I’m going to photograph for Vanity Fair.” And that is a platform that has, say, a two or three million readership. Then those images, because I retain the copyright, are syndicated worldwide. They appear in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Great, that’s another valid audience. The image that won World Press Photo gave another spotlight and went global in a way that could lead people to reach my other work. Then I made “Sleeping Soldiers,” which was a digital projection. It was an art piece, meant for galleries – but that’s still a valid audience.

The whole interview is long and meaty and a respite from the many interviews with Hetherington’s colleague, Sebastian Junger, whose FDL Book Salon with David Axe devolved into a tiresome anti-war kabuki with little to do with the actual book. That seems to be more and more where conversations on “War” are heading, and I agree with Axe that Junger might have been better off calling the book “Combat.”

Finally, CFR has an interview with Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan that got promptly buried by RollingStan.

Will there be pressure on the president, when he looks up from the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, to try to be clearer on this whole policy? We’ve had many officials saying, “That July date doesn’t really mean much, it was just a symbolic statement.”

There are a lot of people that want to pin the administration down on this. The hearings in the Senate the last couple of days have been the latest example. The hearings right after the West Point speech were an earlier example. Lots of people are confused and want more clarity. They want more clarity for widely divergent motivation. Typically, progressive Democrats want it made very clear that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal. Conservative Republicans want the perception that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal to be explicitly denied by the administration in order to increase the likelihood that we’re going to stay. So lots of people want more clarity. My guess is that they may not get it. We’ll see what happens with this upcoming December review [Obama in the speech also said the Afghan policy would be reviewed in December].

All this, and America and England face off for the next round of the World Cup. Independence Day never looked so much like a footie metaphor.

Left, Right, and Dead Bloody On

Posted in united states, us defense, us military, us politics by Karaka on 11 June 2010

Shamelessly cribbing from Starbuck (and Ink Spots), the trailer for Restrepo has been released. Restrepo is the film made by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger alongside Junger’s book War (link again to my review at SWJ which has collected some interesting commentary). The film will be showing at the Human Rights Watch film festival, which began yesterday in New York City. The trailer is absolutely arresting; I’ll be keeping my eye out to see if it shows up here on the left coast. Camp Victory, Afghanistan, will also be shown. I encourage you to go if you can.

I still have a few pages of notes from the CNAS conference yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to sort them out yet. More forthcoming. In the meantime, read Michael Cohen’s piece in TNR, and Exum and Spencer’s responses. I like that Exum responds with the theory and Spencer responds with the practical outline.

It’s kind of like “political anteater”

Posted in us military by Karaka on 19 May 2010

This is possibly my favorite headline ever: West Point cadets invent Statue of Liberty evacuation device.

On May 5, a team of civil and mechanical engineering majors visited the Statue of Liberty for a live demonstration of their capstone project, a device which makes evacuating casualties inside the national monument safer and faster. The statue’s unique double-helix staircase, 146 steps from pedestal to crown, offers visitors an amazing view of New York City.

But from a first-responder perspective, the cramped and narrow space becomes a challenge when assisting the sick or injured back to ground level. That challenge was passed onto the cadets, all of whom will be graduating May 22, to design and build a better evacuation system.

Allow me to reiterate. Statue of Liberty Evacuation Device. The words, they are like baffling, delightful music to my ears.

Just turn off your phone. It’s not that hard.

I don’t care if the Army said it was nifty keen, I can’t get this stupid Lady Gaga song OUT OF MY HEAD and I’m blaming it on paratroopers.

Of note: Stephen McInerney’s article on budget & appropriations for the Middle East in 2011. His analysis notes the increases in funding for Yemen, the withdrawal of support to Iraq in line with the withdrawal of assets and personnel, and the continued increase in funding to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The URL itself is actually a nice brief on Obama’s budget submission, but there’s a longer PDF as well. Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal responds, noting the Problem of Egypt.

USAID has released a couple of reports of note, including a report on internally displaced persons in Iraq, and human resources and logistical support in Afghanistan (both PDF). The GAO has also released Operation Iraqi Freedom: Actions Needed to Facilitate the Efficient Drawdown of U.S. Forces and Equipment from Iraq, which is sure to be a scintillating read, and a report on the problems of aid and contracting in Iraq and Afganistan (both PDF, more at Diplopundit).

Break the Kandahar Mafia:

It’s even worse than that, according to an in-depth poll of Kandahar residents completed last month for the U.S. and ISAF command. Conducted by U.S. Army human terrain teams, the poll found that corruption is viewed as “a widespread problem,” and that “most people have sympathy for the reasons AGEs (anti-government elements, i.e., the Taliban) take up arms against the government.”

A majority of the 1,994 people surveyed said a lack of security was their biggest problem, and that they felt danger mostly from Afghan army and police checkpoints and convoys.

The poll found “almost universal agreement that negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting.”

At leas the Human Terrain Teams are working? I feel like my comparison of Ahmed Wali Karzai to Don Corleone is a little more on the nose now. From the Washington Post, the US is shoring up support the actual, technical governor of Kandahar:

In the hope of pushing power brokers such as Karzai to the sidelines, American officials are trying to infuse Wesa and his government with more clout and credibility. They see better governance as a central part of a U.S.-led effort that has brought thousands of troops to the region for a summer offensive against the Taliban.

But the government headed by Wesa has severe problems of its own. It remains understaffed, is viewed by many as corrupt and does not reflect the province’s tribal mix. Karzai and other allegedly corrupt political bosses who dominate Kandahar show no sign of giving way.

“Wesa is a weak governor,” said Rahmatullah Raufi, a former general and Kandahar governor. “If Ahmed Wali Karzai wants him to die, he will die. If he says, ‘Live,’ he’ll live.”

Isn’t that something. If it looks like a warlord, quacks like a warlord, it must be…

AP via Stars & Stripes covers the perils of contracting in Afghanistan:

Afghan companies often bid on projects that they don’t have the money or skills to complete, Wilson said. Quality inspectors end up teaching the basics of drainage or safe electrical wiring.

Small Afghan companies are also under more pressure to pay bribes to local authorities than large international firms, Wilson said. The military has received invoices for as much as $40,000 from Afghan contractors for bogus building permits, he said. International companies either have the power to say no or don’t even try to get their money back from the military.

On NATO bases, hours are also lost each day getting Afghan workers through security.

Despite the problems, Wilson says the “Afghan First” program is the right approach given the new focus on winning over the population. The problem is that this year, in the midst of a troop surge, there’s just too much to build.

Makes you wonder how much of the appropriations for Afghanistan in the budget above will actually be used for stated purposes.

Anthony Cordesman issued a pointed critique of the Obama administration’s communications efforts (or lack thereof) on Afghanistan et cetera via CSIS; some good notes, though I wonder what, if anything, Cordesman might have changed if this had been released after the Afghanistan report instead of before.

In addition to his whirlwind speaking schedule, Secdef Gates published an article in the May/June Foreign Affairs, Helping Others Defend Themselves (PDF). It effectively articulates what Gates (and presumably Clinton) would like to see change in the duration of their time with the Obama administration, perhaps in part from the conclusion of the QDR and QDDR.

The United States now recognizes that the security sectors of at-risk countries are really systems of systems tying together the military, the police, the justice system, and other governance and oversight mechanisms. As such, building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus — and one that requires flexible, responsive tools that provide incentives for cooperation. Operations against extremist groups in the Philippines and, more recently, Yemen have shown how well-integrated training and assistance efforts can achieve real success.

But for all the improvements of recent years, the United States’ interagency tool kit is still
a hodgepodge of jury-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes. The National Security Act that created most of the current interagency structure was passed in 1947, the last major legislation structuring how Washington dispenses foreign assistance was signed by President John F. Kennedy, and the law governing U.S. exports of military equipment was passed in 1976. All the while, other countries that do not suffer from such encumbrances have been more quickly funding projects, selling weapons, and building relationships.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. The Martha Brady of insurgency-riddled nations. Anyway, I’m curious to see what Gates says in his next speech–he seems to be on something of a campaign. Also, let me point out this rebuttal of Gates’ Navy League speech from Brian McGrath at Information Dissemination; it’s a point by point response, and really gets into the meat of what Gates is proposing.

Slingshot politics

A lot to cover today.

I got oversaturated pretty quickly with information and speculation about the Times Square bombing, but I recommend Kings of War, All Things Counterterrorism, and obviously LWJ for the story. And Steve Coll has some perspective:

Anyone who tries to set a vehicle on fire in Times Square on a warm Saturday night is going to make news in a big way. Presumably that was the primary goal of the perpetrators—to attract attention, to spawn fear. The very amateurishness of the attack—unlike the Christmas Day attack, for example, it does not immediately call into question the competence of the government’s defenses—offers President Obama the opportunity to start talking back to terrorists everywhere in a more resilient, sustainable language than he has yet discovered. By which I mean: They intend to frighten us; we are not frightened. They intend to kill and maim; we will bring them to justice. They intend to attract attention for their extremist views; the indiscriminate nature of their violence only discredits and isolates them.

Secdef Gates delivered some mixed news to the Navy this morning (full remarks h/t DoDBuzz):

“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates asked. “Any future plans must address these realities.”

In a pointed speech about the future of the naval arsenal, the secretary told a gathering of naval officers and contractors that no U.S. adversaries are attempting to out-build the U.S. fleet. Rather, he said, they are developing other ways to neutralize U.S. power. He cited Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles and Iran’s use of everything from cruise missiles to “swarming speedboats.”

In response, he called for more shallow-water capabilities, long-range drones and sea-based missile defenses.

What’s the saying, fighting the next war while you’re still building for the last one? That seems to be the idea Gates is battling.

Two bits on Kyrgyzstan, which has kind of dropped off the face of news coverage in the last several days. First, the interim government has turned the state-run KTR television channel into a public broadcasting station, which is effectively a show of faith from the interim government to show Kyrgyzs that it’s going to keep the promises it made. Which is great, but more than anything I really love the picture that accompanied the article, reposted here.

The interim government has also authorized cash rewards in exchange for information that helps capture the former government’s leadership, presumably to answer for crimes committed.

Of interest, AFRICOM is undergoing a three-week Operation Flintlock as part of its The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. It’s effectively a military exercise designed to train partner African nations in counterterrorism programs as a deterrent method. At least twelve nations and 1200 people are involved. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

From Diplopundit, it’s been a tough time for mandarins as of late.

And finally, I’m reading Paul Scharre’s article in the AFJ about meeting needs for irregular and conventional warfare in the Army. More thoughts when I’m finished reading, but figured the COINers and anti-COINers would be interested.

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.

Regarding Ft. Hood

Posted in us military by Karaka on 6 November 2009

There is little I could say more intelligently or eloquently than what has already been expressed by those whose opinions I value more than my own. I wish swift recovery to those wounded, and peace for those families who have lost someone.

I haven’t located a central link for information about Ft. Hood or ways to assist the base the families of the murdered and wounded, but I’ll pass it along when it eventually shows up. It’s been a sobering week.

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