Monthly Archives: November 2009

Putting tomorrow night in context

As we all await the president’s speech tomorrow night explaining his Afghanistan decision, there’s a lot of bloggin’ going on about Afghanistan.  Stuff worth reading and taking a moment to thing about.

Kings of War writes about the need to reconcile the ‘We’ll be in Afghanistan for decades’ camp with the ‘As soon as we can stop the hemorrhaging, we’re outta there’ camp.  I think it raises an important question:  If our goal is to exit from insurgencies and other non-interstate contingencies as soon as possible, do we really want to reorient our entire military (or even most of it) to counterinsurgency?  If we’re about to (informally) declare some sort of time limit on military deployments (a few years) from now on do we really want to get into the insurgency game where success can be expected to take longer than a decade?  And then, of course, there are all the potential consequences of that decision either way you go.  Either we need to be prepared to accept a much less secure (from our perspective) world or be prepared to get enmeshed in a whole bunch of small conflicts.  Uh, hi, devil-I-do-know could you introduce me to your friend? I don’t know him.

The Ministry of State Failure begins with a depressing post about the Kunduz airstrike which demonstrates that just because we say we’re trying to do things differently we’ve still got a way to go.  It ends up another option to dropping the bombs (and the subsequent humanitarian and PR nightmare of dozens of civilian casualties) was recommended and rejected.  Not good.

Next he pulls out some numbers to ask a question that’s been gnawing at me lately as well.  For all the talk we’re hearing now about how we can’t possibly afford the price of Afghanistan, where were these voices in relation to Iraq (or, for my progressive friends, during the election when Obama was declaring over and over again that he was going to focus on Afghanistan)?  2010 will be the first year that the cost of the Afghan War exceeds that of Iraq.  But just a cursory look at the numbers reveals how little effort we’ve put into Afghanistan and in fact:

The story that needs to be told is that funding for Afghanistan fell back already twice. First because of the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, then because, well, the sh*t hit the fans in Iraq, in 2006.

Another thing to note is that even though CRS goes on to talk about OEF costs simply as though they would be identical to the costs of the Afghanistan campaign, you should remember that in fact OEF costs include the price of involvement in a number of other theatres as well, e.g. in the Horn of Africa…

I know we’ve been in Afghanistan for a very long time now but these numbers are yet another piece of evidence that most of what we’ve done in that country up until very recently is just bidding time.  Well, less than that really since our inaction really equaled losing ground relative to the Taliban, narco-traffickers, warlords, et al.

He ends with this bit of frustration…

Thought of bribing the Taliban out of play? Try and bribe Afghanistan into play. Bribe the Afghan police. At the very least, try these things at the same time.

The Armchair Generalist continues to make me feel uncomfortable by highlighting all the unsavory characters who are in my general vicinity when it comes to the ‘escalate or get out’ debate.  I will await the speech tomorrow before firmly coming down one way or the other but I’m not particularly fond of the company I might have to keep.

But I’m not alone in my quandary.  Fred Kaplan and I seem to be sharing the same boat.

I’ve studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I’m not sure what I would do.

So here’s what it comes down to: This option [escalation] might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

This weekend I also finally got to watch the Al Jazeera special about Afghanistan called ‘How the East was Lost’.  It’s a pretty good overview of the situation and how we got there.  The most distracting thing about it, however, is that I realized I haven’t seen a comparable work from any of our 24 hour news channels.  And just to rub my nose in it, the version of the show I saw had an advertisement about a special they were running about elections in Belarus.

Now, when was the last time CNN, Fox or MSNBC even said the word Belarus, let alone devoted some of their precious air time to it or similar subject matter?  But allege a kid is in a foil balloon or you’ve got footage of a water skiing squirrel and stop the presses!  There will be no expense spared in inflicting upon us every nuance and bit of idle speculation that can be drudged up.


Talvisota – updated

Update:  Helsingin Sanomat is running some articles commemorating the Winter war.  I’m not sure what to make of this one.  Sounds a bit like a propaganda piece (The Finnish army is just as tough and skilled today as it was then).  Are they trying to send a message to someone?

On this day 70 years ago, 450,000 Soviet soldiers crossed the border into Finland and began the three month Winter War.  The Finns, outnumbered 3:1 in men and completely overwhelmed in terms of materiel managed to hold off the Soviets for 105 days.  Mrs. TwS’s grandfather was a veteran of that war and the Continuation War, serving as a machinegunner in the Finnish army and her mother was a war child, sent  to Sweden to avoid the Soviet bombing of Helsinki.

So, in memory of those kick-ass Finns and respect for their ultimate display of sisu, here are some links of that conflict.

A list of Finnish government communiques throughout the battle.

If you’d like a decent documentary of the conflict I’d recommend this:

Here are some contemporary newsreels.  It’s hard to imagine that these were a significant source of information for the public (no 24 hour news cycle here!) but they do have their own charm and they’re certainly better at conveying a sense of immediacy than what we’ve got.

Cold fusion for food?

The Atlantic has a piece about a farm in New York that is doing some interesting work in terms of plant and fish production.  Vegetarianism is the least expensive (in terms of energy inputs) method of getting our bodies the fuel we need.  The old rule of thumb is that it takes 10 pounds of grains to make one pound of meat.  When you figure in many of the artificial products that have to be added to that system to make that one pound of meat in today’s industrial food system (fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, steroids, etc.) you end up creating a very large footprint to keep a very few people stuffed to the gills with Big Macs.  And given the tens or hundreds of millions of people who will be joining the ranks of the middle class throughout the world (*cough* China *cough*), in the coming years and decades, all wanting their own Big Macs we’ve crossing the line into unsustainable demand.

But, let’s face it.  Vegetarianism ain’t for everyone.  Heck, even I eat seafood (although I’m feeling increasingly hesitant given the serious overfishing issues) and, as in all complex problems, the answer isn’t likely to come in one, neat package but rather be a suite of measures with all address the problem in alternate ways.

So, how is this farm advancing that idea.  Aquaponics.

In aquaponic systems, fish and plants are raised together in a mutually beneficial environment. The fish produce fertilizer for the plants; the plants cleanse the water for the fish…estimates that at Cabbage Hill a pound of fish food is converted into a quarter pound of fish and eight to ten pounds of produce, a veritable cornucopia of chard, bok choy, lettuce, mesclun, beet greens, kohlrabi, tatsoi, basil, parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, sorrel, and rosemary. The tilapia, his largest fish “crop” by total weight, feed on a 100-percent vegetarian diet, getting around a major environmental hurdle faced by farmers who raise carnivorous fish such as salmon, which eat meal made from herring, sardines, and anchovies, which are currently fished to their limit.

And the bottom line…

Aside from food for the fish, the operation is almost totally self-contained. A small amount of solid waste from the fish is filtered out and composted for application to raised-bed gardens outside the greenhouse. Ferry has to add an occasional scoop of lime to buffer acidity, much as a terrestrial gardener sweetens his soil. The greenhouse’s resident population of ladybugs, midges, and parasitic wasps preys on plant-eating insects, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

The water, which would otherwise accumulate toxic levels of fish waste, was pumped continuously out into long, shallow troughs along the opposite wall. There, vegetables grew on polystyrene rafts, their roots dangling into the water, absorbing nitrites and phosphorous, purifying it before it was recirculated to the fish.

How cool is that?

Your Thanksgiving post-apocalyptic fix

Ok, so you’re stuffed with turkey, watched Christmas Story again, can’t eat one more bit of pumpkin pie and you’ve still got three days cooped up with your family*.  How do you make it through?  You know what you want.  A little post-apocalyptic mayhem will take the edge off but you can’t get the family to agree that nothing would be more appropriate on Thanksgiving than watching a bunch of horror movies (Sure it fits with the Thanksgiving theme.  We can all be thankful we aren’t about to get devoured/killed/taken over by those aliens/psychos/monsters.)

So, I humbly submit these two slideshows from a recent ‘Mad Max’ weekend out in California.  It’s got everything you could possibly want…a barren landscape, modified cars, (replica) guns, and chicks in leather and fishnets.

Enjoy and everyone have a happy Thanksgiving.

*Any resemblance of the events described in this post and officially sanctioned TwS family events is purely coincidental.

COIN in cities (con’t)

Wired took up the COIN in cities theme today but argued that it had limited viability and significant dangers when applied to cities here in the U.S.  Unfortunately, I think they make the mistake of getting suckered into buying unchallenged notions of what our law enforcement problems are in cities and how COIN might be adapted to address them.

Still, it starts off on the right track:

At first glance, counterinsurgency (at least the “soft,” population-centric American version) bears a fair amount of resemblance to community policing: It’s all about changing the dynamic in the communities where insurgents operate, encouraging troops to “walk the beat” and bringing in social services. And many of the tools of the modern counterinsurgent — forensic exploitation, pattern analysis and social-network diagramming — would be familiar to any detective.

From here the article goes downhill as it makes COIN look like the target of the doctrine is the gang member (or the insurgent) when, in fact, it’s the population.

And if you look at the geographic reach and organizational sophistication of some gangs — think Mara Salvatrucha or 18 — and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with, say, a Hizbollah or a Hamas.

(Actually, no it’s not.  At least not for the vast majority of the country.  Street gangs are nowhere near the same league as Hizbollah or Hamas.)

Sullivan, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group, told Danger Room the parallels with community policing — patrolling contested areas, identifying centers of gravity — make it tempting to view counterinsurgency as a tool for containing gang violence. But domestic policing and military operations, he added, are inherently different. “It [counterinsurgency theory] is attractive, and I think that people looking at gangs should look at the literature,” he said. “But to wholesale take it in and do it is probably not a good idea.”


First, TwS readers will know Sullivan from my rant about one of his recent works.  I still don’t buy his ‘generations of gangs’ argument which really is just Lind‘s generations of warfare with the combat stuff cut out and crime stuff pasted in.  Yes policing and military operations are inherently different.  I think you could also say COIN and traditional military operations are inherently different.  So what?  The point is that both COIN and policing attempt to address similar problems through similar means.

But, in short, it ain’t about the gangs.  It’s about the fact that non-gang members don’t trust the authorities or view them as legitimate.  They don’t see the need or value to engage with a state system which has abandoned them and so will follow the rules of anyone who offers some stability or can make realistic threats.  Police?  Yeah, they’re great for the brief period they show up but they don’t offer anything like the promise of long term security (and that’s assuming they aren’t viewed as a hostile presence).

The center of gravity in COIN is the population.  I’d argue that in Iraq (pre-2007), Afghanistan (pre-2009 kinda-sorta) and in most troubled urban cities today our center of gravity remains on the terrorists (the former cases) or criminals (the latter).  Kick down doors, scoop up the bad guy (or someone whose close enough) and get the hell out of there.  Not exactly a recipe for instilling confidence, feelings of security or winning hearts and minds.

Insurgency, at its heart, is a political struggle. I don’t see drug dealers or street gangs expressing a political grievance, or trying to control of some part of the government

That’s a very true statement (the first bit).  The problem is that while gangs aren’t expressing political grievances or even thinking in overtly political terms, in many of our cities criminal networks (of which gangs are only the most visible) end up wielding informal power as we relinquish formal power.

Certainly, changes to the doctrine would be needed in our (or any country trying to apply these lessons to a crime problem) in order to keep in line with our laws and cultural sensibilities and in fact, the law enforcement community has been dancing theoretically around the issue for years with community oriented policing, intelligence led policing, etc.  The problem is that almost nobody puts such ideas in practice for any serious period of time or make the requisite institutional changes necessary for such changes to stick.  Let’s face it, COIN (or whatever the civilian equivilent might be called) is hard work.  Much easier to wrap a guy up, throw him in jail, do some paperwork and go home.

My position is that gangs are a manifestation of underlying problems in a community just as insurgency is a reflection of underlying problems in a society.  Different manifestations of similar (but not the same) problems.  Lack of confidence in existing institutions, widespread corruption, lack of security, lack of opportunity, etc.  You can lock people up all day and if you don’t address those problems you’re going to keep having no-go zones in your cities and prisons packed beyond capacity.

Suite Madame Blue…

David Frum and Andrew Bacevich discuss Afghanistan here.

And if you’re feeling a bit melancholy about our current state of affairs, may I suggest a bit of Styx who wrote this hauntingly prescient song (while continuing to work through my classic rock catalog).  The song is so good, in fact, that you can almost forgive Dennis DeYoung for his playing the ham like a high school thespian in his first play.

Time after time I sit and I wait for your call
I know I’m a fool but what can I say
Whatever the price I’ll pay for you, madame blue

Once long ago, a word from your lips
And the world turned around
But somehow you’ve changed, you’re so far away
I long for the past and dream of the days
With you, madame blue

Suite madame blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Suite madame blue, the future is all but past
Dressed in your jewels, you made your own rules
You conquered the world and more, heaven’s door, oh


Red white, and blue gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Red, white, and blue the future is all but past
So lift up your heart, and make a new start
And lead us away from here

Afghanistan all the time

I’m not so naive to think that we, especially in wartime, can or should only deal with people with lily white reputations.  Still, this article is not exactly encouraging.

In fact, US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts–hundreds of millions of dollars–consists of payments to insurgents.

Are we trying to ween them off their heroin money?

“We’re basically being extorted. Where you don’t pay, you’re going to get attacked. We just have our field guys go down there, and they pay off who they need to.” Sometimes, he says, the extortion fee is high, and sometimes it is low. “Moving ten trucks, it is probably $800 per truck to move through an area. It’s based on the number of trucks and what you’re carrying. If you have fuel trucks, they are going to charge you more. If you have dry trucks, they’re not going to charge you as much. If you are carrying MRAPs or Humvees, they are going to charge you more.”

Hey, the Afghans aren’t stupid.  When we dropped the ball in the DDR program (and in so many areas) in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban, it didn’t take long for local commanders to figure out by converting their militias into private military companies they could get in on even more of the gobs of cash that we started spreading around.

I asked Col. David Haight, who commands the Third Brigade of the Tenth Mountain Division, about it. After all, part of Highway 1 runs through his area of operations. What did he think about security companies paying off insurgents? “The American soldier in me is repulsed by it,” he said in an interview in his office at FOB Shank in Logar Province. “But I know that it is what it is: essentially paying the enemy, saying, ‘Hey, don’t hassle me.’ I don’t like it, but it is what it is.”

And finally, the obligatory public information hack gives a hold harmless response…

Wayne Shanks, the chief public affairs officer for the international forces in Afghanistan, said that military officials are “aware of allegations that procurement funds may find their way into the hands of insurgent groups, but we do not directly support or condone this activity, if it is occurring.” He added that, despite oversight, “the relationships between contractors and their subcontractors, as well as between subcontractors and others in their operational communities, are not entirely transparent.”

It’s not clear if this sort of activity is part of a larger plan used in conjunction with creating militias to battle the Taliban as described here.  I suppose you could argue that these monies are intended to worm into various militia/Taliban groups and subsequently try to separate those motivated by cash from those motivated by ideology but I think that would be highly generous and not supported by anything I’ve read recently.  So, it appears these are two distinct events.

The American and Afghan officials say they are hoping the plan, called the Community Defense Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighborhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, officials say.

For now, they are not arming the groups because they already have guns.

Of course there are risks of such a policy, especially in Afghanistan where any sort of control or oversight is likely to be sporadic at best.

“In Kunduz, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they became the power and they took money and taxes from the people,” Mr. Atmar, the interior minister, said. “This is not legal, and this is warlordism.”
Colonel Kolenda said, “In the long run, that is destabilizing.”

The NY Times has a nice overview of the various escalation plans under consideration.  Hopefully, any announcement of escalation (or lack thereof) will be accompanied by a clear, well defined strategy of our goals (short and long term).  In addition to whatever the US additions of troops there may be a nearly simultaneous announcement of a increased European commitment to Afghanistan as well.  That certainly won’t be popular among their populations and it seems the European populations need a clear articulation of strategy and purpose in Afghanistan even more than we do.