Daily Archives: November 12, 2010

Finnish Fridays

I recently finished Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements a recent biography of the father or modern Finland.

Mannerheim is one of those people they just don’t seem to make anymore.  A man who not only found himself in a number of key events during the early 20th century but was able to shape many of those events.

The book focuses primarily on Mannerheim’s life up to the establishment of the Finnish state around 1920.  It spends a little bit of time on the last 20 years of his life, but that time is probably the most well known and the easiest to find information on.

And what a life it was.  Concerned his military career was going nowhere he volunteered for service in the Far East for the Russo-Japanese war.  While the war didn’t go well for the Russians it proved very fortuitous for Mannerheim.  After the war he was sent on an extended spying mission throughout China to assess the threat it posed to Russia.  He then cooled his heels for a couple of years and served in the Russian army during the First World War and when the Bolsheviks took over made a hair raising escape to Finland where he oversaw Finlands secession from the Russian Empire and  resistance to it’s own red revolution.

Then, at the age of 70 (!) he became Finland’s Commander in Chief as the Soviet Union invaded Finland and he spent the next five years fighting alternately Soviets and then the Germans.

Clements description of the Winter War has a different tone than the rest of the book, and it’s clear there’s a bit of hero worship here.  Still, the Winter War was one of those historical events that generates amazingly impressive stories of determination and heroism.  In the homeland of sisu, those crazy Finns kicked it up to 11.  Indulge me for a moment with some quotes.

Upon hearing that the Soviets had invaded Finland, one Finn said:

We are so few, and they are so many…Where will we find the room to bury them all?

And later:

In one infamous incident, a lone Finn was seen calmly standing in the path of a lumbering tank, carefully sighting a pistol in between the viewing-slits on the front of the tank.

According to the footnote:

Lieutenant Virkki is the only man in history to have defeated a tank with a pistol…

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you never mess with the Finns.

Mannerheim’s story is really an incredible one that would really be at home in a Bernard Cornwell novel.  Check it out and you won’t  be disappointed.



Afghanistan roundup

I think (and have for some time) there’s an inherent contradiction to our current Afghanistan policy.  We have as our official doctrine, COIN, which has as one of its foundational principles the idea that in order to be successful the counter-insurgents need to have a very long time horizon.  At the same time, we’ve got this policy that we’re going to start drawing down forces in 2011 with a complete pull out around 2014.  I would argue that it is extremely unlikely both of those things can occur (it’s not impossible, just highly unlikely).

So, for several months now I think I’ve seen some preliminary groundwork being laid for the undermining and ultimate abandonment of the time line.  There certainly remains wiggle room to stick with those dates should things get untenable but my prediction is that between 2011 and 2014 some set of policies will occur which will justify continued involvement in Afghanistan on a fairly large scale. In fact, I believe the 2014 date is really just an attempt to kick the can down the road and should not be interpreted to actually mean anything in terms of actual withdrawal of forces.  (apparently this is the same read Kevin Drum has)

I suspect this has to happen because, while tarnished with the resignation of Gen. McChrystal earlier this year, COIN remains an immovable object, particularly under the aegis of Gen. Petraeus (or ‘He who may not be criticized’).  Therefore, the irresistible force of a timetable for withdrawal ends up being not so irresistible after all.

McClatchy’s does a nice job of laying out the pressures on the timetable.  Notably:

  • U.S. military forces claim that Afghan forces will be unable to assume security responsibility by July 2011
  • the 2011 date is interpreted as a ‘walk away’ date by the Pakistanis and was hindering attempts to get them to confront insurgents
  • Republican victories in the mid-terms will lessen legislative pressure for a withdrawal

Paula Broadwell has an interesting and optimistic piece about the development of Afghan security forces.  There are a lot of numbers in there and I’m not sure what they really mean when everything is said and done.  I’m just not sure, for example, what this really means:

Total ANSF growth, starting from November 2009 to present increased from 191,969 to 255,506, an increase of 63,537 (33 percent). The Afghan army has grown from 97,011 to 136,164, an increase of 39,153 (40 percent) and the national police from 94,958 to 117,342, an increase of 22,384 (24 percent).

I’d probably feel a lot better if I knew there was some quality to go along with that quantity.  There may be but increasing the size of your security forces by a third in one year is a pretty big expansion…during wartime…with a notoriously uneducated population.  In the army we generally call that an ‘opportunity to excel’.

One indicator that gives me pause in the piece is the way she describes the attrition (read:  AWOL/desertion) rate.

In the last but not least of the challenges, arresting ANSF attrition is also a serious constraint, averaging 5.39 percent per month over the past 12 months.

While she goes on to say this rate applies only to areas engaged in heavy fighting it’s still a pretty high rate which really hit me only when a commenter discussed it in a slightly different way:

Sixty-five percent annual attrition, worse when they actually get close to combat?

Saideman seems to be indicating that Canada might be walking back it’s withdrawal commitment as well?

The Harper government seems to be reversing months and months of denials of any further military effort in Afghanistan and getting ready to agree to send one thousand soldiers (700 trainers and 300 support folks), and this is causing conniptions in Ottawa.

I haven’t read Asia Foundation’s survey of Afghan public opinion (and, to be honest probably won’t even with a long weekend in front of me as I’ve got a few other reports I want to get to first) but there are some interesting charts I skimmed.  First, it is worth noting that confidence does seem to be improving.

As a side note, allow me to point out the crash in public confidence after 2004 – the year I left the country!  Clearly, I imbued the whole danged country with a sense of optimism and confidence (Gen Petraeus…call me!).

Finally, Wired points out that we’re in the middle of another spike of air strikes.  The official position is that the increased operations tempo means, naturally, that we have an increased number of air missions.  Be on the lookout for a similar spike in assertions by the Air Force that they have a primary role to play in COIN and absolutely need a new 5th generation dogfighter to defeat insurgents with AK-47s.