Tag Archives: Military

COIN ain’t going anywhere…

Interesting news with the selection of General Petraeus to replace the newly unemployed General McChrystal. Quick thoughts:

COIN strategy isn’t going anywhere. You really couldn’t send a stronger message by putting the guy who wrote the book in charge of the war. Obama had a chance to put in a different commander and could have used the whole event to begin to pivot into a different strategy. Instead, he’s taking the Central Command commander and essentially moving him down a notch to focus on events in Afghanistan. I’m not sure if they’re going to expect Petraeus to continue his role as CENTCOM commander or how he’ll fit into the overall command structure.

Don’t hold your breath for a July 2011 withdrawal of troops. Given that Petraeus was just talking about the need to evaluate the situation in July 2011 and walking back any definitive commitment to troop withdrawals I expect this question to remain open. As the man said:

Petraeus, who described the planned date as “the beginning of a process,” said it “is not a date where we race for the exits. It is the date where we, having done an assessment, begin a transition.”

At this point I might even say that an extended operation is more likely now. People who don’t like the July ’11 date can point to this incident as interfering with the war and needing more time now that we have a new commander. Petraeus, who now will acquire near-mythic status as the white knight who ‘saved’ Iraq and was called in to do the same in Afghanistan (Gaius Marius, anyone?) is going to be hard to defy if he says we need more troops or time. Obama may have made a deal with the devil here. A quick shot in the arm of confidence by naming Petraeus at the cost of the ability to override the Afghan commander later.

Politically this probably won’t be a bad move. Does anyone believe Republicans will run against a war in 2012? And who else will the anti-war left have to turn to? It remains to be seen if its a bad move militarily.

Tactical restrictions will remain in place. For those grumbling about the need for troops to accept more tactical risk in order to secure long term gains this isn’t going to be good news. There’s no reason to believe that Petraeus will be more permissive of the use of lethal force. Hopefully, he’ll do a better job at translating his intent down to lower levels.

Whoa…Stan steps in it

What the heck was he thinking?  I’m sure you already know this but Gen. Stanley McChrystal decided to disconnect the shut off valve between his brain and his mouth to in an interview with Rolling Stone (you can apparently find a copy of the article here).

Assuming that link is to an accurate copy of the article one can only be left in shock at the complete…hubris?…lack of awareness?…incompetence? of McChrystal and his staff on this one.  To cross the boundary of acceptable military behavior in terms of speaking publicly and to be so indiscreet really boggles the mind.

I have no idea if the little details in the article are true or in the proper context.  Although if true, one has to wonder at the frat boy outlook of some of his staff.  With McChrystal going to talk to a French minister in an attempt to keep that country in the coalition, one of McChrystal’s aides can only say:  “It’s fucking gay.”  Really?  What, is he 12 or something?

Andrew Sullivan pulls out another part I thought was interesting

“Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

“Every real soldier.” You see: there are real Americans and fake Americans; and there are real soldiers and fake ones. Let’s just put it this way about the legacy of McChrystal’s JSOC: you cannot imagine a soldier who had worked for Petraeus for a long time saying such a thing.

Abu Muqawama has a nice roundup of the article and it’s potential implications.

In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn’t allow our soldiers to kill enough people. What, pray tell, is Hastings’ alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about — or even discuss — the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.

And Ackerman:

In fact, you have to go deep in the piece to find soldiers and officers offering actual critiques — and what they offer is criticism of McChrystal for being insufficiently brutal. Everyone of them quoted here is a mini-Ralph Peters, upset because McChrystal won’t let them “get our fucking gun on,” as one puts it. I have a lot of respect for Michael Hastings, the author of the profile, but there are many greyer shades of on-the-ground military perspective than that, and I’ve seen them up close.

This is why I disagree with those who say that the troops ‘get it’ when it comes to COIN.  I don’t think we’ve done the proper integration of the doctrine into our training and operations.  As the article points out, that lack of understanding means that COIN theory from on high ends up getting distorted into exercises in CYA or just  plain misunderstandings of what the doctrine is.

This has bad mojo written all over it and, I fear, may have serious consequences for the whole project.  McChrystal probably has to go and whoever replaces him is going to have to reestablish confidence in the whole effort quickly (an almost impossible task).

I find the timing of the article interesting given we’ve just seen some tussling over the July 2011 draw down date.  The military was just starting to seriously push back publicly about a firm date to begin withdrawing and this may end that discussion.  After all, we’ll be seeing the quote “I was selling an unsellable position.” any time someone advocates putting more resources into Afghanistan.

For many months now I’ve avoided stating an opinion about our larger effort in Afghanistan because I’ve felt I was too close personally to the conflict.  I’m going to continue that and wait a bit to see how this shakes out.  I am, however, finding it increasingly difficult to not see that light at the end of the tunnel as an oncoming train.

Talking counterinsurgency

Abu Maqawama has a most excellent (yet depressing) post restating the assumptions of our campaign in Afghanistan.  Here they are, in brief.  Read his post to see them in their gloomy and realistic glory.

  1. “The United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan”. Probably False.
  2. “The United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Probably True.
  3. “Afghanistan is a binary conflict between the government and the insurgents”.* Certainly False.
  4. “The provision of social services leads to a reduction of violence”. Mostly false.
  5. “What we do is what matters”.** Mostly false.
  6. “Population-centric counterinsurgency is appropriate for Afghanistan”. Mostly true but perhaps false in one key way.

Spencer Ackerman riffs off that and raises a very important point:

…the American public has never debated, in a rigorous and bloodless way, just how proportional it is to confront a network of a few thousand extremists… through a commitment of something upwards of $300 billion to date and roughly 100,000 troops. The damage that extremist network can export is real. But it’s increasingly insubstantial. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the perpetrator of the most sophisticated al-Qaeda plot in years, had succeeded, he would have killed an order of magnitude fewer people than on 9/11 — 300 people. Out of a nation of 300 million. And that is ultimately how asymmetrical warfare succeeds: what bin Laden calls “Bleed to Bankruptcy.”

I mean geez…I’m still waiting for the honest debate about our strategy now that the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Here’s a video of David Killcullen talking COIN at Google last year.

Definitely worth watching if you’re interested in the mindset behind our current counterinsurgency policy.

(h/t from Permissible Arms)

I’ve said for awhile now that I’m too close to Afghanistan to make an objective call (or anything that could even be mistaken for one) on the mission there but it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that I don’t really see a good way out of this thing.

From conscription to all volunteer

A few months ago I wrote about the incredibly lame Swedish recruitment ad for the Nordic Battle Group.  Well, facing the prospect of having to fill their personnel requirements by having to recruitment them rather than having recruits just show up like clockwork (conscription ends for Sweden on June 30th) the Swedish military is rolling out some new recruitment videos.  They’re definitely a step up although the endings are a bit strange.  The spots build up tension through a variety of scenarios and then the action stops and the following catch phrase appears on the screen:

“We are waiting for your opinion on our work, if you have what it takes to have one”.

Mrs. TwShiloh didn’t understand it in Swedish or English so its clumsiness doesn’t appear to be one of translation.  It’s not a “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” or “Be all you can be” or even “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” but hey, they’re new at this.  I’ll cut ‘em some slack. Overall, a good first effort (or, at least better than previous ones…wait, if there were previous ones how could this be a ‘first effort’?  Ah…sloppy writing strikes again!).

For only $19.99!

Sven found this great promo video for a Chinese entrenching tool.  It slices, dices, cuts and digs!  A must have for all your cooking, home repair and fighting position needs!

It’s not clear if you get a free Shamwow! or set of Ginsu steak knives with your order…

Afghan Roundup

Dexter Filkins had an article about the incestuous relationship between private military contractors and insurgents a couple of days ago.  It suggests that some PMCs are taking money to protect supply convoys and using some of that money to pay off insurgents creating a ‘win-win’ for both groups.  There’s also indications that the PMCs may hire insurgents to attack rivals and stage attacks to encourage the coalition to hire PMCs to guard more convoys.

And here lies the problem with outsourcing military operations with private, for profit companies.  Their primary loyalty must be to their shareholders or owners and therefore it’s in their best interest to maintain enough instability (or at least the appearance of it) to keep those high dollar contracts coming.  It is most definitely NOT in their best interest for a conflict to get resolved or peace to break out unless there’s another conflict they can shift operations to.

And here’s where Filkins’ article falls a little short.  He writes like the problem is with those danged corrupt Afghans and doesn’t touch on the fact that this problem is inherent in the whole system.  It doesn’t matter if the owner and employees are Afghan or red blooded Americans.  But this isn’t new…listen to the master:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.

A couple of weeks ago I expressed disbelief at the estimate that about one third of all supplies transiting to Afghanistan through Pakistan were getting lost through insurgent activity, theft, etc.  Well, apparently feeling the need to demonstrate this to me, gunmen torched a convoy of 50 vehicles recently.  Not a pretty picture…

And I don’t want this to become the convoy destruction scoreboard but there was another one this week.

The Tuesday night attack on some 100 oil tankers and trucks meant for transporting supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan in the Tarnol area of Islamabad left 80 of the vehicles badly burnt. According to official figures, another 60 carriage trucks (22-wheelers) were also gutted.

Witnesses told the news agency when the attack was launched there was only one security guard at the parking lot to protect the Nato fleet parked there.

Ghosts of Alexander was posting the observations of a couple of attendees of a CENTCOM AfPak conference.  I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the posts as they were heavy on opinion and short on supporting facts.  That’s the problem with live blogging such events.  You don’t get a chance to synthesize the information, pull out themes and consider questions.  Eventually they did take a bit of time to reflect however and posted the results up at Abu Muqawama.  The result is a huge improvement and worth a look.

The conference was structured in a way that prevented it from generating the analysis that ISAF so badly needs. The structure was built entirely on the participation of experts. Let’s be clear about something here: when it comes to social and political issues, experts don’t exist. …Every expert at this conference–there was nearly one of them for every two participants, and the participation of every single one was selected by conference planners, not volunteered independently–was considered an expert because he or she had written about related topics, lived in related places, or participated in related activities. That isn’t expertise. It’s just experience. And it’s a really huge leap to assume that an individual’s personal or even professional experience can provide generalizeable insight into an entire region or social situation.

So, they propose an alternate way to structure such conferences (sort of a Lollapalooza AfPak extravaganza):

  1. Leave the ‘experts’ at home. Instead of selecting speakers, do what real academic conferences do and solicit submissions.
  2. Assuming an event is structured to take all comers (see point #1), each volunteered proposal should be included in or excluded from the conference proceedings based on the logic and evidence the presenter cites in defense of his or her conclusions. The person’s resume shouldn’t even be a consideration.
  3. Don’t just invite competition; facilitate it.
  4. The most important thing is not how good the conference or workshop or publication is. Its main usefulness always lies in its ability to connect people who work on similar issues so they can go forward working together instead of separately.
  5. Everything said in events like this one–everything–should be open to merciless criticism from all sides, both within and outside of the government.

Kvick Tänkare

EnglishRussia scanned some illustrations from a Russian version of The Hobbit.  Very cool stuff, including this version of Gollum.  At the bottom of the post are some video clips of a Soviet b-movie version of The Hobbit which you can miss except the last one which has their version of Gollum which isn’t to be missed.

Ever wonder what it might look like if you combined the Tea Party anger at incumbency with Nordic politeness?   Well, wonder no more!  The Icelanders have created a new political party (the Best Party) and created their own music video. (h/t Foreign Policy)  Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy…you won’t see any guns, pictures of Hitler or references to Chairman Mao but close enough.

Yeah, keep trying to convince me that there are no such thing as the mole people.

Sven talks about tactical agility.

Salt is attracting some negative attention and there are calls it should be regulated by the FDA as a food additive.  May I just take a moment to thank my ancestors for endowing me with the genes for a slightly low blood pressure.  Not low enough to be a concern but low enough for my doctor to tell me “Hey, you like salt?  Dig in!’

Steve Coll summarizes his lessons learned from blogging before taking an extended break to write a book.  I’m not naturally inclined to write and so this exercise (now in its fifth year) has been a great experience.  I think I’d find it valuable even if no one read this blog but it is also quite nice (and a bit humbling) to think of people deciding to spend their time on what I may have to say.

Some things I did not expect that turned out to be true: 1) An awful lot of people read blogs. Spontaneously conceived essays (if they deserve that elevated name) that are not particularly well-thought-through can instantly go viral on you without warning. …That was a sobering discovery. 2) Goofy experiments that would not work in any other format, such as deciding to read the entire 2009 stimulus legislation and blog about it will be forgiven by many readers on the grounds that we’re all in this experiment together; it’s like going to a rock festival and hearing terrible music but feeling really good about being there. 3) Aggregation and calling attention to other people’s good work without much effort on your own part is enough justification for blogging in the first place.

Some problems that I half-expected that also turned out to be true: 1) Writing fast about serious subjects because they are in the news, without doing a lot of reporting first, can produce crap. 2) Even the better instances of that sub-genre are still not very satisfying over time to the author. …This is just a blog post, however; I am free to revise my thinking in an hour, or whenever…and presumably no one will notice.

Patrick Stewart was apparently just knighted…I wonder if he made the Queen’s clothes just drop off?

COIN and PTSD

Ok, really…this will be the last time I bring up that COIN symposium.  Just when I think I’ve run that car into the ground I find something else to write about.

LTC Malevich writes about a some thoughts that were sparked by a discussion he had with my friend who happens to be a counselor with the VA.  I’m way out of my league talking about mental health (I expect someone to pick up on that opening…) and so I’ll see if I can dragoon my friend to talk about it in more detail but as I understand his position, he argues that we need to do a couple of specific things to prepare soldiers to minimize their risk of PTSD.

Malevich recounts a fellow officer whose career crashed and burned after a bad tour in Bosnia.  Well worth your time.

The episode reminded me of another Canadian officer (Maj. Ross Johnson) who gave a class way back in 2000 about the Rwandan genocide and the nation as a terrorist.  I’ve got his materials and will have to blog about it some time (another item in the queue) but I fear I won’t be able to do his presentation much justice.  It was so good I credit it to no small measure with my decision to stay in the military.  Anyway, he mentioned the PTSD of General Dallaire.

I suspect many of us who have deployed or work with those who have know people who probably are suffering from PTSD.  There are just some common behavioral characteristics that make you step back and say ‘whoa…that’s not a normal reaction’.  We’ve come a very long way since my deployment in 2004 in terms of identifying and treating PTSD but there’s still a long way to go.

These messy little wars we’ve been in since 1945 are complicated and filled with morally ambiguous situations.  On top of the regular (?!) problems of fear, death and killing soldiers are expected to engage in combat operations in one area today and potentially provide assistance to the same people the next, while exposing themselves to all sorts of risks.

The Army offers something called ‘Resilience Training‘ (although it looks like most of it isn’t expect to be complete until the end of this year) but I wonder why there isn’t a DoD wide effort.  Is there a unique Army approach to treating and preventing PTSD that would vary greatly from the Air Force or Navy?

I’m also not sure how integrated this sort of training is (versus being one of those ‘C’mon guys, let’s sit through another bullshit annual briefing’).  I’m unlikely to be deployed again (knock wood) but I haven’t seen any of this training since I’ve been back and we’ve just passed the six year mark.

Ok, I’ll see if I can get some more information on this…

Questions, questions…

Just wonderin’

I was thinking the other day about the immortal archetype of the cop who breaks the rules.  It occurred to me that there just aren’t nearly as many examples of military personnel who are celebrated and idolized for ‘doing what it takes’ and are willing to break all the rules.  I’m not talking about ex-military personnel (sorry, Rambo) or non-military government agents (tough luck, Fox Mulder) but active duty military personnel.

Even more rare would be contemporary examples of the trope.  So, you’ve got Kelly’s Heroes, M*A*S*H, and such but not too much current stuff (Three Kings comes to mind).

Why would that be?  Both groups work within strict, rule based systems, believed to be confined by politicians and pencil necked bureaucrats and fight all sorts of potential bad guys.  Seems like you could almost use them interchangeably.

Am I suffering from selective amnesia or am I right about this and, if so, any thoughts as to why this disparity?

Death knell for DADT

Finally!  Could this dopey policy actually be coming to an end?  I really have no patience for opponents to this measure.  Their arguments have been drowning in weak sauce for decades now and essentially boil down to ‘Ewww…this is icky.’  Still, some ‘supporters’ of the military (including the honorable sell out from Arizona):

“I think it’s really going to be very harmful to the morale and effectiveness of our military,” said Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of the repeal.

Yeah, just like integrating the services was back in 1948.  There were all sorts of dire predictions that whites wouldn’t join the military, blacks didn’t have the courage to fight, and our capabilities would suffer.  You’d be hard pressed to find someone today who thinks it was a bad idea and this will be the same thing.

Allow me to point out the most overused stalling tactic on any recommendation for change.  Ye olde “It’s not the right time” argument.  The great thing about it is you can use it any time at all.  For example:

With two wars going on, it’s simply not the right time to introduce such a potentially disruptive change to our military.

Flash forward to a time when we’re at peace (hey, if you can pretend we’ve got a time machine, you can pretend this too).

Why fix something that isn’t broken?  Things are going well and it’s simply not the right time to risk everything we’ve worked for to introduce such a potentially disruptive change to our military.

Insert whatever issue you’d like here:  financial reform, health care, environmental changes.  Either we’re in a crisis and introducing changes risk greater catastrophe or we’re not in a crisis and, well, why going mucking about and ruin a good thing?  How to tell if someone is not being disingenuous when taking this position?  They’ll give you specific, realistic benchmarks which, upon being met, will indicate a better time for considering such issues.

Hey, and props to my congressman for introducing the bill!