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Improving Counter-Insurgency

[ 0 ] July 11, 2006 |

Matt has some good comments on the excellent Fred Kaplan article on the latest US Army counter-insurgency doctrine. I differ from Matt on a couple of points, however. Matt writes:

I think that, basically, yes, we should give up these sorts of wars as futile. Kaplan observes near the top of his article that “as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fight these kinds of wars.” This is a common trope in the counterinsurgency literature. And it appears to be true. The deeper problem, though, is that so do all the other relevant nations. The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor.

I think this is wrong for few reasons. First, I don’t think that the history of counter-insurgency has been quite as grim as Matt suggests that it is, even for military organizations employing relatively civilized tactics. The United States Marine Corps assissted several counter-insurgency operations in the 1920s and 1930s in Cental America, and these operations by and large were successful and did not employ the sort of scorched earth tactics that Matt later aludes to. The US also assisted in the elimination of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, and in the defeat of the communist Greek insurgency in the late 1940s. British success in the Malayan Emergency is well known. The Boer War has to be rated at least a qualified (if costly) success for the British Army, and again did not involve mass slaughter tactics (although large number of Boers died of disease in concentration camps). Now, there are also plenty of examples of successful insurgencies against liberal democratic opponents, and I don’t want to suggest that such operations commonly succeed, but the number is a bit higher than zero. The converse is also wrong, I think; mass slaughter as a counter-insurgency tactic works pretty rarely.

Second, Matt makes what I think is an important qualification: The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor. Right, but that’s part of the point. For the modern military organization, nationalist insurgency is a relatively new problem. It’s important to recognize that insurgency and guerilla warfare are not the same thing; the former often (but not always) employs the latter, and the latter can exist without the former. In Iraq, the Saddam Fedayeen that the US encountered early in the war quite clearly employed guerilla tactics, but were not insurgents. European military organizations of the 19th century were accustomed to dominating huge colonial tracts with extremely low troop density. If we accept that the tools that make a military good at counter-insurgency are not the tools that make an organization good at conventional continental warfare, then it becomes apparent that even during the period in which nationalist insurgencies could be expected, many organizations had better things to do. Whereas keeping the colonies down was important, defending the border was usually viewed as the more compelling mission in most military organizations. Simply put, armies haven’t had that much incentive to either theorize about counter-insurgency or become proficient at executing it. The two conclusions that follow from this are first that the number of democracies executing these tactics in a competent manner has been quite small, but second that there is no very compelling evidence to think that military organizations cannot improve their counter-insurgency tactics over time. Indeed, we’d even expect it as the incentives for fighting counter-insurgency well increase. Training and doctine matter, and both can be improved over time. It is certainly well known that organizations vary in their capacity to execute counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations; colonially experienced European military organizations (France, UK) tend to do better than continentally oriented ones (US, Germany, Russia). Finally, we can do a bit of process tracing and point to situations in which well-executed tactics worked better than poorly executed ones (see, of course, Andrew Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam, which points out how much more successful Marine operations were than Army, despite employing less firepower).

Treating insurgency as an intractable problem opens up other difficulties. Not all insurgencies are the same; some are weak, some strong, some have a large popular base, others don’t, and so forth. Even if we were to accept that defeating the Iraqi insurgency was impossible from the start (a proposition I regard as unproven) this hardly means that no insurgency can be beaten with civilized tactics. Moreover, simply suggesting that we should discard the project of improving our counter-insurgency capabilities because it’s too hard disregards the possibility that the US may be required to engage in difficult counter-insurgency operations. In the case of Iraq, I can think of half a dozen different scenarios in which the US would have come into conflict with an insurgency for entirely legitimate reasons. If Hussein had openly allied himself with Bin Laden, or attacked Kuwait again, or if the state had begun to collapse, US intervention would have been both justified and necessary. It’s quite possible that an insurgency would have developed anyway, and the US military would have needed to develop the tools to fight it.

Matt also argued that “we need to endeavor to steer clear of counterinsurgency situations as much as we possibly can.” I concur, although that doesn’t really distinguish insurgency from any other kind of war. Whether we’re just bad at counter-insurgency or the task is impossible doesn’t matter all that much, because we shouldn’t fight wars we’re unlikely to win. But this strikes me as an unproductive and potentially disastrous way to argue against intervention. The idea that war could be at least quasi-civilized and that particularly brutal tactics like gassing the enemy, incinerating their cities, and killing their prisoners didn’t help anybody out has, in spite of some setbacks, contributed to the reduction of human misery. Suggesting that the only successful counter-insurgency tactics are likely to be the brutal ones leaves a humanitarian with relatively few options in the face of a necessary counter-insurgent fight. Moreover, it’s not rhetorically compelling to argue, against someone invoking national necessity, that the tactics we need to win are just too brutal for us to conduct. In the wake of, say, an Iranian sponsored terrorist attack against the United States, the “we can fight them because we’ll kill too many of them” argument is likely to fall on deaf ears. Indeed, some considerable portion of the US electorate might regard mass slaughter as a feature, not a bug.

So, I can’t agree with Matt that efforts to improve counter-insurgency tactics and operations are pointless. I do, however, agree with him that trying to maintain a reputation for resolve is ridiculous. More on that later.

What World Are You Living In?

[ 0 ] July 10, 2006 |

On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Grace Sherwood’s witchcraft conviction through trial by water:

“With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice,” [Tim] Kaine wrote. “We also can celebrate the fact that a woman’s equality is constitutionally protected today, and women have the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.”

Sigh. If only either of those were true…

Er, that’s not very heroic…

[ 0 ] July 10, 2006 |

Interesting comparison:

The most wanted Chechen rebel warlord, Shamil Basayev, has died in an explosion in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

Russia’s FSB security service chief, Nikolai Patrushev, said Basayev was killed in a “special operation”.

But a pro-rebel website said Basayev and three other militants died when a lorry carrying explosives blew up accidentally.

I know that you don’t want to depict the Russians as particularly competent, but isn’t “Heroically Slaughtered by the Enemy” a better epitaph than “Accidentally Blew Up While Riding in a Truck“?

Tokyo Nerves

[ 0 ] July 10, 2006 |

I think Anthony Cordesman’s point regarding North Korean missile ranges helps explain Peter’s observation that the Japanese are really freaked. Cordesman:

There is absolutely no meaningful agreement about what the more limited range of such missiles would be. The Washington Post, for example, quotes a possible range of 2,175 to 2,672 miles in its July 5 edition. Other sources quote maximum ranges of 3,500, 4,000, and 5,000 kilometers. All are sheer guesswork, and all ignore the fact that missiles do not have maximum ranges; they have range-payloads. If you do not know (or at least state your assumption about) the weight of the warhead or payload, your guesses are undefined and irresponsible rubbish.

Accordingly, until better data are available, the main risk seems to be that North Korea is beginning early testing of a missile that could throw the equivalent of a rock at Alaska. Even in the worst case, it would be able to launch a small fission nuclear weapon with great inaccuracy and unreliability at Alaska, and just possibly Hawaii or the upper northwest corner of the U.S. Given its history of testing to date, it is probably around five years away from even this operational capability, although shorter times are all possible.

What there is, I’d wager, is near unanimous agreement that North Korea has the capacity to hit Japan with nuclear armed ballistic missiles either now or in the very near future. Japan has a couple of reasons to worry about this. First, the North Koreans will undoubtedly target Japan in the assumption that the prospect of the destruction of Tokyo will deter the US almost as much as that of Los Angeles. Second, this assumption may not hold. Although it’s virtually impossible to imagine a US president making a well-reasoned decision that attacking North Korea would be worth the destruction of Tokyo, it is certainly conceivable that US policymakers will think about the five years prior to a reliable North Korean ballistic missile threat as a window of opportunity. The threat of nuclear attack, rhetorically and psychologically, is likely to be less acutely felt when the target is not American. Consciously or no, American policymakers might be more willing to take risks when Tokyo rather than LA is at risk.

Obviously, this would be of concern to Japan, and I can see why the Japanese would seek their own, independent means of dealing with North Korea.

The Guv

[ 0 ] July 10, 2006 |

Governor Fletcher continues to stagger me with his tin-eared ineptitude. Irritated that he’s been indicted, Ernie has proposed that the Treasurer and Attorney General of Kentucky ought to be appointed, rather than elected. Both positions are currently held by Democrats, and the latter has pursued Governor Fletcher and most of his associates in an illegal spoils scheme. Fletcher’s popularity in Kentucky is collapsing even among Republicans, and he apparently thinks that he can successfully pull off a persecution narrative. The narrative extends to Mark Nickolas of Bluegrass Report. Presumably on Fletcher’s orders, Bluegrass Report and a few other blogs have been banned from the computers of state workers. Nickolas has filed suit.

Thug Fight!!!!!

[ 0 ] July 9, 2006 |

Speaking of thugs, Dority vs. Turner has to be the most entertaining bit of television I’ve seen all year.

…although Alma vs. Ellsworth gives it a good run. What a great show.

Penalty Kicks?

[ 0 ] July 9, 2006 |

Congratulations to Italy. What a crappy sport.


[ 0 ] July 9, 2006 |

A further note on deterrence theory; the most common critique (but not, as I have argued, the correct critique) is that deterrence theory cannot answer the problem of “madmen”, leaders who are presumably clinically insane and cannot be relied upon to make the rational calculations necessary to make deterrence work. As John Judis (via Matt) points out, the trope of the madman seems to have found purchase in American political debate, apparently undeterred by the fact that it is supported by virtually no empirical evidence.

It is hard for me to think, off the top of my head, of a genuinely suicidal leader. Hitler certainly does not qualify; he estimated correctly (over the assessment of his generals) that France could be conquered, then estimated incorrectly (but with the assent of his generals) that the Soviet Union could be conquered. It’s unfortunate that, instead of identifying the real problems with deterrence theory, policymakers and talking heads feel the need to discuss foreign policy problems in terms of mental illness. I suppose it makes sense rhetorically; the low level stability consequences of deterrence theory are kind of hard to explain, treating other countries as if they have reasonable interests and complaints almost smacks of treating others as actual people, and a calm discussion of interest leaves “hawks” without a bludgeon to bash people with.

"I prefer the personal touch you only get with hired goons"

[ 0 ] July 9, 2006 |

Matt of the Tattered Coat channels the question “Who are your favorite Film Thugs of all time?” Matt’s answers come from film noir; Chinatown and the Set-Up. Here are some of mine. The definition of “thug” would seem to me to be a physically imposing henchmen of the Big Bad, but not the Big Bad himself. I suppose, by this definition, even Darth Vader would be a thug. Anyway:

  1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mario Brega as Corporal Wallace, the sadistic assistant of Angel Eyes, has always struck me as the archetypal thug. Cruel, violent, greasy, and probably smelly, you can’t help feeling warm and fuzzy when Eli Wallach bashes his head in with a rock.
  2. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels: Vinnie Jones was born to play thugs. Enough said.
  3. The Limey: I don’t know why this one sticks in my memory, but I like not only Peter Fonda’s thuggish security chief, but also the hit men that the chief hires to kill Terence Stamp. They have a no-nonsense professionalism about them that helps cover for the fact that Fonda is in completely over his head.
  4. The Road Warrior: It’s hard to stand out when everyone is a thug, but Vernon Wells manages. He conveys nothing so much as a love of brutality, and while you can imagine the Humungous surviving in civilized society, Wez has obviously found his element.
  5. Sexy Beast: This little flick improves every time I see it, in no small part because I am more impressed than ever by Ian McShane after watching his work in Nine Lives and Deadwood. I have had friends get up and leave during a viewing because they can’t handle the stress that Ben Kingsley puts on Ray Winstone and his crew at the beginning of the film. Intimidation is, of course, the purpose of a thug.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: HIJMS Kaga

[ 0 ] July 9, 2006 |

In the wake of World War I, the Imperial Japanese Navy decided to pursue the “8-8″ program, designed to provide Japan with eight modern battlecruisers and eight modern battleships. Because of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, only two of these ships (Nagato and Mutsu) were completed as designed. The follow-up Japanese designs included the Amagi class battlecruisers and the Tosa class battleships.

As designed, Kaga was to carry 10 16″ guns in 5 twin turrets, displace 40000 tons, and make 26.5 knots. Her most likely opponents would have been the American South Dakota class, which was more heavily armed and armored but much slower. Because of the intervention of the Treaty, however, construction on Kaga was suspended. The terms of the Treaty allowed the United States and Japan to convert two ships into aircraft carriers in order to match Royal Navy conversions. The Americans converted the battlecruisers Lexington and Saratoga, and the Japanese intended to convert the battlecruisers Akagi and Amagi. Kaga and her almost complete sister Tosa were slated for destruction.

At 11:58am on September 1, 1923, a massive earthquake struck Japan. The magnitude of the earthquake measured at least 7.9. Fires broke out all over Tokyo, and it is thought that over 100000 Japanese died in the earthquake and the ensuing chaos. In the wake of the earthquake, rumours spread that Korean gangs were looting the wreckage of downtown Tokyo. In spite of the protection of the Japanese Army, nearly 2000 Koreans were murdered by Japanese mobs. Amagi, in the process of conversion to an aircraft carrier, was damaged beyond repair. Kaga won a reprieve.

The aircraft carrier Kaga displaced 32000 tons, could make 28 knots, and carried about 90 aircraft. Along with Akagi, she formed the core of Japan’s interwar aircraft carrier force. In November 1941, Kaga proceeded with Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku on a secret mission to attack Pearl Harbor. Her aircraft helped sink West Virginia, California, Nevada, and Oklahoma on December 7. Following the Pearl Harbor raid, Kaga helped attack Australia, Rabaul, and other Allied targets.

In May 1942 the Japanese high command decided to launch an operation to seize Midway, a small island sort of near Hawaii. Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, and the bulk of the strength of the Japanese Combined Fleet were also committed to the operation. American codebreaking revealed the Japanese force, and three USN carrier intercepted the invasion attempt. Although Japanese fighters defeated an attack by American torpedo bombers, a group of dive bombers from Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise found the Japanese carriers and attacked. Kaga was hit by four bombs, which started uncontrollable fires on her flight and hangar decks. Kaga’s crew was evacuated, and the ship sank a few hours after the attack. Soryu, Akagi, and Hiryu were also destroyed at the Battle of Midway.

Trivia: Part of the purpose of the Iowa class battleships was to chase down and destroy the Kongo class battlecruisers. What class of ships served as partial justification for the reactivation of the Iowa class?

Searchers Redux

[ 0 ] July 8, 2006 |

Matt wonders what I think about Stephen Metcalf’s trashing of the Searchers. I generally (but not unreservedly) like Metcalf, although he certainly does often fall into the Slate contrarian-for-contrarian’s-sake model of writing. Metcalf really doesn’t care for The Searchers, and blames academia for its reputation:

Its reputation lies elsewhere, with two influential and mutually reinforcing constituencies: critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of “film studies” as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline, and the first generation of filmmakers—Scorsese and Schrader, but also Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and George Lucas—whose careers began in film school. The hosanna chorus for The Searchers is impossible to imagine, in other words, without the formalized presence of film in the university curriculum. The question, then, is: Why did the curriculum attach so intensely to so obviously flawed a movie?

Metcalf also points out that neither Pauline Kael nor Roger Ebert particularly care for the film.

I’m not entirely hostile to Metcalf’s argument. He’s right that The Searchers is a difficult film to watch, and right that there seem to be some glaring problems (most notably Ford’s need to clumsily provide the occasional comic relief). In some sense, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for example, holds together better as a movie. Even on this point I don’t think that Metcalf is completely fair, however. The frequent cuts to the homestead serve to illustrate the passage of time, and the finale (where Scar apparently decides to stop running and leave himself open to cavalry attack) makes more sense that I think Metcalf would allow. Metcalf also feels the unfortunate need to point out that Ford was an unlikable cuss who probably wouldn’t have enjoyed a film studies class, but while true this is pointless and irrelevant.

The problem I have with Metcalf is that he seems to think that because The Searchers leaves open questions that can be talked about, it’s a failure as a movie. Again, the comparison with Liberty Valance is instructive; the hero and narrative in the latter are far more conventional, understandable, and in some sense enjoyable. But there’s something to be said for a film that includes as intractable a hero as Ethan Edwards and as many iconic sequences as The Searchers. There’s often a trade off in evaluating film between a movie that holds together very well and one that combines some extraordinary scenes and performances with some weakeer segments. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that film students prefer and idolize the latter rather than the former. A similar comparison from Spielberg would be the difference between Catch Me if You Can, which is solid throughout, and Saving Private Ryan, which combines some indelible sequences with a lot of long, slow, boring, and conventional scenes.

So the question is partially one of preference, and I can understand Metcalf’s position. It’s too bad, though, that he feels he needs to conform to the Slate “snarky contrarian” style of writing, because it makes him sound like a damn wanker.

UPDATE: J-Pod has helped me reaffirm my love of the Searchers. Also see Bryan McKay.

Missile Deterrence

[ 0 ] July 8, 2006 |

It’s unclear why Jon Wolfstahl thinks that a deterrent posture on the part of the United States can convince North Korea to give up its missile program; as Bill Petti notes, the deterrent relationship is two-sided. The North Korean leadership undoubtedly believes that a reliable and vigorous missile program is necessary to deter a US attack, and thus that testing the occasional missile is critical to national survival. The problem of obscure intentions is covered, I believe, in Realism 101. This hardly reduces the utility of a deterrent strategy, however, because the point of such a strategy is not to prevent North Korea from launching missiles, but to prevent NK from launching missiles at American, Korean, and Japanese cities.

I’m a big fan of deterrence, but it can’t solve everything. It is commonly accepted among international relations theorists that a deterrent posture can maintain high level stability while creating low level instability. In other words, North Korea is unlikely to invade the South or attack Japan, but nuclear weapons and missile programs may allow North Korea to get away with all kinds of small provocations. The cost of total war makes it unlikely that the United States will respond forcefully to such provocations and risk open conflict. Thus, in addition to maintaining the deterrent relationship, Pyongyang hopes that missiles and nukes will allow North Korea a wider latitude in foreign policy options.

This is precisely what worries, and what ought to worry, the United States about the Iranian nuclear program. While it’s exciting and scary to talk about how Iran is run by a crazy guy and will try to erase Israel, the real concern is a nuclear Iran, potentially immune to attack, will feel free to increase support for terrorism or intimidate Iraq or fiddle with oil prices or whatever. North Korea can bother the United States in any number of ways, but its status as a missile technology proliferant are most worrying. To the credit of the administration’s foreign policy brain, I suspect that they worry more about what will happen if deterrence succeeds than if deterrence fails, and that these concerns make them reluctant to embrace deterrence as a strategy.

Unfortunately, the administration seems unwilling to deal with problems that can’t be “solved”. The best we can do with North Korea and Iran is management, and deterrence is probably the best strategy we have. Like all policies, it has costs as well as benefits. Given that, deterrence is still a pretty wide umbrella that can allow the use of many different tactics; there are ways of reducing the chance of North Korean proliferation or Iranian support for terrorism, just as there were ways to manage Soviet behavior within the general deterrent relationship.

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