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Two Points on COIN

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

First, I don’t think that there’s quite enough appreciation of this:

But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective. The 2017 budget deficit or the potential economic impact of a manufacturing plant closure in Georgia is not the kind of thing a lieutenant, captain, or major serving in the field is going to think about. But it’s still, in an objective sense, quite important and senior Pentagon figures are not mistaken to treat it as such.

And part of the subtext of the Afghanistan debate is that as a matter of bureaucratic warfare, it makes enormous sense for the currently ascendant COIN faction to try to press its advantages—to exaggerate the extent of what was achieved in Iraq in 2007, and to overstate the strategic significance of achieving some kind of comprehensive success in Afghanistan.

The battle against the Taliban isn’t the only fight taking place in Afghanistan. We’re also, as Matt suggests, seeing serious combat between two visions of warfare, and two factions within the greater defense community. The broad, and sometimes hyperbolic, claims about the potential effectiveness of COIN should be understood in this light, as should much of the pushback. One faction, broadly speaking, wants a military organized around the possibility of conventional combat. The other has been skeptical of this approach for some time, and has found an unexpected opportunity over the past six years to press its case. The Surge was a huge gamble for this faction; conditions didn’t favor its success, forces were insufficient, and the top brass didn’t care for the approach. In spite of all this, and assisted by a number of other factors, the Surge enjoyed surprising tactical and operational success. It didn’t solve the strategic problem of Iraq, but it was a huge bureaucratic victory for the COIN faction, and it created major problems for the more conventionally oriented factions in the military. The heart of the fight over COIN in Afghanistan is, I think, about whether this bureaucratic victory will be consolidated or rolled back.

I’m of two minds on this fight, because while I’m very skeptical that ground forces of the United States will be required to fight a conventional war against a peer competitor during my lifetime, I’m increasingly skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for the intellectualism of COIN proponents, and an equal degree of contempt for right-critics of COIN like Ralph Peters. Along these lines, I think it’s important to push back on a particular line of COIN critique:

In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually assures long-running military campaigns in other hot spots, even as we’re engaged in combat and rebuilding operations in Afghanistan. “We’re going to be involved in this type of activity in a number of countries for the next 15 to 20 years,” said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty skeptical of this line of thinking, and I’d like to see that quote in full context; I’m not convinced that Barno is making the point that Dreyfuss wants him to make. There’s no question that COIN can be a critical part of the imperial project; indeed, for really successful territorial imperialism in the modern age a COIN oriented military would be absolutely necessary. The roots of COIN clearly lie in the age of empire. However, I think that warnings about how the adoption of a successful COIN doctrine and orientation will lead to additional counter-insurgency campaigns is fundamentally wrong-headed, for two reasons. First, the United States didn’t need capable COIN to become involved in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A conventional military doctrine did nothing to prevent any of these wars, and there’s no indication that it would do so in the future.

More importantly, I think that COIN skeptics underestimate the degree to which the dominance of the conventional faction was necessary to the war in Iraq (and perhaps also to the war in Afghanistan). The motivating concept behind the invasion of Iraq was the idea that potential enemies of the United States could be terrified into submission by a cheap, quick, and technology-laden war of conquest. The invasion was intended to frighten Syria, Iran, North Korea, and others. In the end it failed to do so, because no one believed that the United States would be willing to devote all of the blood and treasure to Iran or Syria that it was expending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, I suspect that many of the fiercest advocates of war would have opposed the conflict if they’d had an idea how long it would last and how expensive it would be. In particular, there’s not a shadow of doubt in my mind that Don Rumsfeld would have bitterly opposed the war if he’d had a sense of where it was going; he loathed COIN, loathed nation-building, and loathed the idea of the US being bogged down for an extended period in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The war would also have been less attractive to a number of other prominent neoconservatives.

Winning quickly and leaving, perhaps with a few major bases and oil contracts, was the point of the war. Public support of the conflict was more or less premised on this outcome. Winning quickly and leaving, however, is something that COIN advocates can never promise. The way of fighting that COIN proponents advocate doesn’t lead to the sort of war that American hawks like, or that is very palatable to the American public. The kind of war that COIN advocates want is the kind of war that the US is least likely to engage in if the COIN faction becomes dominant. In the American political context, an appreciation of the costs of COIN means fewer wars, not more.


Bad News In New England

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

Maine voters shamefully reject same-sex marriage law. Clearly, this proves that litigation doesn’t work.

Dems Take NY-23

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

According to MSNBC, Hoffman has conceded….

further confirmation. Obviously, this is excellent news for the Republican Party.

No, really! Erickson really does offer some of the finest comedy on the intertubes

why Owens won.

Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

I have a review of Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money up at ID. Long story short, it’s the best single volume introduction to modern piracy and maritime terrorism that I’ve read.

Sometimes, I Wish the Tent Was a Little Smaller

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

You probably won’t be surprised that some members of Congress are trying to use the necessity of health reform to not only continue to exclude abortion from the funding given to most ordinary medical procedures, but to prevent individuals from getting insurance that covers abortion on the private market if they’re eligible for subsidies. What may surprise you is what party the members of Congress the latest group trying to do what they can to limit reproductive freedom to affluent women belongs to:

While House leaders are moving toward a vote on health-care legislation by the end of the week, enough Democrats are threatening to oppose the measure over the issue of abortion to create a question about its passage.


“I will continue whipping my colleagues to oppose bringing the bill to the floor for a vote until a clean vote against public funding for abortion is allowed,” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said Monday in a statement. He said last week that 40 Democrats could vote with him to oppose the legislation — enough to derail the bill.

There’s a bizarrely widespread myth — often accompanied, to this day, by crying about the fact that Saint Bob Casey wasn’t able to use a platform at a Democratic convention to speak out against fundamental party values despite the fact that he didn’t endorse the party’s candidate — that the Democratic party is monolithically pro-choice and brooks no dissent on the issue of abortion. To which I can only respond: if only! For example, Bart Stupak — the ringleader of the faction that apparently would prefer no health care reform at all to women obtaining even private insurance that covers the procedure — sports a nifty 0% NARAL rating.

And while I wish I could say that this downgrading of women’s rights by some Congressional Dems was just an isolated instance, as Chart reminds us that’s not actually the case.

Claude Levi-Strauss

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |


An anecdote from The Raw and the Cooked: During World War II, when the US Army approached the caves in which Roquefort cheese is fermented, they assumed the smell was of rotting corpses, and destroyed the contents with flamethrowers.

Like Grape Nuts, "Christian Scientists" are neither

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

This is a terrible idea:

The measure would put Christian Science prayer treatments — which substitute for or supplement medical treatments — on the same footing as clinical medicine. While not mentioning the church by name, it would prohibit discrimination against “religious and spiritual healthcare.”

It would have a minor effect on the overall cost of the bill — Christian Science is a small church, and the prayer treatments can cost as little as $20 a day. But it has nevertheless stirred an intense controversy over the constitutional separation of church and state, and the possibility that other churches might seek reimbursements for so-called spiritual healing.

Phil Davis, a senior Christian Science Church official, said prayer treatment was an effective alternative to conventional healthcare.

Except, of course, that it’s not. Holy shit. These are people who do not believe in germ theory and whose utterly deranged views on science and medicine actually produce demonstrably higher rates of mortality within their cohort. There are no epidemiological, clinical, or meta-analytic studies that support the efficacy of prayer as an alternative form of “therapy.” The two studies that prayer advocates usually cite — one from South Korea (2001) and one from Columbia University (2004) — represent legendarily awful science. The former study has more or less been withdrawn from the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, and both featured a co-author with a degree in parapsychology who has claimed elsewhere that amputated salamander limbs can be regrown by faith healers who wave their hands over the lonely stumps.

Regardless of the constitutional questions — which I think the LA Times article focuses on to an unnecessary degree — the protection of medical quackery flies in the face of what the goals of health care reform should be: (a) delivering access to the most effective methods of disease prevention and treatment; and (b) reducing health care costs across the board. I suppose “fully prying American health care from the embrace of medieval superstition” would be a reaonable goal as well, but with people like Tom Harkin in the Senate, I’m not holding my breath.

(Via Kevin Drum)


[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

You may be a fine organization and worthy of my support, but as an English teacher and human being, when your representative approaches me and says that you “work with the destruction of the environment and poverty,” my first response is “To what ends, man? To what ends?”

Market failure NFL-style

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Last night’s NFL game featured the following situation: New Orleans takes over on downs at midfield with 1:37 left and an 11-point lead. Atlanta has one time out. This means that if New Orleans simply kneels down four times Atlanta will get the ball back with approximately seven seconds left (each down consumes roughly 45 seconds between snaps if the team with the ball does nothing but kneel in the victory formation, and the clock stops after a change of possession).

If New Orleans doesn’t want to turn the ball back over with seven seconds left, they can just run around a bit on the fourth down snap, and/or take a little extra time off on each kneel down play by having Drew Brees retreat five yards, and the clock will be at zero. In any case turning the ball over with seven seconds left and an 11-point lead makes it completely impossible for Atlanta to score 11 points.

So here’s what they do: They run the ball up the middle on first down and their center gets injured. By rule, this means the clock stops and New Orleans is charged with a time out (this rule is in place to stop teams from faking injuries to stop the clock). They run another rushing play on second down and Atlanta uses its final time out. They run again on third down and fumble. Atlanta takes over with 1:20 left. Atlanta takes 50 seconds to get into FG range. They kick the FG to make it a one-score game. They then recover the onside kick. They have the ball at midfield with 25 seconds left and non-trivial chance to send the game into overtime.

Through all of this none of the three announcers, who include a very highly regarded former and future NFL coach and a former NFL quarterback, note that the game would have been over long before if New Orleans’ coaching staff, with a combined salary several million dollars a year, had any understanding of the relevant rules.

Stuff like this happens every week.

Serious question: Why? It’s not because coaches are too stupid to understand the application of rules that are comprehensible to an intelligent 12-year-old. Football is a complex game on a variety of levels, and the average fan (like me) is completely unqualified to construct a functioning offensive game plan or a capable defense, let alone teach proper technique to players etc. But I’m qualified to add 45 to 45, get 90, subtract it from 97, and draw the appropriate conclusion.

In other words, this kind of thing would seem to pose something of a problem for adherents even the mildest versions of efficient market theory. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business. Coaches are paid millions of dollars to win games. And yet they continue to fail to take whatever simple structural steps it would take (like employing someone to tell them what to do in these situations) to maximize their chances of winnning.

On a related note, see this.

Fool Me Thrice…

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Let’s just say that I’m going to put this in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” file…

Election Over-reaction

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Several races today have received an inordinate amount of attention as tests of public opinion regarding the policies and effectiveness of the (still) nascent Obama administration. The Democrats will lose two of the three races being hyped, and very possibly all three.

Many will argue that this will be a setback for Obama, especially considering the political capital he has expended in NY-23, and especially in the New Jersey Gubernatorial election.

This is, largely, bunk. While special elections (NY-23) or even Gubernatorial elections can be suggestive of public opinion towards national politics (the 1991 special election for the Senator of PA is a good example here), this is relatively rare in American politics. Gubernatorial elections are about state politics, not national politics. The incumbent in New Jersey, Jon Corzine, is in a statistical draw at the moment because he’s Jon Corzine. As Silver reports at 538, Corzine has not polled higher than 44%, and 53% of likely voters have an unfavorable opinion of the incumbent. This is a race about neither the Obama administration nor the relative popularity of Republicans in a blue state; rather it’s a race about the unpopular incumbent governor facing off against a lackluster challenger and a third-party spoiler.

In Virginia, an argument that this is a referendum on national rather than state politics is more credible, but where Silver assigns a 3-1 split between national and local, I’d go no more than 50-50, and only then if I were sniffing glue. Contextual factors specific to the state matter. Deeds, the Democratic nominee, participated in a three-way primary that, while he handily won, could not have helped position him against Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee. Second, while these very two faced off for Virginia Attorney General in 2005, and McDonnell only won by something like 300-odd votes, McDonnell has spent the last four years as a state-wide elected official, while Deeds did not. I’m not suggesting that this gives McDonnell an insurmountable edge in the rematch, but it does give him a marginal (perhaps very marginal) advantage.

Finally, and most critically (for all three races), the composition of the electorate will be significantly different in November 2009 than it was in November 2008. When turnout decreases, as it does for off-year elections and especially for odd-year elections, the underlying composition of the electorate is altered at differing rates. Those with lesser levels of education, lower levels of income, lower age, and less attachment to place drop off at a much higher rate than the wealthy / educated / home owners / etc. It’s not terribly difficult to make the leap (actually, a small hop) from this to speculating (correctly) which party will benefit from the changed demographic composition of lower turnout.

As for NY-23, it’s a Republican district. Yes, there was significant ticket splitting in 2008, but it’s a strong Republican district: a Democrat wasn’t even on the ballot in 2002. Perhaps it is not a wingnut Republican district, but it looks likely that it will be represented by a credible wingnut following this election.

Indeed, as Silver points out, the Republicans in the two Gubernatorial races aren’t exactly hyping up their Republican street-cred. Granted neither are the Democrats especially so, but the Republicans are running from their label. If these were truly referenda on national politics, one would expect to see this distinction made more plain.

None of this is to suggest that Democrats still have it easy. The Republicans and right wingers are, as usual, far more adept at framing the narrative and mobilizing their support. Furthermore, the Democrats will lose seats in the House in 2010. But then aside from 1998 and 2002, the incumbent party in the White House always loses seats in the off-year Congressional elections. But, the results that I will wake up to tomorrow will not have me terribly concerned about the fate of the Obama administration, progressive (or even centrist / moderate) politics, or the fate of the free world. Furthermore, seeing how the New York Yankees can’t possibly have won the World Series by (my) tomorrow morning, it’s all good.

And all the better if Sarah Palin takes credit for any or all of these election results.

Me, I’ll be watching R-71 in Washington State and Prop 1 in Maine . . .

Israeli Missile Defenses

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Check out this (somewhat dated) article on Israeli missile defenses. The article makes the point that Israel’s missile defenses have progressed to the point that even a concerted Iranian ballistic missile attack, fielding far more weapons that Iran is expected to have in the next twenty years, could not hope to destroy Israel’s capacity to retaliate. An Iranian attack on Israel might fail entirely, and in any case would be utterly suicidal. Also note that several Israeli officials argue that the Iranian regime is NOT suicidal. All of this kind of makes me wonder about two things:

1. Why do we continue to hear nonsense about “one bomb” being able to destroy Israel, followed quickly by nonsense about how the US would be unwilling to respond on behalf of a country that no longer exists? Neither of these points are defensible; while an advanced, massive multi-megaton Soviet nuclear warhead might be able to destroy Israel in one chunk, any Iranian weapon fielded in the next forty years is certain to have a yield measured in double digit kilotons, and thus incapable of destroying Israel in a moment. Such an attack would give Israel a really bad day/month/year/decade, but Israel would respond by giving Iran a really bad century/millenium/what’s longer than a millenium?.

2. Why does Israel need to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program? The answer would seem to be some sort of nebulous claim about how Iranian nuclear weapons would somehow immeasurably improve Iran’s negotiating position in the Middle East; Iran and its allies would suddenly become emboldened, or something. This ignores a) the reality that states balance against power and threat, and b) the reality that nuclear states very often have a bloody difficult time getting what they want from non-nuclear states. The entire argument seems based on a 1962 Paul Nitze vision of nuclear weapons, in which more nukes automatically grant extraordinary diplomatic leverage. Allowing that there’s something to the stability-instability paradox, I think it’s fair to say that nuclear weapons have, at best, proven to be blunt, unsophisticated, and not terribly useful tools of diplomacy.

The caveat is this, and it goes to the heart of problems with the strategic implications of ballistic missile defense. The tighter Israel weaves its ABM shield, the less likely that any attack by terrorists or by a suicidal (yes, I know) Iran is to be delivered by ballistic missile. The same is true for the United States; Heritage is dedicated to wasting everyone’s time by claiming that terrorists could launch a nuclear armed SCUD from an offshore barge, without ever asking why terrorists would bother to buy the SCUD when they could just sail the ship into Boston Harbor. Unlike the US, I don’t think that Israeli strategic ballistic missile defense is a waste of time; the country is small enough that a conventional ballistic missile assault could do damage, and has suffered such an attack in recent memory. But I suppose the takeaway is simply that there is no “magic bullet” that can provide complete security.

Better propaganda, please.