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Tag: "afghanistan"

Afghanistan: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

[ 40 ] October 3, 2015 |


Cass Sunstein is right once again. The West brings nothing but gifts wherever it goes, totally eliminating any claims from those nations for justice. And what nation has received more of these gifts than Afghanistan:

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike. At least 19 people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members, and dozens wounded.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The airstrike set off fires that were still burning hours later, and a nurse who managed to climb out of the debris described seeing colleagues so badly burned that they had died.

What’s a little collateral damage (everyone’s favorite euphemism for state-sponsored murder of civilians during war) when we have targets in the area? A Doctors Without Borders hospital is just an acceptable price to pay I guess for our government.


Drink Up and Be Somebody

[ 58 ] September 6, 2015 |


If the writers of LGM ever got together in the same place, I believe the alcohol consumption would look something like Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan:

As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.

Boot polish, for example, would be spread on a hunk of bread, which was then toasted. The alcohol in the polish would soak into the bread; the polish itself would crisp on the surface of the toast. You’d scrape off as much as you could, then eat the bread. The same could be done with some ethanol-based toothpastes.

Alternatively, take that polished bread, sit it on top of a glass of water over night, and then drink it, as a certain amount of alcohol will have infused it. And then eat the bread, hoping it hasn’t gotten moldy in the meantime.

If you had the misfortune to be based in one of the so-called “eagle’s nest” observation posts up in the mountains, where supplies were heaved out of an Mi-8 helicopter precariously balancing one of its wheels on the slope, then you needed to turn to your surroundings. Some solvents used for cleaning weapons contained ethanol along with all kinds of toxic additives. Pour some into a metal pan and then leave it out for a while in the bitter Afghan winter; the belief was that the ethanol would stay liquid, atop a frozen layer of everything else. Fortunately, such solvents were often in scarce supply.

The soldiers would also — despite official warnings not to, as much to avoid poisoning as anything else — buy drinks from Afghan traders. Ranging from the internationally renowned brandies of the Afghan-Clemd distillery to rotgut brewed in backstreet stills, the drinks on sale, especially at venues dotting Kabul’s Chicken Street bazaar, were numerous. The Soviet Commandant’s Service military police patrols meant to prevent off-duty soldiers from stocking up on drink would, instead, “tax” their victims a share of their purchases. As one soldier reminisced, “it’s the only time in my military career I actually didn’t mind wearing the red armband” of a patroller.

The field expedients the Soviets poured into their hapless bodies may have brought a degree of oblivion to their wartime misadventures. These noxious and innovative drinks were competing with the opium that was so readily available and also with such alternatives as chifir’, a punishingly strong tea that was actually used in the Gulags to induce a mild high or stave off pain and exhaustion. They also contributed to as much as 20 percent of the cases addressed by the Military-Medical Service in Afghanistan. One army doctor recounted to me a tale of having to operate on a soldier hit by shrapnel from a rebel mortar, whose innards still smelled of cheap cologne.

Speaking of such things, I just finished On the Bowery, the amazing 1956 early cinema verité film about drunks on the Bowery. This might also look like the LGM writing crew on any given night.


Soviet Soldier in Afghanistan

[ 6 ] March 6, 2013 |

I went on HuffPo live to talk about this story:

A former Soviet soldier has been discovered hiding in Afghanistan under an assumed identity 33 years after going missing.
Bakhretdin Khakimov disappeared during the first months of the nine-year war that was sparked when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in late 1979.

The ethnic Uzbek, originally from Samarkand, was wounded in battle in 1980 and rescued by nearby villagers, according to the BBC. He later adopted the local name Sheikh Abdullah and has lived by practicing herbal medicine learnt from his saviors.

Khakimov was found two weeks ago by members of the Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, or WIAC, a nonprofit, Moscow-based organization, who spent an entire year retracing his steps, reports Russia’s RIA news agency.

Anyway, remarks below go something like this; events like this aren’t so unusual, as American defectors from Vietnam and Korean wars remained in both countries post-war (as well as third states such as Sweden); it’s hard to know how many more former Soviet soldiers might still be in Afghanistan; we don’t know if this gentleman’s story is true (some Soviet defectors, especially from Central Asia, joined the mujahideen for ideological reasons); and we’ll likely never get the full story. Enjoy…

Airpower in Afghanistan

[ 5 ] February 20, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat concerns Karzai’s limitations on the use of coalition airpower in support of ANA operations:

Given that Afghan Army ground forces have yet to demonstrate a clear advantage over their Taliban counterparts, airpower really is the Afghan government’s“asymmetric advantage.” Whatever the Taliban may have, it lacks the tools that airpower provides, including reconnaissance, strike, and mobility.

The languorous U.S. efforts to develop Afghan airpower further complicate the problem. Embroiled in an internal contracting dispute, the USAF has yet to acquire the kind of light, counterinsurgency-oriented aircraft that would be ideal for the Afghan Air Force, such as the Brazilian Super Tucano. A different contracting dispute has slowed the delivery of Russian transport and attack helicopters.

The Afghan Air Force is hardly doomed to ineptitude and ineffectiveness; the Soviets rated the Air Force as the most capable Afghan armed forces branch during the occupation, and parts of the organization survived through the Taliban period. Nevertheless, prospects of the Afghan Air Force operating advanced jet aircraft in the near future aren’t particularly good, and in any case shouldn’t be the priority. Simple, low maintenance platforms that perform a variety of roles could help the Afghan armed forces maintain its edge.

While I generally hate being pushed into advocacy for airpower, the ANA will find it very tough going without access to either intrinsic or coalition air assets. As I suggest in the article, the wording of the ban make it unclear whether it applies to pre-planned offensive operations, defense engagements, or both. My guess is that it will be interpreted in exceedingly minimalist fashion by ANA commanders and their coalition counterparts. In other airpower news, the UNAMA report on civilian casualties came out a few days ago and has been making the rounds. Some points of note:

  • Civilian casualties are down, civilian casualties from coalition activities are down, and civilian casualties from airstrikes are down.
  • Total number of airstrikes fell from 5411 in 2011 to 4092 in 2012.
  • Drone strikes (in Afghanistan proper) increased from 294 to 506 (12.3% of total), and civilian casualties from drone strikes increased from 1 to 16 (12.6% of total).

In sum, the Coalition appears to be reducing its commitment, drones are pushing out manned aircraft, and drones have yet to demonstrate that they’re much better at minimizing civilian casualties than manned aircraft (although our numbers on that last remain very small). Again, I hasten to note that this analysis is confined to Afghanistan, and does not touch on the very different campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Exercises and Borders

[ 2 ] August 8, 2012 |

I have two largely unrelated pieces that both involve China. First, in the Diplomat:

As a regularly scheduled biennial exercise, RIMPAC happens regardless of the extant political situation in the Pacific. However, the absence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy – and the participation of Russia and India for the first time – combined with new tensions in the South China Sea, leaves the unavoidable impression that these exercises are geared towards managing the increasing naval power of China.

This year’s RIMPAC exercise took place against the backdrop of an unusually open debate about the future of U.S. maritime strategy in East Asia. The Obama administration’s “pivot” pledges a redistribution of U.S. military effort to the Western Pacific. The development of AirSea Battle, at least at tactical and operational levels, promises to enhance the ability of assets from different organizations to cooperate. China has viewed these debates with considerable concern.

And then in the Global Times:

The broader problem is that sponsorship of militant networks can have wide-ranging, unpredictable outcomes. Elements of the US supported mujahedeen eventually came to constitute part of the Taliban, giving harbor to enemies of the US. Pakistani support of the Taliban as well as other militant networks has led to many terrorist attacks in Pakistan and India. In the future, jihadist networks may undertake major attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China.

Whether or not elements of the Pakistani Taliban are using Afghanistan as a safe haven, border conflicts will continue to create problems between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US…. Heavily armed bands of young, enthusiastic men undercut state power and authority, however attractive such networks may appear in the short term. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India should take note, just as China and the US should closely monitor the development of new militant groups along the Durand Line.

F-35 and What Not

[ 19 ] April 19, 2012 |

I talked Afghanistan and naval procurement policy with Alyona last night. The latter starts around 5:35.

And if you listen closely around the 4:30 mark you can hear my daughters screaming at each other.

Statebuilding and its Discontents

[ 1 ] March 14, 2012 |

Josh Foust and I discuss the recent massacre in Afghanistan:

Close Air Support and Drones

[ 19 ] February 10, 2012 |

Yesterday, Marcy Wheeler wrote a post pointing out that two of the six Americans confirmed killed by drone strikes were servicemen, a pair of Marines killed during a close air support mission (the other four are Anwar al Awlaki, targeted directly for assassination in a drone strike, and three other suspected Al Qaeda militants killed as “collateral” in drone attacks). There’s obviously some conflation here; the Marines died in a CAS mission during a firefight in Afghanistan, while the others were targeted more or less directly in the strategic drone campaign against Al Qaeda.  Nevertheless, Marcy argues that the death of the Marines reveals a larger problem about drone targeting; drone strikes are launched using insufficient information, thus leading to lots of accidental deaths (whether American military or foreign civilian.)

I think that this is mostly wrong, with a few elements that may be right.  The first problem is, I think, a misunderstanding of what modern close air support looks like.  On twitter yesterday, Marcy expressed the view that if an F-16 had launched the airstrike, there would have been an additional layer of intelligence and accountability. But, from the point of view of modern CAS, this is simply wrong.  Much CAS in Afghanistan is delivered from medium altitude by fighter-bombers such as the F-16 and the F/A-18.  These aircraft spend very little time over the target, and have very little ability to determine with any precision the events on the ground.  The weapons they release (often 2000# bombs) are targeted based on information from ground troops and (if available) live footage taken from drones. Close air support of this nature has, however, been part of the Afghanistan War since 2001, when special forces operators directed most of the targeting in support of Northern Alliance forces.

CAS is also delivered by aircraft such as the A-10 and the AC-130, which fly lower, slower, and have more time over the target.  However, a A-10 pilot still has less information about the course of a firefight than virtually any drone operator; drone pilots fly slower and can stay on station longer, and are less concerned about the possibility of getting shot down.  An AC-130 is a different story, because orbiting the battlefield is part of its job, but AC-130s are relatively few and don’t deliver much of the CAS in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the ordnance carried by a Predator drone does a lot less damage than the ordnance carried by an F-16 or an A-10. This isn’t always good; sometimes a 2000# bomb is an effective way to suppress or destroy an enemy position, or to kill a concentration of enemy fighters.  In friendly fire terms, however, the small weapons payload of the Predator is a distinct plus; NATO soldiers only die when they’re directly targeted by the Predator, as opposed to simply being near an F-16 strike.

The ideal CAS platform would be something like a Super Tucano, which has numerous weapon hardpoints, gunfire capability, and a low enough speed to loiter over the battlefield until the pilot figures out what’s going on.  For a variety of reasons (few of them relating to the question at hand), the Air Force has nary an interest in buying the Super Tucano or an aircraft like it.

The future of close air support is, as Drunken Predator suggests, fighter-bombers layered upon drones.  This isn’t ideal; there are some cases when having an A-10 would be of great help, and many cases in which a Super Tucano could handle CAS very effectively.  However, this is almost certainly a better situation than held at the beginning of the Afghan War, when fighter-bombers (and sometimes strategic bombers, such as the B-52 and the B-1B) delivered weapons without the assistance of near-ubiquitous drone footage.  In this system, drones collect intel, combined with ground troops, and deliver some of the weapons to targets, with the manned aircraft launching heavy ordnance based on drone and ground intel.

It should go without saying that friendly fire incidents happen in all of these scenarios. Close air support is necessary because enemy forces sometimes have positions which are either hard to attack directly from the ground, or from which they can pin down friendly troops.  In the latter situation especially, decisions on where to target bombs and missiles often have to be made in a very short amount of time with limited amounts of intel. Marcy quotes a report indicating that the spatial separation of different parts of the CAS team played a role in mistaken killing of the Marines, but doesn’t put this in any comparative context.  The history of CAS in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and the wars of the War on Terror is replete with instances of CAS gone horribly awry, including low altitude strafing of friendly infantry and vehicles.  Pilots, SOF operators, and infantrymen all make dreadful errors about the precise location of friendly and enemy forces; in previous conflicts, the lack of communication between ground and air forces has been a tremendous problem.  The deaths of two Marines in a drone CAS strike in Afghanistan doesn’t tell us very much about the proclivity of the current system to create friendly fire casualties; for that, we’d need much more robust data comparing the frequency of such casualties in situations with and without drones. I don’t have that data handy, but I think there’s very good reason to think (based on the immediate availability of intel and the size of ordnance fired by drones) that the presence of drones tends to cut down on friendly fire casualties.

As should be obvious, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the legitimacy, legality, accuracy, or good sense of the campaign to target suspected terrorists with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, et al.  The issues raised by the use of drones in support of conventional military operations as opposed to the use of drones in what amounts to a strategic bombing campaign-light aren’t completly separable, but they’re distinct enough that great care should be taken before conflating the two.

If You Love Someone, Set Them Free…

[ 5 ] February 3, 2012 |

Yesterday Alyona and I chatted about Afghanistan:

The technical difficulties 6 minutes in threw me off a bit…

Afghan NIE

[ 2 ] January 14, 2012 |

I had some thought on the new Afghanistan NIE at RT yesterday:

Interdependence of Commitments and Mission Creep

[ 37 ] September 12, 2011 |

I think Matt misses the truly insidious follow through of this:

I’ve been struck over the past three or four years by how many different Chinese people have expressed to me the view that the purpose of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan is to establish a long-term presence there in order to encircle the PRC. This would not, as a policy objective, make much sense, but I think it does illustrate the important fact that Chinese people have a China-centric view of the world.

If you want to see how foreign policy commitments metastasize, think this through: If the Chinese believe that the United States is in Afghanistan in order to encircle China (and to be sure, I don’t think this), then a US withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes a “win” for China, even if Chinese beliefs were without foundation. If the Chinese believe that the American encirclement project has failed, then they might be inclined to take more aggressive steps in some other part of the world that touches on “genuine” US national security interests.

And thus, we need to stay in Afghanistan in order to make the Chinese believe that we’re committed to the encirclement project, even if we’re not interested in the encirclement project. It’s right there in the Schelling, and Kissinger would totally understand.

Who Cares About the Environment in a War Zone?

[ 12 ] August 16, 2011 |

Fantastic J. Malcolm Garcia piece at Guernica about the use of burn pits in Afghanistan. Essentially, the military burns everything they use in Afghanistan and Iraq. This includes everything from electronics to plastic bags to feces. Not surprisingly, this is making a lot of people sick.

While one might see the need for immediate disposal of waste in new operations, in bases we have operated for years, this should be entirely unacceptable.

Specifically, I call for legislation that forces U.S. bases abroad, including permanent or semi-permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be subject to the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental laws of the United States. I would call for similar legislation for labor law.

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