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Tag: "afghanistan"

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.


The Will to Stupid

[ 0 ] October 30, 2009 |

Serwer does the necessary business to this idiotic David Brooks column:

We’ve been hearing some version of the “is Obama tough enough” argument since he started running for president, and as always, it’s really less about Obama’s individual tenacity than whether or not he possesses the same sterling moral qualities that led the questioner to their principled beliefs about public policy. In other words, it’s not “is Obama tough enough” but “is Obama tough enough to do what I want him to do?” And in this case, Brooks wants Obama to show some Green Lantern-style willpower and let everyone know the U.S. is there to stay indefinitely.

Right. Brooks writes:

I’ve called around to several of the smartest military experts I know to get their views on these controversies. I called retired officers, analysts who have written books about counterinsurgency warfare, people who have spent years in Afghanistan. I tried to get them to talk about the strategic choices facing the president. To my surprise, I found them largely uninterested.

Most of them have no doubt that the president is conducting an intelligent policy review. They have no doubt that he will come up with some plausible troop level.

They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

So, in other words, they’re actually worried about his policy choices? One choice would imply a lack of determination, while the other choice would reflect more Will, Grit, and Determination than Kaiser Soze? The stupidity here is palpable; if Obama were determined right now to withdraw every last soldier from Afghanistan, he’d earn not a whit of credit from the True Grit Brigade. Determination only, ever means one thing; more troops, more commitment, open ended, with no genuine evaluation of goals, means, or metrics.

I know that you can’t expect much from Brooks, or from the rest of the True Grit Brigade, but Jesus; we just had eight years of a President who put grit, determination, and will ahead of any effort to actually evaluate matters of policy, and NO ONE thinks that this brought about good outcomes. Why don’t we all get DETERMINED, and GRITTY, and use our INFLEXIBLE WILL to modulate down the stupid just a bit? Wouldn’t that maybe be helpful?

The More Things Change…

[ 0 ] October 29, 2009 |

Via Chet, this is kind of eery/scary.

This is Not an Achievable Metric

[ 0 ] August 26, 2009 |

BruceR, responding to a question about Afghan army training from Matt Yglesias:

Building anew is harder than renovating. In Afghanistan as in Iraq we really are doing our best to junk the old system, recognizing correctly that it was part of the problem in the first place. Building another Afghan army like all other previous Afghan armies, one that splits on ethnic lines, that oppresses the people it’s supposed to protect, that can’t fight its own insurgencies, would be entirely pointless. So our ambitions have to be rather large here. There are lots of old soldiers in the Afghan senior leadership. At least twice I have been present when one of them was talked out of what they saw as the correct response to insurgents in a village: that being to shell the village with howitzers. Principles of counterinsurgency and effects-based operations are things we’re struggling with, having already figured out industrial total war… they don’t have any secret knowledge that allows them to jump that progression in military capability.

I don’t think that this represents a sensible way to approach the construction of an Afghan Army. In particular, I think that this vision depends on some serious misunderstandings of the relationship between state, society, and military organization. My objections:

  • Detachment from society: Military organizations can, to some degree, be detached from the societies that support them, but the vision of an Afghan Army that doesn’t split along ethnic lines is simply implausible. The Afghan Army will be made up of Afghans; the expectation that a national or organizational identity could replace tribal and ethnic identities is not reasonable within a conventional time frame. Moreover, the effort to create an organization distinct from society creates its own problems. Organizations which have strong, distinct identities that make them less susceptible to societal pressures can also be harder for civilian political authorities to control.
  • Building Anew IS Harder, but there are tradeoffs: It’s true enough that building an Army from scratch is an exceptionally difficult task. Most military organizations have precursors, even in revolutionary situations. The Bundeswehr and the JSDF both included veterans of WWII service, albeit in much different organizational configurations. At the same time, building anew means that you can break some institutional bad habits, get rid of dead wood, and pursue appropriate organizational structures. While there was never any possibility of disbanding the Red Army, I don’t doubt that current Russian military reformers sometimes wish that the entire organization could have been torn down and rebuilt from scratch. I think that the disbanding of the Iraqi Army was a mistake, but I can understand why Bremer thought that it would be a good idea; the new army was likely to have much different missions than the old, and in any case the old army wasn’t a strong performer. If it hadn’t been for the pesky details of throwing thousands of armed, unemployed young men on the streets of Iraq…
  • “Oppressing the people” is what an army does: It is a peculiar conceit of modern Westerners that we don’t think of our armies as the core violent capability of the state. Historically, armies have served a “protection” function, in that they have geared much of their effort toward potential foreign enemies. However, armies also fulfill the critical function of maintaining the authority of the state over its own people. We can forget this in the United States and Europe because of successful state building and identity creation, and also because we have an overlapping network of paramilitary organizations that perform the most basic “maintenance of order” functions. A successful Afghan army, from a US perspective, is one that can perform these maintenance of order functions with the least amount of bloodshed. In a counter-insurgency situation when even a relatively small proportion of the populations supports the insurgents (and I think this applies to Afghanistan), protecting some people involves “oppressing” others. For example, suppressing the opium trade will involve a great deal of activity that looks a lot like conventional military repression. Furthermore, there’s a category error; armies don’t oppress/manage populations for their health, but rather because they are directed so by political authorities. Which leads to…
  • There is a confusion of the military and the political: Bruce’s argument assumes that a political settlement exists, and that this political settlement can be secured through the organizational constellation of the national army. The idea that a national army can avoid ethnic rifts assumes that major ethnic and religious groups have reached political accomodation; otherwise, the national army simply serves to the de facto advantage of whatever ethnic groups hold power. The idea that an army can be built that will not oppress the people assumes either that the political authorities who control the army are uninterested in political oppression, or that the army will refuse civilian orders to engage in repressive activities. Military organizations can be infused with certain conceptions of professionalism, and can be constructed such that they support a particular vision of the political order. There’s a tradeoff, however; an organization that focuses on subordination to civilian authority does not necessarily perform well as a guarantor of the political order. It’s not quite either/or, but armies that act as the guarantor of political order often find it necessary to disobey or remove “disorderly” civilian leadership.

What you can build, I think, is an Army with certain skills, including skills associated with the kind of counter-insurgency that Western democracies practice. You can hope to produce organizational allegiance, and a vision of military professionalism that includes subordination to civilian authority. You cannot, however, detach an organization wholly from the society that supports it. More importantly, it’s usually a bad idea to rely on a military organization to enforce a particular political settlement. To some limited extent this model has worked in Turkey, but that’s a unusual case, and exposes the limitations as well as the virtues of the model.

All that said, I think that construction of an Afghan Army that is capable of maintaining order and preventing Taliban territorial control is possible. The Taliban have no more claim on “authentic” Afghan nationalism than the central government does; even as the popularity of the Kabul government has declined, it remains significantly higher than that of the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban is, like the Kabul government, a foreign creation, alien to many Afghan traditions and hostile to many Afghan ethnic and religious groups. The point, however, is to concentrate of what is institutionally achievable, which in this case does not involve creating a Huntington-esque ideal type military organization. I also think that this point (highlighted in Matt’s second post on the subject) may well be correct; the Afghan Army that exists today may already be capable of preventing large scale Taliban control of Afghan territory, or at least of helping to enforce a favorable political settlement with assorted Taliban groups.

Book Bloggingheads: Graveyard of Empires

[ 0 ] August 13, 2009 |

Seth Jones and I talked about his book Graveyard of Empires last week on Bloggingheads:

…sadly, I forgot my hat in Cincinnati. Hopefully I’ll have an appropriate substitute by the next Bloggingheads.

Blood and Guts Peters

[ 0 ] July 20, 2009 |

Ralph Peters is a lunatic, even by the standards of Fox News.

More UK Defence Procurement Woes

[ 0 ] July 19, 2009 |

It appears that the UK MoD rejected several opportunities to shore up its helicopter fleet:

Defence ministers spurned three separate deals to buy American Black Hawk helicopters which would have helped to plug the dangerous shortage facing British troops in Afghanistan. The most recent rejection came only days ago, the Observer can reveal.

A letter sent last week by the defence equipment minister, Quentin Davies, to Sikorsky, the US manufacturer of the Black Hawk, appears to admit that snubbing its latest offer could delay the introduction of desperately needed helicopters into Afghanistan.

Davies admits that rather than opt for the “earlier acquisition of another helicopter”, the government chose to pursue the heavily criticised refit of Britain’s ageing Puma fleet.

The minister’s letter is dated 7 July, the day trooper Christopher Whiteside, 20, died on foot patrol in Helmand after being hit by a hidden explosive device. Military figures say that lives are being lost in Afghanistan because troops have to travel by land, making them vulnerable to roadside bombs.

Defence industry sources have also revealed that under the initial offer from Connecticut-based Sikorsky in 2007, 60 Black Hawks would already have been available for British forces in Helmand province, where they have sustained heavy casualties from roadside bombs in their renewed offensive against the Taliban.

Of course, you never know quite what you’ll need, but it appears that the MoD pursued an option that will take longer to put capabilities in the field and that will cost more. The Puma refit project will be followed up by purchase of the “Future Lynx” which is apparently scheduled to enter service in 2014. The impetus for the decision appears to be straightforward; UK firms are given precedence over any alternatives. It’s the same in the US, of course, but the US defense-industrial complex is much larger.

H/t Jon.

The Flip-Flops are More Impressive than the Boxers

[ 0 ] May 23, 2009 |

I’m sure that everyone has seen this, but that doesn’t make it less awesome:


Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage.


[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

It’s hard to disagree with David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum on the drone issue:

Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

I don’t doubt that the use of drones has resulted in significant attrition of Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Moreover, it’s not quite right to say that for every “Al Qaeda #2” we kill another pops up; killing individual terrorists, especially those with significant training and experience, does reduce the effectiveness of the organizations. But it seems to me that the drone war by necessity has a steep down curve in terms of effectiveness. The first raids may be successful, but over time individual terrorists become more careful, develop alternative methods of communication, and shield themselves with ever greater numbers of civilians. As time goes by, you’re killing terrorists successively lower on the rung with progressively more limited intelligence.

Doesn’t seem like a win, especially given the irritation it produces among the Pakistani population. At an intel talk last semester at Patterson, a speaker suggested that the drone strategy had been fairly successful in culling Al Qaeda leadership. Someone from the audience asked whether drone strikes in Ireland (not to mention Boston) in the 1980s would have been an effective way of dealing with the IRA. I think it’s a hard point to argue; it’s easy for me to imagine the IRA turning each strike (and each civilian death) into a fundraising and recruitment bonanza in Ireland and the US. The situation with Al Qaeda is a bit different in that the IRA had less far reaching aims and was more popular in its target population, but nevertheless the analogy carries some weight.

Careless Warfare or Lawfare? A Pointless Debate

[ 0 ] May 7, 2009 |

Enough civilian body parts to fill two tractor-trailers remained after an incident in Farah province of Afghanistan Monday, according to the NY Times today. Afghan civilians blame US airstrikes for 100+ civilian dead; the United States is investigating the possibility that the Taliban executed the civilians with grenades in order to blame US forces.

Either scenario is pretty plausible; but either way the PR fiasco falls in the lap of the international forces, so the bottom line is the US needs to rethink its counterinsurgency strategy.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict released a report last month entitled Losing the People: The costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. Based on interviews with 143 civilians harmed by conflict operations in the country since 2001, the report (p. 11) details both “lawfare” deployed by the Taliban, in which civilians are intentionally used as shields, and massive casualties from US “collateral damage.”

In November 2008, villagers attending an Afghan wedding party in Kandahar provice said insurgents entered the area, fired on international forces, and then forcibly prevented the villagers form fleeing the area before IMF retaliated with an air-strike that left 37 members of the wedding party dead.

Haji Nasaib lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an IMF air-strike in Wardak province. “I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My daughter was baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to the hospital, but she died… My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over a tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”

The first example is a war crime; the latter, unless the result of intentional targeting of civilians, is not. But the difference is lost on the civilian population of Afghanistan, and ultimately it is the US who pays the political price. The popularity of the international troops in the country has been plummeting since last year, and there is a resurgence of anger since this week’s incident.

In fact, given the regularity of such incidents, one wonders why the Afghani people have not risen up more forcefully already to kick out the occupiers – who on the one hand are seen as cowards who fight from the skies, and on the other hand have been ineffective at protecting them from militias?

Currently, international forces maintain the moral high ground in three ways. First, they kill fewer civilians than insurgents and pro-government forces in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International data suggest the number of casualties from IMF mistakes has been around 25% of the overall total for the past three years; the Afghan NGO Security Office numbers are slightly lower for 2006. Second, they often apologize when they make mistakes, unlike the Taliban who sometimes target civilians directly. And third, they often compensate the families of civilians who are killed or maimed through carelessness.

But international forces also fight an uphill battle in other respects: they are outsiders, their disproportionate power is resented, and they are seen as out of touch with the needs of the Afghan people. It is clear that the US and other ISAF countries will need to take greater steps to reduce the “collateral damage” associated with Operation Enduring Freedom, and to streamline the programs in place to mitigate the unavoidable effects on civilians.

CIVIC’s report outlines a variety of such measures, including quicker apologies (not “regrets,” not “excuses,” but apologies); better coordination of existing compensation policies so that families don’t fall through the cracks; quicker public acknowledgement of errors, and more transparent investigations; and “the establishment of a Pentagon position to strategically address potential and actual civilian casualties.”

In my view, an important item should be added to this list: the ISAF, led by the US, should rethink the use of airpower and strafing as a legitimate means of waging a counterinsurgency war within areas populated by civilians. Even with the most discriminate means available – precision targeting by unmanned drones – the civilian/combatant death ratios we are seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ridiculously disproportionate. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and fight insurgents on the ground.

Slouching Towards Talibanism

[ 0 ] April 1, 2009 |

Karzai seems to be backing a law containing a number of spectactularly egregious violations of women’s rights.

The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

[ 0 ] March 11, 2009 |

Alex Harrowell has a couple of interesting posts on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, one at Fistful of Euros and the other at Yorkshire Ranter. The point is essentially this; the Soviets executed the withdrawal more competently that just about any other aspect of the war, and it worked out really well for them. The government that they left in place survived for another three years, and only collapsed when Soviet support ended in 1992.

In fact, the withdrawal was about the best idea the Soviets had in Afghanistan. Having decided to go, they pursued a policy of building up the Afghan government, changing the military strategy to one based on defending the bulk of the population and leaving the mountain wilds to the enemy, pouring in aid of all kinds, negotiation with those who were willing, and leaving a strong advisory mission in place.

I recall at the time that predictions of the survival of the Soviet-sponsored Afghan government were measured in weeks or in months, but it turned out that the opposition split, foreign support for the rebels vanished, and the regime was able to win several crucial military victories. Nobody talked much about this after 1989, because nobody really cared much about Afghanistan. I’m thinking that the United States and Europe could do much, much worse than what the Soviets managed; Harrowell thinks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the Soviet general who managed the post-withdrawal advisory mission should be tracked down and consulted on the future of the NATO mission. A Soviet style operation would concede certain facts about Afghanistan; the central government will never have much control over the hinterland, and a liberal democratic regime is unlikely to exist in any thing but name, but it may be past time to think about such concessions.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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