Not that we’re not grateful, but……

June 15, 2009

Word in the NYTtoday is that the French are replacing their aging Gazelle helicopters with a deployment of the fancy new Eurocopter Tiger.  The Gazelle was a decent light attack chopper for a long time, but it’s getting old and is no longer up to the hard environmental conditions of Afghanistan.  So, the French Army has decided to deploy their latest and greatest, with not incidentally their best pilots, to see if they can improve the support they give to the ground troops.

All well and good, until one realizes a couple of key facts:

1) The Tiger is strictly a scout/attack bird.  Although highly capable in those roles, it is useless in the ways that matter in a COIN dogfight like Afghanistan, i.e air assault, logistical support, Medevac, etc.

2) As the article notes, a grand total of THREE Tigers will be deployed, replacing three Gazelles that will be withdrawn.  Three?  Are you shitting me?  Is that the best the French can do?  Three measly helicopters.

Obviously, the French think of it as a large jump in capabilities.  As one French officer notes:

“Two Tigers can do the job of eight Gazelles,” said a senior staff officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

So, if one follows the logic, take away three Gazelles, add three Tigers (which are four times as capable) and the net effect is that the French now have the equivalent of twelve helicopters.  Hardly a massive contribution, considering that the U.S. has over 120 helicopters based in Afghanistan, and the UK another forty or so. 

I won’t fault the valuable and difficult work that the French Army is doing in Kapisa Province, but one wonders if they’re getting the proper level of support from Paris.



June 13, 2009

A while back, Tom Ricks stirred up a hornet’s nest of protest by suggesting that the service academies (i.e. West Point, Annapolis, and whatever the call that Pentacostal community college where they make fly-boys) ought to be closed down and their funding redirected to ROTC programs at elite universities.

Ricks, no stranger to controversy, really went out on a limb here, offending a sizable percentage of the officers who provide the bulk of his interview subjects.  For that, I tip my cap.  I’m sure he thought through the ramifications and still went ahead and posted his idea.  That takes a courage of convictions not often seen in policy-making circles.*

*Yes, I know Ricks is not technically a “policy-maker” but it’s hard to find a FOB in Iraq or Afghanistan that doesn’t have at least one well-thumbed copy of Fiasco or The Gamble kicking around.  He’s probably one of the most widely read contemporary authors on US defense policy.

The response, both positive and negative was overwhelming, and Ricks has been posting much of the commentary on his Foreign Policy blog.  Needless to say, tempers (especially in the comments section) are running high.

I won’t rehash the whole argument or the ensuing debate here, but the latest installment is particularly interesting.  Ricks posted a submission from a reader (presumably a proud member of the WPPA) which showed that most of the current senior leadership in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan are West Pointers.  The list:

…..with GEN McKiernan’s dismissal and the appointments of LTGs McChrystal & Rodriguez to command positions in Afghanistan, every 3- and 4-star general officer exclusively directing the ongoing wars will soon be a West Point graduate:

“War Czar” LTG Doug Lute ’75
USCENTCOM CG GEN David Petraeus ’74
MNF-I CG GEN Ray Odierno ’76
MNC-I CG LTG Charles Jacoby ’78 (who recently replaced LTG Lloyd Austin, ’75)
MNSTC-I CG LTG Frank Helmick ’76
ISAF/USF-A-designate LTG Stan McChrystal ’76
New Operational Commander (MNC-I equivalent) LTG David Rodriguez ’76
Additionally, the new ambassador to Afghanistan is Karl Eikenberry is USMA ’73.

Ricks also reproduces anther list, from a different officer, which shows that many of the people associated with recent failures in the GWOT came from sources other than West Point:

GEN Tommy Franks, OCS (CENTCOM)

GEN John Abizaid, USMA ’73 (CENTCOM)

GEN George Casey, ROTC (MNF-I)

GEN Dan K. McNiell, OCS (ISAF)

GEN David McKiernan, ROTC (ISAF)

LTG Ricardo Sanchez, ROTC (CJTF-7/MNC-I)

What Ricks (and his contributors) fail to realize is that there are several problems with drawing conclusions from this data.  First, all of these officers have at least twenty years of active duty in their respective services.  To say that their performances are the result of the formative process they went through in college is patently ridiculous.  Much more likely is that their abilities and traits, especially as senior commanders, were formed over years of command at varying levels, as well as prolonged exposure to the military culture within which they live.

Second, the author is guilty of cherry-picking to select only those officers which support his argument.  Now I’m not one to defend Tommy Franks (and I even read his awful book), and I’m not a big fan of George Casey either.  However, David McKiernan, despite his recent replacement in Afghanistan, is a fine and well-respected officer at whose feet one would be hard pressed to lay any amount of blame for our current difficulties.  In fact, if one were looking for a reason we are not succeeding in Afghanistan under McKiernan’s watch, perhaps one could look at the way the entire mission was under resourced by the Pentagon and CENTCOM.   And who was it that runs CENTCOM?  Oh, right, Petraeus, Class of ’74.

And at what point did Ray Odierno get “rehabilitated?”  When he first got to Iraq, he was guilty of running his division in a way which has since been criticized by nearly everyone, including Ricks himself.  The fact that Odierno finally began to understand what we were up against, and became a disciple of Petraeus is to his credit, but I doubt it’s the result of four years in the Long Gray Line way back when.  Flexible thinking is not exactly something they drill into you at the Point.

True, Stan McChrystal (and his hand-picked deputy Rodriguez) are both West Pointers, and McChrystal’s track record in Iraq and with JSOC is impressive (if slightly controversial).  But it remains to be seen if their new approach will bring much-needed change to the operations in Afghanistan.  And a career snake-eater like McC is hardly the prototypical West Point graduate.

Third, the might be a selection bias inherent in these lists.  A military career, especially one with a high operational tempo, is a difficult and arduous job.  There are many opportunities to depart for greener pastures, and a number of otherwise good field-grade officers leave for reasons unrelated to their performance.  One of the most common is being passed over for promotion, which can happen in a frighteningly arbitrary way.  It is at least possible that some of the officers who survive to the 3 and 4-star level do so because they are folded within the pshielding embrace of the West Point Protective Association.  When push comes to shove, it’s not unheard of for the ring-knockers to stick together at promotion boards.  This is not to suggest that Petraeus, McChrystal, et. al. got to where they are because they were given promotions they didn’t earn; only that other highly qualified officers were never given that chance because they did not wear the West Pont ring.

Note that none of the above means I agree with Ricks’ suggestion to close down the academies.  Although they may no longer be the bastions of academic rigor they once were, and they may no longer be the most cost-efficient means of turning out junior officers, the service academies still serve a vital purpose by producing a steady stream of professional, career-oriented officers whose sole focus is on the execution of their duties.  Well-rounded, entertaining guys to have at a coctail party?  Probably not.  But there’s not a lot of cocktail parties in Afghanistan.

Plus, the Army-Navy game is fun, if only for the opportunity to watch some laughably bad football.

What’s So Civil About War Anyway?

May 24, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I am addicted to the near-constant stream of information I receive over the internet.  Fortunately, here in Afghanistan I’ve had some small degree of luck in finding and maintaining a proper connection, so I’m able to feed my habit without undue frustration.

One of the primary sources of daily information is the New York Times, despite it’s less-than-sterling reputation for tilting slightly to the left.  The “Grey Lady” still has one of the best foreign desks in the business (sorry BBC, you guys pretty much suck), and their correspondents based in places like Kabul and Baghdad are the elite of the journalism world.  Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers pop to mind, but there are many others of note as well.

In addition to robust foreign coverage, the New York Times has not forgotten that one of the primary strengths of a daily newspaper is in it’s ability to properly and exhaustively analyze stories, rather than just report them.  Any schmuck can get a quote at a press conference in Kabul; the trick is to put that quote into context and provide the analysis that makes it meaningful and useful.

Anyway, that’s enough of a hagiography for the NYT.  the point of all this is to direct you to an interesting little piece by Graham Bowley about the nature and duration of civil wars.  In it, Bowley asks the questions, “How long do most civil wars last? What is a civil war, anyway? And how, finally, are they ended?”

The answer to the question of duration, Bowley mentions the usual suspects, including the overlooked “time consistency problem” favored by classically trained economists.  However, the key point (at least as it applies to the ongoing conflict here in Afghanistan) is probably the evolution of self-interest among combatants.  Basically, the bad guys fight for so long that they become more interested in maintaining their existence as a cohesive organization than in finding an actual settlement, largely because the of funding and financial incentives that go along with it. (Think Taliban and the opium trade).

Note that in this one short piece, Bowley manages to include quotes from Max Boot, Paul Collier, Simon Schama and Edward Luttwak.  That’s a pretty impressive source list for a throwaway piece on the civil war without any direct reference to ongoing stories.

And by the way, I nominate Luttwak’s phrase “congealed war” as a worthy successor the often mis-used (and always overused) standby “frozen conflict.”  There’s just something more poetic about the idea of wars congealing rather than freezing over.

The End?

May 12, 2009

My good friend Martin has a post up at his blog The National Pundit discussing the recently-declared end of the war in Chechnya.  He seems a little dubious, to say the least, that the end has actually come.  Admittedly, any announcement by Moscow these days has to be taken with a grain of salt.  However, I’m inclined to believe that they mean what they say here.

Martin’s view is that the internal politics of Chechnya are too unstable to keep the various rebel groups passive for long, and that as soon as Moscow’s hand-picked strongman is no longer in charge the countryside will revert back to its rebellious ways.

He may be right about that, but I suspect he is missing a key factor.  Americans (and their British allies) have gotten some very tough lessons in the difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare in the last eight years.  Irregular warfare amidst an indifferent or hostile population is extremely difficult, both in a tactical/operational and strategic/political sense.  The experience would make one justifiably wary of future COIN campaigns and highly aware of the difficulties of subduing a hostile population.

However, these are lessons that the Russians never learned… choice.  The Russian approach to counterinsurgency in Chechnya is fundamentally different than anything the West would consider acceptable practice.  It bears more resemblance to the classic campaigns of Attila the Hun and Geghis Khan than the modern US Army.  Liberal use of artillery of major population centers, indiscriminate airstrikes on anything that moves, the razing of entire villages and a brutal suppression of civilians, under the theory that they are no more than would-be collaborators, all are standard operational practice for the Russian Army.

To use the old Maoist example, insurgents are the fish that swim in the sea of people.  Advanced COIN theory holds that the trick is to identify the fish and then attempt to separate them from the sea.  Get the fish, leave the water.  The Russians, on the other hand, simply choose to drain the ocean and watch the fish flop around until they die.  Witness what happened the last time Chechnya rose in revolt.  Grozny became a ghost-town, the victim of the only sustained heavy shelling of an urban area since 1945.  Those who fled to the villages found themselves trapped by Russian mechanized infantry who did not attempt to discriminate between civilian and insurgent.  Numerous towns were emptied and leveled, thousands of people were arrested, interrogated and eliminated, and the remaining rebels fled to the mountains and laid low.  Chechnya wasn’t “pacified.”  It was depopulated.

There are still Chechens in Afghanistan who came here as jihadists and never went home.  A few, including a couple of the guys on my staff, are former mujaheddin who no longer believe in the Islamic cause but are nevertheless unwilling to return to Chechnya.  The reason is simple.  There’s nothing left.  When Afghanistan is preferable to home, that doesn’t say much about home.

There will certainly be a flare-up of violence in Chechnya at some point.  The remaining rebels will come down from the mountains and the Russians will chase them back up.  But the war, in any meaningful sense of the term, is over.  It has been since Grozny burned in 2000.

On a side note, keep your eye on Martin Knapp.  He and I don’t always agree on policy (I make a point not to argue with him on IR theory), but he’s wicked smart and heading to join the DC policy establishment in the near future.  I expect great things.  Or maybe a nasty scandal.  Either way, it’ll be entertaining.


May 9, 2009

The newswires are abuzz lately with the word that an ISAF airstrike killed over 50 people in Azizabad, Farah Province.  Exact numbers are still to be determined, but it looks at this point like approximately 30 civilians and another 20 or Talibs.  Not particularly good odds for a supposedly “population-centric” COIN campaign.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that at least some of the early reports (including the ones coming out of ISAF and CJTF-101) state that the Taliban intentionally took refuge in civilian residences after ambushing a combined ISAF/ANA unit, and that at least some of these civilians were then prevented from leaving the area by the insurgents.  In other words, the Taliban went looking for a fight, found one and then did everything they could to ensure that the local population got caught in the crossfire.  No telling if these allegations will turn out to be true this time, but it wouldn’t be the first instance of this sort of thing.

The usually-respectable Free Range International seems to blame the civilians for allowing the Taliban to operate out of their village in the first place (certainly a no-no by any standards).  However, I’m mildly more sympathetic to the dilemna of the locals in this instance.  The chance of being incinerated by an ISAF airstrike pales in comparison to the near-certainty of being shot by the insurgents for resisting.  The fact that (apparently) the Taliban was willing to sacrifice several dozen local villagers to accomplish their mission indicates that they had little regard for the locals well-being, a idea which would have been abundantly clear to said locals at the time.

More important in my mind is the differing approaches to Information Operations (IO) which come out of this incident.  ISAF is conducting a full inquiry, with teams of investigators on the ground, sifting through the rubble and attempting to determine the truth.  Eventually, I’m sure they’ll figure it out, and I’m fairly confident that ISAF will be at least partially vindicated.

The Taliban on the other hand did not conduct any investigation.  This however did not stop them from making numerous public statements in the immediate aftermath, including the first public acknowledgment of civilian casualties.  That makes sense if your goal is a) to discredit ISAF for their overly agressive use of airpower, b) take the moral high ground and claim that it wasn’t your fault, or c) both.  The interesting thing for me was a story I heard the next day from a member of my staff.  This officer, an Afghan and a medical doctor, has a brother who works in Farah Province for the ICRC.  He claimed that within hours of the strike, the Taliban had called the ICRC (one of the few NGOs with decent relations with the insurgents) and reported the casualties and requested aid.  An ICRC convoy of medical supplies and personnel was dispatched almost immediately, which is pretty good reaction time for an NGO.

So, while the wounded were still bleeding out and the ruins were still smoldering, the Taliban had already put into motion a sophisticated IO campaign involving public denouncements of the action, cooperation with a respected international NGO and detailed claims as to the causes and effects.  True or not, the first mover advantage is hard to overcome. 

Meanwhile, the PAOs at ISAF were still in the “Wait a minute, we did what……….!?” stage of their reaction to the public and international press.  No wonder most of the Muslim world has the good guys and bad guys mixed up.

A Step in the Right Direction

March 21, 2009

Somewhat in line with my last post about the difficulties of counterinsurgency in Afghanstan (and the way in which NATO/ISAF is falling short), along comes the Obama administration to say that they intend to dramatically increase the number of Afghans in the security forces.

From the New York Times:

A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002…

While my first reaction is, “Do we really want more guys with guns in this country?” on second thought I am heartened by the possibility of a stronger ANA/ANP.  There are two reasons for this.

First, the Afghan National Army (ANA) consistently ranks among the most respected institutions in Afghanistan, higher than the central government, higher than local and provincial governors.  If any indigenous institution can bring stability to this country, its probably the ANA.

Second, from the standpoint of ISAF/NATO forces, the larger and more professional the ANA becomes, the more they can take the lead on the really nasty counterinsurgency work that needs to be done.  For all of their tactical and technological excellence, foreign forces are always at a disadvantage when conducting population-centric operations.  Locals simply don’t face the same constraints and difficulties.  If we’re ever going to leave this country (that is, leave it better than it was when we got here), the Afghans are going to have to prove that they can handle this fight on their own.  A strong and effective ANA is the first step in that process.

The always-wise Abu Muqawama seems to disagree with my position on this, citing an unnamed defense analyst who questions the long-term financial costs.  I’m all for long-term thinking, but I think that if the biggest problem Afghanistan faces ten years from now is a budget deficit, then at least we’ve done something right.