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Posts Tagged ‘counterinsurgency’

Another sad and typical story from Afghanistan:

A Marine lieutenant colonel and sergeant have died in Afghanistan in what appears to be a shooting by an Afghan policeman.  . . .

“While this is a serious incident, the actions of this individual do not reflect the overall actions of our Afghan partners,” said Marine Maj. Gen. James Laster, the International Security Assistance Force’s deputy chief of staff for joint operations. “We remain committed to our partners and to our mission here.”

We can’t win “hearts and minds” without supporting and building up an Afghan government.  And we can’t do that without recruiting policemen and soldiers.  But we really don’t know who we’re recruiting or why.  We don’t speak their language.  Even if we did, we’d be surprised at how hostile they are on account of their religion and primitivism.  The Taliban crazies and “friendly” elements in Afghanistan look much the same.

This type of thing has happened a lot lately, including in the 9 person massacre of American airmen last month. And our military always says the same thing, that this is some “rare exception.”

There is no easy answer, consistent with our impossible nation-building mission.  But there is one easy answer that will actually work to prevent this kind of horror and also restore our strategic flexibility:  Get Out! Indeed, we’re not in the more terrorist-saturated Pakistan, and obviously we have problems with al Qaeda there, but they can’t project power to us since we’re relatively far away, and yet we can still take out terrorists there from time to time, just as we do in Yemen and Somalia and other places where our forces are not stationed.  One thing is for sure:  the people we’re supposedly helping in Afghanistan hate us, frequently kill us, and we cannot trust “our partners,” all the way up to their president.

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One problem with our “hearts and minds” campaign in Afghanistan is the centrality of Islam in the land where we are waging a nation building effort.  We are trying to export American style institutions and values, but these often run headlong into the Islamic obsession with respect.  Western freedoms and Islamic law are incompatible, not least in their view of blasphemy in contrast to our ideals of free speech.  We are selling Americanism, but to do so we must downplay certain core values, whether it’s free speech or the rights of women or the role for man-made legislation, which is to say the western concept of politics, and the related ideals of discussion, debate, and dissent. 

Not only must we downplay them abroad, but now we’re told to abrogate them at home, lest we hurt the war effort, which unlike other war efforts does not require focused hatred of the enemy, but is instead a multifaceted public relations effort that requires us to put forward our tolerant, respectful-of-Islam face.

Muslims Flipping Out, As Is Their Custom Which We Should Respect as Good Multiculturalists

There is a simple lesson here.  When Muslims go absolutely crazy, riot for days, and murder innocent aid workers after an obscure Florida pastor’s burning of the Koran, we must see that this is both natural for these people and totally alien to our way of life and values.  We should observe that we cannot build an American-style nation in this region without engendering a fatal conflict of values. 

Some people mistakenly view these riots as merely stupid, a symptom of treatable Third World ignorance.  They are not; they are the acts of committed, rational zealots.  What these Afghan Muslims understand–and what Americans do not–is that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Muslim values and the various western and liberal values that we are exporting to their region. To win this nation-building campaign, we must either become subservient to Islam, or we must destroy Islam.  To destroy Islam, we must do the unthinkable (and the unnecessary). But we do not need to win this particular campaign to emerge relatively safe from Islamic terrorism.  We are better served to protect ourselves and our honor by separating from the Islamic world as much as possible by adopting a strategy of defense, separation, and containment.

Since generals like to win wars, they take things to their logical conclusion, and in this case we have General Petraeus opting to kowtow in the most disgusting manner to the mob in Afghanistan. He said this week:

In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important on behalf of ISAF [i.e., the International Security Assistance Force] and NATO members in Afghanistan to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Qur’an and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Qur’an.

We also offer condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur’an.

We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Qur’an, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.

Can you imagine any scenario where an American general referred to the Holy Bible in such reverential tones?  Or excused mob violence against Jews or people with tattoos or alcohol drinkers some other activity similarly consonant with America’s traditionally broad liberties?

Not only can this war not be realistically won, but it is corrupting the American nation and the American military.  This week we have a four star general and a U.S. Senator–Sen. Lindsey Graham–questioning whether we perhaps should institute blasphemy laws aimed at quenching the insatiable Islamic demands of respect for Islam . . . a religion that only knows respect as preeminence over every alternative. 

Our army is becoming like those Roman Legions on the frontier that shed their armor and their standards and fought, dressed like, intermarried with, and eventually became identical to the barbarians they were fighting.

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I’m really amazed, frankly, that for ten years the commanders of US efforts have said that “we’re making progress” as things seem, more or less, not to have changed much after the bulk of al Qaeda fled into Pakistan’s western tribal regions in early 2002.

Retired Marine Bing West’s new book looks very interesting.  He basically says we’re not winning, the commanders are full of it for self-serving reasons, that our strategic assumptions are wrong, and that the best thing to do now would be to scale back the mission radically and pursue the narrow American national interest in tamping down the international terrorist component over there.

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I was perusing the Washington Post’s excerpts of Bob Woodward’s new book on Obama’s decision temporarily to add 30,000 troops to the Afghanistan campaign.  A few things are rather striking to me, and they reveal Obama’s defects as a leader.

First, Obama is completely ambivalent about the mission and the troop increase in Afghanistan.  This is the case in spite of his campaigning as this being more important than Iraq and his announcement in early 2009 of a recommitment to Afghanistan.  Obama seems unaware how his flippancy can degrade the mission and morale.

Two, he is completely vague about his goals, other than the goal of getting our troops home. The September 2009 deliberations are rather strange to me, because there seems little collective recognition that in April of 2009 Obama announced an ambitious recommitment of resources to Afghanistan with a goal of destroying the Taliban, protecting the population, and increasing the skills and reality of the Afghan government and its security forces.  Having stated this goal, Obama now asks for wildly varying “options,” even though he seems unaware that certain goals, having already been stated, exclude certain tactical options.  But he’s used to options, because he’s used to low stakes legislative and public relations decision-making; he doesn’t realize that in more practical tasks, from building a car to defeating an enemy, you can’t tell someone to take a satellite to the moon and also demand that he gives you an option that doesn’t involve a rocket.  Incidentally, Don Rumsfeld’s obsession with troop levels in Iraq had much in common with Obama in this respect; he too wanted the military to do the impossible on the cheap.

Three, the military is at times borderline insubordinate, but a certain amount of push-back is to be expected, particularly when you’re being told (a) accomplish the impossible but (b) told to use fewer troops than you have already said are necessary to accomplish part “a” of this mission.  It would be nice if once in a while we’d actually see someone resign in public protest of these impossible orders.  Indeed, the military’s original timeline went out to 2016, which suggests quite a bit about how little will be accomplished by 2011 when the drawdown is supposed to begin.

Finally, Obama also seems to have a real problem with dissent.  He wants everyone to “sign off” on the plan, but it’s clear some disagreed before, during, and after its formulation.  These things happen, and this need not be a major problem.  The President’s the decision-maker.  But manufacturing false consensus where one is absent is not the mark of a mature leader, but rather of an insecure one who wants “yes men.”

Obama is not serious about the Afghan war.  He has split the difference with the military and given them contradictory mission guidance. Woodward’s expose of his decision-making shows to me that far from the problem being the existence of various factions–a normal feature of every major strategic decision–the commander in chief himself is the problem.  Specifically, Obama is incoherent, unserious, and inexperienced in how the world works, particularly on military matters.  The conflicts among his subordinates and his own impatience with them originate in his own incoherent leadership.  He doesn’t see this and mistakes his pig-headedness and stupidity for steadfastness and enlightenment.

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That’s what they used to say about World War I:  you had armies of lions led by donkies.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear that the grand strategy–democratic nation-building in the Muslim world–will do little to make us safer from terrorism and requires an impossible tutelage of proud, xenophobic Muslims by secularized America and its military. 

Nearly ten years into Afghanistan, the place is what it has always been:  dangerous, anti-American, Muslim, and primitive.  Iraq is little better.  Yet conservatives remain optimistic, bragging even about the Iraq “victory.”  At the same time, the military plods onward, in spite of the strategic lunacy of our civilian leaders’ vision.  I confess, I was once more optimistic about the possible outcome.  Events have chastened me.  I have returned to my natural isolationism (coupled with a Jacksonian bias to the occasional, brutal retaliatory raid).  Ten years after these campaigns have begun, it’s clear that they are doing more harm than good, at least for our country and its security.

Lawrence Auster observed an important aspect of why this farce continues in a comment on the increasing focus of training Americans to build rapport with locals:

In Afghanistan and Iraq, as in Vietnam and Korea before them, the politicians assign the military a fundamentally impossible mission to accomplish. The military is told that they cannot defeat the enemy decisively, but must concede to the enemy an inviolable strategic sanctuary from which the enemy controls the tempo of combat. Moreover, the politicians place absurd restrictions on how the military must conduct operations even in the non-sanctuary areas where it is allowed to fight. Rather than resign or resist, the top brass accepts a strategy and operational restrictions that guarantee failure. This leaves the mid-level officers in the unenviable position of executing the impossible strategy under the ridiculous restrictions. Coming from a “can do” culture, the mid-level officers come up with incredibly involved and expensive multi-step plans to carry out the impossible mission. Mid-level officers who try to do the impossible are decorated and promoted; they know that if they salute, make no waves, and do their time overseas, their careers will stay on track. The few officers who realize they are executing a strategy that guarantees defeat either resign in disgust or are forced out. It is simply not in the Army’s institutional interest to lift its eyes above the level of the “intermediate steps” to the strategic level–among other things, this would bring about a profound crisis in civil-military relations, as the Army would have to refuse or resist political instructions that made no sense. As a result, the Army as an institution prospers even as it is defeated and even as the nation wastes vast amounts of money and lives trying to do the impossible.

Of course, mid-level officers are not supposed to conduct grand strategy; it’s healthy that they are subordinate to civilian leaders and also healthy and admirable that they are optimistic.  But there comes a time when some push-back is called for.  If a mission is unworkable, impossible, and will simply get soldiers and men needlessly killed, then it’s time to say something, whether in professional journals, in briefings to civilian leaders, or otherwise.  If nothing else, there is a time to say ” yes we can patrol here and there, meet with this or that village, and the like, but we do not have enough men to defeat the enemy, guaranty local security, and, further, we cannot and will not win hearts and minds, because our very presence in an Islamic land is repulsive to the people. And finally, none of these things will do anything identifiable to defeat al Qaeda or make America safer.” 

One unfortunate consequence of the incresaing “professionalism” of the modern military is its leaders’ absolute financial dependence on the government and, by necessity, prevailing political winds.  The old aristocratic volunteer officer might have been more inclined to speak out, whether against a losing campaing in Afghanistan or a meddlesome requirement to integrate women into his unit, not least because he could fall back on an inheritance and family wealth.  The modern major and lieutenant colonel is on the brink of a comfortable pension and is likely from a middle class background; to speak out to forcefully against the crazy directives coming from on high would result in penury, if not worse.  We sometimes wonder why Soviet engineers and soldiers and bureaucrats participated in their insane system year after year, in spite of the obvious lies, half-truths, destruction, and missed projections made by central planners.  There, as increasingly is the case in America, the state was everything.  In the Soviet Union, the withholding of a job, a pension, a license, a prescription, an apartment, or a degree was incalculaby destructive of the individual.   And there, as increasingly is the case in America, there were almost no resources outside the state, including private wealth, to fall back upon if one had earned the disfavor of the state.

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I read (but did not watch) the President’s speech on Iraq.  Of all the things he has done as President, stopping our mindless “stay the course” approach in Iraq has been something I generally approve.  I also think it’s a testament to his relative moderation on foreign policy that our withdrawal has been orderly.  I disagree with conservatives who say we’re “cutting and running” or that his failure to acknowledge the “success of the Surge” shows his bad faith.  The Surge, in fact, while it tamped down some violence in Iraq, has hardly been a success without qualification.  There is still a significant terrorist presence in Iraq.  Its politics are still corrupt, and its likely future will be as a Shia-led Iranian partner. And the Surge is often credited with a reduction in violence caused by the earlier Anbar Awakening, which itself was caused by the mistakes and oversteps of al Qaeda in Iraq.

The original mission in Iraq (of finding and destroying WMDs) turned out to be largely unnecessary.  Upon this, Bush elevated the secondary mission of installing a friendly democracy.  This led to a seven year counterinsurgency campaign that has ended inconclusively.  It likely created as many Iraqi nationalist terrorists as it destroyed Islamist ones.  And for its modest or nonexistent benefits, it did tie down our forces, cost many American lives, destroy much American equipment, and cost a great deal of money over the last seven years.  If the first part of the Iraq mission was defensible, the latter portion was clearly a mistake.

As a work of rhetoric, however, Obama’s speech was uninspired.  He never seems tremendously comfortable in the commander in chief role.  He keeps our troops’ sacrifices and honorable work on the same plane as jobs for steelworkers or healthcare reform. In other words, he misses some of the romance of the soldier’s life that Bush and Reagan understood.  This is one of many reasons a great many Americans view him as an alien figure, who does not share their values.

Where Obama does not get points from me and where he seems particularly confused is on Afghanistan.  He disagreed with Bush and pulled out of Iraq because he surmised, correctly in my opinion, that the mission was a counterproductive loser.  But why then should the same type of mission be pursued in Afghanistan so many years after the 9/11 attacks? Unlike 2001, there are not significant terrorist training camps there; we are dealing there, as in Iraq, with a nationalist and Islamic insurgency fueled by our presence and the various petty and major grievances Afghans have with our lumbering presence.  The main part of the enemy have fled to Pakistan, which is an on again, off again, partner in the war against al Qaeda.  The mere presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan should not be enough to justify an extended nation-building campaign; al Qaeda is also in Iraq, not to mention Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and, for that matter, Germany, France, the UK, and the US.  It’s not clear from Iraq that replacing corrupt dictatorships with corrupt, sectarian democracies does anything at all to fight terrorism at a strategic level.  Once again, look at Pakistan, a functioning, long-established Islamic democracy, where large elements of its military and intelligence infrastructure support Islamic terrorists.  In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, limping along with a smaller, but still significant presence, hardly seems the kind of serious change Obama made such a show of in the campaign.  It looks more like hedging his bets in an area in which he is supremely unconfident.  And this course promises to continue blood-letting, expense, and meaningless accomplishments like slightly reducing the daily car-bomb count in countries that have nothing to do with us.

How to use the military to fight terrorism is not an easy question.  But part of the answer seems like focusing on the terrorists themselves and not being terribly concerned with changing the environment that incubates them.  That environment is fueled by a combination of Islam and typical Third World corruption, and it cannot be easily changed.  But what our military can do is blow up camps, lavish informants with cash, use drones to blow up terrorist leaders, bomb terror-supporting countries, sink ships, and otherwise engage in our own version of “hit and run” tactics rather than conventionally, and expensively, trying to transform ancient peoples into good liberal democrats.

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A halfway intelligent lance corporal knows that the Afghans are sick of our presence, are united by xenophobic nationalism, and that a great many are skeptical of the kleptocratic Afghan government and military.  So the following exchange with General Petraeus suggests a man whose demand for precision ebbs and flows with his desire for a particualr conclusion:

When asked whether nationalism is putting down roots in Afghanistan‘s tribalized society, Gen. David Petraeus is judicious: “I don’t know that I could say that.” He adds, however, that “we do polling” on that subject. When his questioner expresses skepticism about the feasibility of psephology — measuring opinion — concerning an abstraction such as nationalism in a chaotic, secretive and suspicious semi-nation, Petraeus, his pride aroused, protests: “I took research methodology” at Princeton.

Some things can’t be put into a powerpoint slide.  They just are known intuitively, based on long experience with the people involved.  We lack this experience in Afghanistan.  We lack this experience in Iraq.  We are trying to do some good things, and we are doing them honorably on the whole, but the payoff in terms of national security is hard to see.  The alternative–the occasional punitive raid–seems more easily accomplished and more consistent with the primitive conditions of these nations, as well as the limitations of the American government and American military.

I certainly respect Petraeus’ intelligence and his broader view than many of his peers.  That said, his apparent penchant for statistics in the inchoate realm of counterinsurgency suggests a certain hubris.  He is understandably unlikely to announce when the strategy and overall mission are destined to fail.  He is an impressive “can do” person.  That said, the mediocre results in Iraq have been redefined as a great victory, even though Iraq is securely in Iran’s orbit and is still a violent, unfriendly place.  His remarks on “methodology” in particular reminded me of something John Lukacs wrote critical of certain tendencies in academia in his book Historical Consciousness:

For the image of the people-obscured as it is by rhetoric and obfuscated by statistics–is an elusive phenomenon. We live in an age of democracy, of popular sovereignty, of popular rule: but who are the people? Intelligent opponents as well as some of the proponent of modern democracy recgnized that of Aristotle’s ‘s three principal types of government–monarchy, aristocracy, democracy–the last one, government by the people, by the many, is the most difficult. But there more to this. Rule by “the people” is not only difficult; it is also the most complex; and the most abstract. It is abstract, because while it is possible to find out, and later relatively easy to reconstruct, what a certain ruler wanted, or even what a ruling group wanted, who can say what “the people” wanted–with any reasonable degree of certainty.

General Petraeus needs to consider this.  We don’t know Afghanistan.  Polling of the smallish number of accessible Afghans in the city won’t change that.  We don’t know Afghanistan, in part, because of the failure to train up specialists in the relevant languages that could help us know what the hell these people are saying, thinking, writing to one another, and the like.  We are, in spite of ourselves, the arrogant, ugly American, giving people what they don’t want and surprised when they turn around and want to kill us and our proxies.

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